What Can They Sell?

Over time I think I have the opportunity to sit through innumerable Product Line Management (PLM) meetings where various product managers described and extolled the virtues of their specific products. These meetings seemed to follow a similar pattern: The product manager described the product, told everyone how much better it was than anything else they had ever produced, how much better it was than any competitor’s product, how big the market was for the product and how much the company would sell and make from the product. Then they would spend the rest of the meeting describing how the sales team was supposed to sell the product in order to take maximal advantage of all the product had to offer.

What I think I learned over time from attending these meetings was that there invariably was an inverse relationship between the volume of information provided by the product managers regarding how to sell their product, and the actual success that their product resultingly enjoyed in the market. The more they described how they wanted and expected the product to be sold, the worse the chance the product had of ever being successful.

Could this be because we had people who were experts in the product, and not experts in sales, trying to dictate to the people who were experts in sales, how they should go about doing their job?

I would say yes.

Too many times it seems that we have product and technology experts trying to explain why the product or technology in question could and should be sold in ever greater quantities.

Customers are not usually buying the technology. They are buying what the technology delivers. Back in the dim, dark past, both 8-track tapes and cassette tapes delivered portable, recorded music. It was demonstrated that cassette tapes delivered an inferior recording technology, yet they were unarguably viewed as the preferred delivery medium. They were smaller, and hence viewed as more portable than the 8-track competition. In this case it was not the technology that won the decision criteria. It was the portability.

As an aside, I shudder at the thought of an 8-track tape equivalent of the seminal Sony Walkman…..

I am sure that there were probably innumerable 8-track product managers who spent inordinate amounts of time trying to explain to sales people why their product was better than cassettes, and then tried to educate them on how to properly see the superior product.

Believe it or not, I can remember all the way back to 8-tracks and cassette tapes, but only as a childhood user. But contrary to popular opinion, I was not in the business world at that time, so I really cannot confirm what if anything the 8-track product managers did or did not do.

To be fair, sometimes this product and technology driven approach works. Stephen Jobs, who seems to be rapidly ascending in the pantheon of business icons, was one of the notable exceptions to this standard. But even he did not approach his highly technical products (Mac’s, PC’s, iPhones, iPads, iPods, etc.) from a technology advantage point of view.

He made Apple products “cool”.

He relied on designs, user interfaces, displays, etc., as his customer product differentiators. He made them sleek and appealing so that customers would want them. He made them intuitive to operate. He knew that technological advantages would be ephemeral at best, and that design and cache would create a brand loyalty that would continue.

Jobs is famously quoted as saying:

“Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/988332-some-people-say-give-the-customers-what-they-want-but)

But, as I have said, the number of product technologists that can successfully do this has been limited. Even Jobs had to look back more than a half-century to quote Ford on his visionary product success.

So, what should a product technologist do in a situation such as this?

The simple answer, and the first place to start is with the sales team. Ask them what their customers need. Ask them what they can sell. Ask them how what they currently have can be better. Ask them can they sell it.

But just as the product technologists should not be allowed to try to dictate how a product should be sold, sales people should not be allowed to try and dictate what technology or product should be supplied. Henry Ford was probably right in that if he had asked the sales team what was needed, the response would have been a faster horse. The horse was the then best technology of the time. That response would have been technology dependent.

The proper response would have been the desire for the ability to travel faster and farther, with the ability to carry more people and cargo. That was indeed the problem Ford solved.

Too many times product and technologists seem to become too enamored with their own products and technologies. They can get caught up in the idea that the issue is the sales team’s inability to sell the product is a sales issue and not something else. Because the product or technology is so good, it obviously must be related to the sales team either not understanding or not being able to properly sell it.

I have found that by and large, corporate sales teams are usually pretty good at selling. If they were not, neither they nor ultimately the company would be there for long. The competition from other sales teams would see to that. This usually means that if there is some sort of an endemic issue with the sales levels for a product, that it probably has something to do with the product.

Again, one of the best ways to determine this is to ask the sales team. They are incited to sell the product. Their employment and ultimately their livelihood depends on their ability to sell. If they cannot sell the product on their own, chances are that a product technologist will not be able to generate a sales process that will significantly improve the market performance.

It seems that too many times sales teams are viewed as a group that can and will generate orders and sales regardless of products, market conditions, or competition. Sometimes this is the case. Many times, it is obviously not. However, it seems that it is usually the sales team that is the first point of examination if a product or technology is not experiencing the type of success or market reception that the product and technology teams feel that it should.

As I earlier noted, the sales team has the same tendency as the product group, except in reverse. They will almost always try to dictate the technology to use. This input will be based on what has worked in the past. This will result in requests for “faster horses” or “more flexible buggy whips”.

It should be the product team’s responsibility to decode the sales team’s customer product requests, to separate the technology from what is in essence the application. This is what Stephen Jobs was so good at. He could see what the customer would want as being totally separate from any technological constructs or limitations. He would then go about designing and creating the new products to meet these desires.

Unfortunately, Jobs was a pretty unique individual. So, for the rest of the product and technology teams, if you want to get a good gauge on a potential products viability and success in the market, it is probably a good idea to ask the sales team what can they sell.

Sales teams in general rarely lack opinions on what the product needs to be. The key will be separating what they say they need the product to do, as in carry more people and cargo, and go faster and farther, as opposed to what they say they need the product to be, as in a faster horse.

Even Jobs noted that the focus always has to be on the people as opposed to technology, as a recipe for success. He said:

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”