Why Sales bitches about Product Management & what to do about it

You've heard that old chestnut. You've seen it in a million articles. The big advice Sales Reps offer to Product Management is "Don't just talk about features. Tie the features to benefits."

And whenever I see Yet Another Article offering this advice, I think, "Doesn't every product manager already know this stuff? Duh? How am I going to create a blog post from this nugget of obvious non-wisdom?"

But then I thought about it over a nice glass of Chardonnay. Then more thinking. And then mentally watching the game film from all the customer presentations I've ever given or watched another product manager give, and from my years of observing sales engineers and reps interact with the customers.

And here's what I came up with.

When It Works (kind of like the finale of Dancing with the Stars)

There are times when the sales rep+product manager+customer interaction is wicked awesome: everyone is in sync, everyone is providing what the others need at exactly the time they need it, there is a round of wild applause, and everyone leaves happy.

It does happen sometimes. Rarely, though.

When It Doesn't Work (kind of like a Middle School Dance)

But more often, the interaction is like a clumsy, inept, middle school dance, with the PM and the sales rep and the customers all just staring at each other and saying awkward things. Everyone thinking he's/she's giving what the others need but is completely missing the mark. There's not much dancing, and what little there exists is extremely awkward.

In these cases, I will bet ONE MILLION DOLLARS that the product manager in question truly believes she is tying each feature to customer benefits, all while the sales engineer/sales rep thinks the product manager is just blathering on and on about features.

The Disconnect

How can this happen?

Because there are several steps between the "we added Warp Drive in release 2.0" Product Manager-ish statement and the "Warp Drive increases your revenues AND decreases your costs" Sales-ish statement.

Using this example, the product manager would probably say "We added Warp Drive in release 2.0. That makes our rocket ships now go faster than the speed of light, which means space travel will take one bajillionth of the time it currently does." And the product manager often leaves it there, believing she has successfully tied feature to customer benefit.

Meanwhile, the sales rep thinks the product manager left out the business benefit. After all, she did not tie the warp drive feature to either "saving money" or "making more money" (the only two customer benefits some untalented sales reps can understand).

Thus the schism.

To most product managers, it is OBVIOUS that faster space travel means people will spend more time working instead traveling, and will thus become more efficient, saving money. And that with Warp Drive we'll be able to reach more of the galaxy and thereby increase the number of customers we can reach, increasing revenue. blah, blah, blah.

In fact, it seems SO obvious that many product managers worry they'll insult the customers' intelligence or annoy them if the product manager explains how each and every feature ultimately saves money or increases revenue.

Truth is, the customers probably need a bit more hand-holding. As product managers we are genetically engineered for our superior feature-X-yields-benefit-Y perception. We forget that not everyone thinks like that.

But on the OTHER hand, the sales rep who can only talk about "saving money" or "making more money," (aka "lower TCO" and "increased ROI"), often seems like a huge dumbass to the customer. Trust me on this; I was once was a customer.

An Obvious Tactic That Often Works

So, for product managers, here's a technique that sometimes works:

  1. Before demo-ing or presenting the roadmap or whatever, ask the customer about his/her problems and the benefits that he/she is seeking from your software.


  3. During your demo/presentation, tie the features back to the specific benefits the customer seeks, using EXACTLY the same wording.

Of course, this technique only works if you are able to talk to this customer one-on-one beforehand; it works less well if you are presenting to a huge crowd at a conference. Also, this technique does not guarantee that the sales rep will be happy, only the customer. After all, the sale rep might not understand the benefits the customer seeks - they might be too "low level" for this type of sales rep to possibly comprehend.

This concludes our "Obvious Product Management Lesson of the Day."

No doubt, huge swaths of product managers are out there saying "Isn't this advice obvious? Doesn't every product manager already know this?"

Hopefully, most of you do.

But for those who don't, or who occasionally forget, hopefully this advise is more specific and more actionable than that "tie features to benefits" platitude.

Sue Raisty

Product management geek, born-again engineer, adoptive mother of boys, coach & mentor, mountain trail runner, tinkerer, no-bull communicator, wannabe writer, room mother & compulsive researcher.

Silicon Valley, California http://blog.sueraisty.com