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Leveraging Field Input and Feedback for Innovation

July 01, 2016

Involve sales throughout the innovation and go-to-market process to ensure that products are tailored to buyer needs

B-to-b organizations that rely on field sales to reach buyers should use the unique perspective and insight of this customer-facing function (including front-line sales reps, account managers and related field roles like field marketing) to help shape new products and improve existing products. Along with the formation of a sales advisory council, field input and feedback are key activities that align innovation efforts with sales. In this issue of SiriusPerspectives, we provide recommendations for gathering and applying insights from the field force during the innovation and go-to-market process.

Field Input and Feedback

Field Input

Unfortunately, many organizations don’t involve sales in the conceptualization and development of offerings and go-to-market strategies. As a result, many products fail to gain traction in the market for reasons that salespeople easily could have identified. Tight interlock among sales, marketing and product must be in place from the beginning of the innovation process, beginning with field input.

  • Benefits of field input. Early input from the field helps shape the offering to meet buyer needs. By applying field sales’ knowledge of the market and the organization’s competitors, product managers can make adjustments and strategic course corrections while an idea is still at the concept stage, increasing the likelihood of market success. This is especially true if the offering is released in multiple markets, regions or countries where field sales and marketing teams have an intimate understanding of market nuances. Additionally, actively soliciting input from a sales team gives salespeople a sense of ownership, which makes sales enablement easier and inspires reps to sell the new or enhanced product when it’s ready to launch.

  • Roles and responsibilities. Sales leaders must ensure that their teams provide input early in the process, and individual sales reps are responsible for sharing their perspectives and insights. Sales operations often is responsible for coordinating input from across the sales organization, particularly if technologies or systems are being used to gather the input. Sales enablement should contribute by relaying insight obtained through its interactions with salespeople, and also by reminding and encouraging field sales to provide input. Portfolio marketers and product managers receive the input, synthesize and process it. They also play a major role in soliciting input when it’s needed and keeping the lines of communication open so salespeople feel empowered to provide input.

  • Areas of greatest impact. Sales can provide input in many areas, but time is limited, so focus on areas where field input can provide the most benefit. The crucial question is whether sales believes the concept should move forward – so get input on the overall concept, value proposition, the buyer and user needs to address, and competitive positioning. At this stage, avoid focusing on the details of features and functionality. Salespeople are less likely to have insight about the actual use of the product, and other methods can be used to collect this information directly from users. Sales leaders can be particularly helpful in providing input about routes to market.

  • Methods for obtaining input. Use a combination of formal and informal approaches where field sales can provide input synchronously or asynchronously: formal meetings with small groups of salespeople where concepts are presented; informal one-on-one discussions with reps; having an individual assigned to represent sales in formal planning on a broader product team; idea management software that allows individuals to submit ideas, suggestions and observations; and select individuals being invited to provide direct input into the innovation process through discussions via a planning, prioritization and roadmapping tool used by product management.

  • Key considerations. Remember that the job of salespeople is to sell. Their input is important, but they cannot be used as full-time members of the product team. A better product that meets buyer needs makes their jobs easier and makes them more successful, so they have a vested interest in helping by providing input. However, time they spend providing input is time they are not spending on core selling activities, so use this time wisely.

  • Pitfalls. Field sales reps’ perspectives are valuable, given their time spent in the market with customers, but this perspective is less valuable – or at worst, misleading – if the innovation in question is unrelated to the current market, customer base or product area. For example, a sales team focused on selling to chief medical officers at hospitals is unlikely to provide useful input on a product designed for operations managers at home health agencies.

Field Feedback

Once a product is in the market, the product team monitors its performance to identify potential enhancements. Sales can provide value to these enhancements through field feedback.

  • Benefits of field feedback. Providing ongoing feedback on in-market products helps ensure the product is meeting customer needs and may identify potential changes to the offering. Sales feedback also can help illuminate potential future needs or issues. By showing sales reps that their feedback is important and valued, product management engages them more in the success of the product.

  • Roles and responsibilities. Sales leaders are accountable for ensuring that their teams provide feedback, and individual reps are responsible for sharing their observations and suggestions. Sales enablement should contribute by relaying insights obtained through its interactions with sales reps, and it should remind and encourage field sales to provide feedback. Product managers receive the feedback and are responsible for soliciting field feedback and ensuring that channels exist that enable sales reps to provide their feedback. Product managers also must close the loop with sales by communicating decisions made as a result of the feedback.

  • Areas of greatest impact. Field feedback should focus on what sales reps are hearing from prospects – whether it is positive or negative. What issues or objections commonly arise with buyers? What problems are customers experiencing with the product? This information is a good supplement to a formal win/loss program. In addition to features and functionality, field feedback should cover other elements of the offering that impact its success (e.g. service, support).

  • Methods for obtaining feedback. Multiple approaches should be used to obtain feedback. Product managers should attend regular sales team meetings to solicit feedback on a small-group level, and hold one-on-one talks with sales reps and managers. Provide an easy way for salespeople to provide feedback in near real time, since they are likely to hear criticism and suggestions from customers and prospects. Understand the workflow and environment of sales reps, and reduce barriers to their ability to submit feedback. For example, for field-based reps who spend most of their time on the road conducting in-person meetings, a mobile app allowing them to provide feedback after leaving the customer’s office encourages more participation – and more thorough, detailed feedback – vs. a system that requires a laptop and a VPN connection. Consider connecting to a sales force automation system or other platform used by salespeople; this facilitates feedback collection and allows for easy aggregation of information across a large sales team.

  • Key considerations. In most organizations, sales reps are paid, at least in part, based on how much they sell. In providing feedback, reps may point out a feature they think can help them close the next deal in their pipeline, or what factor they believe caused them to lose their last deal. This feedback is often accurate and valuable, but the product team should take into account the context surrounding the feedback.

  • Pitfalls. Some organizations rely exclusively on field feedback and miss out on other potential improvements that sales reps are unable to gather. Balance feedback from sales with other techniques (e.g. customer interviews, site visits, customer advisory boards), and be aware that some findings may contradict what comes from sales.

The Sirius Decision

Although front-line sales reps are the role whose feedback is most often asked for input and feedback, other roles in the sales organization – e.g. sales leaders, account managers, sales engineers – also can provide valuable information. These roles, as well as indirect sales reps, may provide different insights than those that can be provided by a direct sales rep. Organizations with blended models that combine direct and indirect sales should endeavor to gather a balance of perspectives that represent various channel partner types. This can help ensure that offerings are designed, built and enhanced to address the needs of clients and prospects.