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Effective Collaboration Between Engineering and Sales

Alignment
Sharing The Vision
Team Processes
Cross-Functional Collaboration

21 July, 2021

Sebastien Cuendet
Sebastien Cuendet

Sr. Engineering Manager at dbt Labs

Sebastien Cuendet, Senior Director of Engineering at AppFolio, relieved interdepartmental tension by bringing his Engineering team together with Sales in order to see things from their point of view.

Problem

We were trying to enter a new market for which our product wasn’t a good fit yet. Sales had a hard time getting prospects to sign up for our product because of some key missing features. They wanted us to develop those features, but our product organization was reluctant to blindly develop features for prospects for fear of ending up with a string of custom solutions that would grow unmanageable.

The high-level problem between Engineering and Sales was that Sales is very short-term driven. There are quarterly quotas to hit. The feature that seems the most needed is the one that the current prospect is missing. Product development is long-term focused: you need to really understand the pain of customers and solve it in a way that will satisfy most of them.

There is a general distrust between Sales and Engineering for this reason. Usually, you have the product manager sitting in the middle as the messenger. In this example, our product managers were saying “No” to Sales a lot, and the Sales team was getting frustrated. We were having a hard time as a new company penetrating this new market.

It was a catch-22; when you’re developing a product, you need to talk to the people who need your product so that you understand their needs. This is hard to do when you don’t have any customers yet. Once you actually have a customer, you can talk to them and understand their pains. In our case, Sales people were the ones speaking to our prospects.

Actions taken

We were asked to work directly with Sales because our product was not up to par according to what they were feeling at the time. There was a general fear on the Engineering side that the partnership would result in hard deadlines, ad hoc additions, and drama. Sometimes, Sales sees Engineering only as a feature-building entity. Just do what the customer wants. This is a completely uninspiring way to work from an Engineer’s perspective. It can be limiting; you’re not really creating something new.

We decided to organize a half-day workshop early that January with the Sales team. The goal was to get to know each other (Sales and Engineering don’t interact together very often!); to create the foundation for our collaboration. I asked the Sales leader to come to the workshop with the main missing features in our product. I insisted on having them phrased as problems and not solutions. Why were we not capable of selling in this market? They came up with eight of them.

After some introduction and ice-breaking, we split up into smaller groups, one Sales person with two or three Engineers. Each Sales person explained to their group what the problem was that our product wasn’t solving and why it was important to solve it. Engineers love solving problems and started to engage with the problems and to brainstorm solutions with the Sales person.

This was eye-opening, for both the Engineers and the Sales team. The Sales team realized that Engineers were able to come up with creative solutions that were better than what they had originally imagined themselves. The Engineers were happy to see that their colleagues in Sales knew a lot about the customer and that the problems that they wanted solved made a lot of sense.

Following this workshop, we had the chance to join the Sales team as they spoke to our prospects in the market. As Engineers, we learned a lot about the business side of things and the users that we were trying to serve. It was a completely different mindset. We brought both of our worlds closer together.

Lessons learned

  • This half day that we spent together changed a lot in the perception that we had of each other. It wasn’t all rosy after that, but I think that was a turning point. We were no longer overwhelmed by too many unimportant “priorities”. The partnership became much more fruitful as a result and we had some great wins together.
  • Keep an open mind with people. This exercise helped us build trust and respect with Sales. It can be difficult to build these types of relationships with people following different codes of conduct in regard to the work. It became the foundation of a more functional relationship. I personally learned a lot about our business and sales, and have built lasting relationships with our Sales leaders.
  • When Sales wanted new features, we would hold meetings to determine what would be possible and useful, and what may be better to say no to. This gave us a chance to explain why some things were easier to add to the product than others. We were able to show them those trade-offs.
  • It is invaluable for Engineers to be involved with understanding the other parts of the business outside of the Engineering department, including the needs of the customer.

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