Hey product manager, let me remind you of that time when you had the perfect roadmap for the market. You had it all sorted out (finally!) with engineering and were clear about what you’d build. Your teams had already worked on a few sprints and you felt that this time, you’d be able to get the product right.

But then, your sales person turned up and said ‘I’ve just promised feature x to the client. We have to build it.’

You gnashed your teeth and got into an indignant fight.

The sales person just made your carefully crafted product roadmap look pointless.

How could he do this? You had just sent out your roadmap last month and said this is what he was getting. Why does sales always do this? Why can’t they just sell what you have, instead of pushing for what you don’t?

You take it up with your management, and maybe even the CEO, but finally are told that this client is just too critical, and you will have to build what the salesperson wants.

You grimace and feel all your passion drained out. Ok, you think, I’ll do it, but under protest. It’s my job to get it done, but it’s no fun anymore. Maybe you should just look for another job where they trust product managers over sales….

Let’s break out of the reverie. This is something that happens in a lot of organizations.

Most product managers have an ambivalent equation with sales. They need the sales team to bring in revenues, but hate having to accommodate what the sales persons ask (and always at the last minute at that!).

Is there a way out? Can you safeguard your product roadmap from mutilation?

To be honest, it depends on how your organization is structured and power equations within. But there are things you can do as a product manager to prepare for something like this.

Learn how sales works

A large number of engineers turned product managers look down upon sales as a necessary evil. They’re far more comfortable in the deterministic universe of building a product. Sales seem to be a profession for smooth talkers who care only about their numbers and not about the intrinsic product itself.

Unfortunately, this worldview makes life difficult for all involved, but is like a self-inflicted wound for product managers. You can complain about sales around water coolers all you want, but it’ll help more if you learn to appreciate how sales works.

In most of my product management workshops, I ask product managers and aspiring product managers if they have worked with sales earlier. Many say that they’ve just accompanied a salesperson on a customer visit. Often, they would be briefed by the salesperson just before the meeting, and requested to not comment on anything beyond the demo. ‘Leave the relationship part to me,’ the salesperson would say. If during the meeting, they strayed from the brief, the salesperson would try gesturing frantically to not say something that puts the deal in jeopardy. They usually walk out thinking that they should just send a junior the next time for the demo.

In my experience, I’ve seen that good product managers have a great understanding of the sales process and see themselves as team players in getting customers to choose your product/solution.

But I also find that most product managers have only a vague idea of how sales works. Sales is also a process, and most good sales folks have a keen understanding of how to get started in the market, generate leads, convert leads into conversations and go through the consideration-preference-sale process. Sales, especially enterprise sales, is a lot more strategy & structured approach than just numbers.  

My recommendation to product managers who haven’t been through a sales cycle is to get a buddy in sales, and understand how they work. Not only does it make it easier to talk to them when it comes to client asks, it often gives surprising insights about how your product is used and/or what competitors are building.

Have different versions of your roadmap

Many folks are surprised to hear that you should have different versions of your roadmap. The sales team often uses the roadmap to sooth client concerns on whether your product/firm sees a long term view for something they need to invest in.

If you have the same roadmap that your development team uses, you risk the sales team aggressively committing to features to win the deal. Often, clients are speaking to multiple potential vendors, and there is risk of competitors learning about your product roadmap. There is also a risk that if the client signs off on a deal based on your roadmap, you have very little slack if things go awry (don’t they always?).

It often helps to have a ‘light’ version of the roadmap for the sales team to discuss with the clients. You could share the development roadmap in confidence with sales, but insist that only the light version be seen by clients. That way, the sales person also knows that he can reach out to check if he needs to share something from the development roadmap with clients on a case-by-case basis.

Negotiate

Most product managers know the art of negotiation with engineering teams to get them to agree on what to build. But good product managers also know how to negotiate with sales teams.

What does this involve?

Often, it means having the right amount of flexibility in your roadmap. Don’t look at yourself as a ‘mini-CEO’ who has to call all the shots for the product. At the other end, have your viewpoint that’s not based on what engineering can build or what sales tells you they can sell (this is why it’s important to know your customers well).

I’ve been lucky to work with sales folks who respect a well-articulated viewpoint on why a particular client ask will take the product down a path that will make it difficult to adapt for other changes later.

These conversations take the path of ‘how do we make this deal work?’ What usually follows is a negotiation on what we can tell the client, even if we can’t fulfill all his/her asks. This helps build a joint pitch on what we think is best for your business.

This doesn’t always work, but the process of negotiation with the sales teams often help build respect for your capability and reasoning as well.

Another factor that I’ve found helpful is to have a strong list of priorities for your product, and areas where you can be flexible. That helps in the give-and-take of the negotiation.

In conclusion, understand the world of sales. It’ll help make allies of them, not opponents. And that will give you better insights, and also better control, over your product roadmap.