Product Managers are salespeople too!

Only, without a quarterly quota.

If you are a B2B product manager, you have probably played salesperson, solution consultant, and key account manager, at some point in your product’s journey. Don’t worry, you’re not alone! And, particularly in the large-ticket B2B product space, this is an essential part of your role.

TL/DR

Salespeople are hired, developed, and incentivized to chase sales for the current (or next) month/quarter/year. Product Managers are the primary stakeholders in chasing “what will sell” in the long-term.


Breaking down the reasons:

Go where the answers are.

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Your customers’ stated needs are in industry reports or competitor research. But true value lies in unstated, or even unknown, needs. These come out in pointed discussions, best had with key customers who face the problems themselves.

Sales meetings are, by design, short-term oriented (with good reason) and targeted at filling a revenue quota. For long-term “dreamer” conversations, PMs need to get out there. Support conversations, retro meetings, key account catch-ups, industry conferences… PMs should jump at any avenue that gives direct access to customers.

Most customers have “incumbent” fixes.

This is not just your competitors — you’ll be competing with whatever your customers currently use, to solve the problem: competitor products, in-house solutions, or even an efficient service instead of a system. And to replace this incumbent, your product needs to add 10x more value/cost 10x less.

You are also competing against in-house solutions, or even a specific role at the firm.

Ergo, spend time with customers. You may find competitors from desk research, but everything else needs suits, flights, and meetings. A working lunch is the B2B equivalent of a focus group for a consumer product. An industry conclave is the B2B equivalent of a targeted survey for a consumer product. Don’t shy away from these.

Problem confidence doesn’t come “from within”.

Look at the most effective salespeople around you. Chances are, they spend much more time identifying and articulating customer problems, rather than on your offerings.

Most customers convert if you can show them you deeply understand their problem. Your solution ‘pitch’ is more of a formality. The same applies to product management as well, but in the longer term: Once you have deeply understood a problem, solving it is not an issue. In fact, functional, technical, and compliance constraints will usually narrow down your solution options to manageable levels.

Your company is still selling to people.

B2B sales are driven as much by “relationships” as by product, brand, or process. And this relationship is more than just the “personal touch”.

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In an ideal world, effective product managers find and articulate how their products benefit multiple roles inside a company in their target industry. Effective salespeople can then simply use this mapping to personalize their propositions.

Of course, if this happens in reverse, it’s dangerous for the long-term viability of the product and the company, but that’s a discussion for another day.

It’s not just planes that can get hijacked.

Product companies may have to “solutionize” per customer and build to their specific needs, initially. This is what I call “building to invoice”. But they need to start “building to a roadmap” as soon as possible or risk becoming unviable by offering custom services at mass product prices.

Building to an invoice vs. Building to a roadmap

While survival revenue is obviously vital, a product manager should be well-equipped to protect and shepherd their roadmap through the turbulent waters of a quarterly sales close. And you can’t counter a sales “hijack” effectively if you don’t have a deep (deeper?) understanding of the customer.


This was compiled and re-targeted from a series of emails I wrote to my sales folks a long time ago. Hoping it will help you do better as a PM.