Is it Sales or your Product Strategy that isn’t great?

8 May 2019 Jurgen De Smet Agile & ScrumLeadership & Management

Is it Sales or your Product Strategy that isn’t great?

You hear things like “sales is just selling anything as long as they get their bonus”, “we have to comply to everything sold and have no say in it” within many product development departments. The other way around from within sales departments comes the remark “they never deliver what has been promised”, “we can’t trust what they say they will do anyhow” and other remarks. Both are right and wrong at the same time.

I am working with product development organisations around the globe. In one of those organisations we helped to grow a more LeSS Huge organisation, practices and mindset where the true Product Owner had some doubts about sales and found it hampering her quest to maximise value. As this didn’t help making Scrum work for the organisation, I tried to help her, but kept the option open that it might not be sales but her own product strategy that needed to change.

As a true believer in Empirical Process Control (EPC) I do understand that “transparency” is the key part in it’s inspect - adapt - transparency cycle. I have experienced many behavioral changes within organisations by just providing the right level (and highest) level of transparency to the people involved. By some magic formula, once you provide the right level of transparency, things start to change for the better. If there is no change, then most likely it was not the right or highest level of transparency yet, dig deeper.

The question remained now: “How could we make the possible issue with sales or product strategy transparent to the organisation, so that the right conversations (inspect & adapt) would arise?”

Exploring the context of the Product Owner we found that sales was extensively using a very elaborated CRM tool (a very popular one, no need to advertise here) that could provide us detailed insight in what was being in the sales pipeline, what was sold, lead times for a sale and so on. Together with the Product Owner we went digging into the data and found some nice, relatively easy to extract metrics. These were brought to the rest of the organisation without any judgement and in search of some valid feedback on assumptions that were made. Assumptions on the value of existing product strategy, assumptions on sales behavior, assumptions on market needs and so on.

There were 2 metrics extracted both classified by the Product Owner into 5 different categories. As there were enough deals sold each month, a monthly rhythm was good to provide the right level of transparency.

Metrics:

  • Number of sales done per month
  • Euro amount of sales done per month

Categories:

  • Deal sold based on existing product
  • Deal sold based on existing product but requires hack or work around
  • Deal sold based on near term planned features
  • Deal sold based on long term roadmap features
  • Deal sold based on one-off need or horizon plans

The classification in categories has been done by the Product Owner based on the information within the CRM system and taking into account her current Product Strategy. Below an example how the chart was built, using real data amounts over time, but restyled for this article as the customer doesn’t want us to put their name out here in the open.

The Product Owner understood that having lots of sales done on long term, one-off or horizon plans could mean 2 things:

  • The product strategy that she has created wasn’t as great as she thought it was and sales is forced to sell things out of range for now
  • Sales is more focused on its personal sales bonus than actual company benefit and behaves as such.

Previous attempts to get into a constructive conversation with her sales department didn’t really work out and there was little engagement from the sales department to collaborate on this issue. To my belief, because the right level of transparency has not been given to the organisation. When the Product Owner added the chart to her monthly updates on the product she got a request form the sales director to come and explain how she got to the classification in the chart, as he might not agree. Finally, a conversation that might help the situation! I guess we were giving the right level of transparency.

The sales director had no remarks to the way the Product Owner was classifying the sales done based on the data in their CRM tool and got truly interested in the data produced. After some exploration on existing product strategy, the sales director couldn’t point or help out identifying if the issue was a flaw in the product strategy or a flaw in sales people behavior. He took ownership to bring the chart to their weekly sales meetup every time it was published by the Product Owner, and collected feedback from the sales people directly. Another get-together of the Product Owner and sales director was scheduled 3 months later in order to be able to collect enough feedback and data to continue the conversation.

When entering the second session with the sales director and Product Owner the sales director immediately said “thank you” to the Product Owner. By showing the graph to the sales people and asking for feedback his salespeople started looking a bit more to the product strategy that was available. Even though he was demanding this already for a long time, he discovered that not many truly investigated the current strategy at hand. As a result there was a lack of awareness and true understanding of the product strategy within his crew which surprised him. He mentioned that he, himself, had spent hours, not to say days, to clarify product strategy to his people, and at the same time acquired some nice insights himself. This renewed insight in product strategy and existing features got him, and all other salespeople, excited in a different way. He promised that with what he had seen and heard things would change and asked the Product Owner to keep doing the work of classification and sending over the chart in order to follow up whether his assumption on change was correct.

And guess what: after 6 months of transparency the situation improved drastically and the sales done on existing product became the biggest bunch. A huge win for the company!

This time it was the understanding by sales of product at hand and its future strategy that was the underlying reason of frustrations but it could have been a weak product vision and/or strategy as well. I think that this kind of transparency and related conversations are a great way to validate your product strategy and I would recommend to all Product Owners out there to try this out for themselves and see what happens. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

PS: if you are a product owner but you can’t get to sales done for ‘your’ product, you might work with a too narrow product definition. Check out “whole product focus” principle in LeSS for more or join one of my LeSS Courses.