Two of the core pillars of all B2B SaaS startups are their product and sales teams. It is critical, therefore, that these teams must be well-aligned and cohesive. Product teams tend to be largely inward-looking while sales teams are, by nature, customer-focused. This disconnect can be exacerbated if you fail to properly define your processes. In this five-part, biweekly series, we will explore different approaches to product and sales alignment with different companies in our portfolio. Last time, we explored keeping product and sales aligned through knowing your customer with Electric AI. Read about it here.
Our company this week is ActionIQ. We spoke with Nitay Joffe, the Founder and CTO. ActionIQ provides marketers the ability to transform customer experiences and drive innovation and profitability through their real-time customer data analytics platform. ActionIQ raised their $30MM Series B in 2017 in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz. At time of writing, ActionIQ has about 80 employees. As someone who has been with the company since the beginning, Nitay had three battle-tested points to share on keeping your teams aligned:
1. Team Ownership. A key strategy that Nitay uses at ActionIQ is to ensure that your teams really own a piece of the pie. When product is able to own the roadmap and near term feature developments, executives are able to think more strategically. Nitay typically involves himself with bigger “rocks” which are 6-12 month timeline projects, rather than the day to day small “rock” features or bug fixes. Likewise, sales / pre-sales teams are able to own requests from prospects and communicate them effectively up the chain of command. If you define your processes clearly, you can avoid miscommunication and keep product and sales aligned.
2. Avoid Tunnel Vision. Everyone has tunnel vision. It is easy to get caught up in what you think is the right direction. However, your perspective is invariably shaped by your personal interactions with set of customers and the markets you engage with, which can be dangerous. To overcome this issue, Nitay suggests that a point person (e.g founder / product manager) should be appointed to amass the information. The point person can then aggregate perspectives from the entire team and make more informed decisions than any one perspective could provide.
3. Pick a Tool. There is an abundance of workflow management tools designed to help streamline productivity on the market today. Asana, kissflow, and Monday are but a small slice of the ever-growing pie that is workflow SaaS. Nitay believes that there is no single best tool, but rather the right tool for the problem you have now. The critical piece is that you invest in the tool and use it. This helps teams communicate more effectively and results in less misalignment between product and sales. ActionIQ leverages Aha! to plan their product roadmap and communicate that roadmap to their sales team.
Incorporating external feedback from customers into development cycles can throw off the ability to keep product and sales aligned if not done properly. During Nitay’s tenure at ActionIQ, he has seen the company successfully roll out several critical features that impacted large customer segments. Nitay has the following three suggestions that can help you define your processes and keep product and sales aligned:
1. Figure Out How Sales Feedback Makes It To Product. Building camaraderie within your team is important, but it can backfire if sales start requesting features from product directly without a known process. At a small scale this can be effective in the short term, with less turnaround times and organic growth, and may be the process you desire initially. As you scale, Nitay cautions that it is unsustainable in the long run. When sales members are speaking directly to product members, this pulls development in several different directions. If the leadership decides to move in a particular direction, the entire ship should turn together. Having developers work on individual requests that do not align with strategic direction is often the root cause of misaligned sales and product teams.
2. Bigger Is Not Always Better. It is extremely tempting to divert product roadmaps for one big contract. Why would you prioritize smaller client requests if a $1MM contract comes along and offers to secure half the ARR necessary to raise a Series A? Of course, you should be receptive to these requests, particularly if they match up with your roadmap. If it feels like it came out of left field, however, you should be very cautious. It is critical to be able to turn down requests, regardless of deal size, if they pull your product on a wild goose chase that you don’t want to be on. Be sure to aggregate requests together to understand trends in customer utilization. Define your processes on how frequently customer requests will be discussed in team meetings. ActionIQ relies on weekly product meetings in which the multitudes of requests are brought forth together.
3. Update Sales. When people typically talk about product and sales alignment, they tend to zoom in on sales teams updating product teams with what customers are asking. What is equally critical, however, is developing a bidirectional communication system between the two teams. Product should be able to speak to how customers are actually using the product, as well as how to talk about new features that are rolling out. This can frequently help steer sales discussions in more effective directions, and keep product and sales aligned.
The consistent theme from ActionIQ is to define your processes early. As Nitay says, it does not matter what process you use. The actual tool you use to get to where your product needs to be is not the critical question. The critical questions should be: have we found product market fit; should we develop feature organically or according to a final vision; how does my roadmap look 6-12 months from now?
Nitay’s top tip for founders this week is: Build a culture of continuous improvement. In Japanese there’s a term for this – Kaizen. Recognize that things change as you grow, and be ready to alter your processes to meet that growth. A lot of early founders can be process averse, but if the founder is process averse, the rest of the company will be that way too. You as the founder have to be the one setting these up initially. Recognizing the right level of process, for the stage you are at, is critical to success.
Additionally, especially at an early startup, never assume something is set in stone. Market target, product, processes, are all on the table as something that can be changed. Everything should be seen in the light of what we’re doing now. Maybe it’s working, or maybe it’s not, and we should be doing something else. As long as we’re having discussions for improvement, that is good and healthy.
If you liked “Keeping Product and Sales Aligned: Define Your Processes” and want to read more content from the Bowery Capital Team, check out other relevant posts from the Bowery Capital Blog. Also keep an eye out for the next part in our series on keeping your product and sales teams aligned.