This seems to be an eternal question.
As a product management consulting and training organization we have seen the balance tilted in every conceivable direction. From product management holding sway through the informed use of objective data to sales teams driving the process based upon their perceptions of market needs guided by first-hand customer interactions. And everything in-between.
A Personal Disclaimer
Before I wade too deeply into this subject I need to share a bit of my own personal history. I began in sales and carried “a bag” for years. I have also run a sales team. I hit my plan every year and I could have stayed on that career track forever. However, for reasons I don’t need to get into here I decided to alter my career trajectory. Now that I have framed a bit of my history let’s get back to the question at hand.
How strong of a voice should sales have in the product development process? The conclusion that I have come to, having stood on both sides of this line, is that product management needs to collect objective data from a variety of sources, including sales, and look at the information dispassionately against the needs of the market and the organization. In the majority of instances the data will point the way toward the appropriate decisions but sometimes these decisions are situational. When situational decisions arise the call needs to be made by executive stakeholders and framed, whenever possible, with a data supported recommendation from product management that balances the best interests of all parties.
Trust is a big factor. Product managers that have an effective working relationship with the sales organization often get the benefit of the doubt. Having a sales history prior to becoming a product manager also lends a modicum of credibility (if fleeting). The sales team knows you understand the pressure they are under and their pains. In sales, if you don’t perform you don’t typically last too long. Organizations are not hesitant to upgrade the talent pool. There are plenty of sales professionals around.
From the Sales Perspective
Unlike product management things in sales feel much more immediate. You are planning for calls weekly if not daily. You have monthly goals that are closely tracked and often shared publicly to spur competition which roll up to your annual target. Effective sales leaders know how to spread the sales plan and typically build their annual plan knowing that a certain number of individuals are not going to make it. So they hedge their bets by increasing the individual allocations accounting for this under-performance. You can understand why sales professionals are often insistent – they often have a lot at stake both personally and professionally.
Product managers often lament the sales people that continuously ask for “one-offs” that are outside their thoughtfully constructed plans. After all, product professionals are asked to think longer-term and to focus on aggregate market needs. At the end of the day, the short-term needs of individual sales professionals don’t always neatly align with product management’s plans.
This is where executive arbitration matters. If the requested individual enhancement makes the plan for the company at the end of the quarter or year it may make sense to deviate from the well-crafted longer-term plan. If the “one-off” doesn’t have a material impact on the business another call will have to be made.
Like all relationships in life, the product management and sales relationship needs to be built on a foundation of trust. However, our data shows only 9% of product development teams are fully aligned with their sales organizations! Most organizations are dealing with a relationship that is not fully optimized. Sales is certainly not an adversary. They are under a lot of pressure and often coddled but they have a lot to add to the product development process. On the flip side, it is important to note that one customer does not represent a market need and that the quality of information degrades each time it is exchanged.
So in the end, sales is an important partner in the process. One voice mind you, but one that needs to be paid attention to. Executives at the end of the day set the tone on the balance. Will it tilt in the direction of the needs of the market or the needs of individual customers? Based upon this decision, conscious or otherwise, senior leadership holds the key to the resulting culture of collaboration or conflict that results.
What has been your experience?