Sales Support: How Much Is Acceptable?

By Jacques Murphy August 15, 2007

from PRODUCT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
A Weekly Newsletter of Tips For Companies that Develop Software.

publications.com offers this survey of product managers which covers salary and job duties. One interesting section of this survey is called 'Comments for the VP of Sales.' And the very first comment is this:

'Product management is not sales support'

This is a telling sentence. Specifically, what it's telling us is that Product Managers frequently suspect that they're spending more time on sales support than is warranted.

Read on below for a discussion of where the boundary lies between enough sales support and too much.

Try these tips to decide whether the sales support you're providing is helpful or if too much is being asked of you.

SALES SUPPORT IS AN ON DEMAND JOB

The nature of supporting sales reps is to respond to them on an 'on demand' basis. Part of this is because it's the prospect who sets the schedule, and you have no more control over that than the sales rep. Most reps have learned that when the prospect finally calls them back, if the rep doesn't answer on the spot, it may be over a week before they get the next chance to have a live conversation.

While I love to plan and structure my schedule and my day, I know that I'm most effective in my sales support if I drop what I'm doing and answer the phone when a rep calls. In this case I won't let myself avoid the call even though I have caller ID.

I plan my deadlines knowing that a certain percent--say 20 to 30%--of my time will be used for on demand responses to sales reps.

BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN 'ON CALL 24/7'

But there have to be limits. Even though you try to make yourself available, this doesn't mean that everything you do for sales must be an immediate response to unstructured requests. If you can identify information and tools that the reps consistently need, and provide them along with training, you can manage the demand.

If you're not careful, you can waste a lot of time on sales support.

YOU CAN LEAD A HORSE TO WATER, BUT ...

. . . you can't make him drink. So, too, you can create all the cool sales tools in the world, at great expense in terms of time and assistance from teammates. But it's all to no avail if the sales reps don't use the tools.

Only the VP of Sales, or whoever the executive is who manages the sales force, can enforce the use of any sales tools you develop. So, before you spend time developing a sales tool that you know could help, make absolutely sure that the sales manager wants it, that it meets his or her requirements, and that he or she fully intends to enforce its use.

The job of the sales rep is to push on forward. As the Product Manager, you have no control--or very little, at least--over how the rep uses the sales tools. Only the sales manager has the clout to get a rep to use a tool as your company intended (because the sale manager decides what the rep's commission is).

MAKE A LITTLE GO A LONG WAY

While you want to make sure you're on the same page with the VP of Sales on developing tools, processes and training, you may have to settle for less attention that you'd like. The manager of sales has so many high priorities. The two of you may need to be content with deliverables where you've had to use your best judgement. In the end, it isn't the detail of the deliverables that matter, it's whether they get used, and used consistently.

BE THE POWER BEHIND THE THRONE

Product Managers wind up becoming the expert on the product, the one that everyone turns to with questions. It's easy to get used to being the revered guru. But for sales, you need to be content with being the power behind the throne. It's important to be able to fade into the background as needed so that the sales rep is the one who maintains the strong relationship with the prospect and the customer.

The same is true if you're supporting the VP of Sales through tools and training to the sales reps. Let the VP do the talking, give the major instructions, and do the enforcing. They're the only one the sales reps should be listening to, anyway.

DON'T LOOK TO SALES REPS FOR THE DETAILS

Wouldn't it be great if you didn't have to always be the one to straighten out the details? Well, get over it. Most of the time you'll need to be the one helping with details, as the rep focuses on the relationship, which requires more of a big-picture focus.

SALES ENGINEERS ARE ANOTHER MATTER

But you most definitely can rely on sales engineers to help with the details. In some ways, you're best bet is to enlist the backing and assistance of the sales engineers. When you provide instructions for using a sales tool (like an ROI calculator) or details on how a specific feature works, make sure that the sales engineers understand before anybody else. Let them be the ones to provide the 24/7 support to the sales reps (for which they are compensated accordingly).

THERE WILL BE REPETITION

As much as you would like to be efficient with your time, you will spend a noticeable amount of time repeating yourself. Repeating yourself because there was a sales rep who didn't attend the training where you went over all the materials. Repeating yourself because a rep just didn't get it the first time. Some inefficiency is inevitable.

SO HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?

If you find yourself consistently repeating yourself, reinventing the wheel for such things as demos and presentations, or being asked for the same information you just gave to the sales rep last week, then yes, things have gotten out of hand.

While it's never going to be a perfect process, you have to achieve a certain level of efficiency or you wind up just spinning your wheels. The effort is no longer worth the return.

Don't let the reps off the hook easy in this case. When they call for slides, refer them to the Intranet where you have posted the standard presentations. Request the backing of the VP of Sales to require attendance at a training session so that you can take care of 80% of the support for a specific issue in less than an hour.

And check with the sales manager about certain requests. The manager may not have been aware of what the rep was doing. You might find that his or her response is ?That's not a priority right now. Let the rep do that himself.'

While it's a difficult balance to strike, it is possible to ensure that you are well utilized by sales through a combination of tools, training, and backing from the sales manager.

To regularly receive helpful tips for software product management, send an email to jacquesm@epix.net with 'subscribe' in the subject line.

Copyright (c) 2002, 2003 Jacques Murphy. All rights reserved.

Categories: Working with Sales
Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy is a consultant who helps software companies develop their products faster. He does this using a focused process which quickly develops product requirements. Contact him at www.ProductManagementChallenges.com.

.

Looking for the latest in product and data science? Get our articles, webinars and podcasts.