Learning to sell as a product manager

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

A quick overview of what we’ve covered on “Notes on Product Management” so far – 

Before starting this series, I spent a bit of time thinking about how I should articulate the core skills required to be a strong IC/individual contributor product manager. I had 3 criteria –

  1. Clear/mutually exclusive: I wanted skills that would stand on their own and, for the sake of this series, wanted to avoid umbrella words that spoke to multiple sub-skills (e.g. empathy)
  2. Memorable: This implied committing to no more than 3 or 4 skills to ensure they’re easy to remember
  3. Actionable: This meant choosing “problem finding” vs. “product sense” because of the action it implies.

Soon, problem findingproblem solvingbuilding effective teams felt right and were locked in. But, I debated whether to call the final skill influencing or selling.

I chose selling because it felt a bit uncomfortable. I wanted to reach into that discomfort and spend time there. In the first post on selling, we framed the persuasion process as a combination of Direct Marketing (content led) and Sales (human touch led) – surrounded by Brand marketing (the friction in the process is inversely proportional to our brand/reputation).

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The next post focused on our biggest direct marketing lever – writing. Many subsequent posts have either focused or touched on writing – e.g. the ones on product specs and product strategy.  

Today’s post will be focused on the other side – sales.

Why does the word “selling” make us uncomfortable?

I think there are many reasons. When we think of sales, many of us visualize pushy sales people who try to get us to buy something we don’t want. For some of us, it may even bring back memories of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross unleashing a torrent of verbal abuse on 4 salesmen while emphasizing the ABC of Sales – “Always Be Closing.”

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No wonder sales feel uncomfortable.

To Sell is Human and the new ABCs of Selling

I felt similarly until I read Dan Pink’s book – “To Sell is Human.” Dan’s book transformed my perspective. He reframed selling by pointing to a simple idea – if you need to influence people as part of your job, you are in sales. 

He also reframed the ABCs of selling. Two decades ago, the internet didn’t exist. This meant there was large information asymmetry between buyers and sellers. And, as online ratings/reviews didn’t exist, selling felt like a series of one-time transactions. Both of those aren’t true today. We walk into a car dealership with as much information as our dealer. And, the dealer cares about that Yelp review we leave. 

That then brings us to the new ABC’s of selling – AttunementBuoyancy, and Clarity. For the rest of the post, I’m going to translate how I think we can use the new ABC’s to reflect on and improve our sales skills in our role as Product Managers. 

If you haven’t read the book, I’d recommend it. Here’s a quick visual summary in case that helps – hat tip – Jenny Trautman.

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(1) Attunement:

Key question: Are we building trust in our relationships by seeking to understand?

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Attunement is all about empathizing with others. Our ability to be attuned to a person follows from our willingness to get to know and understand them. The biggest implication is the importance of taking the time to get to know our partners. My approach to this has been to aim to start every relationship with an introductory 1:1 before jumping into ask/work.

Knowing the story of that cross-functional partner helps us understand them as we begin working with them. That understanding leads to trust in most cases (in other cases, it leads to mistrust – either way, it is important to know where we stand. :-)). That trust, in turn, helps us prioritize uncomfortable conversations and to be comfortable when we disagree. Uncomfortable conversations and disagreements are pre-requisites to progress.

Outside of cross-functional partners, the previous post on building relationships with Product Executives attempts to provide more structure on building empathy with our product leaders.

(2) Buoyancy

Key question: Do people walk away with more positive energy after spending time with us? 

Implications for us: In every interaction, we exude one of 4 behaviors. We are either –

  • Condescending – expressing superiority
  • Critical – showcasing disapproval or criticism
  • Constructive – building off existing ideas to make them better
  • Proactive – moving things forward and making them happen

Each of these impact everyone’s energy differently depending on where they are in the process. In general though, the impact looks like this.

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The ability to show up with positive energy regardless of the way the winds are blowing is critical to our ability to influence the people we work with. So, learning to be consistently constructive or proactive makes a huge difference to our ability to influence others. 

It is important to call out that these are behaviors and not character traits. They become traits only when we consistently show up in one way. So, it is in our interest to choose and reflect periodically on whether we’re showing up as we intend. It won’t always work. Despite our best intentions, our intentions will occasionally be misinterpreted – especially when we meet with people who don’t know us. The goal is to keep increasing our ratio of hits to misses.

 The interesting thing about these emotions is that they’re as applicable to others as they are to us. For example –

  • How do we feel when we spend time with ourselves?
  • Are we critical every time we think of a new idea or are we constructive and solution focused?
  • How does this change when we’re going through a difficult time?

That, then, is the true test of our buoyancy – how we feel after we spend time about ourselves. The more we walk away feeling positive after spending time with ourselves, the more likely others will feel the same. 

(3) Clarity

Key question: Do we transform situations from ambiguity and chaos to clarity?

Attunement is about empathizing with our audience. This audience may be internal (our organization) or external (our users/customers). Buoyancy ensures we show up positively. Clarity, however, is the clincher – the key pre-requisite to closing the sale.

Everyone is dealing with more information and ambiguity than they know what to do with. So, the ability to consistently step into ambiguity and transform it into clarity is a core skill.

Transforming ambiguity to clarity is a 2 step process –

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  1. Frame: A complex set of information needs an organizing structure or framework. The best ways to learn how to frame is to spend time with people who are structured and read books or articles by people who are good at what they do. The ability to simplify complex information is a sign of skill. This post, for example, is an ode to Dan Pink’s ability to reframe sales as attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. The other way to teach ourselves to frame is to constantly ask – if I had to boil this topic down into no more than 3 things, what would I say?
  2. Decide to simplify: Once you structure information, the next step is to decide what matters. The word decide comes from the Latin word “decidere” which means “to cut off.” The purpose of making a decision is to cut off options. So, when we decide what matters, we automatically simplify.

Attunement, buoyancy, and clarity, are each powerful in their own right. Attunement or empathy, for instance, is just as important in our ability to be good problem finders or problem solvers or even team builders as it is in our ability to sell. Buoyancy and clarity matter across the board too. 

But, when we’re able to bring these three together consistently, we step-change our ability to sell. While sales is important to our jobs as individual contributor PMs, it becomes more important as we evolve our role from individual contributors to leading teams of product managers.  

The good news is that selling is a skill. It is a muscle we all can get better at if we work on attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. 

And, the good news – channeling Dan Pink – is that to sell is human.