• Sales reps often pass along requests from customers or prospects that require changes to the product roadmap
  • Product managers should view these requests as valuable customer input
  • Engaging sales on product roadmap development can help prevent surprises and ensure products are aligned with customer needs

Nearly every product manager has been in this position: You’ve diligently conducted research (e.g. customer interviews) to understand customer needs, analyzed the competition, refined your product strategy and created a product roadmap that outlines future product capabilities. Then, out of nowhere, a sales rep (or the head of sales) tells you that a certain customer “needs” a feature to complete the purchase, or that without a specific enhancement, you’ll lose a customer. In fact, you hear multiple requests like this, essentially resulting in a proposal from sales to change your entire product roadmap (or significant parts of it).

Businessman needs help

What’s a product manager to do?

Many product managers treat these as “us vs. them” situations – “They’re trying to change my product roadmap.” Well, I’ve got news for you: It’s not your product roadmap. It never was – nor should it ever be – your product roadmap.

The roadmap should articulate plans for what will be added or changed in the product to meet customer needs and address future market opportunities. While it’s influenced by the product manager, it really should reflect buyer and customer needs, not the product manager’s personal opinions.

Instead of treating this situation negatively (seeing sales as throwing a wrench in carefully constructed plans), treat these requests as positives – because they are. Sales is usually passing along feedback from customers and prospects, and that feedback should be viewed as a learning opportunity, not brushed aside. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every feature request should be honored without question.

At SiriusDecisions, we work with many B2B product management teams to help improve their innovation and product management processes to better leverage customer and sales feedback. Here are a few simple tips you can incorporate:

  • Ensure sales involvement in the roadmapping process. We often find that product managers who are fielding a high number of ongoing sales “demands” haven’t reached out to sales proactively for feedback early in the innovation process and aren’t involving this function regularly in roadmap discussions. Input from sales early and often can help reduce the number of requests to alter a roadmap, because sales feedback is incorporated from the very beginning. Also, involving this function helps sales realize the importance of the other items on the roadmap, so reps may be less likely to “demand” enhancements unique to their customer or prospect. Our research shows that best-in-class organizations have tight alignment between product management, marketing and sales, which is why we recommend activities like field sales input and a sales advisory council in the early stages of product innovation in our Product Marketing and Management (PMM) Model.
  • Get to the root of the request. When a sales rep asks for a feature (e.g. “It needs to refresh data with the customer’s billing system hourly rather than daily”), he or she may not know why the customer or prospect wants it. Simply asking, “What is the need the customer/prospect is trying to meet?” can help uncover the rationale behind the request. If the sales rep doesn’t know, ask to speak with the customer directly to help better understand what his or her needs are and why that need is so important. It’s important to position your inquiries as seeking to obtain better insight into the request rather than trying to negate or question the validity of it. The information you gather is crucial to quantifying the potential impact of not addressing the request and prioritizing it before other existing priorities or other enhancement requests (see below). In some cases, the product may already be able to meet the customer’s need, and a product redesign or improving customer awareness of current capabilities may be a more appropriate solution.
  • Quantify the potential benefits. In many cases, the question isn’t whether an enhancement should be added or a product modified, but how to prioritize a specific sales or customer request ahead of other requests or what’s already on the roadmap. Too often, these prioritization questions are based on gut feeling or opinion, or are guided by whoever is “yelling the loudest.” SiriusDecisions’ Product Enhancement Prioritization Framework was created to help product teams analyze and compare enhancements objectively. While many product managers have likely created or used similar frameworks, ours is unique in that it takes a more comprehensive, holistic view of the benefits and impacts of the request. For example, it helps product managers think beyond simply cost and benefit and ask: How likely are we able to monetize this request beyond an individual customer? Will this cannibalize other offerings in our portfolio? Is there a specific market window we need to meet? (If you’re a client of SiriusDecisions’ Product Management research Service, see the brief “The SiriusDecisions Product Enhancement Prioritization Framework” for additional details.)
  • Articulate tradeoffs. The number of resources available is almost never enough to address all of the ideas and requests in the desired timeframe. While product managers can make the case for additional resources, they will likely still have to make tradeoffs. Good product managers articulate the tradeoffs – if we add an enhancement to prevent an important customer from leaving, what will come off the roadmap for the next release and get delayed, and what impact will that have? Before agreeing to make changes, product managers need to ensure the tradeoffs are clearly articulated and cross-functional leaders from marketing, sales, product development and other areas understand and accept the impact. (If you’re a SiriusDecisions client, see the brief “Managing Tradeoffs in Product Development” for additional details.)

The unique nature of sales requests is one of the differences between B2B and B2C product management, so it’s important for product managers to have the right competencies and strategies for dealing with them. These tips can help improve the relationship between product management and sales and ensure that sales requests are leveraged appropriately to help improve product performance.