This is a great question, but unfortunately not one I have much personal experience with as I haven’t made that particular transition and also haven’t hired anyone with a Sales background so far. I would absolutely be open to hiring someone from Sales though if they showed they had the potential to be a great product marketer. I would look for the classic things like the ability to truly understand a customer/buyer, create compelling messaging and positioning, understand our product (this is definitely a skill that would translate well from what you already do in Sales), as well as other critical skills that aren’t just key for product marketing, but general ones I always want to see, such as being organized, collaborative, and proactive, plus showing the ability to truly drive and lead workstreams.
Now while my own experience isn’t much help to you here, there are actually two incredible product marketers that I work with at Zendesk who both came from Pre-Sales (aka Solution Consulting) and were kind enough to share their thoughts for this question. Omead Kavishi is the first one and he just recently made the move over to PMM. If you have any additional questions on this topic, he’s very passionate about this transition and said he’d be happy to help so feel free to reach out to him on LinkedIn. The TLDR of what Omead shared is he knew for the last couple years that product marketing, specifically doing competitive research, seemed like it could be a very good fit for his abilities and interests. He took the initiative to meet our competitive product marketers and offer to help anywhere they needed, which then led to 4-5 projects he started collaborating directly with PMM on for a few months. These projects helped him prove he had the right skills to be an effective PMM, such as the ability to think critically and strategically, create good messaging and positioning, determine the best value props for a relevant buyer, and research and develop a thorough competitive analysis. Additionally, one of the key skills he showed would directly translate and really give him a leg up in PMM was the ability to establish credibility with Sales and truly understand what they cared about and needed. This is incredibly helpful because a huge part of many PMM roles is sales enablement and you’re of course positioned to be more successful in that work if you actually understand the Sales team and their needs.
Here’s also the full advice from Omead related to each part of your question:
What is your advice to someone with a background in software sales who wants to move into Product Marketing?
- Build relationships with PMMs you aspire to work with or be like and seek to transfer internally within the company you're currently at - after all, breaking into PMM is NOT easy and many PMMs are post-top-tier-MBAs, previous management consultants/investment bankers, or career product marketers. When I started at Zendesk, I knew I wanted to be a competitive PMM, so in my first week, I introduced myself to the team and expressed interest in assisting them with projects. They happily obliged as most PMM teams are strapped for resources and most likely need a helping hand.
- Demonstrate passion and potential by partnering with the team on side projects (related to your work). For example, I was an SC who had the option to choose a SME topic. So I chose our primary competitor and set monthly 1:1's with the PMM I looked up to (and still do - he's my boss now) to discuss challenges in the field and express what I think we could do better to enable the team. He was appreciative, because again, he was strapped for time and needed help - he also appreciated the field sales experience/perspective.
- Keep it on the down-low until you've established buy-in from key stakeholders. Once the team you want to be on openly asks for you to consider joining their team or has open headcount and wants to interview you (and you feel like you have a solid shot), express your desire to explore opportunities to your manager. Communicating your interest in other roles to sales folks may come back to bite you (they can be emotional sometimes), so make sure you feel confident in your shot at the role before wearing your heart on your sleeve!
What are the top skills someone with a background in sales might be lacking that are critical for a PMM role?
- Strategy is a big one. Sales people are tactical and typically operate within their territory, not analyzing the corporate/product strategy of the business they work for. As a PMM, you can expect to play the part of an internal consultant and SME, so you have to be able to think strategically and make recommendations to/influence key cross-functional partners to drive programs forward. Unless you have a management consulting/investment banking background, you'll most likely have to develop this skill and show your ability to think strategically (macro-level). The key to this is (a) doing market research, (b) distilling your findings into easily digestible points, (c) curating content to share this information to a variety of target audiences (Product, Sales Leadership, C-level, etc.). My recommendation, to those who are looking to improve this skill, is to curate/get involved in a side project for stakeholders other than your customers/prospects (such as Sales Leadership, Marketing, Product, and C-Level).
- PMM 101 Skills are also essential. Things like being able to do/build a TAM analysis, competitive analysis, persona profiles, messaging/positioning for various market segments, clean slides, the list goes on... and also presentation skills! Coming from Sales, you may think you know how to present, but you might be used to "pitching" as opposed to "consulting", so you'll most likely want to practice presenting to internal stakeholders. You can do that by presenting a side project to PMMs that you trust or look up to and asking for feedback. The key here is to really think through the narrative and takeaways - i.e. "what do I want people to take away from my presentation?". Also, being in Sales, you probably have access to some sort of PMM content. So find this content and learn it like the back of your hand. Deconstruct it and rebuild it or improve upon it. Demonstrate that you can do research/analysis and condense your thoughts into concise, easily-digestible recommendations for sales, product, and C-level (i.e. build a presentation 3 different ways tailored to those various stakeholders).
- Ability to work with/manage Internal Stakeholders (other than Sales) to drive programs forward (such as Product, Marketing, C-Level, etc.). Good sales people know how to work with their prospects and other stakeholders to drive a deal across the line. Similar to a deal, projects in PMM require stakeholder management, which means you need to know who you're working with, what they care about, and how you can move the needle. If you're a successful, highly consultative sales person that has run larger/complex deals, this will definitely be a transferable skill. Be prepared to demonstrate/speak to how you took a nascent project (deal) from start to finish, including all the necessary details.
What skills would translate well? Other than the ability to manage stakeholders (if you're a consultative seller, this is a transferable skill):
- Product Knowledge - If you know the products that you sell inside and out, this will be a valuable skill because not all PMMs have strong product knowledge/aptitude, which can sometimes lead to loss of credibility with Product and other internal stakeholders like Presales. So if you feel like product knowledge is a strength of yours, demonstrate it by showing a deep understanding of how your customers use your products and what benefits they reap from doing so (i.e. why the product is important to them). This will be critical to any product marketer's job.
- Messaging/Positioning - If you retire quota consistently, this may be a strength for you because you probably know how to tailor your pitch, which is critical to effective selling. If not, again, review PMM content and learn it like the back of your hand. It will probably assist you in selling better (unless your PMMs are not doing a good job at messaging/positioning). Demonstrate this skill by being prepared to pitch your product's value propositions/benefits (not features).
- Being Able to Build Relationships with Sales - Sales people are skeptical as they naturally should be. They tend to trust other sales people more than someone who's never been a sales person. So the fact that you've been in sales is a HUGE benefit to the PMM team because it will garner instant credibility. Building relationships with sales leaders and driving sales enablement and thus, program adoption, will be much easier. However, be prepared to speak to how you would partner with sales in detail (i.e. don't just say you'll set monthly 1:1's).
Here’s the advice from the other PMM who made this same transition a few years ago as well and has hired folks from Sales into PMM:
Why should someone make the move?
- Most importantly - If you want to have a broader / more strategic impact across the business
- If you’ve found yourself crafting and enjoying the message / narrative
- If you enjoy public speaking / enjoy “the pitch”
What can someone from a Sales background offer to a Product Marketing Role?
- Putting messaging / product positioning in practice with prospects and customers - this can’t be understated because messaging shouldn’t be built in a bubble, to build good messaging, you really need to be a subject matter expert
- Empathize and bring credibility with one of the key audiences PMMs need to sell to - you know what it’s like and therefore, you can really tailor your message to sales
What areas should they expect to grow in / work through?
- Being on the other side of the table - how do you harness what you know about being a sales person and translate that into guidance in terms of getting your message across to Sales
- Channel switching across multiple projects - You’re no longer just working on deals and a pipeline you can somewhat control/plan for. You’re now at the center of everything and you will have a variety of projects from messaging, to sales enablement, to campaign creation, to project management, to anything and everything that needs to be done.