Product managers win when their products are adopted.
Therefore, half of the battle is building amazing products, and the other half of the battle is selling amazing products. This principle is especially relevant for B2B products.
Effective product managers need to understand how to best work with their sales teams. We mentioned previously in this series that you can get involved with your sales teams at varying levels of commitment. There are three levels, starting from easiest to hardest:
For this article, we’ll focus on how to drive sales calls as a product manager.
But first, let’s address why driving sales calls matter for product managers.
Why Should I Drive Sales Calls?
Early on in my product management career, I couldn’t understand why product managers had to lead sales calls. I knew that my managers were doing so, but I was deeply confused by this phenomenon.
My confusion came from a couple of underlying questions:
- Don’t we already have a dedicated sales team? Why not have them drive the calls?
- Wouldn’t our time as product managers be better spent elsewhere?
- Product managers have no formal training in sales - won’t we wind up reducing the odds of the sale, given our lack of experience?
Yet, the evidence was inescapable - every single one of my managers have sold multi-million dollar contracts before.
Furthermore, each one of my Heads of Product have been direct drivers of sales deals that literally changed the trajectory of the company.
As I continued to gain experience, I started finding the answers to my questions. In fact, it all boils down to one single principle.
When you reach a certain level of seniority, you’ll be in charge of tackling entirely new product areas. That’s the core driver for deciding when you should lead a sales call yourself.
When you own a new product area, your role is to find product / market fit. You can’t find product / market fit if you don’t try to sell your product to any markets.
Furthermore, as the point person for the new product area, you are the single person in your organization who has the most context on the product area.
You know what pain points you’re hoping to solve with your product.
You know what functionality your product has, and what it doesn’t.
You know which users you’re trying to go after, and which ones aren’t attractive for you.
You have the most hypotheses on what your product will do well, and where your product has gaps versus competitors or alternatives.
You are the one person who are most capable of selling the new product that you haven’t built yet, because you have the most context.
So, any time you’re leading a new product area, you need to drive sales calls. Let’s use this principle to address the questions I had as a new product manager.
1) Don’t we already have a dedicated sales team?
Salespeople are good at selling mature products.
That being said, salespeople face unique challenges in selling new products, because they don’t yet have the necessary tool kit built up from experience.
For example, your sales team may not know what objections they’ll face when selling your new product, and therefore they’ll be less prepared to handle objections smoothly.
Your sales team will also have less insight into the competitive landscape, or into the minds of prospects. Your new product area is entirely foreign to your organization, so that institutional knowledge hasn’t been built up yet.
That’s not to say that salespeople aren’t valuable on new product calls!
Salespeople have a host of skills that remain relevant: discovery, empathy, building rapport, choreography of the call, and negotiation are all highly valuable.
Rather, product managers who lead new products will have much more of the needed context to best position their product offering for success.
While product managers should drive the call, the sales team should still be on the call to guide and support.
2) Wouldn’t our time as product managers be better spent elsewhere?
Investments all have diminishing marginal returns.
You can spend as much time as you’d like on design, engineering, or analytics, but if you have insufficient knowledge about your prospects or about the competitive landscape, your organization will fail to produce a winning product in this new vertical.
After all, you’re expected to lead the new product area. You’re the domain expert now.
Therefore, the organization’s knowledge in the new product area will always be capped by your level of expertise.
It’s your responsibility to gather all of the information about your new product area, and it’s your responsibility to disseminate it to all of your stakeholders and teammates.
As a reminder, sales calls are especially valuable for learning about the target audience’s decision making process and for learning about the competitive landscape. This information is especially crucial when you’re tackling a new product!
3) Won’t our lack of experience reduce the odds of the sale?
Product managers are expected to learn quickly.
If you’ve been actively paying attention while you’ve been shadowing sales calls and partnering on sales calls, you’ve actually picked up a lot of experience already.
Plus, the most important job of sales is to listen. In fact, research backs this up - the most effective salespeople are the ones who speak the least and listen the most.
Remember that prospects are human beings. Human beings want to be heard, to be understood, and to be respected. If you can provide that to your prospects, you will reach positive outcomes no matter what.
After all, even if you don’t make the sale, you’ll have learned a ton about the new product area, and your prospects will have learned that you’re tackling the market.
They may even point you to others to sell to! Trust me, this has happened to me multiple times.
So, now we’ve addressed our questions - we know that especially for new product areas, product managers are directly responsible for driving some set of sales calls. Next, let’s talk about how to prepare for sales calls effectively.
Preparing for the Call
First, talk to a salesperson to get her existing script and her best practices. Where possible, find out how she conducts her research, so that you can reuse those processes and modify them to best suit your needs.
For example, my sales team has pointed me towards press releases and conferences for public information, and informal side conversations with key industry players for details that you wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.
Then, pull together your agenda. What's the goal of the call, and what's the structure for each of the sub-sections?
Run it by your salesperson to get her thoughts on it. If your manager is available, run your agenda by her to get a gut check as well.
When working with prospects, be sure to provide them with multiple times for the initial call, so that they have optionality. You want to demonstrate that you have empathy, and that you understand that they’re busy.
Pay attention to detail! I’ve found that dates and time zones can seriously derail coordination.
I’ll list out the day of the week as well as the date itself. Additionally, I usually list times in my prospect’s time zone, and then in my own time zone in parentheses.
For example, here’s a set of meeting times that I might propose:
- Mon 11/19, 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM Eastern (1:00 PM - 2:00 PM Pacific)
- Tues 11/20, 11:00 AM - 12:00 noon Eastern (8:00 AM - 9:00 AM Pacific)
- Wed 11/21, 2:30 PM - 3:30 PM Eastern (11:30 AM - 12:30 PM Pacific)
Once you’ve locked in a date, be sure to prepare the necessary materials for the call. Again, attention to detail wins.
Check to see that your computer is ready for any sort of presentation or demo you’re going to give. Clean up your screen so that it’s not cluttered with irrelevant or proprietary information.
Ensure that you’ve reserved a room for your call. Know who will be attending the call, both on your side and on the prospect’s side.
The day before the call, check to see that you have audio and video set up correctly. It’s never fun to have to reschedule due to technical difficulties!
Driving the Call
As mentioned in our previous articles in this series, the hardest part of the call isn’t the call itself - it’s the prep work.
Now that you’re prepared, run the call confidently.
If possible, record the call - you’re not going to have time to take notes while you’re talking, and you’ll also want to have the ability to debrief later.
Begin with recapping the agenda, and verbally confirm with attendees that they approve of the agenda. Be flexible - you want to ensure that you're maximizing value for all attendees.
For example, I've had times where I built an agenda with the expectation that my prospect's CEO and CMO would join, but I wound up with only the CIO on the call. In situations like those, flexibility goes a long way.
Furthermore, your agenda should always begin with a discovery session. Learn about their needs so that you can fine-tune your talk track on the fly.
For example, I usually like to ask about what the company’s objectives are for the next year, and what sorts of initiatives they’ve planned or kicked off to achieve those objectives.
Then, execute on the agenda as proposed. Remember that the most effective salespeople are those who listen. You’re already a good listener - that’s why you’re a product manager in the first place!
Treat your call like a user interview session. You’re leading the choreography to better understand their pain points, so that you can then present them a solution that will make their lives easier.
As you run through the call, mentally note down which folks on the call seem to be the most receptive, which ones seem combative, and which ones are entirely silent. Note that silence is not necessarily agreement.
In my experience, I’ve found that silent participants aren’t neutral - they’re either strong promoters or strong detractors.
To get them to show their stance so that you can better position the product and handle objections, leave time at the end so that people can ask questions, and send out a recap email so that others have a chance to respond asynchronously.
Remember that objections are actually a good thing! It means that people are trying to understand how your product fits into their lives. You don’t want a call with zero objections, because that means they’re not taking you seriously and have already written you off.
Debriefing on the Call
Once you’re done with the call, block off time on your calendar and listen to your recording. Take careful notes, and reflect on your performance.
Where did you struggle to deliver your pitch? Where did the prospect have the most objections? How could you have addressed these objections more proactively?
How well do you understand your prospects’ decision-making processes, and have you optimized your product offering and your pitch to address these processes?
What I Learned By Driving Sales Calls
When I started leading new product areas, I drove sales calls so that I could dive deep into how the prospect thought about their problems and about our product.
I found out that I didn’t have the right collateral or the right preparation for the meeting. So, once I pulled together the right collateral, I centralized it in one place and provided it to the rest of my sales team.
I compiled objection handling guides, and ensured that we all were driving the same narrative. I created guides on how to qualify prospects, and called out key caveats on what our new product could do or couldn’t do.
I found out that there were features that we thought were highly impactful, but wound up underwhelming our prospects.
For example, I thought that one of our features - call it Feature X - would be highly impactful, but prospects didn’t care about it. They really wanted Feature Y instead, even though our Feature X solved for all of Feature Y’s uses cases and then some.
That experience taught me that much of product management is positioning.
If your users are trained to want Feature Y, even though you’re offering Feature X, you’ll need to sell them on why you decided not to provide Feature Y, and why Feature X works much better than Feature Y.
I also found out that our prospects perceived our product differently from how we perceived our product.
For example, we thought we did a great job in enabling our users to market themselves to their end customers, but the feedback we kept getting was that we weren’t very strong at enabling them to market themselves.
They kept telling us that competitors did a much better job than we did, even though none of us felt that way. That phenomenon indicated that we had failed to communicate why our features were better.
To tackle the problem, we started pulling together case studies of how our product enabled customers to market themselves, and testimonials showing that our users preferred our product over competitors.
The tactic worked so well that our prospects wound up selling themselves on our features!
By driving sales calls, I dove deep into both the competitive landscape and into the minds of my prospects, which meant that I could craft a more targeted roadmap and deliver a better pitch.
These experiences further strengthened my user research skills, further honed my ability to listen and to generate empathy, and further developed my industry knowledge and my product intuition.
One question that I haven’t yet answered is, “when is it appropriate to join the sales team?” After all, product managers have limited time, and product managers have many other responsibilities to handle as well.
To address that question, I’ll provide a framework in our final article of this series. This framework will address how often you should be joining the sales team to maximize impact for you, your team, and your company.
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around driving sales calls as a product manager? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!