Let’s assume you are the product manager (PM) at a startup that is gaining a lot of traction. You meet with lots of prospects alongside executive management. Often, you are the only person in the meeting who truly understands your product. You have the entire feature set memorized. You understand how it was constructed. You probably even know why a button was placed just so in the interface.
Then the company begins to grow. The founders don’t have time to pursue all the opportunities directly, so they decide to hire a sales force. Once that happens, everything changes. The account executive assumes the role of the corporate executive, and a sales engineer (SE) takes on most of the role you were playing in front of customers. You now have a much different (and welcomed!) problem: How do you convey what you know to salespeople and SEs?
In reality, it doesn’t matter much if you are hiring a sales force for the first time or are a PM in a large, multi-national corporation. The stakes are high in the PM’s ability to work with salespeople and enable the SEs who support them.
I have worked with many gifted SEs and PMs who were able to function beautifully together—both inside and outside the office walls. I have also witnessed more than my fair share of strife between these two organizations. Along the way, I uncovered some tips not only for a successful, working relationship, but also the fundamental activities that will turn SEs into the PM’s biggest fans.
A fan is an SE with a genuine passion for promoting your product to your customer base. If you’ve spent any time with a large sales organization, you’ll notice that there are many reps and SEs who go through the motions of selling, but who don’t bring the same enthusiasm to the presentation that you might. In other words, they are treating it like someone else’s baby, whereas you treat it as your own.
Have you ever wondered why sales teams love to get a PM in front of customers, when others on the sales team could have accomplished the same task? There are certainly cases where your “title” is needed or a roadmap topic needs direct committal.
But you may be surprised to learn that some PMs are highly sought after by the sales force, and some are avoided unless absolutely necessary. What is the difference? The two key components are the passion you bring and your depth of knowledge. Translating that passion and knowledge to the sales force brings substantial rewards by allowing you to scale your responsibilities as your company grows.
To complete this transition, be aware of three critically important needs:
Formal process (consistency)
Transparency is a combination of openness and honesty. The underlying principle is trust, which is the most important building block for having passionate SEs. Without trust, you will not be able to create a higher level of performance in the SE force. These suggestions are meant to give you the edge in building trust across the sales/SE force.
The Pragmatic Institute Framework™. Despite being in the field as an SE for many years, I did not have a full appreciation for product management until I began studying the role in more detail. One primary driver of miscommunication is the abstract nature in understanding how products are designed and built. Here are three key points I’ve learned from the Pragmatic Institute seminars that all SEs need to know:
Competencies, personas, and target markets. Develop personas for your target audiences and introduce your SEs to them. Paint a very clear picture of why personas are important and how SEs can use them to qualify an opportunity.
Feature selection process. SEs need to understand how a feature makes it into a product. Having a nebulous cloud where feature requests go in and sometimes emerge in the product takes a huge bite of morale out of the SE force.
Provide the “why.” One reason PMs make effective product presenters is that they are typically better equipped to provide the “why” behind product features, direction, or perceived weaknesses. SEs not only need to understand the reason behind specific features, they need to understand what isn’t in the product and the reason behind those decisions. Customers are usually willing to accept a perceived shortcoming if they have a clear explanation of the reasoning that went into the design. Providing SEs with this information gives them a greater sense of confidence in handling objections, which ultimately leads to shorter sales cycles.
Share the roadmap. I’ve heard arguments for and against sharing roadmap information with Sales. Regardless of your position, know this unmistakable fact: If SEs are not well informed on the subject, they will be less passionate about your product. You no doubt hold in your head a plan for world domination, which serves as the aquifer feeding your passion. Transfer that passion to your SEs.
Even if you feel the need to hold back your roadmap from sales reps (a separate issue), withholding this information from SEs deprives them of a critical piece of ammo they may be able to use with a customer. Give them advance insight into your plans apart from reps; you will see this trust reciprocated.
I will make you three promises as to what will happen if you are very open with your roadmap: 1) You will have more passionate SEs, 2) this information will occasionally be misused and will backfire, and 3) the benefits of sharing it will far outweigh any negative effects. You want your customers to understand and buy into your vision. Communicating this to the SE force is the only way to make this happen on a large scale.
Involve SEs in product direction. The first step is articulating your vision. Moving beyond this, you need to push into participation and ownership—where SEs have a direct impact.
SEs will often provide generalized feature requests based on their experiences with a handful of customers. Realize, however, that an SE’s commission is often directly tied to product direction as it relates to his/her accounts. Because of this, SEs are very attentive to customer feedback. Because this feedback is generated during the sales process, you need to qualify these data points—but ignoring them is another huge morale killer. Qualify, yes. Discount, no.
You likely know who your top SEs are. Get them together and ask for a trusted volunteer (maybe it’s an SE manager) to represent the sales force during your strategy calls. Finally, and most importantly, you need to communicate back to the SEs when this input has a direct effect on product direction. When SEs feel they can help influence product direction, they develop a sense of accountability that translates into a genuine desire to see your product succeed.
Not only is a formal process for product releases essential with large, multi-product corporations, but it is a key growth enabler in smaller companies. A formal process is vital because it leads to what we crave—consistency. Consistency is yet another building block of trust. Set clear expectations up front for your SEs, and always deliver or exceed those expectations. SEs won’t have a strong opinion on the process you follow, just that you have one you stick to and that they can follow.
Too often, feature conversations devolve into defensive posturing. Having a well-defined and well-communicated process allows you to separate emotion from input—and leads to more collaborative discussions.
There are four areas to consider in developing your formal process:
Release cycle. Involving SEs as official stakeholders in your release cycle is critical. Make it super simple for SEs to get involved early in the process. Not only do SEs feel like they get a sneak peek, the usability feedback they provide will be invaluable if you obtain it early enough to make corrections before launch. Never solicit this feedback, however, unless you plan to use it.
What’s more, this early involvement ensures that things like Sales training are scheduled with appropriate lead times—so your sales force is ready to start selling your product from day one of your launch.
Enhancement requests. I cringe when I speak with a PM who manages requirements in a spreadsheet. It’s not so much the medium itself, but that those PMs who use spreadsheets this way typically don’t have a standardized—let alone transparent—process.
If you don’t nail the enhancement request process, you can write off creating passionate SEs. Why? Because SEs need to feel that their customers’ input is heard, and SEs need a standard vehicle for communicating deal-breaker requirements that require immediate action.
Believe it or not, it is great to have “too many” feature requests coming from SEs. When they stop, it’s time to worry, because they’ve reached a state of indifference. Actively seek out input, and always exude extreme appreciation for this feedback. Nothing would endear me more to a product manager than this.
Engagement process. From time to time, your involvement in the sales process is required. And it is almost always invaluable. From a Sales standpoint, you are a “free” resource, so you will always have more requests than you can handle. Always budget some time for customer-facing sales activities. It’s best to have it on the same set of days, so you are perceived as being “available” and well organized.
A common complaint is that PMs are unresponsive; their inboxes and voicemail boxes are black holes. Whatever system for engagement you choose, communicate it well and enforce it consistently. If you claim to take product roadmap questions in a specific forum, but occasionally respond to email requests, you are invalidating your own process.
Play nice in the sandbox. In large organizations with multiple product groups, it is important that you adopt consistent corporate processes. You’ll win more points than you know by adhering to standard practices that make it easy for SEs to “do business with you.”
Reach out to other PM teams when you notice that practices aren’t shared. You won’t convert everyone, but if you are seen as a leader in streamlining processes that impact Sales (and other departments), you’ll make many friends in those ranks. Only after you have standardized the process will it become repeatable. And when you have achieved repeatability in your dealings with SEs, your responsibilities can scale along with your growing company.
Transference is your ability to impart product knowledge to SEs so they will be as successful as you are in front of customers. Essentially, this means removing dependence on you for Sales-related functions, which removes you from the loop.
Documentation and training make up the majority of your opportunity to transfer your knowledge. Though it is one of the most mundane aspects of PM work, it exerts inordinate influence on the perception of the product—and of you—to the field. Make the most of these opportunities.
The following activities will make you a master in enabling the SE force:
The “D” word—Documentation. Everyone knows we need it, and everyone hates doing it. If you follow my advice and add the SE organization to the product release process, you will gain a head start in developing documentation and product collateral, as the SEs will be able to clearly communicate message points to the team developing documents.
The Pragmatic Institute maxim holds true: If you don’t create the collateral, others will fill the void. Start by engaging the Sales and SE organizations to determine a standard set of collateral templates. Then incorporate them into your standard launch plan checklist, and assign someone on the product team to be accountable for monitoring all points of communication with internal departments and customers.
Performance Data. SEs understand it is difficult to create performance data for enterprise software because replicating enterprise environments is tricky. Still, customers ask, so you need to give your SEs a good answer. Here are some specific guidelines:
Formulas are good. Providing small, medium, and large implementation examples is better than nothing, but they will be an endless point of debate. It is better to provide variable formulas that can approximate actual customers.
Case studies rule the day. Though not fully the domain of Product Management, ensuring Sales has real-life sizing studies from large beta customers (for example) is useful to SEs. For the most part, exact sizing comes after the sale. Before the sale, the customer needs to know whether or not your product will scale for them, along with rough budget numbers.
Keep them updated. More granular sizing data will become available after the product has been in production for a while. Engage with SEs/Services who oversee large deployments to ensure these insights make it back into your documentation. If you skimp on the documentation, Sales might not be comfortable selling your product to their largest customers.
- Competitive Data. Many SEs from different types of companies all say the same thing: Our competitive information doesn’t give me what I need, and it is usually outdated. This doesn’t need to be the case. I have seen competitive data beautifully orchestrated. Coincidentally, these products also had extreme backing from the sales organization. If you want passionate fans, follow these guidelines for providing competitive data:
- Constantly update information. The need for constant updates is so profound that many PMs have turned to wikis for more fluid information. With that said, outdated/inaccurate data is worse than no data at all.
- Be honest. Don’t be afraid to call your baby ugly. Articulate your target market and personas, and explain exactly when your product is best and when it is not. Let Sales make the determination about how/when to overcome competitive weaknesses. Let me be clear here: Marketing spin has no business in your competitive analysis.
- Include feature/function comparisons. A common mistake is performing a business comparison without an in-depth, feature-by-feature comparison. For example, an SE is working with a customer to define success criteria in the proof of concept (POC). If they know the competitor (which they almost always will) and have a feature-by-feature breakdown, the SE can customize the POC around your product’s strengths.
Make competitive products available to SEs. Within the spirit of your license (you are actually touching the competitive products, right?), let SEs get their hands on it. Not only does it give them a better understanding of the usability, but it increases their tactile learning, which is far more effective for internalizing information.
- Training. Training is a difficult medium to master because you are dealing with many different audiences and skill levels. Here are some specific tips to maximize your training investment:
- Train the trainers. Unless you have a small sales force, don’t plan to train everyone in person. Identify the trainers and give them access to all the information they can stand.
Record and publish every session. With travel budgets undergoing cuts, enable the rest of the sales force to attend remote training.
Provide several formats. Not everyone learns the same way. Provide for instructor-led and self-paced training for maximum impact.
Hold training early. Schedule first rounds of training in your pre-release phase. Eighty percent of your SEs should have training before General Availability, or you risk a slow launch.
Minimize slideshows. Most SEs learn best by tactile learning. Have plenty of lab systems (if applicable) and spend most of the time working in the product itself. With a hands-on understanding, SEs will be able to pick up the qualification and other supporting information far easier.
Bringing it together
Another fantastic Pragmatic Institute maxim is that Product Management should be focused on helping sales channels, not sales people. In order to build effective channels, communication with SEs must flow freely and be bidirectional.
To have open communication, you need a high degree of trust. Trust is established by being transparent (open and honest) and consistent (via a standard process).
This process isn’t really about converting SEs into passionate fans—it’s about understanding that your fellow employees are some of your most important customers. Anticipating and responding to the needs of your internal customers to this degree connects everybody to your vision. And it sets you up for the highest levels of success.
It really doesn’t matter what your release process is, just that it exists and includes these basic components:
Use a standard submission form. Even if you have to stand up a web server under your desk to create a web form to capture all of your required fields, do it. Do not constantly ask, “Will you send me an email on that?”
Keep it closed loop. Automate as much of the service as you can. Always provide a way SEs can check status without emailing you. It’s even better if the system automatically sends a tickler update to the submitter letting them know it’s still being evaluated.
Don’t ask for market research. That’s your job. Too often I hear, “Will you tell what the dollar value is of this feature?” That question signals a PM team is not aware of the market.
Always provide a response and a reason. Though SEs may be disappointed, we all understand not all features can make a release. Always provide a detailed explanation of why a feature was denied or deferred and what you plan to do about it in the future.
Build the community. In other words, don’t waste SEs time. Expose all features currently on the list, and let SEs contribute data to existing entries—rather than entering entirely new ones. This also helps automatically bubble up trends.
Have a priority flag. Allow for instances where an SE needs immediate feedback if a deal hinges on your response.