Blame the sales team

It’s easy to blame salespeople when a product isn’t meeting expectations. You’re convinced of your product’s superiority, but somehow competitors are winning too many deals. Though some salespeople may not be up to the task, it’s more likely that either you’re targeting the wrong market segments or your product is too complex to explain and consume.

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Market fit

My general manager correctly observed a multi-billion dollar market for data-intensive, high-performance computing and instructed our sales team to aggressively pursue. Engineering ran benchmarks to prove how fast we were and marketing did their thing. Qualified sales opportunities started coming in. Some of the deals were potentially huge: seven and eight figures.

As sales got deeper into these opportunities, data points started rolling in that customers were expecting proposals near or even below our cost. Everyone knew that portions of our market were lower margin, but expected that our competitive advantages would deliver value customers were willing to pay for. Wasn’t it much faster to setup our product versus that of our competitors? Wouldn’t these large-scale deployments benefit tremendously from our powerful management software?

Three of the largest market segments in data-intensive, high-performance computing were higher education, web, and enterprise. While the first two had tantalizingly large deployments, systemic factors such as cheap labor (graduate students) and internal software development cultures meant they demanded bare-bones systems. Each customer would deal with the operational and management issues in their own custom manner – ignoring some of our key product differentiation. This was not an issue of sales competency, but simply lack of demand for what we built.

The data-intensive, high-performance computing market was anything but monolithic. Each segment had its own requirements, while also sharing underlying similarities. It became clear that we had to focus on the segments, most notably enterprise, that valued the product we had built and could buy with margins reflecting our value to those customers.

Our product roadmap continued to focus on performance and ease of management. We increased density and demonstrated market-leading throughput for the applications that mattered to enterprise users. We expanded our management software portfolio so that enterprise users could quickly and reliably operate large computing environments across geographic locations. Our marketing and sales efforts focused on enterprise, where we built a rapidly growing, profitable business while declining to pursue opportunities with low or negative margin.

It’s complicated

In another situation, our executive team was excited when we released a new set of configuration management capabilities. Our target users managed a broad set of configuration files and objects for every application they deployed. Many were looking for ways to define expected configuration state, periodically verify that state, and correct configurations where needed. A competitor had been winning deals partly because their configuration management capability was already available.

Marketing prepared collateral and trained the sales team on our latest release. Opportunities surfaced and we began live demonstrations for each customer. Feedback from the customer demos started to expose a common issue: our configuration management worked well for text files common with Unix/Linux systems, but required custom work for each customer to fully support Windows-based applications.

Sales teams are rightly expected to overcome certain product gaps by focusing customers on the product’s strengths and providing customers with consultation to satisfy their use cases with minimal effort. Our sales team was able to win deals when Windows configuration management was not a primary driver. They were even able to win certain Windows deals by offering customers capabilities beyond configuration management. But we contnued to lose deals that were heavily Windows focused. This also was not a sales faliure, but a product deficiency that made some customer use cases overly complex.

We knew our product had to get better in managing Windows application configurations, which was a top priority in the following product release. Rather than customers having to create scripts for each Windows object they worked with, we built native Windows object support into configuration management.

Look in the mirror

It’s too easy to blame sales for outcomes that are instead due to product and positioning gaps. While sales can underperform like any other function, it’s critical to brutally evaluate your product from customer and competitive perspectives and honestly identify weaknesses. The product manager has to answer a basic question: if my product is so good, why isn’t it selling?

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