How sales teams add value to a product roadmap

Main illustration: Alex Azalea Jin

As salespeople, we are the closest line to a company’s potential market. We know the missing features and services that prevent people from becoming customers.

And while it’s tempting to ask your product team for all these missing features, it’s important to be intentional about what you ask for. After all, sales teams need to understand that, in order to maintain the integrity of your product, one should rarely say yes to feature requests.

As a salesperson, I listen to feature requests from prospects and customers all day long; at Intercom those channels span live chat, email, social media and phone. As a result, my teammates and I are often filled with ideas and feature requests that could help us secure more deals. But as anyone doing sales at a product-driven company will tell you, getting these ideas heard, understood and acted upon isn’t easy, especially since sales is one of just many inputs in a product roadmap. The onus is on us to do the due diligence needed to help our product team understand the context behind these requests.

To understand which features will have the greatest impact, this means clarifying two questions whenever you hear a feature request:

  • Why is the customer asking for it?
  • Is it part of a larger trend?

Why is the customer asking for it?

Managing expectations is one of the most important skills you need in sales. Set the wrong product expectations during the sales cycle, and prospects won’t buy, or they’ll become high churn risks. In a lazy sales process you’ll often find yourself entangled in a feature or price war, spending more time selling or comparing competitive features than selling ideas and solutions.

A pernicious side effect of feature-focused sales is the tendency to entertain every single feature request without truly understanding a prospect’s “job story” or any background on their business.

Here’s a common scenario. Prospects typically evaluate several SaaS vendors before making a purchase. Let’s assume Vendor A has a strong sales rep. She knows exactly how her solution stacks up against competitors and frames the narrative in her favor by persuading the prospect to believe certain features are “must-haves”. These features are exclusive to the solution she’s selling.

Let’s say you’re the second vendor and you don’t offer one of the so-called “must-have” features. How should you handle this situation? It’s tempting to just say, “I’m happy to check with our product team and see if it’s on the roadmap.”

Here’s a better way:

Prospect: Do you offer contextual messaging?

Sales Rep: What are you hoping to achieve with contextual messaging?

Prospect: Ideally, I’ll be guiding my users on the exact buttons they need to click during onboarding.

Sales Rep: Great. Onboarding is one of our core competencies. We can guide your users during onboarding with in-app messages that are triggered based on your user’s actions. Based on our own tests we find that contextual messaging is only valuable for complex enterprise products. In your situation, I think it would do more harm than good. 

As salespeople, our job is to diagnose if a prospect actually needs a certain feature. If it’s something we don’t offer, it’s also our job to educate them about alternative ways of accomplishing their goals. This reaffirms our value as consultative-based salespeople,

Is it part of a larger trend?

If you understand why your prospect is making a feature request and it merits further investigation, identify if it’s part of a larger trend or simply an industry fad. There’s a salient difference between a prospect pressing you for, say, a bot, because they’re mesmerized by your competitor’s shiny new bot, and a real paradigm shift within your industry. In the sales industry, Account-Based Marketing is a great example of a paradigm shift. If you were selling SaaS to marketers two years ago, you were constantly asked if your product supported ABM. It seemed silly at first, but here we are, years later, with multiple companies founded solely to serve the ABM needs of marketers: Terminus and Engagio, among others.

So how do you determine if a feature request is a sign of a larger trend?

At Intercom we accomplish this in a couple ways. The first is tagging conversations in Intercom when we see feature requests or relevant jobs that our product doesn’t fulfil. Our product team will then report on these tags and look for trends.

Our senior sales reps augment tags in Intercom with feature request cases at the account level in Salesforce. This makes it easy for decision makers to run reports based on case details and have access to key metrics when making crucial decisions regarding our roadmap. In fact, this process drove our decision to build a more robust integration between Intercom and Salesforce.

Secondly, a systematic, data-driven approach to logging feature requests creates multiple winners. Sales can easily back-up their requests with real data, and Product clearly understands what’s at stake with each request. For instance, is a feature request more likely to to drive retention or upselling? 

Include real metrics like MRR to demonstrate impact and increase your chances of influencing your company’s product roadmap. Most importantly, this makes it easier to determine if there’s a broader trend and formulate a sound strategy.

Talk early and often

The most effective way to maintain an edge over your competitors is to encourage open lines of communication between Sales and Product. If your sales team knows how to extract the “why?” from feature requests and feeds this intelligence thoughtfully to Product, you’ll become incredibly efficient at building things your customers will actually use.