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 for our project management solution. The product worked well – although it was a bit long in the tooth – and we had a good lead pipeline.

But they had one big problem. The sales team was missing quota, every quarter! That’s not a recipe for long-term success.

The sales engineers thought the problem was our story around agile. And especially their ability to demo agile. Many of our successful customers were using our product in an agile environment, but the product itself didn’t have many agile features.

And prospects always wanted to know how we “did agile.”

Given that I had a background with agile tools, they asked me to come in and help them out with their “agile demo.”

But when I drilled down, I found a different problem. 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 Share on X

That was all they knew

I recognized the root cause. Until I got there, the only product knowledge they were getting from the product team was lists of features and functions.

And that clearly wasn’t working well.

Over the next quarter I helped sales fix their process by giving them better product knowledge. But I wasn’t telling them more about our product!

What they needed was the story about how our product solved the problems of our prospects – and how to tell that story!

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 Share on X

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

Part of our job on the product team is not just to deliver the features, but to help Marketing and Sales understand how those features solve the prospects’ problems.

The minimum viable product knowledge for making quota

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

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. Qualification and discovery questions. These are based on what we know about the characteristics of successful customers, especially their pains before they got your solution. We should have a lot of information from the market about the pains – personal and emotional – that our ideal prospects are suffering from.
  4. Product-specific objection handling guides. This includes customer success stories. Nothing addresses an objection as well as “we have a customer who was worried about that too, but they are very successful with our product now.” (Of course, there is other specific competitive information that you need – 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.
About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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