Product’s got Problems; Sales is on the Warpath

Product Marketing

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Normally, you’d be looking forward to next week’s sales training event. It’s a great 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?”

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

As a product manager, a situation like this is more likely than not to happen to you at some point in 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 just make things worse.

Don’t Duck the Issues

Then there’s the elephant in the room. Those tough issues that sales has on their mind. The ones 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 know that 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 completely out of touch. Second, if you don’t address them, they don’t get fixed. If the tough issues don’t get fixed, your business will continue to decline.

The best thing that you can do is hit these issues head on. Acknowledge them. Acknowledge that they are tough and that you don’t have all the answers. That way sales 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 to get fixed with a snap of your fingers.  This is something that marketing inherently knows, and sales must come to terms with. 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 tough 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 sale 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 sales has become part of the solution.

You can also expect new solution options to emerge.  Sales will bring individual account dynamics into the discussion. This combined with marketing’s product expertise will create new options that neither sales nor marketing could have come up with on their own.

Don’t expect to erase all the tough issues. Ultimately the product must be fixed.  But you will figure out how to make the best of a difficult situation.

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