STUCK IN THE MIDDLE: The Tug on Product

A few years ago, we were asked to work with a product marketing team to strengthen stories and case studies that they were using to illustrate the impact of their products.

As we began our homework to learn the value their products delivered to customers, we quickly discovered we were learning more about the features of their products than their value to end users. And after a few more conversations, we saw the gap we were really solving for. Sales teams weren’t using the product materials provided; the leader hoped that we would help product marketing position stories to make the products more compelling. And, we did.

But along the way, we got curious about why the marketing materials were so feature focused. And that’s when we realized that the marketing group was really a product group. And, they were getting their insights from the product developers. They were positioning features because that’s how engineers talked about value, and they were missing the customer value and outcomes.

It’s a pattern that we’ve seen repeated in many companies since then.

Product teams often find themselves in the role of the middleman. They’re a step away from customers as they work with sales teams and a step away from deliverables as they work with engineers. Somehow, they’ve become the “go to” group to answer for everything.

And, that’s challenging. Sales gets frustrated because product causes delays. Engineers get frustrated because product causes changes.

Product managers spend most of their time with engineers who are building to a road map. But they experience most of the friction with the sales team. And while friction isn’t easy to navigate, the product group needs the sales group. They are the voice of the customer and provide the best insights and perspective on customer outcomes.

But what makes sales teams great at customer insights can also make them tough as the internal customer. They sign product up for a lot of things that aren’t doable. Sales doesn’t always understand the implications of what they’ve agreed to with a customer, so they commit time without a deep understanding of trade-offs. Or, they pull the product team onto customer calls so that product can personally commit to the request and the timeline.

And, many product managers do commit. Because, after all, their salespeople are good at selling. They can get you to buy into the need and the customer promise with ease. Next thing you know, the product manager has a “to do” list that’s longer than a child’s holiday wish list and about as likely to be delivered on.

And, that’s when product gets caught in the middle.

Because the next conversation is with the engineering and technology teams. And, they want to talk about that growing list of requests. Engineers call out the amount of time required, the misalignment with the overall roadmap and the conflict with bigger initiatives and priorities. Sometimes, the engineering teams refuse to take more on. And, now the product manager will have to go back to sales and communicate the delay. The tug of war begins.

And, that’s how product gets stuck in the middle.

It’s not an easy role to navigate, but it is a manageable one. And as we’ve continued to work with product teams, there are a few rules of engagement that we’ve coached them to consider…

Recognize the Gap – Sales and technology will never think alike. They are opposite ends of the spectrum. And, they don’t have to think alike if they have product in the middle. But they do have to value the perspectives of each other, and that’s the communication role that product can play. Get both perspectives into every conversation. When you’re talking to sales, make sure the conversation moves to HOW we’ll do things. When you’re talking to technology, make sure the conversation begins with the WHAT and WHY for the customer.

Clarify the Outcomes – Sales is a good friend to your customers. But they don’t always challenge the request. We see many technology groups backing off customization in order to deliver speed. Challenge the sales team to understand the outcome and the impact to a customer. Sometimes what they’ve been asked to do won’t deliver as much as a customer may think.

Identify the Trade-offs – The customer is king, but they don’t always rule the whole court. See above the details and call the tough questions. Technology is right about trade-offs. On the roadmap of development and delivery, when one thing moves ahead something else falls behind. Sales doesn’t always participate in this part of the conversation. Keep them in the loop and give them a better understanding of what is falling behind.

Solve Together – Product should have the megaphone in the tug of war. You have to win together and that comes from solving together. Think through the options and then give both groups the sound bites that help explain a delay to a customer or a change order to an engineering team.

Communicate Often – Product managers have become communication managers. And, it’s going to take repetition to keep everyone on the same page. The discrepancy between sales and technology is what needs to be done and the best way to get there. Once they agree, solidify the agreement with consistent communication and help them share it with stories and examples.

When product teams strengthen their role in the middle, companies see tremendous benefit from clarity of thoughts and alignment of priorities. If we can help your product team manage the role in the middle, we’d love to share some of our learnings with you.

Call us when you need us.