Last month, I made a dramatic career shift. After 11 years of being a project/program/product manager, and a couple of years leading the Product team at LiquidPlanner, I decided to switch things up and become an Account Executive on our Sales team. It’s been awesome so far, but it might seem like a weird move to an outsider. The biggest question about the transfer is this: why would I give up the product management career I’ve been building for over a decade? The answer is: I haven’t.
My hypothesis is that experience in Sales won’t detract from a career in product, it will enhance it.
Everything that makes a good PM makes a good AE
Before making the switch, I spoke with account executives I respect and read a few books on modern sales philosophy and strategy. I quickly realized the characteristics that make a great PM also apply to great salespeople. A successful Account Executive is less sleazy used car salesman and more of a consultant, the same way a successful PM is less Bill Lumbergh and more Winston Wolfe.
We’re leader-servants, we identify problems and collaborate on solutions, and we create win-win situations through principled negotiation. Maybe most importantly, people in both roles need to be product experts. Luckily for me, I get to cheat — it’s a very natural transition to help people get value from LiquidPlanner because I helped design and build it.
Seeing Product from a new perspective
One of the classic business struggles is Product vs Sales, which boils down to each group thinking they know best what customers want. Thing is, they’re both right, but about different wants. Product is good at knowing what people want to use, Sales is good at knowing what people want to buy.
Both of these perspectives are important in building a successful product and company. Sales is focused on the micro (a sale) and Product is focused on the macro (the product). I understand the macro product management challenges, but I need to grok the micro, too. The goal is to be able to tell Product what Sales needs in the language and context Product understands. And should I go back to Product, I’ll be able to convey product value in the context of a sale. Bonus: I’ll be able to effectively call bullshit on each group.
The Product Management world pays a lot of lip service to empathy, but how many PMs have actually experienced the life our internal customers live? Gaining this perspective has been a humbling experience. The we-told-you-so look on the face of one of our sales engineers when she heard a customer ask me why we didn’t have a certain feature — a feature which I’ve been telling Sales we don’t need for the last couple of years — was a look I definitely deserved.
Conveying product value
The ability to have clear and concise conversations about the why and what of the product is as important for a product manager as it is for someone in sales because they’re both trying to sell the product. The PM sells it to the company (“we should build this thing”) and the AE sells it to the customer (“you should buy this thing”).
One thing I’ve always struggled with is how to convey why a product is valuable. I have all the user research, design decisions, execution plan, and go-to-market framework in my head, but wrapping all that into a tight package anyone gives a shit about has been a struggle — how do I distill the ocean into a drop? Without serious thought and prep, I would vacillate between vomiting minute user or feature details without much context, or go the other way with something akin to “just… um… trust me.” Neither went over well.
Sales is teaching me how to start simple and build from that base. In order to give someone new information, they need to know why they should care and the language for how to talk about the new thing — the building blocks of the conversation. From there, you can use the why and what to construct a conversation that makes sense. It kinda reminds me of the translation process used in Arrival.
By honing my existing PM skills in a sales context, building new sales skills with a background in product, and synthesizing the best of both worlds, I’ll be stronger in both roles. Combining these skill sets also opens up new options, like sales engineering, consulting, and entrepreneurship.
But for now, I’m happy where I’m at. Selling an awesome product to people who need it is the most fun I’ve had at work in years.
Kayvon Ghaffari is an Account Executive at LiquidPlanner. He enjoys behavioral economics, disruptive innovation, and psychologically satisfying third items.