Here’s a statement that covers an often overlooked reality - as a product manager, you are in sales. Now, you might be wondering - you’re not putting together sales plans, you are not knocking door-to-door to sell a product, you’re not even part of your marketing department. How is that you’re in sales? In this article, stop focusing on the idea of sales being an exchange of goods for money, and instead, focus on the following definition:
sell /sel/ - Persuade someone of the merits of.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? If you chose the product manager career track, a large chunk of your time will be spent persuading others on the merits of your proposals, ideas and changes. That is in addition to the more typical needs around growing your product, which requires a different set of sales skills and approaches. This blog post talks about the topic in much broader terms - the need for sales skills as applicable to more immediate processes, spanning products, teams and users. The approaches will vary, but the core idea is the same - just because you think you have the information to back a vision doesn’t mean that everyone else has the same thoughts on it. You will encounter this first-hand in non-startup environments, where you have to operate at scale rather than within a very small cohort of people. The more people you need to get onboard with what you’re trying to do, the more you need to put the emphasis on soft sales skills.
A product manager sells many things, some less tangible than others. Let’s start with the understanding of customer problems - you will more often than not need to very clearly communicate them to your team within the frame of your product work. This might be an unorthodox way of putting it, but it’s your core responsibility to align the broader team around solving a problem that reflects the true set of customer problems. Articulating why your product or feature needs to exist to more than one individual is often hard when the other party has a different set of priorities without having the same knowledge that you might. At early ideation stages, where you need to clearly identify the opportunity and potential direction for the solution (see: Customer Development Model for how that can be done) your team needs to have a shared understanding of what they’re after and why their work is impactful. That’s where you come in, with all the data and analysis details in hand. At the surface it’s easy to think that very concrete numbers and feedback speak for themselves, however that doesn’t work as smoothly as one might imagine. It’s up to the product manager to present the crystallized vision in a way that convinces others about the value they are about to deliver. Think of it this way - the goal is to make it easy for your engineering manager to say “Yes, this makes sense - let’s put our resources into building the functionality/product/change.” Doing that can only be done by truly understanding your audience and presenting the proposal in a way that resonates with both personal motivations and understanding of the broader product mission.
Another scenario where you need to sell is when in the midst of building a product, you have identified a number of flawed assumptions or have new data, that shows that there is a better way to address a problem. Or maybe you’ve identified a brand-new market that requires re-thinking how you’re approaching your solution. You would need to clearly communicate why a pivot needs to be done, and how it will impact existing workflows. Resistance is to be expected, but you would still need to figure out how to deliver the message to the team in a way that ensures that there is, once again, a shared understanding as to what the direction should be, and how that impacts all the parties involved today and in the future. It’s hard to minimize the inertia of an engineering project when a radical turn is necessary, but that’s where great PMs know how to clearly articulate the necessary course corrections in a way that is non-confrontational and sill serves towards improving the performance of the product and the company. Selling others on the pivot is a pretty challenging task.
Last but not least, selling is key to reaching internal agreement across teams. When you identify a novel approach to a problem that is going to yield significant benefits to more than one product line, you’ll need to work with many different partner teams to see how you can have them integrate your proposal in their workflows and follow a shared process. You will, once again, be in the position to convince them that they need to adopt your approach. This is hard in case where teams already have well-established guardrails and processes, and you need to research the underlying architecture, motivations behind it and what it would take to amend those. This is nothing else but selling your proposal of changes to others.
Which leads me to the conclusion of this post - selling is key in being able to drive a vision, feature ideas, organizational processes, team interaction approaches or any changes. As you focus on such baseline product aspects such as customer acquisition, retention, feedback loops and building a solid value proposition, none of this matters if you cannot clearly communicate to a range of audiences why what you’re doing is important and valuable. Invest in building your selling skills. There is no single book or course that can teach you that. For the most part, you will need to gain the experience and adjust your tactics based on the environment and specific needs of parties involved. It’s not a skill that will overshadow your product and technical acumen - it will complement it.