Main illustration: Sean Suchara
As Intercom’s customer base moved upmarket, it became increasingly obvious to us in sales that what worked well in our product for early-stage startups didn’t for larger companies. To fix it, we had to change how we worked with our product team.
We created our first sales function in 2014 and in the busyness of building out the team, we had little time to reflect on how our experiences on the frontline of sales could add value to our product roadmap. We were laser-focused on helping everyone buy Intercom and nailing the fundamentals of SaaS sales.
But we quickly realized that the job of sales at Intercom is two-fold: to drive revenue for the company and be the voice of our customers. The reality is we have to master both if we want to expand our addressable market and retain our existing customers as they grow.
In many ways, moving upmarket – even ever so slightly – forced us to go back to our building blocks. We had to look at the problems our new customers needed to solve with fresh eyes and build a healthy partnership with Product to turn these roadblocks in the sales cycle into solutions that customers would love. Here’s how we did it with a few lessons we learned along the way.
Trial and error: adding sales input to the product roadmap
In 2011 Marc Andreessen declared that software is eating the world. Today it’s no wonder that the strong majority of companies want their strategy to be driven by product, not sales and that’s likely for the best. Creating one-off builds for a handful of customers puts you on the fast track to a Frankenstein product and a customer acquisition strategy that doesn’t scale.
Where does sales fit in at a company driven by product strategy?
But where does sales fit in at a company driven by product strategy, not short-term revenue? How can salespeople give a voice to what’s happening in the market while respecting the long-term product vision? These are the questions that followed our first upmarket customers whose business pointed out the ways in which Intercom did and didn’t work for larger teams.
Our initial attempts to get sales and product teams on the same page were a start but often felt like ships passing in the night. As salespeople we were used to talking to prospects about their goals and providing concrete recommendations based on product functionality. That meant taking a prescriptive approach and going to our product team with the exact solutions our customers had requested:
The problem was, being too prescriptive made it hard for our product team to see how our requests would benefit the rest of our customers and made it far more likely for Product to say no. We didn’t want to be the sales team that made one-off requests for every customer and as a result, we switched to a thematic approach. But in doing that, our suggestions became far too broad. Making requests for things like “user permissions” left it up to our product managers to guess what we meant:
While we wanted to deliver value to our upmarket customers, we were actually underplaying our hand. Our magic as a company has always been our innovative approach to problem-solving and by being too prescriptive and then too broad, we prevented Product from playing to their strengths.
Our solution: aligning sales and product around “why”
After a lot of trial and error, we realized that as a sales team, we had to go back to first principles and remove all of the assumptions we’d made about the solutions we were proposing. We had to peel back the metaphoric onion and ask, why do our prospects and customers need X or Y feature?
By focusing on “why” instead of “what,” we were able to give our Product team the information they needed to solve problems for our upmarket customers without limiting how our product managers would actually go and do it. The key for us was to be more specific and less prescriptive. Here’s an example of how we collaborated with Product by focusing on the problems to be solved:
Today we crowdsource the problems to be solved from folks on our sales and customer solutions teams. We ask the team at-large to stack rank their requests using anecdotal and quantitative data from our CRM, e.g. number of deals blocked. Then my team of sales leaders and I curate the list and add an order of magnitude ranking. The top 25 requests are the ones we bring to our roundtable with Product where we discuss what it’ll take to get a viable solution into the market and get consensus on our top priorities for the quarter.
This is also our opportunity to share customer stories that bring to life the problems to be solved. In an ideal world, Product would have a direct line to every customer, but given the scale of our conversations as a growing organization, we leverage our position on the frontline of sales to add color that might otherwise be missing. Our aim is to inspire the kind of action that drives real customer impact.
Three tips for making product requests
It’s easy to get carried away coming up with product requests, especially when you’re catering to upmarket customers with sophisticated needs. Here’s a quick recap of how to keep product requests actionable and well-defined:
- Focus on the problem, not the solution – Rather than prescribing what should be built, describe the roadblocks customers are coming up against.
- Don’t be afraid to get granular – Be specific about the problem. For lead qualification, that might be distinguishing leads from customers or enriching email addresses.
- Stack rank requests by impact – Identify which problems need to be solved first based on order of magnitude (blockers for new business or reasons for churn).
Building a positive feedback loop
The last thing I’ll say is remember to invest in a positive feedback loop. Invite your product team to celebrate with you when new features help close deals or win back customers. Meet with them regularly over the quarter to review the problems that have been solved, how the solutions are resonating in the market and what else has surfaced since. That’ll make them more likely to say yes to future product requests in the future.
The same goes for your sales team. Keep your sales team abreast of when requests on the product roadmap have been shipped, so they can proactively reach out to customers that are waiting on these features or revive old deals that stalled because of this functionality. The best partnerships are built on mutual accountability.
Collaborate on problems to be solved, not features
Our customers now come in all shapes and sizes and from all industries. In many ways, moving upmarket was the best kind of forcing function. As our existing customers grew their businesses and larger companies signed on, we found ourselves in the unique position of having to approach our product – and our relationship with our Product team – in an entirely new way.
Today our sales and product teams have a healthy, productive partnership that’s grounded in the real problems Intercom helps to solve. But even better that, this partnership has enabled us to increase customer happiness and deliver more revenue. That’s our bottom-line.