November 23

How Customer Development Benefits Salespeople

I know from experience that “Product” and “Sales” can sometimes be two groups within a company that are kept at arm’s length.  On one hand, salespeople are constantly in front of customers and genuinely have a lot of valuable input from customers that could be quite useful to the Product team.  On the other hand, a Product Manager can discount the feedback a salesperson receives, as a customer may just be telling the salesperson something to make their “no” less of a blow.  For example, hearing “Gee, if you only had X feature, then we’d surely come on board,” can be interpreted much differently by the salesperson than by the Product Manager.

A salesperson hears:  “If you only had X feature, I’ll give you all of my money.”

A product manager hears:  “You don’t have X feature?  Oh good, I’ll blame my lack of commitment on that rather than tell you I don’t think your product is anything special.”

Because of this, sometimes sales is held out of the product development process altogether.  This isn’t necessarily the right approach, but it’s an approach that many companies take.  They simply rely on the Product team to be in touch with customers directly and make product-related decisions based on their own interactions.  The sales team is just supposed to sell.

When a company takes this approach, should a salesperson even care about the product development process?  Should they just “stick to what they know” and treat every sales meeting as simply an opportunity to sell something?

My answer to that is unequivocally no!

In fact, implementing customer development practices can not only give a salesperson product-related insights, but it can actually help them be better at their job of selling.  I’m learning this first-hand, myself.  Just over a year ago, I was brought on to lead Product at Movable.  In that role, I implemented customer development practices in order to inform our product decisions.  As the year wore on, I was promoted to President and ultimately helped find an attractive strategic acquirer.  Post-acquisition, my focus is now on Business Development for the combined company.  One might think that day-to-day is much different — and that’s true.  However, I’ve been sure to maintain some customer development practices even though it might not be in my job description.  In fact, every first meeting I have with a potential customer is treated as a customer development meeting… not a sales meeting.

Here’s what I’ve learned thus far:

First meetings are easier to get when the context is a customer development meeting.

Let’s face it, unless a potential customer reached out to you first asking for more information, they’re probably not sitting there waiting for your call to schedule a sales meeting.  Getting that first meeting can be tough.  Of course, if you believe in what you’re selling, that first meeting is sometimes all you feel you need in order to have a shot.  Well, when you lead with the notion of the meeting being purely educational and you’re simply looking for their insights as an expert — that changes things.  People like being known as the expert.  It’s no lock, but it certainly helps open up the door a bit more.

Customer Development leads to learning.

If you actually treat the meeting like a customer development meeting, you’ll learn how to sell when you’re ready to sell.  Any salesperson who’s worth their weight already knows how to ask questions to learn more about their customer and their situation.  But in a true customer development meeting, you’ll have better context about the problem the customer is experiencing, the workaround solution (if any) they’ve come up with, and what a real, legitimate solution must have.  You’ll dig into these areas without talking about your product… yet.

If your product genuinely solves their problem, a 2nd meeting is even easier to land.

This might seem like it’s the case even if the first meeting was a sales meeting.  However, customer development meetings tend to be much more disarming.  In a customer development meeting, customers can speak more freely.  I’ve found that it’s easier to build rapport in a first-meeting when the intent of the meeting isn’t to sell a thing.  By the time the meeting ends, the customer’s situation should be very clear.  Based on their situation, your product will either be an ideal solution — or not.  If it is, it’s worth sharing a bit more about the product for context.  With the rapport developed, the customer could be more open minded and — if they agree that the product could be the ideal solution, that next meeting is something they’ll want.

For salespeople that aren’t familiar with holding Customer Development meetings, the Customer Development Manifesto by Steve Blank is a must-read.  This will help you set the tone for your first meetings so that you can reap the benefits and, ultimately, land more sales as a result.




Mike Belsito

About the author

Mike Belsito is a startup product and business developer who loves creating something from nothing. Mike is the Co-Founder of Product Collective which organizes INDUSTRY, one of the largest product management summits anywhere in the world. For his leadership at Product Collective, Mike was named one of the Top 40 influencers in the field of Product Management. Mike also serves as a Faculty member of Case Western Reserve University in the department of Design and Innovation, and is Co-Host of one of the top startup podcasts online, Rocketship.FM. Prior to Product Collective, Mike spent the past 12 years in startup companies as an early employee, Co-Founder, and Executive. Mike's businesses and products have been featured in national media outlets such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, NPR, and elsewhere. Mike is also the Author of Startup Seed Funding for the Rest of us, one of the top startup books on Amazon.


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