05012 Focal Point: Adding to Sales Discussions

Product Managers provide a unique role in a software company, something that may include skills in Sales, Marketing, and Development, but reaches well beyond the scope of any of those three functions. It’s a role nobody else fills. Yet because of their in-depth understanding of the market and the reasons people want and need their product, and because of the paramount need to make sales succeed, Product Managers can easily find themselves pulled into more sales calls than they care to be involved in, given their other priorities.

Pragmatic Marketing conducts an annual survey of Product Managers to determine salaries and other statistics about the job. In the 2003 survey, when asked: “What should the company know about product management?” a top answer was: “Product management is not sales support.” This finding underscores the fact that Product Managers find themselves pulled into the sales support role more than they feel they should be, and it is critical to manage the time they spend on sales support to provide the maximum impact in terms of improving the quality of sales discussions.

You can find the survey and much other valuable information at Pragmatic Marketing’s website at:

  • http://www.productmarketing.com

As a Product Manager, you have probably experienced the positive impact you can have on a sales discussion with a prospect, and gotten encouraging feedback from the sales force and top management about how they want you to stay involved in sales to help make the team more successful at closing deals. You know sales are important, but you also know that sales calls could easily eat up all of your time, to the detriment of the many other critical aspects of your job.

When you serve in the role of Product Manager on a sales call (I say it this way because while your actual title might be anything from CEO to Founder to VP of Marketing or Development, you may be serving as Product Manager), your goal must be to bolster the sales force and train them, through example, to be more effective in future calls. You want to bring an important addition to the discussion, but you want the sales force to learn from your participation and be ready in future discussions to take on the role you have just played.

Read on below for insight on how Product Managers can add the most value to discussions with prospects, how they can increase the chance of a sale, and how they can help pass on their level of knowledge to the sales force.


What We Think Prospects Need: Software

When companies that make software sell to prospects, they tend to think and talk as if what prospects need is software. The talk focuses on features and functions, screens and fields, secure login screens, browsers, heavyweight, lightweight, and zero weight clients, servers, and users.

But that isn’t the way most people look at their problem.

What Prospects Really Need: Help

What prospects really need is help with their business problem. While that might sound so obvious and basic as to be meaningless, it’s essential to take such a perspective in order to approach prospects in a way that is meaningful to them because that approach is built around their point of view, not yours.

When a business problem is involved, then software and services are nothing more than tools to carry out tasks that help solve that problem. Screens and fields have little meaning. Instead, the discussion needs to center around benefits, information, and tasks that you can carry out to reach specific goals that will improve or solve the business problem.

Let me take an example from a previous product that I worked on. To us, the company that built it, it provided screens where you could build reports on customer bank accounts and combine information from all accounts in a household. You could define marketing campaigns and see the list of individuals included in a campaign, and see whether they responded. You could sort customers and households by how profitable they were.

But what the banks needed was to understand their customer base, figure out which ones were most profitable, keep those most profitable customers and get more like them. They needed to embark on a set of initiatives to reach those goals. Yes, the specific software screens helped them carry out tasks that got them there, but for them, the real challenge was well removed from those screens. It involved management decisions, organizational politics, cultural change, goals and projects.

As a Product Manager, the most effective way you can get a prospect interested in your software, and help them see its value, is to address their needs at the level of challenges, goals, and initiatives, and only then explain how the software can help achieve those goals.

Don’t Do Routine

If you’re being brought in to assist in a sales call with a sales rep and a sales support rep, let the sales team do the heavy lifting. The more they do on their own, the sooner they will learn and the better they will get at it. Learning by doing is the only way to turn a person with good demo potential into a solid demo giver.

By adding yourself to the group as Product Manager, you are there to field specialized questions, but more importantly to provide the initial business-centered focus of the discussion. Agree ahead of time with the sales rep that you will begin the presentation by talking with the prospect about their challenges, problems, sticking points, and goals.

After you have had a chance to get the discussion flowing, you can hand things over to the demo person with a brief mention of one or two capabilities and how they pertain to the goals you have talked about. Then, during the demo, if the sales or sales support rep are not asking questions, it falls to you to interject questions and find out how the material presented relates to the prospect’s problems and needs.

If you take over the demo and present the material from start to finish, when the sales and sales support reps are capable of handling portions of the presentation, you only encourage the sales force to rely on you. You also miss an opportunity for the sales and sales support rep to learn by doing.

One Step Ahead, a Cut Above

In your role as Product Manager, think of it as your job to develop the level of skill and sophistication of the message presented by the sales force. Your purpose in participating in discussions is for sales and sales support reps to learn the material necessary to be able to hold their own discussions, discussions that the prospect will find interesting and which will have them asking to hear more about the product.

As you develop the abilities of the sales force to deliver the message at the right level to their prospects, you will take them through increasingly sophisticated levels of understanding the product as described below.

Features and Functions

This is the simplest level of understanding and easiest to learn. It consists of what the product does, at the level of screens, buttons, and simple processes. When you present features and functions, your prospect may or may not be able to make the connection with how that feature or function applies to their situation, or benefits them.

For example: “The Import button lets you bring in lists of your employees.”


Benefits take the features and express them in terms of how they improve your prospect’s situation, or how they solve their problem. They are the features and functions described from the perspective of the prospect, based on what is important to them and the problems they are dealing with.

For example: “You can import lists of employees automatically to quickly get all employee information in a single system. After that, it’s quick and easy to get information on employees instead of having to search for it in several places.”


You can use stories to catch the attention of your prospect by presenting cases of companies and individuals who have dealt with the same problems they have. They can hear about how others have benefited, and even learn some useful tips that have nothing to do with the software.

As the sales and sales support reps hear your stories, they can pick them up and include them in their repertoire, and catch the attention of their prospects.

For example: “We had a customer that had their employee information in five separate databases that corresponded to the original company plus four separate companies that had been acquired over time. The Payroll department, which was centralized, spend the better part of half a day each payroll period merging the names from the five databases in order to process payroll. When the company bought our software, the five separate sets of employee information were quickly merged in a single database and updated centrally. After that, it was a simple half-hour export to get a list of all the employees and send it off to run payroll. How does this work at your company currently?”

Challenges, Goals, and Solutions

This is the most sophisticated level at which you present your product. In fact, your product is almost an implied, rather than obvious, part of the discussion. By talking about the problems and goals of your prospect, you are talking about something of great interest to them, namely their day-to-day problems. And when in the course of your discussions you identify a key problem and an important goal, you can relate how your prospect can use the product to reach that goal sooner or better, or to reach it at all.

Examples are hard to give here, because they are two-way conversations that take unpredictable paths, based on your prospect’s situation. But your sales reps can learn from you what questions to ask, and learn from your reactions to the answers how to continue the conversation.

Having a Conversation to Solve Problems

You read advice to sales pros that selling to someone is first and foremost a conversation. And a conversation is exactly what you should be aiming for when you talk with your prospect. Don’t try to make a stand-up presentation where you methodically cover all the capabilities or benefits of your product. Instead, aim for this to be question and answer, back and forth.

A busy prospect doesn’t want to have to sit silently through a presentation where they have to work to understand how your product can benefit them. But they will participate eagerly if you begin by asking questions about the challenges they are facing.

For example: What do you know about the profitability of your customers and households today? How do you measure profitability? Do you have any programs to retain customers? Have you been able to measure how effective those programs are?

When you ask questions that touch on matters of importance to your prospect, you will get their whole-hearted cooperation and attention. Once you have determined, through conversation, what some key challenges are, you can explain how your product can help solve some of them. When the conversation goes really well, your prospect starts asking questions that lead right to specific benefits of your software.

You can measure how successful a sales call is by keeping track in the back of your mind of how many questions you have asked, and how many times your prospects have spoken. The higher the number of both, the closer you are to the most successful kind of sales pitch: a conversation.

Putting It All In Perspective

One of the best things you can bring to a discussion of your prospect’s issues is the perspective that comes from talking with many individuals in similar situations. Often, your prospects are struggling with their problem in isolation, not knowing whether their difficulties are common or exceptional. Phrases like “that’s a common problem I hear from people” provides some comfort and confidence. It also helps build the idea that you have experience with the issues and can provide useful help in resolving them.

What you have to say to prospects will be infinitely fascinating to them if you can provide stories of others in similar circumstances, explaining how they used your product to improve their situation. Also, your prospects are looking for information on how they measure up and compare to others. The more benchmarking and best practices you can talk about, the more engaged they will be.

A Whole Different Set of Benefits

Product Managers, marketers, and developers tend to focus on the specific benefits of their software as used in isolation. But what is probably top of mind with your prospects is a whole different set of benefits that rise above specific capabilities.

For example, a typical prospect won’t be worrying about using all the features. Instead, they’ll be wondering whether they have the time to use them. They want to know: “Do you have professional services that we could use to get some of this done?” “I wonder if I have to do everything all at once, or if I can do it a little at a time?” Some of the most important benefits of your software may be your consulting services and the fact the capabilities can be implemented one at a time and in a flexible order, to fit differing priorities at different companies.

While you’re focusing on the benefits of your main module, the prospect is thinking: “I hope them maintain and install this, because we just don’t have enough IT people.” It could very be that the fact that your product is hosted is the biggest benefit of all over your competition.

Sum It All Up For the Sales Rep

When the sales rep is still learning the ropes and what is driving your prospects, and struggling to relate the issues their prospects bring up to the capabilities in the software, sum it all up for them after each presentation. Explain what it will take, in your understanding, to make the sale. List the issues raised and the corresponding capabilities and benefits that will help with those issues.

A Teachable Moment

Better still, get the sales rep, or sales support, to sum up what’s needed, to see how much they have understood. Then add your contribution. By asking their input first, make it clear that they are expected to play the main role, and help build their confidence.

As Product Manager, you do not want to get continually roped into the role of sales support. By using each sales call as an opportunity to teach, you get the sales force up to speed faster, freeing you for more strategic work, like making your product pull further ahead of your competitors.

Handing Over the Expert Hat

Your success at having an engaging discussion with prospects has its own risks. Have you ever been on a sales call where the sales rep started talking first, got rescued by the sales support person, and then rescued by the Product Manager, who really managed to get the discussion going? And by the end of the meeting, the prospect was looking up to the Product Manager as the guru who understood them and their business? They were talking happily with them and looking forward to the next discussion. Everyone else was almost shut out.

It’s only natural for the discussion to be dominated by the person who talks best to the prospect’s real concerns. But your sales effort is a team one, and you want to encourage the rest of the team and build their ability and credibility with the prospect. It’s worth making a conscious effort to hand the expert hat off to the most expert member of the sales team, whether that’s the sales rep or the sales support rep or the sales manager. Try to wrap up your discussion with the prospect with a transition to someone on the team, making it clear that you consider them completely capable of handling the matter. Maybe ask their opinion about something you know they will answer well.

Try to step out of the guru role, then prep the sales team before their next call on what you would try to talk about and the points you would make.

The Ultimate Goal: Next Steps

Finally, and this is especially important if you are dominating the conversation, remember that the goal of any sales call is to get to the next step. After taking the time to have a discussion, and ideally with plenty of input from your prospect, make sure that you establish what the next steps are, so that the sales rep knows exactly what to accomplish to keep moving toward the sale.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


Comments are closed.