Is your sales problem really a product problem?

Not suprisingly when companies are having issues in sales they look to their sales or and sales leadership for the source of the problem. In the cliche example (but one which happens all the time) sales will loop in marketing (“we’re not getting enough leads”, “the leads aren’t high quality enough”).

But typically product is left out of this mix.

To be clear, there are plenty of sales related issues that are directly attributable to poor sales processes, bad training of sales resources, poor time management, etc. But often overlooked is the role product plays in sales challenges. I’m not writing this to offer a ready made excuse for sales teams that aren’t executing but as a reminder to executive teams that when you’re struggling to understand sales challenges be sure to look at closely at product. I’d suggest looking both at how existing customers are actually using your product (often not well understood by companies) and comparing that with both the type of customer you’re targeting (which may be very different than your current mix of customers) and what features they require. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve looked more closely into this question and found that the problem we’re actually solving isn’t well mapped to a shifting target in sales. Or where there are specific product features that we’re lacking that are preventing product adoption but for whatever reason that feedback insn’t coming through as part of our sales process.

Seasoned execs know to beware of the “if we only had feature X we’d be selling more” feedback from sales and to dive more deeply into what the data are showing them about actual product usage. But more often than it’s given credit for product is key part of sales challenges.

For an older post I wrote on companies making the shift from early product to sales focus see here

  • Larry McKeogh

    Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “If I only had feature X more customers would buy it.” Of course feature X is the feature of the day that is unfortunately not repeatable.
    Product builds the feature only to meet some new resistance. (back to your earlier Feature > Product > Company post and chasing the shiny object)

    When it comes to pointing fingers the bigger issue you seem to be alluding to is the team dysfunction. This happens at a large company due to size and organizational silos. In a startup there shouldn’t be such surprises. Assuming co-location or at least very frequent interaction, the team, and I’ll call them the product team should all be in tune with the prospects, their challenges, and the solution offered. Why is this solution the right one for the customer (or not).
    The product team should have insight to the feature list as it was developed; weighed in on the prioritization; have an understanding of how the features become the product that solves a problem of value. If the prospect doesn’t have that problem, it’s not the right solution. Moving on.
    Communication between the team needs to be seamless and tight. We’re all in the same boat and should be rowing in the same direction.

  • Al Lalani

    Hi Seth – I do have a question for you on this post – not sure if you respond on your blog (but hope you will). If there was a problem with the product (features, positioning to the right market, usage of the product etc) – it would show up in the churn numbers – right? At least soon enough it would – and especially in a somewhat competitive industry it would. Customers would not continue using a mediocre product (unless it was a very niche industry with no other options).

    So if sales/marketing misses their numbers but the churn is not taking a hit – then it would be safe to assume the product is not to be looked at?

    Or am I missing something here because you didn’t mention churn but focused on product to be looked at.

    Look forward to your thoughts.

    • Hi Al. It certainly could show up in churn, but not always. The circumstance I was referring to was less that overall product/market fit was missing (which presumably would result in churn as customers realized what they bought didn’t actually do what they though it would) but where a company’s ability to attract a large enough number of new customers was being negatively impacted by product. Most commonly this shows up as a company transitions from early adopters to more of the mainstream market and they can’t figure out whey their traction lags what they saw earlier in their life or why they can’t scale their marketing efforts to new customers. Does that make sense? Not sure I’m explaining that very well here late on a Friday evening…

      • Al Lalani

        Thanks Seth for the additional clarification. I understand where you are coming from. Tough one to nail down though to product for sure.

  • Scott D. Witt

    Poor sales is a symptom of a fundamental Market Strategy problem that’s cause by the following errors:
    – Targeting the wrong customers and competition,
    – With the wrong Product feature set,
    – At the wrong Price,
    – Promoted with the wrong message through the wrong media
    – And then sold, delivered, and supported through the wrong channels

    Roughly 80% of startups fail for MARKET-related reasons that are predictable and avoidable.

    The Solution is Simple:

    0) Take off your coder hat, and acknowledge that you’re the leader of a business, and you’re responsible for delivering Business Results.

    1) Learn the timeless fundamentals of business, such as the ‘3 C’s / 4P’s’ and ‘Jobs to Be Done,’ so you understand what a sound strategy looks like. [ this knowledge will put you in the top 10% of founders ]

    2) Before you build anything, build a deep relationship with your Target Customers so you clearly understand what they are eager to pay for, and the alternative products that they consider to do this job. [ this work may point your venture in a completely different and better direction ]

    3) As you build your venture and product, repeatedly test your assumptions about your customers and competitors and adjust to reflect what the market is telling you. [ you can test many assumptions with fast-and-cheap mockups, not a functional piece of software (that was the original definition of ‘MVP’) ]

    Following these steps will dramatically improve your chances of funding and success, and help you to avoid wasting time and money building and launching products that will be dead on arrival.

    Please Ping Me if you’d like to talk more…
    ~ Scott