In many instances, Chapman and Company gets called into help startups or scale up-companies that are attempting to put in place a new sales process. For our firm, there are really two inflection points: first sales and real process. During the first phase, there is an element of anything goes because too little is known for the firm to authoritatively state the best practices. In the second phase, best practices are being established from early learning, but learning is still occurring. However, at this point it is critical that firms begin to rein in the “anything goes” mentality and start layering in process.
The “first sales” zone occurs when a new firm is basically attempting anything to get cash in the door. This process usually is unmeasured and involves selling whatever is close at hand – including customized products or services. The two primary risks at this stage are – we are going to go out of business because we don’t have any customers, and we are going to go out of business because we have too many customers that have different products or services.
During the “first sales” time period, I typically recommend understanding how you are getting your customers versus the time and energy that you are spending on acquisition. A good way to think about this is using the 19 marketing strategies outlined in the book, Traction by Justin Mares and Gabe Weinberg. Within these suggested practices, there are a couple of additional risks.
One risk is your process is too slow or too expensive for long-term success. The second risk is your process is built around the individual strengths of one or two people. Both can yield ultimate failure because they do not reveal a system of sales that can utilize a variety of people and the same processes.
Some key elements of this first stage:
1. Keep customer discovery and sales clearly defined. What do you want to know from whom? While you can move potential customers into the customer discovery box – you should make sure that you don’t instantly promise to deliver a product/service that is not part of what you do.
2. Understand why something works – whether process, person, or offering. After a sale, make sure you understand what motivated the customer to buy. This shapes the product/service less than it shapes the offering – price, time period, up-front, solution statement, etc.
3. Start figuring out what measurements matter. Ultimately, keeping the whole team (sales team plus everyone else) on the same page is critically important in a start-up. Thus, figuring out how to talk to each other is also important. It is easier to talk when everyone knows the appropriate questions to ask and language to use.
The second sales period naturally dovetails from this first period. This is the time when you implement sales process. The challenge here is again a tension based problem. Essentially, there is tension between too much process and not enough “pipe filling” activity. At one of the startups where we worked, there were numerous weekly sales and marketing meetings but very little development activity. In other words, there was a lot of discussion about how to sell – but very little actual selling. As startups bring on professional sales people, it is critical that there be a focus on action and urgency – rather than just on making sure the process scales.
Some key elements of process.
· Is it documented? This is what we do. This allows you to onboard new sales people fast. It equips them with best practices. It describes what we have and have not tried and why we do what we do today. This is particularly important if you will be moving from few sales people to many – or from few dollars to many – or from any other key turn that is intended to provide scale based on new resources.
· Is it recorded into CRM? Do we have an actual record of what individuals are doing. This is important because it keeps everyone in the loop regarding activity and outcomes. If we know who is being contacted, we do not contact them also. If we know what tools are being utilized, we don’t create new ones. But, most importantly, it helps the organization keep the sales process moving on the same path. I have worked at places where every sales person uses a different tool. This leads to hard conversations because the tools don’t have the same info and the sales people don’t value the same things. Thus, having a single “truth” is critical to making sure that the whole team is not just on the same page – but literally in the same workbook.
· Is it summarized for everyone? A good dashboard with few, well understood metrics does wonders for full-team support and effort. I think that the three metrics that almost always are useful are 1) Revenue, 2) Revenue from Opportunities that will close in the near-term (30 days), 3) Conversion Rate. At Beehive, we also kept track of how long something took to close. At e-commerce sites that we have worked with, we have used cost of acquisition. But, one primary reason that I like conversion rate is that it is a metric of both outcome and effort. Too high a conversion rate suggests that sales people are not making enough calls. Too low and it means that we maybe don’t have the right people or product.
· Do we reward effort AND success? As a sales person, you hear the word no often. And you hear no because the company doesn’t yet have an appropriate answer or solution, but there is value in getting outside the building and talking with customers. It builds relationships, it provides feedback on product development, and it leads to future successes. Rewarding effort matters, not just success. This keeps the team fully onboard and engaged.
Selling products or services in a startup or scale up is hard. And often, the person or team responsible is under appreciated because they are seen as less critical than technical teams. However, a good early stage sales person is one of the most valuable people on a startup team. And, so being prepared to help them by giving them freedom at first and a process in the second stage is important to create managerial and corporate discipline.