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How much should Sales be involved in Product Development?

Posted on March 5, 2008 · 7 Comments

Question: How much should Sales be involved in Product Development?

We will develop about 10-15 new models this year, the list of which has been agreed upon with Sales at the end of last year.

Since then, we’ve been discussing these new projects with Sales at each of the monthly meeting they’re holding.

I have the feeling that this was a bad idea; the projects have almost been re-discussed from the beginning each month, and there’s still endless discussions about what the projects are exactly. The scope just keeps changing.

In my opinion, we should just keep them informed — through the meeting — of the progress of the projects and whether they are on track, waiting, etc. — and not any more.

How involved should our sales group be in product development planning?

Answer from Bob Corrigan of ack/nak: There are those who believe one should treat sales like mushrooms when it comes to product development – keep them in the dark and feed them sh*t.

Why?

They are coin-operated – Salespeople are interested in what it will take to close the deal they are working on Right Now, or ones that are looming large in their funnel. This makes them interested in features that are interesting to their customer, regardless of whether the feature helps the company. It’s good for their deal, therefore it’s good for them. Given the opportunity to steer development, they’ll steer it into their deals and their customers first. Speaking of customers. . .

They believe they are the voice of the customer – Salespeople spend a lot of time talking to people with money. This, dear colleague, gives them the impression that they are the voice of the customer, an impression they are more than willing to share with you if you give them the opportunity to do so. They will even argue that their opinion counts more than yours, because after all, they spend all day every day with customers, while you, Mr. Product Manager, spend your days writing requirements and looking like you need sleep.

They respond best to Big Animal Pictures – If you feed salespeople on a steady diet of detailed information, they will forget it. This has nothing to do with their intelligence, but on their uncanny ability to filter unnecessary information out of their world. They remember things like “when is it available” and “why is it better than the competition” and “how much does it cost.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love salespeople. They’ve got a tough job, and the best ones can be a joy to work with. But if you want to bring them into the development process, there are a few ground rules:

  1. Interact with them one-on-one, not in groups, when it comes to getting their feedback – Find the reps with accounts you want to talk to, or reps whose experience you respect. Interacting with them on a one-on-one basis doesn’t create the sort of group-pressure that comes from one rep bringing up feature x and a lot of other reps chiming in that they want it too. It also gives you a Bat Phone to key decision makers and thought leaders with cash — always good audiences to cultivate.
  2. Set expectations up front on how and when you’ll communicate with sales – If you do training, if you write collateral, if you do customer visits to review roadmaps — whatever you do, set these expectations up front and stick to them. Ad hoc or unnecessarily frequent meetings too far in advance of a launch can confuse your message and diminish your credibility. Keep it simple, keep it focused, and you’ll keep their attention.
  3. Be the voice of the customer – More than anything, you need to understand the needs of the customer and translate them into solution capabilities. If you give up this responsibility and depend on sales to tell you what the market needs, you will live to regret it.
  4. Publish and maintain a high-level roadmap on a fixed schedule – If sales knows they can go to a certain place on your intranet to find out what’s in the queue and where it is in development, they won’t need to ask you for it. And every rep will get the same answer. And every rep will understand how and when they can provide feedback to you regarding candidates for the roadmap. Leave out details – those require an NDA. And at some shops, communicating any roadmap information or futures of any sort requires an NDA, so be careful with this one.

As I said, there are those who keep sales in the dark. But I believe that sales works better when they can communicate a coherent, believable and reliable vision to the customer. It’s your job to make sure that happens.

7 other answers so far ↓

  • Xavier // Mar 6, 2008 at 1:08 am

    Wow!

    Great Answer!

    I actually do agree with you, and it was never in my intentions to keep the mushr .. em .. the salesforce in the dark! ;o)

    Thanks Bob.

  • Ivan Chalif // Mar 9, 2008 at 12:09 am

    Hmmm…I don’t fully agree with Bob’s assessment. The caveats that he raises are all valid, but I don’t think they are necessarily reasons to limit Sales exposure to the development process.

    Sales is one among many voices that a Product Manager must listen to and consider as they plan and prioritize their products. Yes, they are self-serving and are most interested in their own deals, they provide a valuable mechanism for feeling out upcoming business requirements or new business opportunities for your industry.

    Here’s an example–at my company, we have a weekly meeting with the Sales leadership team to discuss requirements related to upcoming deals. This has two benefits:

    1. Sales has a clear and consistent chance to provide input about what’s important in the field
    2. I get to hear about what prospects want to do with my product

    Number 1 limits the number of times that I have to hear the same request from multiple Sales reps and let’s me point to a specific process for providing feedback. Number 2 gives me insights that are difficult and time-consuming to get on my own. If something interesting comes up, I can work with the Sales rep to talk to the prospect and get a better understanding of their future plans and that can help me make better choices for product priorities.

    Don’t think of Sales as a nuisance (I know, it’s hard). Think of your Sales team as a tool that you can use to better understand the market.

  • Xavier // Mar 10, 2008 at 7:20 am

    Ivan,

    I believe that we’re all basically saying the same thing here.

    The point is to listen to them without involving them too much, as in “deciding what should be done or not”.

  • Adam Bullied // Mar 10, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Bob’s assessment is very much the reality.

    You have to provide Sales with some different materials than other functional groups within the organization. Especially the roadmap – no question.

    This may be different at other organizations; my experience in the past has been, if you don’t do this, you are setting yourself up for failure. Better safe than sorry.

    You must listen to sales. They are on the front-lines and their input is valuable; to a point. The access to customers their relationships provide is fantastic. Sales people will only ever think about 3 things – their next 3 deals that they can close to give them commissions.

    Again, there are exceptions to this rule and better safe than sorry.

    I find it’s always good to use your best judgment and always question quality. Chances are, you are certainly going to want to follow-up on feedback received before making decisions using it.

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  • Bob Corrigan // May 12, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Ivan raises an interesting point – I can see that when you are a new entrant to the market and have followed the “don’t worry, be crappy” rule and jumped into the market, getting real-time feedback from sales would be super-fabulous. Especially if you leverage the feedback to get the sales guy to introduce you to the prospect, so you can ask questions and understand what the prospect is really asking for.

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