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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sales is not a dark art

For many entrepreneurs building an effective sales organization is often the hardest part of building a company. Many, especially technologists, consider sales to be a dark art that can only be practiced by a select few, and too often the prevailing view is that sales is nothing more than a lot of golf outings, handshakes, and expensive dinners. Be smooth and you're good at sales.

So when I recently attended a Sales 101 BootCamp held by the MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) it was great to learn that sales is not a dark art. In fact, sales is more science than art when practiced properly. For those who are not familiar with VMS, it is MIT's program that allows those in the MIT community who have ideas they want to turn into businesses to connect with mentors who've successfully built and run businesses - my company Assured Labor has participated in this program since our founding. As its title implies, the Bootcamp was an intense short session focused on giving entrepreneurs the basic vocabulary necessary to be conversant in sales speak, the tools to start selling to customers, and a basic framework for building a successful sales organization. Seeing as sales are the lifeblood of any successful business the learnings from this session are relevant to all startups regardless of industry.

The session featured three speakers, Kent Summers, Marc Corbacho, and Al Stefan - bringing their perspectives on sales as CEO, sales VP, and sales rep respectively. Kent covered the basics of sales from terminology to providing an understanding of how to approach it. Marc provided his perspective as a manager and how to build a successful sales organization, and finally Al provided his perspective as a sales rep and how they work with the other parts of an organization to maximize their effectiveness.

So what did I learn exactly? Quite a bit in fact, but here are my key takeaways -

Your first customer is extremely important:

Aside from the obvious fact that a first customer means a company's first revenues, a first customer also is important for future sales, and thus should be chosen with care. Specifically that customer should be recognizable within your target market (more on this in a second), and can be referenced when needed. Why are these aspects important? Having a recognizable name as your first customer gives you and your young startup credibility with other customers, and having a customer whom you can reference gives other potential customers someone to talk to when they have questions.

Understand your target market, and buyer profile:

All too often startups pursue a "boil the ocean" strategy that involves talking to every potential customer regardless of their profile. The problem with this approach is that it often dilutes the value proposition of your product or service because you are trying to be everything to everyone - or as the old saying goes "the jack of all trades, the master of none". Being focused however provides your customers with a clear understanding of who you are, and how your product can help them because all of your messaging will most likely pertain to them.

Build a repeatable sales methodology:

This goes back to my comment earlier about sales being a dark art. Too often the assumption is that there is no specific formula to sales, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Yes sales is about building trusted relationships, but to get to that point your sales organization needs to follow a methodology that gets them in front of the right people who are most likely buy whatever product or service you are offering. This involves building what is often known as the sales funnel - a step by step process by which a sales organization can quickly identify and engage the best customer prospects.

Talk about the customer problem, not your product:

Customers like to be catered to, and don't want to hear about what your product does. They want to talk about the problems they are facing and when you frame your product as a solution to their problem you are more likely to be successful in your sales efforts.

Establish a sales culture in your organization:

All too often sales and product development do not collaborate or communicate. The problem with this is that it leads to what I like to call organizational split personality disorder. You have product development working on features they think are cool regardless of whether they are relevant to an end user, and you have sales selling features that will get a customer to actually open their wallet even if those features have no relevance to the product that actually exists. However, when an organization promotes a sales culture it changes the whole dynamic of the organization to one that focuses on building a real product that solves a real world need.

I learned much much more at this bootcamp, but even if I hadn't having these takeaways that I've shared with all of you gave me a great sense of what it really takes to start building an organization that not only builds great products but sells them too!

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