Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Help Sales Sell

I recently attended my company’s global sales kickoff. It afforded me an opportunity to observe our products from a different perspective. From a developer’s perspective, a product is a sense of personal accomplishment and a source of pride. From a customer’s perspective, a product is a way to increase pleasure, productivity, or revenue.

What is a product from a salesperson’s perspective?

To a sales person, a product represents their livelihood. If there is no product, there is nothing to sell. If there is no sale, there is no commission. Let me be clear here – there is absolutely nothing wrong with selling to make a living. That would be as silly as asserting that “all developers want to do is get paid to write software.” My point is that being able to sell a product is more than just pride – it is what pays their bills. And, in case you haven’t figured it out – your bills, too.

Luckily, these perspectives are not mutually exclusive. I’ve written quite a bit in this blog about why customers matter. I’d like to turn my attention to our sales colleagues. I’ll start with what should be an obvious statement: sales people pay our salary. That alone ought to be enough to look at sales in a different light.

It is a running joke in software organizations that development and sales are destined to be at odds with one another. I admit that I’ve bought into this belief to various degrees through the years. I’m starting to see things differently. Being surrounded by hundred of sales people for three days provided me a new view into their world.

Sales people don’t really want to sell. They want to win. And how do they define winning? It is amazingly simple. They win when a prospective customers chooses your product instead of someone else’s. It is that black and white. So here is my question to you.

What do you do to help sales win (i.e., make it easy for prospective customers to choose your product)?

Take a moment and write down a few things that you’ve done recently to help sales close deals. And don’t give me a line like “that is why we have marketing”.

Here are a few questions to jump start you:
  • When you build a feature, do you know the business problem you are solving for your customers?
    If you don’t, why are you building the feature? If you don’t know, how can you expect a sales person to sell it? It is easy to use the excuse “product management should be telling me to build stuff that can be sold.” That is weak. I don’t accept this from my managers (or my developers, or my QA, or my designers, or my… well, you get the point). Don’t accept this from yourself or your managers, either.

    You have an obligation to understand why you build a product feature. You have a responsibility to develop it in a way that makes it easy to sell. Get close to your customers and find out what problem they really want solved. You then have a clear solution (and story) to equip your sales team with.

  • Do you spend time with sales while they are selling?
    This is an area many development leaders shy away from at best, and at worst consider to be beneath them. As long as these folks are working for my competitors, I’m thrilled. My advantage is being on site, hearing objections faced by the sales person, and listening to problems faced by our prospects.

    When I return from the visits, I share with my development team so they understand the “why” of building our software. I share my responses to prospect’s questions with the rest of the sales team to make them more effective. I seek out input from my current customers to see if they are also facing these problems. This provides me greater understanding as new features are prioritized and designed. That generally leads to very high customer satisfaction with new features.

  • Do you provide information that is helpful to sales?
    As I mentioned above, it is easy to fall into a trap that this is some other group’s responsibility. In general, it is true that product management or product marketing commercializes a product. However, you still can produce powerful sales aids. If you receive the same question from multiple sales people, write an FAQ about the topic and distribute it. If you hear objections from prospective customers in multiple deals, write a response to the objection for sales to use.

    Communicate in a manner that a sales person and prospects can understand. You might think it is great that you use Microsoft SQL Server Integration Services to extract, transform, and load data from your OLTP database to your data warehouse as a nightly job running in the background so it consumes non-peak processing resources. That means next to nothing in a sales engagement. What matters is that your product has a high-performance and flexible business intelligence solution.

    This isn’t about intelligence – it’s about language and experience. I work in the healthcare IT industry. As one of my nurses once quipped, no one ever called for a software engineer when they were dying.

  • Do you ask sales people what you can do to help them?
    I think I will let this question stand on it’s own…

Review your relationship with sales. It's worth it.