During a downturn, sales teams should think like product managers

Tech companies are being squeezed dry as the economy trends downward, which likely means they’ll need to bring in more customers with fewer resources.

In my opinion, this “stop; breathe” moment is an opportunity for companies to finally see what was wrong with their sales process.

Getting new customers should not be a company’s only concern. Founders should also ask themselves: Are we retaining our clients a year in? Are my sales reps happy? Is my marketing team reaching the right people? Are too many leads coming my way?

These questions can all be condensed into a single question: Is my sales process working for customers, or is it working to reach lifeless metrics?

Unfortunately, as sales has evolved over the past 10 years, it has left customers and their needs behind. For example, if a sales team needs more leads, it might choose to spam a large segment of people rather than hypertarget those who will find value by being reached. That won’t fly in the current climate as clients increasingly demand that companies respect their specific needs and offer seamless buying experiences.

Getting back to that consumer means understanding data on them, experimenting with solutions and iterating. Sound familiar? That’s exactly what product teams do to refine their offerings.

Understanding the user means understanding your data and converting it into delightful solutions — that’s the crux of the PM role.

I spent years working as a product manager at Google, after which I dove headfirst into creating SaaS for businesses. I found the same skills that had served me in product development — essentially, solving problems for consumers — were exactly what I needed to be a great salesman.

B2B companies need to go back to the data (but not just any data), generate knowledge and insights on the customer, and tweak both product and strategy along the way. That process isn’t in the wheelhouse of a sales manager, nor a marketer, developer or designer.

However, that guiding principle of customer-led optimization is the bread and butter of a product manager. Here’s why a successful revenue process requires thinking like a PM.

Solve problems for the customer, not the sales reps

If your sales numbers aren’t as high as you want them to be, what’s your first response? Is it: “How can my sales reps rack up more leads?” Or is it: “What sales strategies reach the most people?” If you’re reflecting along those lines, you’re problem-solving for the sales rep, not for the customer. That’s where you’re getting it wrong.

A PM doesn’t solve problems for their software; they solve problems for the user. If the business should be doing better, they try to narrow down what’s not clicking for the customer.

How can a sales team do this? They should be looking at successful customer experiences and identify what went well in each case. Drill down on data points and metrics. For example, look at the time spent completing the buying process, how long it took them to get a demo, or how many touch points were needed before they bought the product.

It may well be that the most satisfied clients were the ones who had the least face-to-face time with your reps. You then need to adapt your behavior, check the data continuously and iterate to make customers happy more consistently.

Let’s take a moment to examine the arduous process of B2B contracting. Contracts have to be customized, passed through multiple hands, modified, checked and then they’ll still end up full of errors. Enter CPQ, a custom quoting tool that makes contracting easier and more accurate for the company. Yet, a PM would question whether the tech really solves a problem for the buyer or solely the seller.

If you look at both the buyer and the seller experience, you might visualize B2B contracts as the “checkout” process in B2C, much like in an online store. Amazon took a PM approach to its checkout by developing a “one-click” process to streamline the action for the customer.

If you bring that customer experience mentality to B2B, you’d be weighing different pros and cons: Is the solution a CPQ tool, or is it giving more power to the customer by letting them select the product and pay quickly?

Remember that focusing on the customer doesn’t mean turning your back on your sales rep. When the customer has a smoother experience, there will be a direct, positive impact on the sales rep’s job and well-being at work.

The customer always wins

People will come to your website looking for a demo, but to get it, they have to be contacted by someone to qualify them. This vetting process is an attempt to filter out people who are a supposed bad fit for the product and to improve efficiency. But ultimately, it frustrates customers who are turned away and makes things more tedious for everyone.

If you’re working in product, though, the customer always wins. If they want to talk to you, they want to talk to you. The question you should be asking is: Why are so many ill-fitted leads coming to your website in the first place? That’s how a PM would see it.

You can’t turn users off a product because you don’t think they’ll get the most out of it. You have to understand why they’re interacting with the product to begin with, and if they’re the right customers, you should accommodate it better for them. If not, take action to stop attracting them.

In the case of undesirable leads, the fault may lie with the lead quotas you’ve given marketing, incentivizing employees to achieve numbers for numbers’ sake rather than considering the type of customer they want. Thinking as a PM means no lead quotas; rather, it means focusing on the customer journey.

For example, you may choose to better educate leads on your offering so that they know what to expect if they start going down your pipeline. Whatever the best journey for your customers, the aim is to replace your wide net with a well-positioned bridge between you and the right niche.

Your problems are unique

Now that you’re thinking differently about sales, your next realization will be that your unique problems require unique solutions. This is where you get creative.

Understanding the user means understanding your data and converting it into delightful solutions — that’s the crux of the PM role. “Use your own data” might sound like an obvious suggestion, but in truth, companies are often sold one-size-fits-all strategies and tools.

That said, you should take inspiration from elsewhere, too. The approach that created the problem won’t solve it, so you need to change the framing of the situation and see what arises. For many of us, that means getting out of the Salesforce box — not everything can be fixed with a flow, validation rule or automation tool.

Your unique problem may mean taking a strategy that works for fitness apps and building it into a mechanism that works for marketing and sales (e.g., showing leads how you use their data rather than just taking it, much like a fitness app visualizes user data). Just keep in mind that everything you construct has to be built on your own data.

Whether you’re aware of it, you are a PM. Your mission is to identify a lead’s needs, fulfill them and transform ideas into real value for the customer. Adopting this perspective will help you close the gap between people and your unique solution, which will only positively reinforce your business.