Friday, April 27, 2012

Do Product Managers need Sales Experience

"Do product managers need Sales Experience?" I was asked by an engineer who wanted to become a product manager.

A question is a loaded one and it requires a detailed answer.

Product manager's main function is to build products which customers want to buy. Ideally, a product should sell by itself - like iPhones or iPads. But in reality it will require lots of sales and marketing effort.

To build products that customers want to buy, one must understand:
1. What the customer really wants?

2. What is the customer's buying process?

3. What pricing models will work for customers?

4. How to sell the product?

5. Why customers want your product?

To answer these questions, product manager must have a deep understanding of customers and this comes with sales experience. Product manager often need to go out in front of the customer, present his product and make a sales pitch. Having this real sales experience is invaluable as it gives deep insight into the real issues customers are facing and how the product will help solve that problem.

As legendary Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt put it, "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!"

The only way a product manager can understand the real requirements is to meet customers on a sales call, or in post sales follow-up calls. This calls for real sales experience.

Product managers should not be Sales Centric

But remember that sales should not be the key focus of product management. Having a sales centric approach will spoil the product by redirecting product development towards the "next prospect". This leads to knee jerk, reactive product management which will destroy the product value in the long run.

Closing Thoughts

Sales experience is vital for product management. But product managers must not get involved in day-to-day sales activities focusing on numbers and the next big deal. Ability to understand customer requirements is the key - which comes with good sales experience.

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