What Product Managers Should Do When the Sales Team Is Hostile
November 5, 2018

What Product Managers Should Do When the Sales Team Is Hostile

by Brian de Haaff

You rely heavily on other teams for product success. That is the story of being a product manager. So naturally, it makes your job a lot tougher when other teams are not supportive. Criticizing the roadmap. Trash-talking product decisions behind your back. Pushing different messages and functionality when meeting with customers. And it often seems to come from one group more than others — the sales team.

Deep conflict between product and sales always damages the product, customers, and the business.

Our team at Aha! speaks with hundreds of product managers every week. And while friction can come from many groups, it seems like most of the clashes happen with salespeople. And if you look at it from their perspective, it is easy to understand why.

Your sales colleagues have deep customer relationships that inform their impression of what the product should do. When they perceive a mismatch between what they are hearing from customers and prospects (especially “important” ones) and what you are planning to deliver, naturally there is little reason for them to energize around your plan. And by energize, I mean try to dissuade you and others to build something else.

You might learn of this opposition in different ways. Some folks might tell you outright, while others subvert your efforts and start communicating directly with the engineering team. Or it might be more subtle and furtive — passive-aggressive comments and back-channeling with other teams like support to build their case.

No matter what the internal strife may be, you still need to prioritize what is aligned with your product goals and what you believe customers need most.

The key to this is to stay engaged with both customers and the sales team. You need to be able to explain to the groups why you make the roadmap decisions that you do. Of course, the conversation with sales is often the tougher of the two — but there are ways to make it more productive. Here is how:

Visualize your “why”
This is your opportunity to reinforce what you and the product team are working towards and, more important, why you are working on it. Consider how the plan contributes to a larger vision. Create a product roadmap that visualizes your “why” to sales. Show how the planned work directly serves the broader company goals, outside of just sales.

Understand their “why”
You have to know what motivates the sales team and what their challenges are — their “why.” There are likely specific clients and prospects they are trying to win over. There is valuable insight here. Look to understand the feedback they are hearing from customers and how that feedback is impacting them. If possible, point to areas of your plan that address those points using language that is familiar to them.

Know the customer’s “pain”
Just as sales has customer insights, so should you. Make sure you are regularly talking to existing and prospective customers. You need to deeply understand the problems they are facing in order to find the patterns — the pain points you keep hearing again and again. Then when you sit down with sales, you can represent those customer challenges, share what you know to be true, and demonstrate how what you are roadmapping will serve customers well.

Explain the “no”
If you want to build trust with sales, you need to show that you can be objective — especially when you are saying “no.” So, when you do reject the “must-haves” they request, explain your reasoning. If you are not already scoring your features, start. This will help you impartially compare feature A with feature B. When they see that you are continuously doing what is best for the customer, you will gain trust.

When you are constantly on the defensive, it is impossible to build trust across teams.

You need to show your strength and calm. Prove that you can communicate clearly, stay objective, and prioritize the customer. This also takes consistency. Schedule regular check-ins to uncover any potential concerns and to keep building and strengthening that relationship.

How have you earned trust and support from your sales colleagues?

Brian de Haaff

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

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