Say no to the sales team — this is how
Recently, a friend (a new-ish PM with <2 years of experience) asked me: “The sales head has asked me to ship a feature that I think does not align with the product strategy. So what do I do? How to say no politely?”
“You’re not alone. Almost every PM has faced the same problem in some form or the other. I have too.” I told him.
This conversation got me thinking.
It took me back in time — I am 27, finding my way around my first PM job, trying to learn what PM’s do, staying away from inter-office politics, and trying to get shit done.
My product management experience, at that time, was limited to a couple of books, a few analytics MBA courses, and online blogs.
So every time a senior leader requested (read:demanded) a feature, I would genuinely get stressed.
Today, when I think why I got stressed in these situations, I know that it was because every request had one or more of the below characteristics.
- Every request came from a person who outranked me multiple folds.
- Every request was “urgent”, and not shipping this feature would lose us “multi millions in revenue”.
- Every request was the “last time” the sales head wanted the product team to deviate from the already agreed roadmap.
- Every time, it made sense to ship the requested feature because it was innovative. It would help us gain a competitive advantage.
At the time, all requests sounded genuine. And that is what scared me. It forced me to think “what if they’re right?”, “what if I say no and lose millions in revenue?”, “what if the requestor escalates, and my manager fires me?.”
I now know that my fear was unfounded. It was based on my lack of experience and, more importantly, my lack of confidence.
But today, if I encounter a similar situation I do the following, and you can too:
Understand their motivation (aka goals) before you say no
Don’t assume that the requestor has the same goal as you. Instead, ask:
- what they’re trying to achieve with the request.
- how they think their request will contribute to their and the company’s goal.
Be persistent to get the answers, especially to #2. The requestor will focus on the “what” because that is easy to do, because that is what they know well. But for you, uncovering the “why” is important.
If they do share their “why”, great. It will help you not only tackle this situation, but also include their “why” while you’re planning long term initiatives.
At this time, you might hesitate or fear asking too many questions or feel intimidated due to their seniority.
But do not hesitate. A great PM knows never to be intimidated. A great PM does what it takes to get the required information to make the best decisions. So keep asking the same question till you uncover their “why.”
Do not say no (or yes) on the spot. Nothing is as urgent as they think
Everyone has a different definition of “urgent.” Don’t let their “urgent” pressurise you into responding and committing to something you disagree with.
Even if you think their request is valid — and it might very well be — do not fall in the trap of responding and committing on the spot.
Let them know you need time.
If they disagree, push harder.
Make them aware of the fundamental tradeoff
This is where you get down and dirty — you help them understand your “why”, and this is how you do it.
Help the requestor understand why their request is not a good idea:
”Building feature XX is not a good idea right now because other features on the roadmap contribute more to Metric ABC.” (Feature XX is what they’re requesting for, and Metric ABC is the north star)
Do it in the language they understand:
”Shipping feature XX gets us $100K in the first year. But shipping XX means we can’t ship feature ZZ. We project that feature ZZ will get us $300K in the same time frame.”
Do it in a way that everyone in the company can relate to:
“Our focus this year is high LTV clients, and feature XX does not contribute to that goal.”
Essentially, what you’re doing here is:
- You’re explaining, mathematically, your reasons for making the decision.
- You’re convincing them, using emperical evidence, that you have the product’s (and company’s) best interest in mind.
- You are demonstrating (again) that you have a comprehensive roadmap, which you would iterate only if you discover something more valuable than the items already on it. This should help others appreciate the larger picture and (re)align on the larger vision.
- You are openly showing how you calculate value. Hence you’re proving why their request doesn’t make the cut.
The above is not as straightforward in practice as it seems on paper. It needs preparation and confidence. So buy time, and use that time to prepare.
Reinforce your justification
Over-communicate. Share your reasons with as many people as required and as many times as it takes to drive the message.
In cases of disagreements like these, it is best to reinforce your message multiple times.
If you presented your reasons in a large meeting, follow up with an email.
If you’ve already emailed, meet the person(s) face to face. Again.
Be genuine and transparent
Don’t sneak in your “no’s” as a “maybe” or “we’ll get to it later.” Call it as it is. Be upfront and honest. Transparently, share what you know and how you operate.
Honesty will create trust, credibility, and a strong relationship — all ingredients to help you navigate such issues (if they reoccur) with much ease.
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