The day I wore out my favorite shoes

My favorite pair of shoes are these beautiful brown brogues from Johnston & Murphy. Not only are they super comfortable, but they have lasted for years. This is the story of how, after years of use, I wore them out in a single day.

But first, a diversion.

I have been thinking a lot about what makes product teams in large enterprise settings successful and where they struggle. I believe that, without a doubt, what these product teams lack the most is a connection to the end user. To make up for that lack of contact, product managers commission market research, run focus groups, and launch surveys. But all of those mechanisms can end up being superficial and, ultimately, just lack the emotional energy and empathy you need to build a great product.

So what’s a product team to do about that?

One of the most important partnerships for product teams is with their company’s front-line sales force, the brave people spending their days with customers, pounding the pavement (or Zoom!) to network, meeting new prospects, and most importantly, listening and empathizing.

Yet, many product teams are intimidated by their company’s sales reps or don’t feel like they need to spend much time with them. Product managers favor their own attempts at customer research over real on-the-ground intel from sales teams. In my experience, that can be a catastrophic error that leads products astray and leaves customers dealing with the byproduct of whatever the team decided to build.

If I wanted to build the ideal customer research arm, I couldn’t do much better than our sales force. They are steeped in a deep understanding of customers, their needs, and value drivers. In their daily interactions, our sales team comes across dozens of new product ideas, feature enhancements, pain-points, and ways to expound upon the value proposition.

What do great teams do?

Great product teams learn to convert that field force into their listening mechanism. By sharing the product roadmap with the sales team, product teams amplify their own ideation capacity by having more smart people on the lookout for new ideas. Through regular touch points, the sales team gets a chance to influence the roadmap based on what customers are saying, not just what the product manager thinks should be built.

One of the better examples I have seen was where sales reps were proactively involved in co-designing and co-developing products. They were part of design sprints, led product ideation sessions, and were actively engaged in demos. For engineers, testers, and product managers, a sales rep’s feedback and opinion was worth more than its weight in gold.

What’s in it for the sales teams?

Sales teams are notoriously busy; every moment they’re not with a customer is a moment they’re not selling. So, the value from this partnership needs to go both ways.

It starts with radical transparency over the product strategy, the roadmap, and how the product team plans. The more that sales leaders start to think like product strategists, the more successful they will be with customers.

Rather than relying on vanilla marketing collateral, they will start to find their own language to describe the product value proposition and how it can help customers. They will ultimately gain the confidence they need to tout the unique selling proposition relative to competitors.

Additionally, in the arena of complex software sales, there’s usually a ‘right’ way to implement the solution. In education, the implementation model can dramatically impact the efficacy of the product. If you have a sales team that doesn’t understand the ins-and-outs of the product (or how it does what it does), the customer is left to figure things out on their own often lowering the potential impact for students. Instead, if a sales rep is intimately aware of the software they are selling and was involved with its design and development, the customer and learner directly benefit.

And finally, I have heard anecdotally that sales reps who spend their day in the field love getting out of their routine to think about the bigger picture product strategy. They love being involved knowing that their feedback will help make their customers successful.

The best teams go even further.

A few years ago, I did a ride-along with two of our sales reps. We visited about a dozen current and prospective customers around the Boston area. We walked the halls of several different university campuses popping in and out of faculty offices, meeting students, and running live demos. We walked around so much that day, that I wore out my favorite pair of shoes after clocking more than 15,000 steps in less than ten hours.

The day filled my head with new product ideas to take back to the team. I saw how educators used our product, what they loved, what they hated, and why (sometimes) they switched to our competitors.

Most importantly, it renewed my passion for my work and why it matters in the world. All these years later, on some particularly tough days (like when we are trying to choose between the lesser of two evils on a product decision!), I think back to watching those teachers and students use what we built. It guides me in the right direction and soothes the soul.

All product teams should proactively be spending time with their sales partners and getting out to meet customers and users. It makes for a better product and a far more motivated team.

Founder, KaiPod Learning. Dabble in educ investing. Passion for turning ed into outcomes. Former teacher, principal, consultant & coder.