So one recent survey we did really brought out a healthy debate:  does your VP of Sales really need to be a product expert?

Many of the comments said it was more important a VP of Sales understand process and leadership more than the product itself.  That others like Sales Engineers and the product team can fill in the blanks on the product during a sales process.


Here is what I do know: at so many SaaS startups under $20m-$30m ARR, and probably under $50m ARR, I see VP of Sales fail when they don’t truly understand the product.  Again and again and again.

I see this again and again, especially when a VP of Sales comes from a “simpler” product to a more complicated product.  They often melt.  Or when a VP of Sales used to selling to a sales or marketing persona sells a complex vertical product requiring a lot of domain knowledge.  Or when a VP of Sales used to selling to business people has to sell an API to developers.

I say, you just gotta know the product.  You gotta be able to demo it.   You have to truly understand the use cases for real, and especially, for the Top 20 customers.  And you at least have to be able to answer the top 20 objections incredibly well.

A true product savant?  Perhaps not.  You do have a team for that.

But I just don’t see VPs of Sales succeed that at least within 30-45 days of starting aren’t at least masters of the product value proposition, of the top 10-20 customer needs, and how the product truly solves them.  For real. Not just with buzzwords.

I get that in bigger companies, it’s more about process, there is more support, and you often see sales and sales leadership not really be product experts.  I just don’t see this work until your brand is so strong, that the prospects already sort of understand what they are getting before they contact sales.  $20m-$30m ARR at the earliest.  And realistically, probably much later until your VP of Sales doesn’t at least have to be a bit of a guru in the product.  At least a little bit.

Put differently, a VP of Sales at an earlier or even mid-stage SaaS startup also has to be able to sell the product themselves.  And that’s really hard in the earlier days if they aren’t at least a bit of a product expert.

And finally, if you’ve hired a new VP of Sales, do whatever you can to support them.  Help them get up to speed.  Join them on 4-5 calls a week.  Be present.  And then, if 60-90 days in, they still just don’t understand the product.  If they are just saying the wrong things to customers and prospects.  Then I say … you probably made a mis-hire.  Time sometimes makes it better, but it won’t fix a VP of Sales that just can’t get their arms around the product.

Some other thoughts from others below:

  1. They should be an expert in in understanding all the details related to the customer’s problems the product solves.  — Sean Margin, Sr Director Sales Velocity, Innovative Solutions

  2. I’m in the “no” minority here. A pretty good knowledge needed of course, but I’d prefer a VP Sales that’s an expert in the problems the product solves instead. And who can demonstrate deep client empathy as a result. I’ve seen too many experts try to sell me stuff rattling off product features, explaining their better mousetrap because they’re too passionate about their product, and not about solving my problem. —  Theo Sanders, CEO at Sibly Co.

  3. If they are a true expert in sales process, they will come in and help win deals on day one by technique, tooling and process.  Over time, they will know your product as well or better than anyone else. But, don’t get hung up on not hiring them because they don’t know your product/industry. Sales leaders are smart and will learn the nuances of your product quickly! If they are there for several months and aren’t picking up on the product, you hired the wrong person! — Charlie Dehoney, VP, Zebox

  4. Having voted and seen the preliminary results it seems like some is wishful thinking. If it’s a complex mid market solution or enterprise solutions that will be very hard to accomplish and less feasible. You need to know your customer, product and competition. But you do not need to be able to build things in a Software platform to be it’s VP of Sales. That would be expert level for me.Should be different for a startup, but not once you reach 200 or 300 employees and have to focus on scaling and less selling yourself. — Andreas Ley, Managing Director EMEA, Nymbl

  5. If they aren’t, they should bring another area (or two) that they are true experts in. Maybe they are an incredible recruiter. Brilliant at sales process/structure. Brilliant at outbound, etc. Strong product knowledge (PK) does help a sales leader, especially to build trust. But, there are other ways to drive measurable impact in the org. — Mike Wolber, CRO, Rent Dynamics

  6. They certainly don’t need to know it cold. However they need to know: 1. The VPs 2. The use cases 3. Why we win 4. Competitor threats and objection handling.  And they need to have a good product team on standby 🙂 The job of a Sales VP is to be a true expert in strategy and tactics that will influence the BUYER to transact. — Salim Arkadan, Product Manager, Solera

  7. Whether an expert or not, he can’t be an empty suit. Has to know the product well enough to be able to lead and to sell. Without some level of perceived expertise and value-add there is no credibility within the team or with outsiders and will be ineffective over the long run. — Ho Nam, Managing Director, Altos Ventures

  8. Like any good sales pro, they need to have an intimate understanding of the how the product solves business problems for your customers. They doesn’t mean they need know all the features. Knowing the business impact is what matters. — Rich Adams, Director Enablement Programs, RevShoppe

  9. A great sales person understands their customer pain intimately, and shows how your product/solution addresses said pain in the most effecient way possible. You need to get your customer envisioning using your product/service and get them envisioning a better life with your product in the near future. Your customer needs to think every time they experience the said pain “man, I wish I had product/service x already”.If you accomplish that, you will win the deal. Also, if you do the above effectively, it sets your customer success team up really well. Then they know exactly what they need to do to create a happy customer. And happy customers drive your business forward. — Matt Palackdharry, Chief Revenue Officer, Tealbook

  10. Maybe, it depends on the scale, but at 25M, I work closely with product on the direction of the roadmap. Without knowing the product well, I’d be useless in those convos. I also don’t know how your going to design & iterate your demo if you don’t know how features relate to problems. — Peter Drummond, VP Sales, Beanworks Solutions


More of the comments here.

What Happens When You Hire the Wrong VP (Updated)

(expert image from here)


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