Sales is Everything

Over and over I see a pattern repeat itself in startups relating to sales.  Do they have the skill or not?  Yes, selling is a learned skill.  It is euphemistically referred to as “business development” or “customer acquisition” or “customer relationship” but it’s sales.

Without sales and net profit from it, you don’t have a business-even if you are in “social entrepreneurship”.  No profit or no path to profit means it’s a hobby.

My first job out of college was a sales job.  I worked for 3M and I had a great boss named Harry Toussaint.  Fortunately for me, there were two sales people that had my territory before me that were really amazing, Bill Gage and Jerry Steinke.  Unfortunately for my customers, I was a rookie and made a lot of mistakes.

Harry’s first job was as a high school football coach and part of that never left him.  He would schedule a breakfast with me at least once a month.  It wasn’t to shoot the shit. It was to mentor me and talk to me about the craft of sales.  When we worked together, he would let me do the sales call.  When we got back to the car we would discuss the call.

The way Harry mentored wasn’t, “Do this.”  He rarely if ever broke into a sales call to say anything.  He let me screw up.

Sales is a craft.  You can’t learn it from a book.  You learn it on the job.  It’s measurable.  By that I mean you can have a great conversation, but unless you are walking away with an order all you had was a great conversation.  I can do that at dinner parties.

My wife is a fantastic sales person.  She was one of the top salespeople in her division when she worked.  A friend of mine, Brendan Sullivan is also really good at it.  They appreciate the craft of selling and can talk chapter and verse about how to approach it.  It’s really enlightening to just sit and listen to professional sales people talk about how they sell.

Of course, sales cycles are different depending on what you were selling and who you are selling to.  I was selling glue and sandpaper.  The sales cycle was 15 minutes.  If you are selling a piece of heavy equipment or enterprise software, the cycle can be significantly longer.  Selling into a corporation can be very arduous and painful.

Here are some common mistakes people make when selling:

  1.  They puke all over the customer.  The salesperson is so excited.  They have memorized all the features, advantages and benefits of the product.  Instead of setting up the customer and finding out what their real core needs are, they blurt it all out.  That makes it easy for the customer to say no and find an objection.
  2. They don’t ask the right kinds of questions to find out the underlying pain point of the customer.   Additionally, they aren’t talking to the decision maker-the MAN.  Here is an example.  In the 1980’s, GM switched to liquid gaskets.  Those gaskets were leaking like crazy.  I knew it, and I had the fix for it.  If I went to a car dealership and was presenting to the parts manager, I knew I was a dead duck.  It didn’t matter to him.  The Parts P+L wasn’t related to the problem.  I had to talk to the Service Mgr.  But, the pain point of the Service manager was different from dealer to dealer.  Of course, many times instead of even asking the right questions I whipped out a sheet full of data and puked on them.
  3. Salespeople don’t de-risk the deal.  Trying something new is always risky to people.  One of the things you try to ascertain when you question potential prospects is to find out their risk aversion.  The less risk averse, the more they might we willing to try something new.
  4. Phrasing.  Pay attention to the words you use.  You can say the same thing two, three or even four different ways.  Think about who you are dealing with, and phrase your pitch the right way.
  5. Sell the why.  People don’t make decisions logically.  They make decisions emotionally.  Figure out what tugs at their gut.

You will find that you get better the more you practice.  Practice a lot. Professor  Craig Wortmann designed, developed and teaches the Chicago Booth course “Entrepreneurial Selling,” which is ranked by Inc. Magazine as one of the top ten business courses in the country.  I notice he is starting to do one day seminars at various places.    He also does modules in other Booth programs.  If you get a chance, sign up for one.  I am doing a couple in the next few months because frankly, my sales skills are pretty rusty.

At seed stage, CEO’s have to be able to sell to be successful.  They have to be able to sell their product to a customer to generate revenue.  They also have to be able to sell their risky concept to future employees to get those employees to work for them.

Thanks for the link Mattermark.

12 thoughts on “Sales is Everything

  1. Some of this reminds me of Clayton Christensen points on jobs to be done thinking, and Regis McKenna’s points on digital marketing and customer service in the internet era. Some of it is also pretty much what David Ogilvy said about advertising, namely, as the advertiser (salesperson) you are not important. The customer is, and what she feels is, so talk about that.

    1. I don’t know exactly, but I am sure Craig Wortmann could tell you. Based on my experience, I think you have to ask questions and listen intently. Then spin a story about what you are trying to do that is highly relatable and encompasses your “why”.

  2. I’ve had a long sales career and am now the CEO of a startup so I really appreciate this post. Especially true about selling the “why”. IN today’s world the customer has the information already and the old feature/benefit presenting is gone forever. You need to find the “why” and get the customer to a decision there.

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