All Posts by nils

Mental Models Applied: Using A 2×2 Chart For Handling Competitive Objections

In some earlier articles and in a talk I gave at a local product management meetup, I’ve shared about the importance of having a toolkit of mental models. They help with decision making, problem solving, communication, plus every other thing we do as product managers.

A good mental model can help you see things in a different way. Click To Tweet

As an exercise for myself, I decided to take a mental model that’s usually used for decision making – a 2×2 matrix – and apply it to marketing. I found it gives an interesting perspective.

Using a 2×2 Matrix for Handling Objections About The Competition

One thing we have to do in the go-to-market portion of our jobs is come up with good ways to talk about our product versus our competitors. A 2×2 matrix turns out to be useful for this. To use it, you have to be clear on your differentiators – what your product does better than your competitors.

Think of two capabilities of your product, each of which is differentiating against some of your competitors. Make those two capabilities the axes of a 2×2 matrix. Your product should be in the upper right quadrant – the magic quadrant. Then lay out your competitors on the 2×2 matrix, and see where they fall, based on how well they support – or do not support – those capabilities.

Because you chose differentiating capabilities, your competitors will all fall in one of the other quadrants.

Come up with spiffy names for the axes, and for the quadrants. For example, the lower left quadrant might be “The Laggards.” Or you might use a term that’s more specific to your customers’ needs such as “Can’t Plan; Can’t Execute.”

Example – Resource Management and Portfolio Management

At my last company we made project management software. Our two most differentiating capabilities were project portfolio management and resource management. We were better than our competitors on one or the other or both of these areas. Putting those in a 2×2 matrix, we get something like this:

Portfolio Management
Resource ManagementFullArbitrary projects, right peopleRight projects, right people
NoneArbitrary projects, people chaosRight projects, people chaos

I used “Right projects, right people” for the name of the magic quadrant. And then the obvious flipped names for the other quadrants.

Or you might choose to be a little more business-like and customer-oriented, such as:

  • Project certainty; resource certainty
  • Project uncertainty; resource certainty
  • Project certainty; resource uncertainty
  • Project uncertainty; resource uncertainty

Clever names

Naming the quadrants is an art – I’m sure there are better names than I’ve come up with in a few minutes. (Leave me your suggestions for quadrant names in the comments and I’ll update the post if I get some good ones!)

Finally, of course, I’d lay out my competitors on this chart according to the strength of their resource management and portfolio management capabilities.

Using This Chart for Handling Objections and Questions

The great thing about this 2×2 chart is that you can read the competitive objection handling right off it.

I’d suggest setting up the competition conversation with a few questions to the prospect:

  • “How important is it for you to make sure you’re working on the right projects, and then track your progress across all the projects?” (That’s what we call “agile portfolio management.”)
  • “How do you make sure the right resources are working on the right projects, that you and everyone in the organization is on the same page about how the resources are assigned, and that your resource assignments match your resource capacity?”

If the prospect is worried about working on the wrong things, and is facing the chaos of manually managing resource allocations, their ears are going to prick up at those questions.

Then you can simply show them the chart, and point out where your competitors are lacking in one or the other of these important capabilities. If you can get the prospect to tell you which competitors are in the deal, you can focus on them.

Three things you can do today

  1. List out all the differentiating capabilities in your product. (Or maybe you’ve already made this list!) Choose two and create a 2×2 chart with those capabilities on the X and Y axes, as described above. (Try to come up with good names for the quadrants if you can!)
  2. Plot your product and your competitors on the 2×2 chart according to how well they deliver those capabilities. If you chose well then your product is the only one that shows up in the upper right quadrant.
  3. Help the sales and marketing teams understand how to use this chart for objection handling.
  4. Consider doing the exercise again with a different pair of differentiating capabilities.

More reading on 2x2s

Here are a few additional articles on 2x2s, although most are using the 2×2 for making decisions, rather than driving marketing:

The Secret Truth About Your Methodology and Processes

What are your goals?

A product organization has three overarching goals:

  • Deliver great value to our customers.
  • Do it quickly, efficiently, and with high quality.
  • Do it better over time.

A product organization that achieves those goals is much more likely to be successful.

Your methodology, your process, is a means to an end. It's not the end in itself. If it's not helping you deliver on your goals, then you need to change it. #prodmgmt Click To Tweet

Your methodology must be in service to your goals

What practices are likely to help us achieve those goals? Well, an agile approach to development is often good for this. What do I mean by “agile?” I mean:

  1. Focusing the team on the most important thing they can work on right now, and
  2. Making sure that thing gets finished (“Done Done”) before starting on the next thing.

(How do we decide on the most important thing, by the way? I’ve discussed that before, in “How To Prioritize” and other articles. I’m going to take this as given for this post.)

As a side effect of those two practices, you end up only predicting a short time into the future. This is good because prediction is impossible. But more importantly, the future changes on its way to us and we have to be able to respond to those changes.

And the final thing we need to do, which too often we forget about or just “let it happen,” is:

  1. Continue learning constantly.

Is your methodology helping you achieve your goals?

Our methodologies, our templates, our practices are all just means to an end. So, let’s come to an agreement on what our end goals are – like I did above – and only then talk about the best ways to achieve those goals.

What if you already have a process or a methodology? Well, you have to do the same thing. What are your real goals? Are your processes helping you achieve those goals, or are they hindering you on achieving those goals? If they’re not helping, you need to change them.

Your methodologies and processes are not sacred. If you treat them as sacred, but you’re not achieving your goals, you’re not going to be successful.

(I acknowledge that the opposite practice – changing your process every quarter – is not necessarily the right solution to this problem.)

Three things you can do today

  1. Be sure you articulate your goals as a product organization. (It’s likely they’ll be similar to what I listed above.)
  2. Assess your methodology and process, as it’s practiced. Is it helping you achieve those goals? Or is it hindering you?
  3. If your methodology or process is hindering you, what’s one change you can make immediately to align it better to your goals?

Is your methodology helping you achieve your product team goals?

Let me know in the comments how you really feel about your methodology – as it’s practiced in real life. I’m always amazed at the stories I hear!

If you like this post, please Like it, tweet it, share it! If you don’t like it, leave a comment and tell me why.


Storytelling For Product Managers – The TL;DR Version

In my last article, I covered a powerful storytelling technique in great detail. This article is the summary (the TL;DR) version.

Do you hem and haw when asked talk about one of your accomplishments? Do you stick to a “just the facts, ma’am” approach when telling a story? Are your stories falling flat and failing to have the effect you hoped?

The Most Basic – and Effective – Story Structure

If you are struggling with any of these challenges, and want to learn to tell great stories, I have a quick and easy technique for you. It’s not going to win you a Nobel Prize in Literature, but you should find it useful if you’re struggling.

I used to struggle with my stories, too. Telling stories about myself – such as the ones you use in a job interview – were especially difficult. I was more comfortable telling stories about my customers, but I was never sure I was hitting the mark.

Here’s Something You Already Knew, But Didn’t Know How To Use

We know already that stories need a beginning, middle, and end. This is the most obvious thing in the world. But if you’re like I was, you don’t quite know what goes in each section.

Here’s what you do.

The beginning of the story is The Problem.Start your story with the challenge that someone - you, your customer, your market - was or is facing.“I didn't know how to tell a story. All my stories fell flat, and I didn't know how to make my stories engage my audience.”
The middle of the story is The Solution.This is what you did to solve the problem, or what your customer did with your product to achieve their goals.“I learned and started practicing a new way of telling stories that had specific formats for the beginning, middle, and end.”
The end of the story is The Results.The results are the benefits that arose from solving the problem. It should include the achievements and accolades that you received, or that your customer accomplished using your product.“Now when I tell stories people hang on my every word, and I have achieved the reputation of a raconteur and excellent storyteller.”

Two additional tips

  1. Business results – “sales went up,” “we got more customers,” “I turned around the revenue line” – are important, but typically not emotionally engaging. But they are useful to give the story gravitas.
  2. Make sure your story has emotionally engaging components both in the problem – “I was about to lose my job,” “it made me feel like an idiot” – and in the solution – “I got the reputation as an expert,” “my customer got a promotion.”


This structure is called PSR – for “Problem-Solution-Results.” If you start using this structure for telling your stories about yourself, your customers, and your market, your reputation will soar.

To learn more about PSR, check my previous post.

What Are Your Storytelling Secrets?

I’d love to hear how you tell your stories. And if you have questions or thoughts, please drop a comment below!


3 Simple Steps To Make Your Customer Stories 10x Better

How To Accelerate Sales With Great Storytelling

In my articles about go to market, I always mention the importance of “customer stories.” These stories are a critical component of the knowledge that product management can provide to sales and marketing and sales engineers to help ensure sales success.

But, if you’re like me, maybe you aren’t so comfortable with “storytelling.” It was a big challenge for me once. To help you get a better at it, I’d like to share some useful storytelling tools I learned recently.

We’ll cover a basic storytelling structure in this article. In the next article, we’ll talk about how you can use these stories in various situations, including the go to market scenarios as well as others.

Telling Stories Isn’t Necessarily Natural

I’ve never felt that that I was a good storyteller. My family didn’t tell stories. (Unlike my wife’s family, for whom everything – even a trip to the supermarket – turns into a story.)

But I’ve always known that stories were important as a way to engage with people. And to some degree, I found that stories about my product were easier for me to tell.

But I learned some techniques recently that have really helped me tell better stories. I always thought storytelling was complicated, but this approach makes it much simpler.

It’s an easy structure for telling a story. You slot in the information you know and end up with a pretty good story. It’s nice to have a tool like that!

A Basic Structure for Storytelling

As you know, stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s a truism, but it’s not that helpful to know that on its own.

What I learned recently was what to put in the beginning, what to put in the middle, and what to put in the end, to make a decent, engaging story.

This structure works well for stories around products. It also works well for the stories you might tell in a job interview, or on your resume.

The way it roughly works is this:

  • The beginning of the story is the problem.
  • The middle of the story is the solution, how you solved the problem.
  • The end of the story is the results of that solution.

That makes everything seem a little easier, right? “There was this problem. I did these things to solve it. And we had this result.”

That turns out to be a good way to tell a basic story. It’s not the only way to tell a story but if you don’t otherwise have another approach, it’ll serve you well.

A Good Structure Helps You Tell A Good Story

How does it work in practice? I’ll go through each section, and using an example show how to make a good story.

I’m going to start with the problem section, then the results section. Problems and results are often the hardest for us technologists, because a good story has a lot of emotional depth in the beginning and end. I’ll give you some guidance on how to generate those emotions in your story.

Then I’ll cover the solution section. Unlike the other two sections, we technologists often go overboard here – it’s the area we’re most comfortable. In fact, we love the solution section, and our biggest challenge is not overdoing it! We like giving a lot (too much) data about what we did, and how it worked, and how cool it was. We’re not as good at setting the problem up in a compelling way, and we’re not as good at talking about the results in a compelling way.

Your Problem Should Be Really Bad

Think about a problem you might be having in your organization. A typical one is “we are having trouble selling, we can’t get a repeatable sales model, and we don’t have any sales growth.” That’s a problem many companies have. In itself it’s not a very compelling beginning. “Sales not growing” is a business problem. For most people, a business problem is not emotionally engaging in itself.

How do we make it more compelling? How do we give this problem an emotional hook?

Well, imagine you are the sales manager in this situation. For you, there’s definitely some emotional heft to “sales is not growing.” You’re probably going to lose your job if you don’t turn things around. You’re certainly not going to be promoted. You’re not going go to Club, your team isn’t going to make quota. And so on.

In fact, if you’re in a “sales is not growing” situation, there are a lot of bad potential outcomes if it continues. The worst is, “We will go out of business if we don’t grow sales.” Another is “We’re losing market share to competitors,” particularly if they are growing and we are shrinking.

Trying Again

Let’s restart the story, making use of these more compelling potential outcomes.

“Our sales were tanking! We were losing market share to our competitors, and my job was on the line.”

It’s a little bit longer. But it has a lot more bite.

What are the lessons?

  • The new version starts “in the action” or “in media res,” in the middle of things. It helps the story start with excitement. You can also think about this as a “vertical takeoff.” “Our sales were tanking” is a more colorful way to say “sales were not growing.”
  • We now explicitly say we were losing market share to competitors. That’s a business problem, but because of human nature, competition is an emotional challenge as well. It’s emotionally engaging to say “we’re losing to the competitors.”
  • I added a third emotionally grabby statement – “I was about to lose my job if I can’t fix this!” Everybody clenches a little bit when someone talks about losing their job, or not getting a promotion and the company going under.

I took the basic problem statement, which was just a fact, and I made it into an engaging, compelling kickoff for my story.

The key here is to think about the outcomes if this bad situation continues to exist. How will it suck for you, for the customer, for the company? And then make that part of the problem section of the story.

This works for all kinds of stories, not just losing sales. You can find dire outcomes, you can create vertical takeoffs, and you can talk about the bad personal outcomes if the situation is not fixed.

Let’s move on.

The Results Solve All The Problems, And More

Now to make the story sound good, you need to be sure to tie the results back to the problem. Our sales were tanking, we were losing market share, I implied I might be fired any day, and I implied that the company might go under.

So, in your result statement, you want something like this:

“As a result, we’ve have consistently growing sales every quarter, and all the sales people are making quota. Not only that, we’ve taken market share from our competitors, and because it was such a successful program, the Sales organization invited me to come to Club with them – and I got a promotion.”

That is an outstanding result. It’s emotionally engaging. It ties back to all the parts of the problem statement, plus a little more. Going to Club was a bonus and a very emotionally engaging act of recognition for having done a good job.

The point of that example is that you want to make sure that your results tie back to your original problem.

Of course, the corollary is that you should only put challenges in the problem that are solved in the results.

Don’t Go Overboard In The Solution

This is the part we love as technologists. We love to go into great detail about all the things we did, and how great they were, and how cool our product features are, and how smart we are.

So, there are two main points about the solution part of the story.

First, you don’t have to go into great detail in the solution. It’s often better to give just a sketch of what you did, rather than the full Monty. Most people find the details of the solution somewhat boring. You want to avoid boring people. A good way to think about this is that you are leaving room for questions. After you share the problem, solution, and results you might get a question like “Oh, the middle part – tell me more about how you did that. I’d like to understand that better.” This is great because it keeps the conversation going.

The Hidden Problem

The second point is that sometimes, when you are solving the problem, you find out that the real problem is something different and more important. This makes a great story line! (It’s used all the time in big Hollywood blockbusters.)

Not only do you solve the original problem, but you solve additional problems as well. These are problems that wouldn’t have been uncovered if you hadn’t found them.

For example, I often tell a story about helping a sales engineering team with their demo. They asked me to help them with their agile demo because I am an agile expert. As I worked with them, I realized the problem wasn’t their agile demo, it was how they were demoing. They were doing a feature-function demo, and never directly addressing the prospect’s problems to show how our product solved them. Instead of giving them a new agile demo, I trained them on how to give a solution-oriented demo. As a result sales immediately jumped.

The goal of the solution section – the middle of the story – is to show that what you know, or what your product does, addresses the problem. And if you find a deeper underlying problem during the solution portion, it also shows how smart you are.

Problem-Solution-Result Is a Great Structure for Storytelling

This structure has an obvious name – Problem-Solution-Result. You can abbreviate it PSR.

In the next article I will drill down further on the PSR format. There are several different ways you can use this structure. I’ll show you how to use it for your go-to-market storytelling activities. In particular.

Three Things You Can Do Today

In the meantime, here are three steps to work on your storytelling skills:

  1. Start with your favorite story – it might be about a customer success with your product, or it might be one of your own successes. Isolate the problem, solution, and result. Write them down, then tell the story out loud. You might consider sharing it with a friend or colleague, especially if they’ve read this article.
  2. Work on making the problem statement more dire and more emotionally engaging. One of the best ways to make the problem more engaging, and to find a vertical takeoff, is to think about what would have happened eventually if you hadn’t solved the problem. Also, make sure the results section “pays off” all the challenges you raise in the problem statement. Polish your solution section – make sure it’s not too long or detailed, and leave the listener wanting more. If you discovered an underlying problem in the process, make sure to incorporate that.
  3. Finally, tell your story out loud again and compare the before and after. I think you’ll see an amazing difference!


I learned this PSR technique at a great networking program in Silicon Valley called ProMatch. It’s a job search and skills program for professionals who are between jobs and who need to brush up on their job finding skills. The PSR technique is one of their fundamental building blocks for developing resumes and interview skills.

The Secrets of Highly Successful Sales People: Objection Handling

How to use better stories to overcome sales objections

During the sales process, the prospect may – and usually does – mention obstacles to getting the deal done. Reasons they might not want to do the deal. They might say “It’s too expensive,” or “your competitor has feature X that you don’t have, and we really need feature X.”

This is a normal part of the sales process. These are called “objections” and the process for getting through them is objection handling.

Objection handling is an important skill for sales people. But if that skill is augmented with great product knowledge (provided by product managers) sales take off.

Prospects may have all kinds of objections, and not all have to do with the product. A prospect might be concerned that your company might go out of business, or that there won’t be enough skilled consultants to handle their implementation needs, just to give two examples. But in this article, I focus on handling objections related to the product.

Why do prospects have objections?

To a large degree it’s not because they are mean or terrible people. There are two reasons. First, objections are used as a negotiating tactic. The prospect might want a better deal, or more services, or just to keep the sales person off balance. And having a few good objections gives the prospect leverage in the negotiation.

But the other reason, and the focus of this article, is that the prospect is working to reduce the risk of making the wrong decision.

The cost of making a wrong decision, especially when buying a business application or service, is very high. There’s the monetary cost – usually substantial for an enterprise application or system. And the change management cost of moving an organization to a new system – your system – is likely to be very high as well. If the new system – your system – doesn’t work, and doesn’t deliver the business value expected, there’s no good outcome for the prospect. At best the prospect has egg on their face. More likely, they don’t get promoted, or they even get fired. And since the business results aren’t there, the business suffers.

So, prospects do everything they can to reduce those risks.

  • They diversify their search. They look at lots of different ways of achieving the solution, including your product and the products of your competitors.
  • Sometimes they try to implement a solution themselves.
  • They might postpone the decision. After all, a known bad (the current situation) is sometimes better than an unknown bad (a new application that doesn’t work).
  • They do ROI calculations and other modeling to make sure the problem is worth solving, and that the solution is cost-effective (assuming it works).
  • They will try to get the solution for less money – this is the negotiating part – which reduces their financial risk.

But the risk mitigation we’re concerned about in this article is their product-related buying objections, and how to get the prospect past them.

The All-Important Initial Condition

There is an ethical consideration at the outset in the objection handling process. It applies to the whole selling process. And that is that you must have a good faith belief that your solution will actually benefit the prospect.

Don’t be the person who makes any promise necessary to get the business, when your solution isn’t actually a good fit for the prospect. And don’t enable your sales people to do that either!

That said, let’s get down to brass tacks.

Reducing the perception of risk

From a rational standpoint, we have one main goal when responding to a prospect’s objections – to reduce their perception of risk.

Better product knowledge, and being able to show how customers are using the product to solve their real world problems, goes a long way toward addressing these objections. If you can talk about a customer who has faced a similar problem as the prospect’s, and solved it with your solution that gives you a strong, persuasive story for reducing perceived risk.

Likewise, showing the prospect a demo of your product that shows how it addresses their specific needs is great for reducing perceived risk.

Prepping to handle objections

You can predict many product-related objections in advance. These types of objections come up in almost any sales situation. They include:

  • Competitive gaps.
  • Missing features.
  • Questions like “How does your product handle situation X?”

You can sometimes preempt objections like these upfront. Asking good questions during discovery (see the previous article) and doing a good prospect-focused demo will help reduce objections. But they’re always likely to come up.

How do you prepare the sales team for these kinds of objections? The best way is to give the sales people true stories they can tell about how other customers have been successful. For each of the expected objections, you prepare various stories based on the experiences your customers have with your product and on your various design and implementation decisions. And of course, if you have amazing features that are differentiating, you want to have stories about them as well.

Stories for objection handling

There are three key story types to develop:

  • Stories that show why a particular objection turns out to be not that important to real customers. (“You wanted feature X, but our customers who also wanted feature X have found they don’t miss it.”)
  • Stories that explain why you made a particular design decision, such as choosing not to implement a feature that a competitor has. (“Our competitors have Feature Y, but we decided that instead of putting a lot of effort into Y – which has limited use – we would focus on the much more important area of Z.”)
  • Stories that explain why a particular feature that you do have is so much more important than what the competitor offers. (“I know you’re considering one of our competitors, but make sure you ask them about how their customers handle ABC with their product. We have several customers who switched from them to us because of our support for ABC.”)

Three things you can do today

  1. Make a list of the features that you have in common with competitors – the table stakes. Generally, you won’t spend too much time talking about these or demonstrating them – everyone has them. However, if you have a table stakes feature that you do much better than competitors, develop stories about that one – about how customers are benefiting, or that industry analysts are very impressed with your implementation, and so on.
  2. Make a list of the things you do that competitors don’t (or that most competitors don’t). Develop stories about how customers chose you because of one of these features or are using this feature to enable something valuable. Perhaps they switched from a competitor because of this feature.
  3. Make a list of the features and capabilities that competitors have that you don’t. Develop reasons and stories of why you chose not to provide those or why customers don’t really get value from them. Stories about why customers choose you despite you not having those features are particularly compelling.

This brief article has just touched the surface of objection handling. I hope it’s given you some ideas and techniques for getting started helping your sales team achieve and crush their quotas!

Do you provide objection handling tools for your sales people? I’d love to hear about what you’ve done in the comments.


The Secrets of Highly Successful Products: The Sales Discovery Call

When the sales team has the right product knowledge, they will be much more successful. Which means they sell a lot more of your product.

This starts from the first call with the prospect. If a sales person asks the wrong questions during that first call…

… then even a good prospect can turn into total loss.

But, ask the right questions …

… and the chances of closing them go way up!

When the sales team has the right product knowledge they can sell a lot more of your product. Click To Tweet

Product Knowledge Drives Successful Discovery Calls

For a good sales person, the goal of the first call, often called the “discovery call,” is understanding the prospect’s pain, in detail. The more they understand about the prospect the more likely they are to close the deal.

In this article I show you how to take what you know about the problems your product solves and turn it into tools that enable sales to blow out their numbers. (This is the fourth installment in my ongoing series about better go-to-market and the leverage that product managers have on sales success. Read the previous articles here: Sales Team Missing Quota? It’s Not Their Fault, What Successful Companies Do To Get Better Leads, and A Better Approach To Demoing Can Turn Sales Around.)

What Does The Prospect Want?

Starting in the discovery call and continuing through the rest of the sales process, the prospect wants to hear certain things:

  • Validation that we understand their problem.
  • An offer of a solution to their problem.
  • Some level of risk reduction that our solution actually works and can be implemented effectively.
  • To minimize the cost of change for them, to the extent possible.
  • To understand why our solution is better than other alternative solutions (including doing nothing).

Those are the prospect’s goals. How do we help them achieve those goals?

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the best way to reassure the prospect that we understand their problem is to ask good questions. We need to surface the specific challenges and concerns the prospect faces:

  • What is the problem they are trying to solve? And what are the specifics of their situation?
  • How have they tried to solve this problem in the past? What were the results?
  • What systems do they have to connect to?
  • How did they find out about us, and why are they looking at us for a solution? (This helps us understand the position we have in their brain.)
  • The competitors are they looking at.
  • If they have budget?

Then the sales person can talk about how we address those challenges, and schedule a demo to show how we address them.


Perhaps your product is a project management tool that’s particularly strong in resource management. The sales person might ask “How do you manage resources on your projects? Do the project managers have the authority to assign resources?”

Why use this question? Since we have product strengths in that area, we know in advance that a prospect with that problem will get a lot of value from our solution.

That means it’s not just a discovery question, it’s also a qualifying question. If the prospect does not have resource management problems, then maybe they aren’t a good fit for our product.

On the other hand, if the prospect is a good fit, then we’ve shown that we understand one important part of her problem.

Developing Good Discovery Questions

How do you come up with this list of good questions for sales people to ask?

As the product manager, you understand the types of problems your solution solves. You can use this knowledge to give sales good questions to get at those details. For example, if the sales person just knows that you have a project management solution, then they are only going to be able to ask about projects at a generic level. (For example, “How many projects do you have?”)

But with better sales enablement from product management, the sales person can know how to ask about “resource management in the context of projects.”

Using The Power Of Existing Customers

There’s one more piece of power information that you can provide for the sales people to use during a discovery call. This is examples of customers who have solved similar problems with your solution.

Let’s put this all together in a sample conversation.

Continuing the Project Management Example

We’ll take a look at the portion of the call related to resource management:

Sales person: “How are you managing the assignment of resources to projects? Do project managers have the authority to do that, or does that need to go through the resource’s managers?”

Prospect: “Oh, that’s definitely one of our big challenges right now. We have a weekly meeting with all the project managers and all the resource managers to get agreement on who is assigned to what project. We keep the data in a spreadsheet. The fact is the spreadsheet doesn’t always get updated, and sometimes there are multiple copies, so there’s lots of ‘I thought Jim was assigned to my project, it says so right here, but he thinks he’s working on something else!’ and that kind of thing. And of course those meetings just take a lot of time, which contributes to everyone’s frustration.”

Sales person: “You know, we hear that a lot. Our customers have found that our resource management capabilities have really helped them out in this area. Would you like my team to show you how we address resource management in a demo next week?”

Prospect: “Yes, that would be great. I’d love to get out from under these stupid meeting and have all that happening in a system of record. It would make my life much better!”

The sales person has established a lot in this interchange:

  • We understand her problem
  • We have customers who have solved that problem with our solution.
  • We can show how we solve this resource management challenge during a demo.
  • And the sales person has done a presumptive close on the next step of the sales process – the demo.

All in all, a lot of power in one little bit of discussion. And this can be done for several different key challenges during the discovery call. (For example, you might provide some questions to explore if the prospect has challenges presenting project status information to the executives.)

Three things you can do today

How do you make use of these ideas?

  1. Develop a list of criteria that make a prospect a good candidate for your solution: the types of problems they have, the scale of the problem, and so on. This list will be quite different for different types of products. For example, in project management one criterion might be: “They have a challenge with managing resource allocations to all the projects in the portfolio.”
  2. Turn the list of criteria into open-ended questions that are appropriate for a non-technical sales person to ask. For example, “How do you allocate resources to projects? Is that done by project managers or by resource managers?” Ideally, provide several followup questions as well. “Tell me about the meetings you have for resource allocations. How many people attend? How often? How are the decisions captured? What other resource management solutions have you tried?” Provide commentary responses about how existing customers have addressed these challenges with our solution. (Call this set of questions and responses a “scriptlet.”)
  3. Work regularly with the sales team to help them learn and use these questions in their discovery and qualification calls. Simply having three or four of these discovery question scriptlets will help them become significantly more effective. Work regularly with the sales engineering team (the people who demo) to make sure they can demonstrate how your solution solves these challenges.

Next Steps

Asking better discovery questions can make a big difference in sales effectiveness. But there’s one more step that will accelerate things even more. Using this information to present a killer demo that’s totally focused on the prospect’s problems can make a giant difference to your sales success. That’s the topic of the next post in this series on how product managers can help the sales organization beat quota on their products.


For more on the structure of good discovery calls, I highly recommend Dan Smith’s article on The Anatomy Of A Perfect Sales Call.

1 Improving lead quality - sales enablement

What Successful Companies Do To Get Better Leads

(This is the second post in my series about using product knowledge to create better sales enablement and jumpstart a repeatable sales process. Read the first post, on the overall topic.)

“I Need Better Leads!”

Does your salesforce complain “We don’t get enough leads from Marketing, and the leads we get aren’t any good?”

I’ve heard this a lot from sales teams.

But what does this complaint really mean? It simply means the leads they are getting don’t need or want your solution. They don’t have the problem your product solves, or they don’t have it badly enough to spend money to solve it.

If this is happening – and often it is – your company will have a hard time making the number of sales you need to be successful.

Marketing Uses Product Knowledge To Know Who To Target

The job of Marketing is to find people to buy your product. Marketing creates programs create awareness, interest, desire, and get prospects to take action. When prospects come in via this pipeline of marketing programs, they are handed over to Sales, who then continue the sales process.

So why isn’t Marketing finding the right people in their lead generation activities?

The fact is that Marketing doesn’t decide who to target. The fact is that Marketing doesn't decide who to target with their programs - defining the ideal customer and segment is #prodmgmt's responsibility! Click To Tweet

The definition of the ideal customer – the demographics, the characteristics, the industries – comes from Product Management.

  • Product Management does the research to determine that there is a problem that can be solved.
  • Product Management validates that there are enough people in the market who need your solution and who will buy it.

For Marketing to be effective, Product Management needs to communicate all this “market segment” data to Marketing. Sharing this knowledge with Marketing is a fundamental step in a successful sales enablement program.

You’d be surprised – or maybe not – how often Product Management does not communicate this information to Marketing effectively. And so Marketing does its best to find who they think might be good prospects. But without the knowledge that Product Management has, they are inevitably going to be off, often far enough off that the leads are not good.


Imagine your product is a project management tool. It has a lot of familiar project management features, and that’s what Marketing knows. So, they market your product to project managers of all types. That makes sense, right? They aren’t marketing to non-project managers.

But it turns out that not all project managers need a tool like yours. In fact many of them only need a much simpler and cheaper tool. Do you want that lower-priced segment in your lead pipeline? No, you do not. But if Marketing only knows “project management” that’s what you’re likely to get.

Improve sales performance by getting better leads

There are a lot of ways to improve your sales performance, but Step One is improving your lead quality.

And Step One of improving your lead quality is making sure that Marketing knows who to look for. And that’s up to Product Management.

Three Things You Can Do Today

Here are three things you can do to help Marketing find and collect the ideal prospects for your sales team.

(Note: There’s actually a step 0. Product Management must know the characteristics of your best prospects so that you can communicate them to Marketing.)

  1. Assess if you – Product Management – are giving Marketing the market segment information they need. This can include:
    • Their demographics (i.e., mid-sized company, number of projects, types of projects, how many project managers.
    • The specific types of problems they they face (heterogeneous projects that all require separate treatment, lots of conflicting information in their existing project management approaches, importance of having a cross-company or cross-enterprise dashboard or reporting, and so on).
    • How the other alternative solutions might be failing them.
  2. Review your company’s marketing message around your product. Is it crafted so that the people who have the specific problems you solve are moved to action? Is it crafted so that undesirable prospects are less likely to take action? Is it targeted toward the right segments (e.g., mid-sized companies with x projects and y project managers)?
  3. Step into a relationship with Marketing where you share this information continually. The expertise of Marketing is to find and attract leads who fit a desired profile or persona. It’s Product Management’s responsibility to define that profile.

Next Time

The next post in this series covers another critical component of sales enablement:

  • Make sure Sales knows how to qualify their leads effectively, discover the details of the prospect’s problem, and communicate those findings to the sales engineers.

Sales Team Missing Quota? It’s Not Their Fault

Successful customers, quality product, but bad sales

When I started as the Director of Product Management at my last company, they had a lot of successful and enthusiastic customers, a product that worked – although a bit long in the tooth – and a good lead pipeline.

But they had one big problem. The sales team was missing quota, every quarter!

The sales engineers brought me in to help them articulate the product story better, especially for the demo. When I drilled down, I realized the one big thing that was holding sales back. The sales process and demo were about us and our product, not about the prospect and their pains.

Sales is about your prospect, not about you and your product Click To Tweet

I realized that until I got there, the only product knowledge they were getting from the product team was lists of features and functions. Well, that clearly wasn’t working well, was it? Over the next quarter I helped sales fix their process by giving them better product knowledge.

In this post, I give you the components of a product knowledge package that will help your sales team make quota.

If you give sales the right information, everyone can make quota!

There’s nothing more frustrating to a sales person than knowing the prospect will benefit from the product, but having to pitch from the wrong information, or having to make the pitch up themselves. If all they have is a list of features, they are not going to be successful. And that means the company is not going to be successful.

If your product team doesn’t provide the right information to sales, your sales people can’t make quota Click To Tweet

We know that features and functions are there to solve problems. Those problems are what prospects care about.

The minimum viable product knowledge for making quota

The following four items are the minimum product knowledge the sales team requires:

  • The value proposition – who the product is for, the problem it solves, how it solves the problem (its features and functions), and why it’s superior to alternatives, both competitors and “business as usual.”
  • The market segments to attack – that is, the people who have the problems our product solves, along with specific qualifying questions to ensure we’re talking to the right people.
  • Product-specific objection handling guides.
  • Competitive information – key differentiators, hit sheets, pricing.

These are the foundation pieces of sales enablement. With a good value proposition and good qualifying questions, sales engineers can create a demo that converts. Marketing can create programs that pull the right prospects. And sales can position competitors out of the deal.


By improving the product knowledge shared from the product team, our sales and marketing results took off. The sales people now use their initial discovery calls to uncover the prospect’s key problems, using the improved qualifying questions. I coached the sales engineers to refocus their product demos to show how we tackle those problems specifically.

And these changes had an impact! After we implemented this new approach, sales started beating their quota. In fact, business was so good that the company was acquired by a competitor, who felt us nipping at their heels.

Three things you can do today

To sell your product successfully, the sales team must have more than a list of features. Here’s what you can do today to make your product more successful.

  1. Observe how the sales team sells your product – are they focused on the customer’s problems and how your product solves them? Or are they focused on the product’s features and functions?
  2. Make sure you provide the four key pieces of product knowledge: value proposition (including the problem you solve and why your solution is better than alternatives); segmentation and qualifying questions; objection handling guidance; and competitor information.
  3. Sign up for The Secret Product Manager Handbook mailing list to be sure to get the rest of the articles in this series on product knowledge and go to market. When you sign up with that link you’ll get a great free resource on how to get customers and prospects talking with open-ended questions.

“Compact, Immediately Useful, and Enough Depth” – The First Review

It’s exciting to see the first review of The Secret Product Manager Handbook! Geoff Anderson says:

“While it isn’t strictly targeted at newbies, or folks who are interested in joining the ranks of Product Management, it is both a great introduction, and a guide that even very experienced members of the Product Management community can find value in, even if it is just to re-focus them on the basics.”

I encourage to you visit Product Bistro, read the review, and check out some of Geoff’s other articles on product management and product marketing! You can also follow him on Twitter at @prodbistro.


Announcing The Secret Product Manager Handbook

I’m excited to announce The Secret Product Manager Handbook is available!

When I started in product management, there were no classes, books, or online resources for product managers. I always wanted the “secret handbook” – so I wrote it. The Secret Product Manager Handbook is all the things I wish someone had told me.

I wrote a book for people like me (and you?)

I provide a simple yet powerful framework for thinking about product management. The process of finding and validating market problems, creating solutions to those problems, and taking the solutions to market. (Readers of this blog have seen this before, of course.)

To make it even shorter, “We find market problems, create solutions to the problems, and take the solutions to market.”

This captures the meaning of, for example, “we’re the intersection of business, technology, and user experience.” But it’s simple and clear enough that your parents can understand it.

Market problems are the underlying organizing principle

The core idea of the book is the focus on “market problems.” If you’re oriented to the market problem, a lot of other things take care of themselves. Or at least they are easier, or you get better results.

In fact, I saw a Pragmatic Marketing poll the other day. Most product managers say “discovering and validating market problems is our most important job as product managers.” At the same time, they complain “we don’t spend enough time discovering and validating market problems.”  We understand we should be doing it more, but we aren’t.

Contents and structure

A mockup of a physical version of The Secret Product Mananager Handbook, with a spiffy cover design.

The Secret Product Manager Handbook

The book is organized around this framework. The first section introduces the framework. And other useful information about product management as a discipline and practice.

The next three sections each focus on one component of the framework.

  • Finding and validating market problems.
  • Creating solutions to the problems.
  • Taking the solutions to market.

Throughout I provide concrete steps you can take to put the ideas into practice. (If you’ve heard my podcast or read my blog you might recognize those “three things you can do today to put these ideas into practice.” I got that from the great Brian Tracy, a fantastic business and self-improvement guru. I’ve listened to his audio programs for decades.)

I provide checklists and scorecards for assessing how you’re doing. It’s valuable to know there are obstacles to success, so in each section I list out key obstacles. And I give you ways to get around those obstacles.

To learn more

To learn more about The Secret Product Manager Handbook, check out the book trailer (inserted above, as well). Download a sample chapter. Or simply go ahead and order your own copy.

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