Should Product Managers Listen To Salespeople?

The newly minted Product Manager did a terrific job in his first presentation to the 20 Sales Heads of the technology products’ company. He started with the description of the market, the actual problem that we are seeking to solve, the current features of our product that partially address the problem, and the future planned feature sets that will take care of the rest of the problem as we have understood it. He ended the presentation with a flourish, presenting the product Road Map for the next 6 versions.

Even as I muttered, “Take a bow!” under my breath, I was startled by the pandemonium that broke out. Every salesperson in the room started with “What about…?” or “When are we getting…?” Apparently, each of them in the room has sent multiple mails with requests that their customers want to have as capabilities in the future versions of the product and did not find any of them addressed in the Product Presentation that they heard.

The Product Manager patiently explained how he has considered every request, and some of them in some form have indeed found their way into the Product Road Map. The rest are not part of the product ‘scope’ as they are specific requirements of individual customers.

As a discipline, he earnestly explained, product scope is based on the larger needs of the Market, which is a conglomerate of many ‘alike’ customers.

This ended badly for the Product Manager. The CEO was disturbed enough by his ‘money makers’ to instruct that the requests of the sales folks be considered for inclusion. During the break, the CEO took the Product Manager aside, and explained, in a tone that he uses with a 7-year old, on how if these people cannot give the customers what they want, we as a company will have to shut shop. Another case of a CEO succumbing easily to the vile threats of the sales function.

With his recent speech, the Deputy Governor of RBI Viral Acharya has made the T20-Test Match comparison from cricket, fashionable. The Salespeople are in T20 mode, as they should be, and the Product Manager should be in Test Match mode.

Every product is an encapsulation of the company’s aggregate Intellectual Property. You can easily dilute it by splaying features all over the place, to satisfy everyone we meet.

In a discussion with a very large Technology company, we were told that their Banking product is now installed in 49 customer places across 5 continents. As we understood the ‘product’ deeper, we were startled to discover that the company has 49 versions of the ‘product’. This has obviously happened as a result of indiscriminately agreeing to all the ‘requests’ from all the customers. Every customer gets a different version of what we do is an admirably accurate description of the Services’ business.

Products are made to solve real Market problems, not individual, specific, one-off short-term head-aches of customers. Our understanding of the Market, its problems and requirements are as much part of our company’s Intellectual Property as the Technologies we understand and are proficient in. In order for Product Management to necessarily have their eyes on the collective called Market, they should have multiple sources of information to understand better and better the Markets we are in.

Our Salesforce happens to be just one of those sources of Market information. Beware of our salespeople being your ONLY source of market information.

Taking this logic further, our salesforce is also only one of the many available channels to carry our product to our markets. If they are unwilling or incapable to articulate the link between our product features and the market needs, the CXOs of the company needs to find and facilitate other channels to the markets we want to be in. Why so? Because if you do not address the market problem that you know well, someone else will.

Product Managers should listen to Salespeople selectively, but only after working on gaining mutual respect for each others’ function.

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