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From Tension to Trust: Building a Successful Partnership Between Product and Sales

Mansi Kothari

In every B2B company I worked for, I felt tension between Sales and Product.  

The most common source of tension is a conversation that typically goes like this:

Potential customer: “Can you please add XYZ to your existing product?”

Sales rep: “Sure, we can make it happen.”

Product manager: 😡😡😡 … This derails my whole roadmap.”

There’s no right or wrong — we’re all acting within our own set of constraints and incentives. Sales teams are incentivized based on the customers they generate. Meanwhile, Product teams are incentivized based on what will engage or satisfy the largest volume of customers. Some tension can be healthy and productive, but a lot of it can negatively impact culture and collaboration within the organization. Here are some tactics I’ve found useful in building a successful partnership.

Bridging team leaders

Healthy relationships between teams start with their leaders. I invest time into key relationships regularly, to deeply understand my counterpart’s experience, expertise, and vision. The most fruitful relationships are founded on mutual respect that nurtures honest and valuable debate.

At Parentaly, our VP of Growth, Rich Burke, introduced me to destructive tension vs. constructive tension. Destructive tension occurs in cultures where leaders are highly focused on their team, their goals, and their results. They hold fixed mindsets and are keen to be correct, even at the expense of the business. Constructive tension occurs in a culture that embodies the growth mindset. Leaders are encouraged to regularly challenge each other’s thoughts and ideas with the aim to make the business stronger overall, and once decisions are made, they commit to the path forward (even if they disagree).

A tactic I find helpful is to decide who is the best decision maker for the project or initiative at hand. The decision-making power can be informed by skill set, bandwidth, or other factors. The decision maker invites alternative points of view and pushback, knowing that some level of friction will lead to the best outcomes. During this period of open debate, conversations may get heated. Instead of taking arguments personally, the key is for each of us to imagine and act as if we are lawyers advocating for our respective clients in pursuit of a greater good. However, once the decision maker puts forth their final perspective, the other must support their decision.  

Aligning roadmaps and revenue

Often, companies run revenue planning and roadmap planning independently of each other. However, it’s crucial that these two processes are aligned and dependencies are identified. An important consideration (that’s easier said than done) is how the goals and incentives for Sales and Product teams can best support each other.  

At a previous company, supporting a global user population was a point of frequent contention. Sales focused on engaging with large global organizations, but expanding multilingual support was not a priority for Product. Ultimately, we needed to unpack together what globalizing our product meant. For example: Would the signup experience be translated? Would customer support be available in multiple languages? Would content in the product be adapted to suit cultural norms per region? Once we answered these questions, Sales invited Product to define the external representation of the product, especially how the product’s global capabilities were represented in our sales pitch. The Product team also rearranged some of our roadmap to accommodate certain nonnegotiables from Sales.  

There are creative ways to motivate Product teams to generate revenue or incentivize the Sales team to drive product goals.  

Balancing customization and scale

Most enterprise customers ask for customizations that deviate from the standard product offering. In this environment, Sales may feel Product is always saying no to new business. On the other hand, Product's resistance can stem from the frustration that unanticipated requests will derail focus from prioritized work, as well as the fear that accommodating one-off requests will quickly become unscalable and unmanageable.

Nonetheless, delivering a great enterprise experience requires Product teams to be flexible to customer needs. There are ways to proactively build solutions that anticipate and allow for these customizations. This year at Parentaly, we defined the features and content within our digital experience that must be customizable for enterprise clients. Since then, we’ve systematically rebuilt parts of our product to allow for these customizations, which puts us in a much better position to scale with them.  

When clients request additional customizations beyond those we’ve internally agreed to and that our current product can easily accommodate, we have a process to ensure that the Product Team is consulted early in the selling cycle. We meet as a team to discuss the tradeoffs involved to fulfill those requests (including delays to improving our technical foundation, fixing known bugs, and building other features that we’ve prioritized for our current customer base) and how we should price for those customizations to reflect the additional work involved and customer value added.

Reimagining the relationship

Imagine this scenario:

Potential customer: “Can you please add XYZ to your existing product?”

Sales rep: “What problem do you hope to solve with XYZ?”

Product manager: 💡💡💡 … Let’s brainstorm different ways to solve this problem.”

With the right relationships and processes between Product and Sales teams, tension can evolve into trust. When Product teams build more customer-centric products, Sales teams will become more confident selling the value of the product. When this happens, the business prospers — and the results can be extraordinary.

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