Product Standardisation – Walking on the Razor’s Edge

In this post I will explain why satisfying your clients inevitably creates conflicts in your product development, and how marketing and sales can help ensure that product standardisation is still possible in a customer-centric business model.

“I really like your product – it is exactly what I need, the best solution for me on the market! The only thing I am missing is an interface with this software we have used for years…but if you build that for me, I will definitely go with your solution and get it signed off by our Head of Digital right away!”

Does this sound familiar? If you work in sales or account management, I am pretty sure you have heard those words before – a potential client who really, really wants your product – it just needs a little extra bit of customisation. And unless you work in a industry where bespoke solutions are the norm, customisation should not be your focus.

Especially in an early-stage startup the temptation is very big to just go along and say yes to all client requests – you’re a young company, you need clients because you need proof of concept and, well, money. So it often happens that your first few clients get away with murder, since you simply are in no position to say no, so you end up doing exactly what they request.

And that is where you establish the basis for future account management nightmares and operational chaos! Why? Because you will never be able to achieve meaningful product standardisation.


Product standardisation is key for achieving scale

Making clients happy is important for any business, irrespective of the size and the current phase of development. However, imagine you continue to act like the hypothetical early-stage startup I just mentioned, and satisfy all your clients’ requests for extra features.

Do you think they will be happy? Pretty sure they will be, but will you? Once you start scaling the company by adding more clients, and also enlarge your operations to support more growth, your generosity will come back to bite you.

I have experienced it myself: suddenly your neat and tidy portfolio of 2-3 products has evolved into a jungle of 20+ different variations, with different features and pricing agreements here and there.

You want to role out an update across the platform without much hassle? Forget it. Cut off some features on future releases? Not a chance – after all, each client feels they paid specifically for all those little goodies you gave them!

So what are your options then? You can muddle through the way you did before, and never be able to really scale, or you need to make the hard cut at some point and push through the product standardisations you need – and risk losing many clients in one go.

Neither option sounds attractive – so consider the following instead.

Marketing and sales need to set the right expectations

In order to avoid your product variations growing like weeds on your lawn, you need to set the tone right from the start. Your clients obviously will not really care why product standardisation makes sense for your company – after all, you are meant to solve their problems!

So you need to deliver a different, customer-centric message to them:

  • Position yourself as an authority in your field through strong content marketing to gain expert status
  • Emphasise in your product marketing that you offer a standardised solution which is based on industry best-practice
  • Be consistent in your sales pitches and negotiations to ensure prospective customers have a clear understanding of your value proposition

You may even be honest and mention in a direct sales conversation that your business is dependent on speed and efficiency so that you are able to aways provide the latest updates to your clients – and for that, product standardisation is essential. Some of your clients will certainly understand, since you make it important for them.


This may sound like a lot of work and some extra hoops to jump through, especially for sales when signing new clients and facing their objections to standardised solutions. It is definitely easier to get a new client hooked if they get the feeling that everything they ask for will be possible, but as we established earlier, the cost for you will be much higher later on.

In summary

Promoting product standardisation right from the start may make it harder to win new clients for a company, but the long-term benefits cannot be ignored when you consider future growth. Managing complexity in your product portfolio comes at a high cost.

Marketing and sales can both help influence clients early on to ensure expectations are in line with product strategy and thus make it easier for account management to develop positive relationships with clients going forward.

How do you deal with product feature requests at your company? Do you rate them as an issue? Leave a comment or get in touch!

Sales vs. Marketing – A Proposition for solving the conflict

First, I would like to say that I did not really plan to write this post – it is more the result of my frustration over a topic which is well known to everyone working in sales or marketing: the constant struggle and blame game between both teams. Yes, let’s call it what it is: sales and marketing people hardly ever appreciate each other – but why, and how can we fix it? Here’s how I would do it.

Sales and marketing hardly ever get along

Have you ever spoken to a sales person about the marketing team in their company, or vice versa? I am willing to bet pretty much anything that 9 out of 10 times this will result in an avalanche of complaints, allegations and other varieties of displeasure.

“If only marketing could get our message across properly, we would not have such trouble closing deals!”

“If only sales did not try to squeeze the last cent out of every client, our marketing strategies would actually result in conversions!”

To me, this is really fascinating since I also worked in companies where this blame game took place, and from a management science perspective it was interesting to watch it unfold.

From an operational point of view of someone who was involved against his own will, it was hell. In high-def. Having dynamics like this in a company does not only endanger its performance, but also deteriorates the culture in no time. So I decided to take a closer look at why these two factions behave the way they very often do, and how it could be changed.

The unfortunate role of management

The first, arguably quite obvious observation I made was that this whole situation is completely absurd. Think about it: sales and marketing are both:

  • directly responsible for generating revenue
  • dealing with clients (at different parts of the purchase funnel, but still)
  • conveying the value proposition of the company


Looking at this, you would think that these two teams should act like one army, each group supporting the other, with a common goal and intimate knowledge and understanding of the other team’s function and processes. So this whole conflict does not make any sense now, does it?

It does, unfortunately, when you factor in the role of management. What does management do? That’s right, they seek to maximise the performance of the company by driving revenue up and costs down, and in order to do that they set targets. Marketing have their targets (e.g. generate x new leads per month, to make it very simple), and so do Sales (sign y new clients per month, again greatly simplified).

Now I will show you why this might work nicely on paper, but almost always gets messed up in practice.

Opposing targets – a firm divided

Let’s imagine our marketer now who knows about his monthly target: generate new leads. What kind of target is that? Correct, a very stupid one! It is very stupid because it incentivises the marketer to simply drive up the number of his leads, irrespective of quality, just to hit his target! (Note: I am aware that real targets often contain mechanisms to prevent such obvious flaws, but believe me they are not perfect either). A goal set in isolation, designated to work in a complex environment like a company, is a recipe for disaster.

So let’s switch to the sales manager who receives those leads from marketing, and who needs them to achieve his monthly goal of signing new clients. Will he be happy about the work marketing did here? Probably not. And will he blame marketing if he is unable to achieve his monthly target? You bet he will – even though his own performance might be mostly responsible, but hey, who’s counting?

What is happening? Both sales and marketing are doing exactly what management instructed them to do, and they are pursuing their individual targets. They key word here: individual. As you can see from our little example, the problem is not that either marketing or sales are underperforming; they are both trying to perform well – but according to targets which are set in isolation from each other!

So the answer is that neither sales or marketing are ultimately at fault, but instead the conflict of interest between both groups is caused by the KPIs put in place by management. Is this the case in every company? Probably not – but I have seen it happening too many times to believe that it only applies to a few.

As a manager I do appreciate the difficulty in setting the right KPIs for an entire organisation, which is quite a complicated system on its own. And when you then factor in the human component, it becomes highly complex. Sadly, there is no quick fix: you do have to take all of this into consideration when setting targets, otherwise you will achieve terrible results.

So let’s look at a potential solution to our problem here.


Removing the barriers: an experiment

Thinking about how to better align sales and marketing to avoid these unintended conflicts of interest, I came up with an idea: Why not combine sales and marketing in multiple, mixed teams?

The idea is to create small, agile teams of marketing and sales people and give each team the target to sign a certain number of new clients. That way you would assure that marketing provides not only a high quantity, but also the right quality of leads which can then be converted by sales. And sales would be incentivised to work more closely with marketing and communicate their message in a better way. Both groups’ interests would therefore be aligned.

An additional benefit of removing the barriers between sales and marketing should also be a greater exchange of information. From my own experience this only happens in a limited way if both teams act in isolation (again, lack of common goals), and it is crucial for a company that all information about clients is shared across the organisation.

I do not know whether this has been tried before, but to me it would be a worthwhile experiment to see how sales and marketing interact in small units with aligned goals – could this end the struggle between both teams?

What are your experiences with sales vs. marketing? Have you experienced similar situations? And do you think this solution could work? Leave a comment!