How to Sell The Problem Product

By Michael Chase. This page is available under the Creative Commons Attribution License

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Usually, you’d be looking forward to next week’s sales training event. It’s an excellent opportunity to mix it up with the sales team, share the latest product news, and enjoy the minor celebrity that comes with being captain of your product line.

Not this time, though.

The product’s got real problems. The competition has made some unexpected advances. It’s become hard to win. When you do, pricing is dreadful.

The product’s problems have put a lot of strain on the sales team. They’ve missed their bookings and pricing targets for the last two quarters. Their incomes and job security have suffered. They are coming to this sales training with just one thing on their mind.

“What is marketing going to do to fix this?”

The truth is you don’t have a magic bullet. Things could get ugly.

As a product manager, this situation is more likely than not to happen to you during your career. Surviving depends on how you handle it.

Don’t Rewind the Tape

If you find yourself in this situation, the worst thing that you can do is insist that the old messaging and value proposition are working. That’s called denial.

Put yourself in the salesperson’s shoes.   Smaller paychecks and key account losses serve as hard evidence that the existing approach doesn’t work. Telling them to keep trying the same thing and expect a different result fits the clichéd definition of insanity.

If you continue to drill the sales team on the failed positioning, you will lose all credibility. The lack of a silver bullet is not a reason to reload with blanks. You’ll make things worse.

Don’t Duck the Issues

Then there’s the elephant in the room. Those order-stopper issues that you haven’t figured out how to address. It would be easier if they didn’t come up. At least that way, you could avoid a dose of public embarrassment.

But as tempting as it may be, you can’t duck the issues. First of all, you’ll lose all credibility with the sales force. You’ll confirm their fear that you are entirely out of touch. Second, the issues won’t get fixed if you don’t address them. If the tough issues don’t get fixed, your business will crater.

You need to hit these issues head-on. Acknowledge them. Acknowledge that they are tough and that you don’t have all the answers. That way, the sales team knows that everyone in the room is on the same page. You have a basis for working together.

Make Sales Part of the Solution

The reality is that a product problem isn’t going away with a snap of your fingers. This reality is something that product management knows, and with which sales must come to terms. Near term, you’re going to have to work around it. Figuring out how to do that is going to take a joint effort.

So instead of viewing the sales training event as a place where marketing transmits solutions to the sales team, view it as the forum where you develop solutions to challenging problems together.

If you find yourself in this situation, try this:

  1. Have the sales team develop a list of the toughest issues they face selling your products.
  2. Get consensus on the top three to five of these.
  3. Breakout into teams that include both sales and marketing.
  4. Have the teams formulate a strategy for addressing each of the top issues.
  5. Review the potential solutions as group.

This approach will help melt the tension between sales and marketing and put you both into a “We’re in this together; let’s figure it out” mindset. You’re not ducking the issues, and the sales team has become part of the solution.

You can also expect new solution options to emerge. Sales will inject individual account dynamics into the discussion. This can lead to new solution possibilities that neither sales nor marketing could have come up with on their own.

To be clear, nothing in the following prose will erase your problem. The root cause is the product, and your company must fix it. But if you and the sales force can accept that it’s your job to make the best of a bad situation, read on for things you and your sales force can do while the product’s in rehab.

Find Niches

The feeling of failure that you have is because your product cannot compete in the market you originally defined for it. But what about parts of that market? Are there places where you still have an advantage? The first step in selling a problem product is to look for places where it’s not a problem. Two good places to look are:

1.       Your installed base

You can provide value to existing customers that your competitors cannot. You can upgrade the installed fleet, help them avoid switching costs or transfer processes on legacy tools to your latest model. Not only are you likely to find a source of competitive advantage in your installed base, but it is also the most important territory to protect.

2.       Use-case variations

Your target customers don’t all use our equipment in the same way. Find those that use it in a way that doesn’t expose your competitive weakness. For example if your fundamental weakness is process setup time, look for customers who dedicate the equipment to a single process. Or, if your disadvantage is power consumption, focus on customers with low power costs.

Create Local Value

When marketing types think of competitive advantage and value propositions, they tend to think of a broad market segment. But there’s another layer of value that you can provide. It’s called local value.

Local is the unique value that you can bring to an individual transaction. Identifying it requires getting very intimate with a particular customer’s situation, then using that knowledge to identify ways to bring unique value. These are the things product managers typically cannot see. These are the things that the attentive sales professional with well-honed discovery skills will find.

If you make it a deliberate effort to seek out these sources of local value, you’ll be surprised at how many opportunities you’ll uncover to create value. Things like:

  • Identify seemingly minor product attributes that are very valuable to a particular customer
  • Satisfy a  narrow delivery window
  • Enter co-development project related to your product
  • Help the customer navigate import regulations
  • Help set up their facility
  • Meet a unique equipment size constraint or configuration requirement
  • Help customer market some surplus equipment
  • Satisfy unique deal structure requirements
  • Broker a partnership with a third party

The possibilities are almost limitless. But you have to shake your standard definition of the competitive playing field. Get to know each customer. Learn about their problems. Seek ways to create local value.

Bring in the Minor and Non-Measurable

You probably identified the primary, quantifiable value drivers when you conceived the now maligned product. These are the big things that you anticipated would drive purchasing decisions. You made them central to your marketing strategy. But now they aren’t working. It’s time to take a second look at all those potential advantages you discarded as either insignificant or not measurable.

You need to expose your customers to these other potential advantages. They need to make their way to your marketing materials to serve the niche and local value strategies. This list of the minor and non-measurable creates the opportunity to have a conversation about different sources of value.

Dealing with a product that’s out of position is difficult. It can affect morale and can shake your confidence. The critical thing to remember is that there may be places out there where you can still win. Make it your mission to find them.