Through technology and a desire for transparency, companies are finding it easier to get teams to work together. As the collective knowledge of a company moves from employee’s brains to collaboration software, an employee can effectively learn anything they want about the company and people they work with.
In addition to access of this information, growing teams are being built horizontally. Instead of building a hierarchy, modern teams are looking to recruit specialists to shore up weaknesses. It’s no longer odd for a new employee to work with the CEO just as often as their counterpart in another department.
If you have experience working at a growing startup, it’s easy to confirm this change in how modern sales, marketing, support, or executive teams work together.
Collaboration isn’t hard to solve for most teams, except product and sales
But there are still two teams that rarely work well together: product and sales.
As a technical salesperson, I’ve spent most of my career playing referee between product and sales teams. I believe it’s more of a dark art as opposed to something you easily fix or improve. I’ve experienced the challenging aspects of both jobs – so I naturally see both points of view.
Since most salespeople are not technical (yet), they don’t see the struggle of how the sausage gets made. Same goes for engineers. They only see when the deal gets closed, not the dozens of people that told the salesperson no before getting a yes.
We all need to appreciate that salespeople and product people are different creatures. Each of their crafts require a completely different set of skills in order to be successful.
For this post, let’s assume that the product and engineering team are the same group of people. I’ll refer to both as the “product team”. Let’s face it – it’s usually the case for early stage companies anyway.
First, let’s point out the reasons why this is hard on both sides:
[Sales] Sales has set working hours, product does not.
It happens all the time: The sales team is pushing hard to reach a goal, and they are in the office early to make things happen. Then they see some engineers strolling in around 11AM or Noon and leave the same time they do.
This is rarely spoken, because salespeople know this is a petty reason for causing animosity across teams. But it’s human nature. Salespeople have a set time to crush it (during business hours), while engineers and product people can work into the night and add value.
A lot of salespeople may not appreciate that the engineer was probably up late fixing a problem or working on a feature. A lot of their work doesn’t happen in the office.
[Product] The sales team sells features that don’t exist in the product and it leads to churn.
How many times have we seen this? The churn rate skyrockets because sales closed deals on features that haven’t launched or they misrepresented how the feature works. Engineers will often see this as lazy or sketchy. It’s not. These days, a great salesperson has to be able to communicate complex concepts in significantly less time. Sometimes things fall through the cracks.
[Sales] Every time I suggest a new feature, Product pushes back and makes me feel like I’m stupid.
Great engineers ask questions to fully understand why someone is requesting a feature. Just like great salespeople ask questions to fully grasp if a prospect is qualified.
The difference is that engineers may seem to be combative or pushing back to the salesperson when they suggest a feature. That isn’t their intent, but the salesperson takes it as criticism or condescending.
[Sales] + [Product] They don’t appreciate how hard the other team’s job is.
“Hey Engineer! Have you ever been hung up on or cursed out? Ever had a qualified opportunity disappear on you?”
“Hey Salesperson! Have you ever spent hours scouring through logs to figure out what’s causing something in the product to break?”
Both sides simply don’t appreciate the frustrating parts of each other’s jobs.
5 actionable ways to improve communication between your product and sales team
Here are some actionable steps we’ve implemented at past and present companies I’ve worked with:
1. Have the engineering team make calls + sit in closing calls.
Engineers need to feel the pain a salesperson may experience from time to time. Set up a team bonding day where the engineers make calls with the salespeople. The engineers call and qualify for the sales team. Give the engineers a script. The discomfort will give more context to the engineers of how hard their job can be.
2. Allow the team to submit product feature requests asynchronously.
How many times have you seen a salesperson go into the Product/Engineering Slack chat room and say “When or can we get X feature”? Then like a bunch of sharks, the engineers scrutinize the idea so much that the salesperson regrets saying something.
Set up a Feature Request Trello board or spreadsheet to allow anyone on the team to add cards or rows with product features. Instruct the team to include an example or quote from a customer requesting the feature.
People that want to request a feature can look at the existing requests and see if it’s already been requested before. People can add comments to existing requests to imply how much a certain feature is requested.
Then the Product team can set aside time to go through the requests and ask follow up questions.
3. Be aware of growing tension between the teams. Let each of them vent.
When things are good, you’ll be tricked into thinking that both teams are working smoothly. When features are delayed, sales is going poorly, or the product has downtime – the tension starts to bubble up until there’s a melting pot that blows up one day. Be aware of this, and attempt to diffuse the melting pot by communicating with each team lead by letting their teams vent out their frustrations.
4. On specific features or disagreements between teams: Hear both sides of the story and defend the side you agree with.
Both teams will be territorial and making decisions in the best interest of their own team. You can’t always be a neutral 3rd party. The sales team is sometimes right, but they may be feel alienated on a team full of technical people. If they have a point, defend them and attempt to make it a priority to remedy their frustration. The Product team needs cover from sales people bashing them internally and externally. Make it a point to communicate to sales on attempting to understand what’s so difficult about what Product is doing.
5. When each team suggests something, challenge them by asking the same question.
Steli recently shared how to achieve growth through alignment. In this context, any proactive sales and product team are going to push to do things. For sales, it could be offering a discount through a new promotion. For product, it could be spending time on fixing up some underlying backend infrastructure.
You should ask both of them the same question: How does this help us achieve our company’s #1 priority?
At our most recent company retreat, Steli opened the retreat by setting the priority for what we should be collectively thinking about during the retreat and for the next few months.
(Caption) Steli opens up our Santa Barbara team retreat with a simple question for the entire company.
He asked the team to always consider: “Will this make our current customers more successful OR bring us more successful customers? [ASAFP or “as soon as fucking possible”]
Since then, it’s common for him to chime in when a spirited debate opens up in chat or Asana:
As CEO, he’s the acting referee between sales and product always seeking alignment as a function of getting the two teams to work together successfully.
Look out for the warning signs
The interaction between sales and product isn’t always constant. Sales is busy selling, and product may be heads down working on features. Therefore, weeks could go by without you noticing any rift between salespeople and engineers.
It’s on you to poke the tiger and sniff out the warning signs, or at least work towards preventing a flare up. You should always be asking yourself these questions:
- Are the salespeople still communicating customer feedback you’ve already received?
- Is product actively asking sales for feedback on new features they are spec’ing out?
- When’s the last time I saw a salesperson and engineer have a positive interaction with one another?
This is not a situation where “no news is good news”. When either side is not talking to each other, that’s almost as bad as conflict. The less they communicate, the further they drift apart.
Always remember: In addition to resolving conflict, you’re also there to encourage healthy debate.
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