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August 2009

You Built It... Now, Will They Sell It?

You Could Sell It... But That's Someone Else's Job

I wrote recently about the need to look at your product or service as if you were actually the one selling it... Could you answer the "why should I buy this?" question.  Here's a related consideration, one that I've learned (the hard way) over the years:  will your salespeople sell your product?

"That's absurd!" you say.  "Of course they'll sell it.  They want to make money, don't they?"  Yes, they want to make money.  But it's not that simple, as I will show...

Show Me the Money

My first Product Management assignment, at Nortel Networks, was to bring a simple printer-sharing software program to market.  My boss thought it should take a couple of weeks to complete.  (It took several months, and a tour through most of Dante's seven stages of hell, but that's another story for another day.)  I worked hard to bring "EasyLAN with Meridian Extension" (the name kind of makes you fell all warm and fuzzy, doesn't it) to market... and sold perhaps a few dozen copies.

What happened?  Probably the biggest reason for "tissue rejection" by our sales force was the commission disparity.  This software sold for maybe $50 a seat (remember those days?!).  The problem was, it was being sold by a direct sales force that was used to making communication system sales in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.  A salesperson could scratch their nose thinking about selling my little piece of software, and eat up all their commission in the time it took to do so.  Later, as we moved to a two-tier distribution model, the problem only got worse.  Now, that nose-scratch had to be shared between the channel account manager and the channel salesperson... clearly the wrong kind of product for a two-tiered distribution system.

If I were bringing such a product to market today, I'd be thinking about selling this via some sort of "application store", where the user pays for the software, downloads it and uses it.  But such "stores" didn't exist at the time, and the product would have required other work to greatly simplify its installation and troubleshooting by a non-technical end-user.

The lesson here? Ask yourself a basic question:  "If I'm a sales rep, why is it worth my time to sell this product?"  If you can't answer this question quickly and directly... you likely have a problem.  Salespeople are a lot more like independent contractors than other company employees.  They often have a wide degree of latitude about how they spend their time.  While they may be measured on a number of criteria, making (and exceeding) their sales quota typically counts much more heavily than anything else.  So if your best answer to the "what's in it for me in selling your product" question has more to do with corporate loyalty than personal financial gain, be prepared for disappointing sales results.

How Can You Tell a Pioneer?

One of the challenges I faced at iPass was getting the sales team to sell Wi-Fi as an access method for connecting on-the-road employees to their corporate networks.  This was a critical problem, as it was clear that people were moving away from dial-up connections to Wi-Fi and other broadband methods.  

Things came to a head with a meeting of all the sales leaders and the product group.  Imagine an angry mob, pitchforks, and people constructing a bonfire and you have a pretty accurate impression of how the meeting was going.  The sales team had gathered a long list of all the ways that our implementation of Wi-Fi support was lacking.  They felt they couldn't sell the product as it existed, and they wanted a commitment to fix the problems they had highlighted.  I was able to agree to implement a plan, with regular reviews, before the bonfire was lit, and went to work addressing their issues.

The funny thing was, after about six to nine months, sales leaders stopped participating in the reviews.  We product folks (being good soldiers) continued to carry out the resolution plan, but clearly the issue had died in the minds of most salespeople.  What happened?

If this were a job interview, I'd emphasize how I had listened to the sales team's needs, addressed their concerns, communicated the results, and kept a dialog going to continuously improve.  And I did all that.  But something else happened, of equal importance:  customers got used to the idea of using Wi-Fi.  The technology had gone from something new and scary to IT Managers, to something that they couldn't live without.  As one of our sales leaders said, "once you use it, you won't go back to dial".  So for instance, where originally one of the complaints was that we needed to provide better tools for tracking and managing per-minute access costs, within months customers were telling us they didn't need such tools and preferred instead to have "all you can eat" subscription plans.

The lesson here? Don't expect your salespeople to be pioneers.  If you're rolling out a service early in the adoption cycle, pay attention to the supporting tools needed to get people comfortable with the technology.  

Are You in the Zone?

Not long after we got Wi-Fi rolling, the issue of worms and viruses on laptops and other devices became a hot topic.  IT Managers began to realize that their networks weren't protected until every device--local and remote--that accessed their networks was protected.  iPass had been working with a couple of companies to bring out a service that provided protection for devices "in the wild", so the timing seemed fortuitous.  We put together the service, rolled it out... and things stalled.

Our salespeople had some early, bad experiences going in and selling the service, which we called "Device Management". This left the balance of the sales force reluctant to touch the service.  These early "pioneers" in selling Device Management ran into a couple of problems:

  • They were selling to a different set of decision-makers.  Whereas our sales force was used to dealing with networking and telecommunications people, device security was the domain of Chief Security Officers and other security types.
  • Most salespeople lacked a depth of knowledge about security.  They understood Device Management and its value statement, but when challenged about their knowledge of other security topics, they could not respond with authority, and lost credibility as a result.
From a product and strategy standpoint, we thought we had hit a home run:  we had redefined out space from the un-sexy "remote access" to "mobility management".  But our sales team had trouble making this leap, and had trouble getting comfortable with the idea of selling Device Management.  The vision sounded great, but selling the reality proved much more difficult.

The lesson here? Be aware of your sales team's "comfort zone".  If you're going to put out a service that pushes the edges of your team's comfort zone, be prepared for some resistance, and plan on providing the training, tools and support needed to help them expand that zone.

Can Your Sales Team Execute on Your Product?

If you follow (American) football, you know about the Hook and Lateral, Statue of Liberty and other such "gadget" plays.  You also know that running off-tackle is much more common.  So it is with your products.  It's easy to get enamored with the ground-breaking technology you've introduced, the innovative positioning, the redefinition of the product category.  But if your sales team can't execute--can't sell--than all that innovation and cleverness won't benefit you or the company.  Make sure you reality-test your product with your customers.  Make sure your sales teams feel like they can succeed selling your product.  Do these things and you'll be much happier with your sales results.