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Shifting gears from sales to product management

This post was originally published on The Signal, Mixpanel's in-house publication about building data driven products. If you'd like to read more stories like this, subscribe today.

When I saw that Heather Savatta downloaded our How technical should product managers be? report, I reached out to to see if she’d be interested in being feature story on The Signal. As the lead product manager for advertising products at Vox Media, I figured she had an interesting story about building out revenue models for media companies. She’s at the very frontlines of the industry’s reinvention.

“Sure, I am interested,” she wrote back. “I am not an overly technical product manager, though!”

One of the reasons we compiled that report in the first place is precisely because of this common, knee-jerk reaction in the product field. If a product manager doesn’t code, can she go toe-to-toe with the technical aspects of the job? As it turns out, Heather’s non-technical background isn’t a weakness. It is what built her forte.

Heather started out on the agency side before shifting gears into different sales roles at WebMD. And before moving to product marketing there, she was spared most encounters with product.

“After I moved to product marketing, I met all these new people building the products I was putting on media plans every day,” she said. “I was like, Oh my god, you work in the same office as me. I didn’t even know who you were.” It was like seeing behind the curtain in Wizard of Oz.

Traditionally, the “magic” of product management is made of up three distinct disciplines: technical skills, design, and industry expertise. However, Heather believes that there’s a critical fourth element: sales experience. For many product categories, when a PM doesn’t have firsthand experience selling that product, she’s missing out on critical training.

For example, in the case of Vox Media, “we might build the coolest ad product you’ve ever seen, but if we’re not closing deals and getting feedback from sales and advertisers, it doesn’t matter,” says Heather.

To her, selling products helps people build products. After earning some sales experience, product managers have the aptitude (and empathy) to understand what will ultimately satisfy real pain points, both for customers and for teammates.

In fact, Heather’s unique beginnings have also freed her from fitting that traditional product mold, like those who trained at Microsoft or Facebook. And after shifting gears from sales to product management, Heather realized three important guidelines product managers can learn from salespeople. These lessons have helped her navigate the job, whether it’s building tight feedback loops, making meetings productive, or orchestrating priorities across diverse teams.

Not to mention that Heather’s frontline experience has been the competitive edge she needs when building advertising products in media – one of the most breakneck industries in the world.

Sales as product’s greatest teacher

Heather has always spoken the language of her customers, even when it devolves in into the technical jargon of AdTech.

“In every role, I’ve been able to really understand advertisers and present solutions that make sense,” says Heather. “That’s essential in sales – you have to understand your product offering inside-and-out but also be fluent and anticipate how advertising experts and agencies think and speak.”

When you’re in sales, you become fluent because you’re constantly on calls, in client meetings, hearing the questions first-hand or turning technical discussions into casual conversations. Being able to quickly adapt to the circumstances, whether you have a script or not, is essential to solving a client’s problems.

It’s here where product people could take a few notes from sales’ techniques. There’s no need to rely on the many customer facing teams to funnel feedback into the product org. In Heather’s case, the best way for her to get direct product feedback was to step back into the sales role, and join her team members on calls to hear feedback straight from the customer.

Lesson 1: Close the loop

“The feedback loop between product and sales is really important,” says Heather. “Every product team is striving to do a better job with getting user feedback.”

“From the very beginning when I jumped into product marketing, I’ve been very involved with the sales teams, going to client meetings, joining calls etc.,” Heather says. “Sales felt comfortable bringing me because they didn’t worry I was going to get too technical or say something the clients didn’t understand since I was previously in the role.”

Heather found that having a product presence in a sales meeting was mutually beneficial. When it comes to Vox Media’s ad product, prospects could get the product expertise from Heather, whereas she could get a fly-on-the-wall-perspective on customers’ first impressions and how the product ranks amongst other contenders.

“It’s invaluable when product people actually take the time to join sales calls,” Heather says.

When the sale goes well, it confirms that a product successfully serves its audience. But the real golden insight is found when a call goes south.

“We learn the most about what we need to build when we hear directly from a prospect on why an ad product isn’t going to work,” she continues.

Because then, Heather and the rest of her product teams have to re-evaluate the product, its shortcomings, and how it’s positioned against the competition.

“The greatest lessons happen when prospects don’t buy,” she says, “even after we put a really innovative ad product in front of the prospect, which hits every KPI they care about.”

From Heather’s experience, sales feedback is often the lifeblood of the product team. But creating a feedback loop doesn’t just come with one-on-one interaction with the customer or prospect.

Heather’s method for creating a successful sales-product feedback loop in a busy environment might elicit groans: adding meetings.

Lesson 2: Put the work back into meetings

When a day is jam packed with back-to-back meetings, many feel like nothing was accomplished. I had no time to actually work, people think.

But for product people, it’s rare to find a free block of time on someone’s calendar come Monday morning. To Heather, meetings can’t impede against productivity. Instead, meetings are the set time where decisions are made and priorities are made a reality.

“I have to remind myself of this: I’m not in a meeting to be in a meeting, for the sake of being in a meeting,” says Heather. “Instead, I think: that’s my job – to be the person in meetings, so my team can be building.”

While developers and designers build, product managers communicate and orchestrate different groups to make priorities happen, set timelines, and make sure everyone is set on due course.

As for Heather ensuring that all her meetings actually do the job, she has a few techniques.

“Now when a meeting is about to end, I always say, ‘Let’s have a plan and make sure everyone knows the decisions we made.’ That way, no one feels like it was a major time suck. Instead, people clearly know what everyone is directly responsible for or what exactly they should focus on next.”

The final key to making meetings a forcing mechanism for decisions is to document the results or take an action. Whether it’s a product spec or a to-do, like telling the engineers that they are updating the product in a certain way, a meeting forces decisions. But most importantly, it makes people act.

But Heather wasn’t born with this innate sense of running productive meetings. In fact, one of her greatest frustrations during her time in sales informed this approach as a product manager.

Lesson 3: Turn the gray to black and white

“I found that in the sales world, meetings always felt very gray,” Heather says.

Sure, sales people are extremely results oriented, but according to Heather, “sometimes the discussion during internal sales meetings felt like a lot of daydreaming.”

In other words, any time that wasn’t spent on the sales floor could be interpreted as a dip in productivity. But that’s often because there was no designated person to clarify next steps, deliverables or make sense of the meeting’s outcome. When Heather transitioned into product, she realized how critical this role was.

“In product, meetings are a lot more black and white. There’s more of a focus on doing and next steps than anything else,” she continues.

“I quickly learned to ask things very clearly to get confirmation from other people.”

“For example, I would say, ‘This is what I heard you needed and what you wanted. Did I hear you right? If so, can you confirm via email?’ When in doubt, as a PM, my responsibility is to strip grayness from meetings and make things black and white.”

The product-driven mentality

In media, the best publications and platforms keep the lights on, and thrive, by fostering and growing the most engaged audiences.

So, it makes sense that a product leader bred from sales (with a “get it done” mentality) would work. But Heather’s unique pedigree isn’t the only thing driving results at Vox Media. Rather, it’s a shift the media company has made by focusing on not just producing content, but building products for readers and advertisers.

Being at a product-driven media organization is different, Heather believes: “If you’re always in a reactive seat, just building products people tell you to build, you’re not only going to feel the grind, day in and day out, but you’re also never going to build something that takes the market by storm.”

Instead of being reactionary, the product leadership at Vox Media reverse engineers their business results. First, they start with setting the major milestones they want to hit every year. Then, they look to product groups to come up with howexactly can they can achieve those goals.

“Our ad products team has a very ‘how can I help’ attitude,” says Heather. It’s core to Vox’s culture.

As a productive company-wide exercise, the company hosts an annual Hackathon. Every designer, developer and product team member joins together to solve problems and come up with new, proactive creative solutions.

This results oriented and out-of-the-box thinking is probably why Vox Media has one of the best ad technology platforms in the industry. Vox’s advertising products have done so well that now other media companies have incorporated it into their own revenue strategies.