In our previous article, we discussed how to shadow your sales team to uncover new insights about your product.
While shadowing your sales team can be incredibly valuable, you can learn even more about your customers and your prospects by playing an active role on sales calls.
By joining your sales team on calls, you can provide additional value and increase the odds that your will close the deal. After all, as a product manager, you hold unique insight about your product that others may not have.
Plus, as you become more senior as a product manager, your participation on sales calls will eventually become mandatory.
Therefore, no matter what level of seniority you’re at, you should learn how to partner on sales calls.
Definition of Partnering
First, let’s define “partnership” more crisply, especially in the context of sales calls.
I define product partnership as “playing an active role on the sales call to drive the conversation towards positive next steps.”
In contrast, shadowing is when you join a sales call but do not play an active role in the conversation itself.
Now that we’ve defined product partnership, let’s talk about the different kinds of roles that a product manager might play on a sales call.
In my experiences, I’ve seen recurring themes around the kinds of challenges that product managers tackle on sales calls. Below, I’ve boiled down these themes into more concrete roles.
Note, however, that product managers will likely play multiple roles on the call - I’ve had calls where I’ve played all of them.
The first role is discovery.
As a product manager, you seek to understand the different kinds of users in the world, so that you can crisply define user personas and make active decisions around which specific personas to support.
When you join a sales call in a discovery role, your job is to act like a user researcher. That is, you’ll ask probing questions around the kinds of challenges that the prospect is facing, and seek to understand how the prospect makes decisions.
By doing so, you’ll reap two benefits. You’ll learn about users, and you’ll create empathy with your prospect.
After all, all human beings seek to be understood, to be respected, and to be taken seriously. When you dive deep with prospects in a discovery role, they feel that you are truly listening to them, and that dramatically increases the chances that they will sign with you.
The second role is positioning.
Your sales team has experience in positioning your product offering to prospects, especially in highly competitive industries.
That being said, product managers provide unique high-value positioning that many salespeople do not have access to.
First, product managers deeply understand how their products work. Therefore, product managers can drive product demos more effectively than the average salesperson can. Product managers can tailor the demo on the fly as prospects reveal more about their specific areas of interest.
That’s not to say that product managers should always run demos. In large organizations, sales engineers run product demos.
Second, product managers own the product roadmap, and can share details about the roadmap on the call. This action is incredibly high-value, because prospects buy products not just for what it can do today, but also what it will be able to do tomorrow.
Sharing roadmaps can be tricky. After all, you don’t want to inadvertently commit to something that is low-confidence, but you also don’t want to sound uncertain about your own vision for the product.
I’ve found that the most effective way to share my roadmap is to begin with the vision, and then to talk about product themes that appeal to the prospect without diving into specific use cases or specific design details.
If I’m pressured on delivery dates, I usually use confidence intervals of 6 months, e.g. “likely available around the second half of 2021.”
The third role is objection handling.
Senior product managers have a clear understanding of their existing user base through both qualitative feedback and quantitative product analytics. Therefore, product managers are best suited to address objections around product functionality.
Given your depth of product knowledge, you can tackle specific objections from prospects and ease their concerns about adopting your product successfully.
The fourth role is solutioning.
I define solutioning as “working together with the customer to identify how to use existing product features to solve for her needs.”
At a surface level, solutioning seems similar to objection handling, because both scenarios involve zero engineering commitment. However, solutioning is distinct from objection handling, because it positions you as a thought partner for the prospect.
To solution effectively, you need to have a deep understanding of the prospect’s pain points and processes. Otherwise, you wind up providing a recommendation that does not solve for the need, which damages the relationship with the prospect and causes the prospect to lose trust in you.
When you handle objections, you’re generally saying “no” to requests. When you work together to provide a solution, you’re saying “yes” to requests.
Be careful not to confuse the two. In cases where you should not support particular use cases, use objection handling. In cases where you see lots of opportunity to support a new use case by creatively using existing functionality, use solutioning.
Preparing for the Call
Start by identifying a need in your sales funnel. You can always be proactive and volunteer to jump onto high-value sales calls.
Where does the sales team need product team intervention? Which conversation will you be able to provide the most value in?
It's helpful to note that much of the time, the sales team will come to you directly with a need.
Once you’ve identified the account that would benefit most from your intervention, set up time to sit down with the relevant account owner, and gather context on the account.
Again, much of what you’ve learned from shadowing your sales team applies here as well. As you prepare together, your goals should be to:
- Gain context about the prospect
- Identify the prospect’s interests
- Determine relevant competitors
- Craft an agenda for the call
Furthermore, as you prepare together, identify the product partnership roles that you will play on the call, and how to structure the call accordingly.
For example, say you will be playing both a discovery role and a positioning role on the call. Will you first begin with discovery, or will you first begin with a product demo?
Note that each prospect has different needs, so the answer can vary from call to call.
Participating on the Call
I’ve honestly found that the vast majority of the work involved with sales call partnerships comes from the preparation. Participating on the call is rarely the hard part.
Because you already know which roles you will likely play, all you need to do is to play those roles accordingly.
Experienced salespeople will call on you to jump in at the right time, so defer to their judgment.
Be comfortable with silence. If the prospect asks a question, wait for your salesperson to ask the question back to you, or wait on her to answer the question herself.
Remember, your salesperson knows the prospect much better than you do. Don’t make bad assumptions and take control of the call when it’s not your turn to do so.
Why is this important? Here’s why: if you jump in at the wrong time, you derail the structure of the call, and wind up opening the floor to unproductive discussions.
Here’s a real example.
During one of my calls, I started talking about the roadmap before we had completed discovery. This led to intense grilling on the product vision and on delivery dates, which led to an extraordinarily antagonistic discussion.
We needed to set up additional meetings to attempt to regain trust, and to reset the conversation towards a positive direction.
That's why deferring to your salesperson to drive the flow of the conversation is critical.
Debriefing on the Call
Right after the call, debrief with one another.
Capture next steps and learnings, then assign owners to each of the next steps.
What I Learned as a Sales Partner
Once I was promoted from associate product manager to a full-blown product manager, I started partnering with my sales team on their calls.
To get a better idea of what it takes to be a product manager, check out the Product Manager HQ bootcamp.
By doing so, I gained deeper insight into our sales processes and our target customers.
First, I noticed that our sales team didn’t know when to escalate customer feedback to the product management team, which meant that we were repeatedly missing out on a gold mine of information.
To remedy the situation, I started a regular series of meetings to review our sales meeting notes. Of course, this meant that I had to train my sales team to start taking notes more regularly.
Second, I noticed that our sales team went after accounts that our product couldn’t possibly support. When I dug deeper, I found that it was because our product team had not clearly provided criteria for qualifying leads.
I went back to the product team to ask for a consistent definition of a “qualified lead”, then provided that back to the sales team. That single action enabled us to save countless hours fielding unproductive calls, enabling the sales team to focus more on high-value accounts.
On top of that, I learned that some of the language I used when speaking with prospects didn’t resonate well. For example, my prospects didn’t about how technically challenging a particular feature was - they just wanted to have the feature.
Therefore, I needed to update my objection handling.
Furthermore, I brought those insights back to my design team, and we changed our product copy accordingly so that the wording fit better with our users' mental models.
I also learned about eye-opening use cases that we theoretically could already support, but hadn’t actually standardized.
Because I played a solutioning role on multiple calls, I started finding new high-value use cases that we could already support, and could further support by making a couple of minor product enhancements.
As you can see - being an active product partner on sales calls can yield huge benefits.
By actively partnering on a sales call, you’ll drive high value for both your sales team and for your product team.
Furthermore, active participation is not that different from shadowing on sales calls. As long as you’ve built up a foundation through shadowing sales calls, you can partner relatively easily.
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around partnering with sales? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!
Clement Kao is Co-Founder of Product Manager HQ. He was previously a Principal Product Manager at Blend, an enterprise technology company that is inventing a simpler and more transparent consumer lending experience while ensuring broader access for all types of borrowers.