Circa 2006, I was working as a product line manager, responsible for a series of optical and mechanical measurement and test instruments. I was a full stack product manager1, and I was the person who was responsible for the profitability of both individual products, as well as the overall profitability of the business.
As such, I not only set the prices, but I also was the main approver of discounts2. This meant that practically daily I was hit with requests, most were reasonable, and easy to approve, but sometimes there were requests that the sales people3 made that required analysis and a measured decision.
I believe that I was pretty fair, and rarely were there complaints.
One of the things that allowed me to handle this day-in, day-out was the fact that I knew the BOM of our instruments to a very granular level. To this day, I remember that the part number for the benchmark 17” flat panel display (701-213) and that when I left in 2009, its cost was $179 and change. I suspect that on my deathbed I will still think of that damn part.
Thus, when a salesperson calls with a request, if they give me the rough parameters, I can almost instantly say yes or no before we formalized the deal4.
Now, the story…
The Initial Call
I was in a weekly production meeting, and my cellphone rings. I glance at the display (remember this is pre-smartphone era, so it was just caller ID) and it is our Sales Director. I step out of the meeting to take the call.
A professor at a public university in Pennsylvania wants to buy one of our optical microscopes. The configuration is described. The list price was about $110K. The problem is this prof’s grant had only about $55K to spend. As I was in a meeting, I hadn’t been able to do a detailed margin breakdown, but it seemed that it was not going to work on the numbers.
The sales director understood and didn’t want me to “run the numbers”.
I assumed that was that and went on with my day.
A few hours later, I get a call. Our regional sales manager and the salesman for the account get me on the phone to make the case. They make a pitch. Yes, it is a deep discount. But it is a good professor (he publishes a lot and will be a reference account), he can make the instrument available to use to demo to other potential customers, and that the discount might be justified.
I committed to running the numbers, and to get back to them. I worked up the financials, and while I wouldn’t make much money with it, the intangibles and good will with a prominent research team helped tip the balance5.
I called the sales manager and gave the thumbs up.
Lots of proclamations that I was the best, and thanks later we ended the call.
The unhinged call
Not 45 minutes later my office line rings. No caller ID there, so I answer with my usual chipper greeting.
It is the Sales Director, and it starts with a string of obscenity and cursing me. He ranted that I “undercut” him, because he told his regional manager that the answer was “no” to the discount, and that I made him look “weak” and undermined his authority.
He was yelling loud enough that I pretty much held the phone receiver at arm’s length. Honestly, I was shaken. The vitriol, the invective, and the stream of f-bombs was over the top.
After a few minutes of this, the call ended. I sat in my office with a thousand-mile stare, questioning my choices in life.
I just had someone who was 3 steps above me on the org chart ream me out over approving a discount that allowed them to book an order and build further a relationship with a key PI.
Why the fuck did I take this shit.
Seriously, I was about to power off my laptop, collect my personal belongings from my office, and just quit on the spot.
Be a product manager they said. Be a leader they said. It will be great they said.
But when an unhinged sales leader rips you a new asshole when you go to bat and grant a discount it is sure difficult to shake off.
About 18 months later, I was visiting a different group and on my morning jog I ran across the company’s VP of sales, and as we were running he asked me about the sales director. There had been a lot of complaints about his behavior and comportment.
I related the above story, and the VP confided to me that there were multiple similar incidents that had led to formal complaints, and that he wasn’t sure that he could continue to have that Sales Director remain on staff.
He was cut, and the last I checked, he never had a similar level role again.
Sometimes the system does work.
I mean this in that I was close to the development team, the production team, marketing, finance, and sales. I literally did like 3 FTE jobs. ↩
At the time, I reported to the business unit VP/GM, so the only person who could reverse a decision I made was that VP/GM. But it rarely happened that I was usurped. ↩
I should say “salesmen” because our sales org was a total sausage fest. I fail to understand how we couldn’t find or hire any women into sales. Ok, maybe not that baffled, but a team of mediocre white dudes is the norm ↩
This ability and others are why at one of the annual sales meetings I was presented with an award as a valued partner for sales. That virtually is unheard of in the profession of product management ↩
The truth is, we had enough extra margin in general to approve a few of these “charity” cases. It was always at my discretion though.