Hey Product Manager: Do This When the VP of Sales Promises Features
August 4, 2020

Hey Product Manager: Do This When the VP of Sales Promises Features

by Brian de Haaff

"We already promised we could make it happen." Most product managers have heard some version of this from the VP of sales before. Pressure to land new accounts can lead to reckless promises that rain down on the product team. At the end of the quarter — when the scramble to close deals is on — the abuse can feel like a downpour.

But you need to be able to weather the storm — because what was promised is likely important even if it is not what should be delivered.

It is never wise to dismiss feature requests no matter who or where the idea comes from. Sales learns firsthand what customers are struggling with. The conversations that are shared back to you can reveal new pain points and new opportunities to create value. It is your job to hear the real need behind the request, beyond what is shared.

But when you are fielding a bunch of "already sold it" feature requests, the messages can sound more like hostile demands. And the impulse to push back is difficult to resist when people are pushy. You may want to shut the conversation down or ignore the request entirely.

You might see it as the domineering sales VP trying to drive your roadmap.

Or you could see it as a new insight into your customer's problems. Consider that each interaction you have with sales is an opportunity to learn even more about your customers from the folks who interact with them most. It starts by listening for the need behind the request, then moving forward with intention.

As a product manager, your approach should always be goal first — while staying open to new ideas. Here are some tips for dealing with a sales team that overpromises — while maintaining a good relationship and delivering against your strategic roadmap:

Use your curiosity

You need to understand the entirety of what happened. What did the customer ask for and what was promised? What was the customer hoping to achieve? What specific problem did they cite as the reason for the request? Ask questions that reveal what your customer really wants. You may already have work planned on your roadmap that will solve their pain.

Talk to your team

Ask your product peers or a team leader what they think — without leading them to the answer you want to hear. Maybe your instinct to reject the request was right. Or maybe your team can help uncover something you had not yet considered. Reaching out for a fresh perspective when you need it is one of the best ways to grow.

Include your customers

Go to the source. If the way forward is not clear, gather more feedback. It is important to know whether the initial feature request will benefit the majority of your customers. Of course, you should also be sharing your product roadmap with customers. Proactive updates let customers know that you are listening to them and that their input truly drives product decisions.

Improve how you capture ideas

If wonky requests are coming through from sales leaders that simply do not make sense for your product, take a moment to reflect. Are you making it easy to submit feedback by providing a consistent format for ideas? Are you reviewing every submission quickly so that the sales team can anticipate reply times to customers? Map out your own idea management process and make it known.

Uphold your vision

Salespeople care about this very moment. They want to close the deal and move on. But you must have longer-range plans for your product. Leading with strategy enables you to have tough conversations about why (or why not) a request aligns with your goals.

Your ability to instill confidence with cross-functional teammates reinforces your product leadership.

This takes work and understanding. You want to achieve lasting greatness for your product, your company, and yourself. Do not lose sight of that. With an open mind, you can start to look at even the most urgent missives from the sales team as an opportunity to understand your customers better.

How do you respond to sales when they demand features?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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