Over 22 years in Product Management, the Dude has heard some memorable and powerful phrases, and even uttered one or two himself.

In no particular order:

I’m sorry, it’s my fault

Something goes wrong. Perhaps a developer goofed, and a big bug was released. Or a release goes retrograde. Or what we thought was a corner case actually has a huge fucking demographic that we completely didn’t understand.

It may be the product manager’s responsibility, or not. Regardless, like an executive, you are supposed to own it.

Not blame some junior developer.

Not blame a poorly worded user story

Not blame operations

Not blame sales.

etc.

Own it, take the lumps, learn from it (hint: unless you did something so against the code of conduct, you probably won’t lose your job, but you may wish they would fire you).

Sales is coin operated

They are pay-to-play. If they don’t get comped for it, they won’t do it.

Early in the Dude’s career, he worked for a small company that was privately held, and he got to travel and meet customers with the owner. One thing the owner told him that really stuck was that sales people compare themselves by how tall they stand on their wallets.

Truer words have never been spoken. Once you understand their motivation, you can work a lot better with them.

Shut up and listen

At the genesis of his foray into product management, the Dude took a training class offered by SEMI for product managers (SEMI is the Semiconductor Equipment Manufacturers Industry, an organization to support their member missions).

Not much remains from this primitive course from the 1990’s but one nugget.

An older gentleman, a survivor of the rise of semiconductor manufacturers had this advice about visiting with customers.

Take a blank note pad, and carefully write at the top of the blank page:

Shut up and listen

Wise words, mainly because at the time, the Dude would get on airplanes roughly 6 times a quarter, fly half way around the world, to spend 60 or 90 minutes with a customer to understand what they are doing, and learn what their needs were. The Dude wasn’t there to talk bits/bytes/bauds with them, but to get their feedback.

Along with the common phrase “God gave you two ears, and one mouth, he wanted you to listen twice as much as you talk”.

It is truly astounding how an uncomfortable silence will draw a customer to talk and really get into what they are thinking. It works better than the 5 why’s.

When the Dude does formal voice of the customer visits, and takes an engineer, the engineer is floored at what they hear. They become HUGE believers in the product manager, and the value/power of the Voice of the Customer exercise.

Sales can sell two +/- one product

The context here is important. I heard this from a conversation over lunch with the CEO of our company (large enterprise software company selling solutions for document handling and processing). Big products. Complex products. Products with a lot of specific features, and capabilities that map to different solutions (i.e. public sector, regulated industries (think finance and healthcare).) Difficult sales scenarios, with a lot of up front POC, demonstration, and technical wrangling.

But in the Dude’s experience, this is more generally applicable for most technical B2B products.

The knowledge for a sales person to completely understand the intricacies and the ins-n-outs of a product means that like a PhD candidate, they specialize, and this requires focus.

It is that focus that limits the number of products that a sales person can effectively hawk and pitch. Think deep in your past, and ask these questions:

  1. Can the sales person truly understand the customer’s requirements, and configure a product to solve those requirements?
  2. Can they effectively explain the benefits and reasons why we are better than the other solution(s)?
  3. Are they self sufficient?

In general, the Dude has found that this is no. Sure, there are sales people who work for companies like VWR, and have a 3 inch (75mm) thick catalog, and are happy to sell out of it. But that isn’t the type of sales I am talking about. In those cases, the name of the game is lead generation, and the customers come to you. It is, in the crude words of a former sales colleague, like shooting fish in a barrel. They come to you, all you have to do is answer the phone.

But a real sales cycle, with a lot of pre-sales work, is a very different animal. And in that case, the adage stands true. A sales person can sell two plus or minus one product.

Where sales people have more than that in their bag of tricks, they have to heavily rely on either technical sales engineers, or product management to be that muscle to work the deal. A large amount of travel in the Dude’s early career was to support sales. See, the Dude’s products have never been the front runner, the main product that sales can sell on their own, so he logged a huge number of air miles to fill the gaps.

Yet the Sales person got the commission.

Sales people rate themselves on how tall they are standing on their wallets

Somewhat tied to the “sales is coin operated” this is a bit more specific. The owner of a smallish company the Dude cut his teeth on used this. When sales people get together, they stack rank themselves by how much money they make.

In a way, you want to incentivize sales, to motivate them to close more deals. They are the ones who drive revenue, and thus your top line.

You attract them by offering a modest base, and a WHOLE LOT of upside via commission. Accelerators to kick up their earnings. Perks like Presidents’ Club, Rolex's and other accolades are nice, but they really prefer foldable cash, in their pockets.

This same owner also instilled in the Dude another axiom. If you want to piss off your sales team, to drive out your top performers, to be left with the bottom feeders, then you fuck with their compensation plan.

The NE territory of the US was a golden territory when the Dude was in Scientific Instrumentation. It was magical, it would hit quota usually by the mid point of the year, and the sales person would then spend the rest of the year piling on, racking up YUUUUUUGE overages, and tripping all the accelerators.

Inevitably, management would view this as bad, and then start fucking with the quota, raising it, and then tweaking the accelerators until the person in the territory would leave.

They would move a lower performing person into the role, and not ratchet down the forecast/quota, and they would struggle. Ultimately, they would adjust the quotas down, and then the replacement would begin making plan.

And then the magic that is this territory would repeat, ad nauseam.

Alas, this is often worse if you have have an indirect sales channel, relying on partners and VARs.

In short, as product manager, it is your duty to try to prevent this vicious cycle.

Happy, Happy, Happy

A sage boss the Dude had more than a decade ago had a simple philosophy. He wanted happy customers. To have happy customers, he needed happy sales . And this led to happy employees.

Simple philosophy, but not so simple in practice. But it was solid. As a product manager, you can affect two of these three pillars.

Happy Customers - build products that solve their real problems, with as little friction, and hassle as possible. Don’t veer from your core competency. Embrace your position, and own it. Don’t make excuses. Just do better.

Happy Employees - by being a valued, trusted partner in the organization, a go-to gal, someone that sets an example by being accessible, helpful, and fun to be around, you contribute to the happy quotient in the organization.

Product Management wants Sales to be happy, but it isn’t a criteria that the Dude has ever given a damn about. Happy or not, they make the big bucks, so let the senior leadership worry. Usually the cause of their satisfaction is tied to quota, and accelerators, things that product management has no influence over.

Summary

There will be more, as the Dude remembers his past world. You might want to check out my post on Product Management Dog Whistles for things that should make your hair stand up.