Hidden Tension Between Sales and Development

Our boss once said:

 “There are people whose superpower is getting the signature on the dotted line”.

This may seem fairly obvious to other people, but to me, it was not. After all, a sale is an agreement to deliver a service (we are in the consultancy business) wouldn’t the people best placed to make the sale be the people who will do the actual delivering?

Well, I was wrong, as it turns out sales is an entirely different process from development. Sales tend to be more aggressive and charging while the development is more gentle and steady. These two forces complement each other, except when they don’t.

In this entry, I will be exploring some causes of conflict between the two teams and how they can be resolved for a stronger overall team.

Commitment to deadlines

Sales tend to be the first contact with the client. In some cases the client’s deadline is not arbitrary, something in their business environments such as trade show, shopping season or investor pitch is coming up. As the sales person, it is in your best interest to promise the client that whatever they need to be done will be done by that date.

The engineering team, on the other hand, has another belief set concerning deadlines, specifically:

    You can manage to deadline and let scope vary or manage to scope and let deadline vary.

This means that the engineering people can either work on a stripped down version of the product before the deadline or make no hard commitments but get it all done.

The problem then comes when the development team is given an engagement that just can’t be delivered within an already committed timeline.

To resolve this issue, the sales team should never give a time commitment. I mean this in the strictest sense, not a date on the calendar, not a range of days not even a ballpark figure without first consulting the development team!

Handling of issues

Let me let you in on a little secret, the dream of building a product from solid success to solid success is a beautiful one but only a fantasy. Nothing can save you from missteps in any non-trivial development.

To the sales team, problems are there to be solved. After all, we promised we will get this thing done and by God, we will!

The development team on the other hand does not like playing catch up, rather they would prefer to have a new planning session where commitments are renegotiated.

My take is that during times of great political risks, candour is a vital behaviour that maximises your chance of a positive outcome. After all, maybe, just maybe what you think is a big issue may turn out to be trivial to the client. Or it may be so important that they chose to have your work exclusively on that issue. Either way you have allowed them to exercise their proper role as custodians of priority of their product.

Unexpected “Aha”

During the normal course of development, the team may land on a great idea that would make the product 10X better. Of course, the same idea would also have the same impact on a competitor’s product.

If this is not a perfect opportunity for up-selling, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps because engineers are not typically compensated on basis of sales per quarter, they tend to see things in a different way. You see, human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still, it is never complete.

Then to the engineers, this new knowledge seems like a gift to be given to the client team.

I believe the aim of any good engineering team should not just be to deliver to spec but also to delight the client with a beautiful product. Yet in the same vein, no development work should ever be done without explicit approval by the client. What may seem brilliant to you maybe garbage to someone else.

I will sue you

Whenever someone blurts out the words “I will sue them, you wait and see” I immediately get the impression that they have no idea how arduous the legal process actually is.

When serious issues arise in the project such as the client trying to poach the development team, the immediate reaction may be to channel all the energy used to win the client to now battering them.

Engineering culture, on the other hand, carries with it a different tone:

    Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Yes, the client signed a contract, yes it seems like they are now trying to screw us over, no we will not aggravate the situation.

I believe that any contract is undersigned by a genuine human relationship, furthermore, this relationship is worth more than any piece of paper. Barring cases of outright hostility, all measures should be taken to preserve the relationship.

Have you ever experienced any tensions between your developers and your sales team? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex


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Software Project Manager