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Three Ways Product Managers Miss with the Sales Team

May 19, 2017

Posted by Ed Arnold

Posted in Product Management

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I’d like to share a few examples of how well-intentioned product managers get it wrong with sales people. All are based on real interactions we’ve had working with product, marketing and sales teams at large B2B enterprises (identities hidden to protect confidentiality). Just to set context, these were situations where we collaborated with them to develop digital value propositions to show their customers how much more profit they’d make using their offer.

You may already believe that value stories like this are a good thing to have for your product. I certainly do. Most product managers I know do too. Furthermore, I can say confidently that most sales people I’ve met would agree. But here’s the dilemma: most sales people won’t ever use them in front of their customers. This seems very counter-intuitive until you read the examples.

Example 1 – You Want me to do … What???

The situation was a product launch for a new innovative material used by large consumer brands.  The value proposition was part of the commercial launch package that sales uses to introduce the new offer to the market. Our value story made the claim, based on similar past launches, that this innovation could grow or at least defend valuable market share. The value proposition was designed for a sales person to input a few key assumptions on the customer’s current sales volume, retail prices and margin so that it could estimate the potential profit gain. Frankly, I thought we nailed it and was expecting the sales team to immediately embrace it. We arranged a review session with one of them.

Her initial reaction was lukewarm. After a little hesitation, she opened up about the potential pitfall: “Either I’ll get crickets or this will open up a can of worms that will derail my meeting.”  She explained that with new products the initial discussions are with R&D folks who are most interested in the technical aspects around manufacturing and product performance. Jumping into a business case here is a risky gamble; the business claim can be quickly dismissed or even worse, earn a trip down a mathematical rabbit hole. Wrong story. Wrong audience. Wrong time.

However, this didn’t require abandoning value messages completely. Rather it needed a softer opening that had a less controversial value statement. Specifically, we moved the business impact claim to the end with a generic value message of: “for a typical brand in your category, this could generate an additional $$$ in product contribution.”  So rather than creating confusion or inviting dissent, this message became an interesting yet significant footnote.  Done well, it sets up the eventual business case at a later phase of the buying process.  Our sales colleague was comfortable with this subtler approach.  Lesson learned: don’t lead with the value number, but ease into it after establishing the technical differentiation.

Example 2 – I’ll Save this for a Special Occasion

This is sort of like that proverbial Father’s Day gift tie, i.e., “thank you, honey, I’ll wear this one on special occasions.”

Here the situation was an equipment producer in the proposal stage of the buying cycle at one of its major accounts. The sales person, an experienced national accounts manager, was perfectly at ease presenting a detailed value case around increase productivity. His audience included financial stakeholders who were in fact expecting an ROI-type discussion.  So here the story, audience, and timing were aligned with the value story we prepared.

During a debrief call with us, this sales person shared details of his successful meeting, but then commented to the effect that he couldn’t use this story for other customers.  Asked to clarify, he explained that this value story worked because he had already established a good working relationship with key stakeholders in the account. Our value story would have little use beyond that, particularly in accounts that “think of us as suppliers, not partners.”  Disappointing news for us and especially our client because the strategic goal is to position themselves broadly on value, not selectively.

Lesson learned: you need to create different versions of the value story for different situations. Don’t automatically assume sale people aren’t comfortable talking about value. That wasn’t the issue here. Instead, it was the need to come up with a lighter version of the value story that could be more easily introduced into the conversation with other customers.

Example 3 – Everything but the Kitchen Sink

We see this episode repeat itself regularly. The product manager builds a complex, comprehensive value model that covers multiple customer, competitor and product scenarios and then releases it to the sales team. The implicit assumption is that more is better. Even weak value stories can be bolstered by piling on more detail (sounds silly, but I’ve seen it). But the reality is, even solid value stories can be ruined by too much detail and multiple scenario choices. At least from a sales person’s point of view.

Even worse is when product managers miss the signals. They report that their sales training, “went well,” with few objections and even a few nice compliments about the new sales tool.  I cringe when I hear feedback like this because this often proves to be polite false positives.  Feigning compliance is the quickest path of least resistance; two minutes after training is over, the proposed value story is already discarded by sales and likely never heard by the customer.

There are a couple lessons learned here.  First, avoid large-scale roll-outs. It’s much better to work with small teams or even individual sales people. Second, strive to get honest, not superficial, feedback. For example, when reviewing value stories with sales people like I described earlier I implore them NOT to be polite. Then listen! Then ask for a follow-up meeting to show a revised value story.  A few iterations with thoughtful feedback from sales can greatly increase the usability and adoption of the value story.

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