The Case for Sales During Product Development

Babar Batla


on October 9, 2017

The Case for Sales During Product Development

In the early days of your product development you are not only trying to understand how customers will use your product but you need to understand how to sell your product. Your company believes that they have a product that customers want but no one has sold one copy/item yet. For early stage startups this can be a deadly experience as perhaps the founders spent months writing software without any real customer feedback. (yes, we are aware of Lean and Agile, etc….it is often preached but not practiced.)

Working in a vacuum for months at a time can create groupthink where the founders and the early employees start drinking their own kool-aid and believing that their unproven, untested product is going to change the world. We’ve all heard too many stories and read blog posts about companies that spent significant time developing a product without feedback only to find out that there is no real market for their “world saving widget.”

What often happens, though, is that after the product is released – it is the sales team who ends up taking the brunt of the failure and the VP Sales gets fired for not hitting the unrealistic targets.

This, unproven product experience can be equally deadly for a mature company launching a new product to a new customer base. It is not uncommon for an established company to release a new product to an unproven market – only to fall flat on its face. Just like the startup, the established company will often blame the sales team for the product’s failure.

In both cases of the startup and the established company, once the product is released, the sales team is ramped up, people are hired, marketing budgets are spent, PR is hired, employees go to events and make thousands of phone calls – only to repeatedly hit a wall.

In such scenarios, most of the time the root of the problem is what the startup world has coined as a “Product / Market Fit Problem.”

If the company is releasing a product that does not properly “fit the target market” – then the product is likely to fail, even with the best sales team in the world and an unlimited budget. The business world is littered with companies that never achieved Product Market Fit and wasted millions of dollars trying to force a square peg into a round hole. In most cases, if the company doesn’t pivot and move fast enough, the company often dies. At the very least, the product, sales and marketing teams of the division will all be fired.

Thus the emergence of the Lean Startup where the founders test the product and gain as much market validation before a dollar is spent on developing the product, much less selling the product.

While the Product Market Fit problem is often the fault of the Founders and the Product team – they should not be carrying all of the burden.

The problem of Product Market Fit lies with the entire company and should be looked at as a “Whole Product” problem.

What I mean by this is that in order to make a product “fit” into a market, one has to look at the Whole Product and understand how it meets the several needs of the Target Market / Customer.

By “Whole Product” I’m referring to the following:

1. Does the Product solve a “real” problem for the customer?

Is the product a Painkiller or a Vitamin? If it is a painkiller – then the customer NEEDS TO HAVE the product in order to “stop the bleeding.” If your product is a Vitamin then it is a “nice to have” but isn’t addressing a specific painpoint. A vitamin is good for you…but you won’t die without it.

Uber is a good example of a painkiller – whereby they addressed the painful experience of hailing a dirty, smelly taxi that doesn’t take credit cards on a crowded street in the rain by providing an on-demand experience that provides a clean, luxurious car that arrives where I am without any hassle of payment. It provides immediate pain relief to the dread of hailing a cab.

But, that isn’t enough……relieving pain is at the core of the solution but it is not all of the solution.

2. How does the customer prefer to buy the product?

How your target customer prefers to buy your product is equally important as the product and, in fact, is PART of your product. Many companies leave the “how they buy” question until after they’ve developed the product, when it should be included as part of the product experience.

With Uber, they could have made the experience better by simply providing a “better taxi service.” Perhaps the cars would be cleaner and they would arrive quicker – but the frustrating experience of paying in cash or of the driver not having change or not being able to easily take a credit card wouldn’t be solved. Uber integrated the customer payment problem into the product experience. They eliminated the awkwardness that occurred during every transaction between the driver and the passenger by automatically charging the passenger’s credit card. How the customer pays for / buys the product is part of the Whole Product.

3. How do your customers get support and get questions answered?

It is nice to think that your product is so great that your customers won’t ever call you with support questions – but that just isn’t reality. But “how your customers engage with you” is also part of the Whole Product question that should be answered prior to launch.

Do your customers prefer to talk to you via phone? Do they expect someone to answer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? If you product is related to a mission critical service – than it might be a requirement.

Do they prefer in-product chat that can be accessed immediately within the product experience? Is it equally important to have immediate mobile support too?

Are they comfortable with email submissions that get answered 24 hours later?

It all depends on your target customers – and you won’t know until you talk to them and sell to them and they start using your product.

4. Where and how do your customers learn more about your product?

Do your customers like to learn about your products from a website? A telephone? A TV? A video? A classroom training session? Webinars? Books? Blogs?

Understanding where your customers spend their time to learn about the problems that your product addresses is something that needs to be learned early on in the product development cycle.

So, what does all of this have to do with Sales (since this blog tends to dwell on the topics of sales process and sales teams)?

As was mentioned before, the sales and marketing aspects of developing a product often come after the fact. What we are advocating for here at is that the Sales & Marketing aspects of product development need to be researched and proven while the product is in the development cycle. Sales & Marketing are part of the Whole Product.

We are advocating that Product Development teams incorporate Sales & Marketing into the product development cycle. Too many times the real-world learnings that a sales team could harvest are postponed until it is too late. Too often only AFTER the product has been fully developed, tested and marketed does the sales team get an opportunity to get their hands on it.

We believe that your sales team will help you uncover answers to all four of the Whole Product questions mentioned above. Your sales team, even when selling, pitching and demo’ing a half-baked product, will yield you a treasure trove of Real Customer Feedback about how customers want to buy the product, how they prefer to be supported and whether or not your product is a painkiller or a vitamin.

Now, don’t misinterpret what we are saying here – we are NOT saying that you should scale up and hire an entire sales team to try to sell your half-baked product. What we are saying is that by injecting a small, flexible sales team into your product development cycle, that it will yield you an enormous amount of real-world information that will help you tweak and develop the right product.

But, isn’t market research and user-testing enough?

No. They are not. With few exceptions, most market research and user-testing often occur in a vacuum and never involve the sales teams. And, no matter how wide and deep your research goes – until you’ve given the product to a sales professional to actually try to sell the product to a cold prospect – you will not have a complete picture of what your target customer wants.

When you involve sales as part of your product development process – you will need to create different incentives for the sales folks. They won’t likely sell very much so standard quotas and metrics won’t apply. You’ll need to incentivize and compensate them based on feedback, learnings, information loops, depth and breadth of conversations with customers, etc.

If you decide to enlist Sales into your product development cycle you will also need to hire and appoint the right kind of sales professionals. Your sales rep profile will probably change to someone who is more flexible, curious and eager to test new ideas. Your coin-operated rep isn’t likely to be a good fit – as she will get frustrated not being able to successfully sell the half-baked product.

As you think through your product development cycle – whether you are a startup or an established company – don’t forget to include the sales teams. They can provide you with real-world insights into customers that no amount of market research can yield. The real-world customer conversations, as curated by a sales professional, will be very different than the “unbiased” product or market research conversations that you’ll have. By leaving out sales, you will be missing one of the most valuable parts of a successful Whole Product solution – how (and whether) your customer’s want to buy your product at all.

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