Selling to Product Managers

I will admit that as a product manager, I can try the patience of the average or even exceptional sales person. It's in our DNA to dig deep

Selling to Product Managers

An interesting topic today, what it must be like to sell to someone who lives and breathes products, and all aspects therein. This post revolves around selecting a realtor as the trustee of my Stepfather’s estate.

Synopsis: In late 2018, my Stepfather, my father figure for over 40 years, passed away. He had been ill for a while, so it wasn’t a surprise that his health deteriorated and he slipped off this mortal coil, it was a turning point for me personally.

Back in 1994, when my mother and stepfather were still alive, they formed a trust. It was a common thing, especially here in Silicon Valley, where housing values were going bonkers, as a way to prevent probate and the egregious costs of settlement that entailed.

Fast forward to today, and I am responsible for preparing and selling a house that is literally a 10 minute walk from the new Apple headquarters building in Cupertino. The house, originally bought for the princely sum of $40,000 in 1974 is now a hot property.

Built in 1957, and never really updated, it still had the mostly original kitchen (new appliances, but not recent), hardwood floors from an earlier era, and while the bathrooms had been refreshed about 20 years ago, they are definitely dated.

My job

As trustee, my #1 responsibility is to get the maximum return from the house, sold for the most that it can, so as to give the heirs their best share. Prudence (and the recommendation of the estate attorney) is to interview a few agents (I chose 3) and to select the one who would do the best job.

I selected three agents, the one who we used to help us buy our current house, the agent who handled my in-law’s home, and the third being the agent who helped our neighbor when her father in-law passed away.

Interviewing and getting their proposals was an interesting prospect, and three very different – yet not so different – approaches. One was a do enough to neutralize the negatives of the age of the house and sell it. The other two were variations on a theme. Spend some money (fronted or carried through escrow) to make the home move-in ready, and that will provide a significant return on investment. As I had limited funds in the trust, this was very attractive.

I am not going discuss the vagaries of the decision process, but instead discuss the losing agent, and why he failed to get my business.

The Loser

There were several warning signs in the process that laid the traps that he fell into. His pitch was too aggressive, too self assure, and had plenty of holes.

He wanted to be the last agent to propose his plan, so we scheduled it for a Monday after I had spoken in detail with the other two agents. I had expected to see a proposal, with what will be done, a cost, and a realistic expectation for the return on investment for the work to do, and how it will go.

At this point in my trusteeship, I had logged almost 160 hours of effort over 4 months, including a lot of back-breaking work to fill dumpsters of debris and trash (seriously, I personally filled 2 thirty cubic yard dumpsters, and finally paid junk haulers to remove an equivalent load more of junk) so I was ready to just move on.

I made a few points clear to all three agents:

  1. I want a high level plan with costs, and expected returns. I can read the recent sales reports, I know how to pick apart a competitive market analysis (CMA or ‘comps’) and read between the lines. Furthermore, when my Stepfather passed away, I had an appraisal done so I knew what the market looked like on the day of death.
  2. I really didn’t want minutia. I don’t care who or how they got the work done, only that the results were excellent, and that every dime spent would improve the curb appeal, and make the house move-in ready.
  3. I wanted a real estimate of the possible selling price.

I met with the 3rd agent on a Friday. We had a good discussion, walked through the house, and I was optimistic. He was a good salesman. He found common bonds (we talked playing classical guitar), and he had contractors and subcontractors who could do a lot of work, and carry the costs until escrow. He was a “full court press” kinda guy, and I could see his eagerness.

But, he wanted to be the final agent to present his plan, confident that his proposal would be the winning hand. We shook hands, and he went off to do his work, we agreed to meet the following Monday.

In the interim, I got his comps, his pricing strategy, and several emails throughout the week. He was quite aggressive. But I noticed some things that were out of line.

First – his comps were higher than the other two agents. A lot higher. Almost $400K higher. This made his sales strategy seem like a knock it out of the park scenario. In the sense of “I would be foolish to not select him.”

Second – He seemed to forget what day we agreed to meet. On the Tuesday, he emailed asking if we were going to meet on Wednesday or Thursday, and that he wanted his team to walk through the house. I reminded him that we agreed on the following Monday, and that he was to be the last of the agents to present a proposal.

Third – His pricing recommendation, starting with $1,888,888, a number with plenty of ‘8’s’, a number lucky to ethnic Chinese, a fact that I am aware of, but seeing what is in the market, and how the area had been performing, seemed like a stretch. He seemed positive that it would be bid up over $2M, and even provided title transfer company settlement estimates up to $2.1M.

These aggressive sales tactics are things that work, as I have seen them time and again when I am out with sales people to help support their efforts. As a product manager, I cringe inside when I am seeing this.

Then we came to the Monday proposal meeting. He wanted to meet late in the day (5 or 6PM) so I agreed to 6:00PM.

I show up, and I am bombarded with his hardwood person, his landscaper, his kitchen team, his flooring guy, his stager, and his general contractor. They spent an hour and a half walking through the house, pointing out what they would do, how they would set the house up, remove this, refinish that, reglaze the tub. Yada yada yada. Finally at about 8:00PM he is done with his “pitch” and I was able to head home.

Instead of a proposal, his strategy was to wow me with his team, and over the next two days, he trickled their estimates to me. Essentially forwarded emails, unformatted, un-tallied, leaving me to run the sums. Instead of a table listing the major areas (main living area, Kitchen, baths, bedrooms, yard, etc.) I was expected to extract the bits and total them myself.

Essentially, he completely misread what I wanted, what was important to me, and instead of being honest in his comps, he went back a year to cherry-pick closed sales to make the property seem a lot higher. Yes, instead of using an honest appraisal, he went back to the last peak of the market in the area, and gamed the comps. Once I figured out why his comps were way out of whack, he started with two strikes.

I didn’t choose him. I sent a polite, but pointed email saying that I had expected a proposal, and instead got a disjointed list of costs (with far too many details, including individual plants for the landscaping.), and actions, being forced to ferret out the actual numbers.

And his people’s numbers were almost exactly the same as the numbers that I got from the winning agent, plus or minus $100; essentially a toss up.

His Response

He sent one further email to me after I told him I signed with another agency, venting that “I had already decided” before the Monday evening meeting, and that I had wasted his and his teams’ time, and that he was disappointed in the whole process. Essentially claiming that I had jerked him around.

The truth was I woke up before 3:00AM that morning (insomnia is endemic to Product Management), had to drop my wife off at the airport at 10:00AM, meet with the accountant at 12:00 to pick up my stepfather’s final tax return, meet with one of the agents at 1:00PM to get their proposal, and then return to the house at 6:00PM for his “proposal”. I was absolutely exhausted.

I should have guessed that he would respond thus, and show his true colors. Sad.

The Hazard of Selling to a Product manager

Getting to the point of this post, finally.

Product managers are well versed in the sales tactics. We see the good, the bad, and the egregious. Great sales people don’t sell features, but instead understand the business outcomes desired by the customer.

In this case, my “care-abouts” were:
– Get the house ready to sell and be move in ready.
– Minimal intervention. I will not be buying the house, but selling it, so I could give a fig what colors, or counters are selected. I just want to know and trust that it will be done.
– A track record of success. Beyond references, I want to see results.
– Reality and honesty. Some people get dollar signs in their eyes, but as a product manager, I have learnt to temper wishes with reality. Less sophisticated targets may be fooled, but if that is your strategy for me, in this case, it will be the blocker.

The agent failed on all of these criteria. And he made it ten times worse by blaming the customer (aka me) for his shortcomings. I see that all the time in sales. Asked why they won a deal, and they will universally say “superior sales effort”, but the loss is always someone else’s fault; Competitor lied, issue with the “product”, customer is stupid – etc.

The flip side is also true, if you read the customer, understand their issues, and match that with the correct product, you will win.


Selling to a product manager is difficult. They know your role, they understand their pressures (sales), and they can clearly articulate the objective of the sale, whether it is to buy an appliance, or a home, and the value that it brings. The old school, high-pressure, baffle them with bullshit sales tactics will not cut it.

Benedikt Geyer