Engaging the Sales Team for Design Research


When designing in enterprise and b2b environments, it’s tempting to believe that the customers are easy to get to for the purposes of research, feedback, and product development. I mean, our sales and customer support teams talk to them all day!

But that’s not the case, not by a long shot. Connecting with business customers is an under-appreciated challenge unto itself, even on the best of days. For starters, your customers are business customers. They understand that their time is valuable–because they’re being paid to be there! Time is money! And the time and money spent doing their job don’t have a vested interested in helping you do your job.

On top of that, you probably have people at your company who go by the name of Account Management, Customer Success, or just Sales (which I will collectively refer to as ‘sales reps’), and they probably think talking to customers is their exclusive domain. You have to take a minute to appreciate their perspective.Your sales rep probably hasn’t worked in the product development process before, so they don’t have a reason to believe it would be useful to them or to the customer. If your sales rep thinks bringing you into the mix can jeopardize their relationship with their customers, then it’s a no-go.

The last thing your sales rep or your customers needs is some nerd from corporate talking tech and design or defending defective design work, wasting everyone’s time. Sales reps need a reason to believe this misstep won’t happen.

I’ve been down this road at a company that works in financial services (talk about a ‘time is money’ mentality–it’s called interest). Our B2B customers were home improvement contractors, who range from small, independent and sometimes un-tech-sophisticated contractors to mid-size contractors who have sometimes-sophisticated operations and even in-house dev teams.

For us, engaging the sales team to help with product development took about 18 months, which is not quick. But in that time, we went from from “Why should I let you talk to my accounts?” to “hey, can you talk to one of my accounts? They have some feedback.” That was a tectonic shift in perspective and a long, non-linear journey that often felt like two steps forward, one step back.

The nuts and bolts of who to talk to when, what meetings and conversations to have, etc, tends to vary from organization to organization. In the meantime, here are a few lessons learned from my experience, grain of salt optional:

Get insight from sales reps themselves

To start, I interviewed a lot of our sales reps as proxy users. Many of our sales reps used to be the kinds of contractors they now service and they were themselves SMEs in the field. I got their attention with pre-release prototypes. From this, I was able to get general (admittedly biased) market discovery. Perhaps more importantly, I showed them that I valued their opinion and experience.

Establish a feedback loop

Early on, my team was always chasing after the sales team, trying to get to customers, and getting nowhere. Then, we learned that the sales team had to write up weekly reports about their portfolio and include any “market color” that they found along the way, which included a ton of valuable input for our product team–even feature-specific suggestions from customers. Our product team had no idea these reports were even happening. Once we got on the distribution list, we were drinking from the firehose. The reports provided good starting points for digging into problems or developing new features, and reaching out to those individual reps.

Close the feedback loop

This is really hard.

One of the most frustrating things was demoing a prototype of a new feature, our sales team totally buying into it, and that feature either taking a really long time to get to market or never getting to market. This was a major knock on our credibility and strained the relationship.

You have to understand that sales happens in real-time. There are no sprint cycles, or product releases, just relationships that ebb and flow based on current performance and opportunities. As a result, a sales team can be a pretty what-have-you-done-for-me-lately organization.

On the other hand, when you do get their feedback, you document that you understand it, you demo an update, and you come back to them with the date it will be in market in a timeline that benefits your customers, you’ll be like a conquering hero. “Someone finally listened!” was simultaneously flattering and depressing.

Find the squeaky wheel

One of your sales reps has a customer who is always making suggestions. You need to use your feedback loop to find who that is. That customer will be more likely to find value in spending time with someone from your product team, participating in research, and being heard. Conversely, it’s worth acknowledging for your sales team most of your B2B customers will think time spent with the product team is value they are giving to you.

Commit to being the face of the product

Sales is a face-to-face business. On top of that, many of our sales reps were on call virtually 24/7, taking calls from customers at all hours. When I presented some prototypes of upcoming features at one of our regional sales meetings, I ended with a slide that was only my name, my cell phone number, and my email address. I told them that they can contact me at any time. They never did call, but they sat up and noticed. It connected with them at the time because I was speaking their language and meeting their level of commitment helping them and our customers.

As hard as it can be to cross this chasm to get to your customers, you gotta do it. You have to get out there. The sales reps that have close relationships with your customers can be one of your most powerful allies in achieving your goal of greater customer insight. It’s a key way to get true feedback from enterprise customers. And it’s also critical to helping your internal team understand they they are not the customer. Connecting with your sales team will help you in both the short and long term by gaining valuable insights and growing your relationship with the folks that talk to your customers day in and day out.