When Product Managers Fail part II - Sales

There are good places to find product management talent, and there are bad places. Sales is among the worst.

A prior post explored some of the challenges that Engineers making the transition to Product Management face, and why the transition often fails. Now I will look at an even less likely transition, Sales into Product Manager. One might think that Sales would be a natural precursor for product management, due to their proclivity to talk to customers. However, there are many hurdles that a sales person face in such a transition.

In contrast to Engineers, where I have known a few folks who were able to successfully navigate the transition, I have yet to experience a sales person even attempt the change. First, since sales is so close to customers, it is natural to assume that someone with a long sales history would make a natural transition.  Since Product Managers need to forge relationships with end customers, and since sales lives in that realm, it is understandable to think this.

However, while sales is steeped in customer interactions, their normal mode of communication is focused on closing an order.

full stop

While they listen and ask questions to put together a proposal or quotation, they really aren’t focused on what we would call market validation or Voice of the Customer.

This leads to the second shortcoming that sales has in making the transition. Their idea of high priority requirements is what caused them to lose their last order, or conversely, what they perceive a competitor offers beyond your current offering.  If you have done formal Voice of the Customer (e.g. following the methodology of Edward McQuarrie’s “Customer Visits”) and brought the sales engineer or manager, you probably have experienced their directness and natural desire to turn every customer visit into a sales call.

Next up, if you can get past the urge to turn every visit into a sales call, the next shortcoming is having a very short time horizon.  This is particularly challenging when you are putting together a roadmap or a product strategy.  When this is coupled with their natural tendency to prioritize the feature backlog based on what caused the last lost order, you can see the difficulties that a sales person would face to make the transition.

It has been said many times that one of the qualities of a strong Product Manager is humility. This is potentially the greatest challenge for a sales person to making the transition to product management. By default, sales is filled with ranks of ego driven, somewhat (or mostly) arrogant individuals, who are comfortable projecting this persona. One sales VP I worked with was so cocky, and so arrogant, that in a team building exercise, where we all raced go-karts, he pouted when he lost the final race.  So much for sportsmanship, team building, and such.

It is not all bad news though. Sales personnel are used to a structured sales process. Getting a prospect. Qualifying the lead. Working the process. Closing the order (good sales staff are phenomenal at negotiation). They are often as tenacious as a dog on a bone.

Which gets me to the last difficulty. While I can imagine an organization where sales and marketing get along, play nice, actually like each other, I have never personally experienced it. Sales blames marketing for not providing enough leads, or low quality leads, or not enough collateral to drive sales cycle progression. Conversely, marketing often heaps scorn on the sales organization, calling them prima donnas, order takers, or worse. So much for "mutual respect. Since effective product managers are required to mediate between these two “joined at the hip” groups that are often at each other’s throats, a sales person making the transition to Product Manager comes in (potentially) with a chip on their shoulder.

Fortunately, I have never known anyone in sales who was remotely interested in becoming a product manager (apart from second guessing what Product Management does). I am sure there are some success stories out there, and I would love to hear about them!

One thing that I do know is that as a Product Manager, I would make a TERRIBLE sales person or manager.

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