Sales in a startup might seem as useful as learning latin or dry stone walling. A lost art for a previous generation, back before websites did all the heavy lifting. With a high converting, all singing all dancing SaaS website theoretically you shouldn’t need to close a sale with a customer.
The truth, for many enterprises, SaaS startups and freelancers is sales skills isn’t a lost art. It makes all the difference between success or failure. The other unfortunate truth, at least in my experience, is far too many “sales executives” in startups don’t have what it takes. Even experienced executives can struggle when selling an early-stage product. The burden of educating the customer, selling the value, depending on how successful the marketing is, can reduce the effectiveness of a sales campaign.
The best people to sell in a startup environment is either the founder or a co-founder, or someone who has experience selling for startups. Practitioners of old school sales methodologies – like those described in Geoffrey A. Moore’s book Crossing The Chasm (original 1991, revised in 1998 and 2014) – are more likely to succeed, especially when the target customers are more established businesses.
Moore talks about sales as a military campaign. From this, my research experience of others I have outlined the following eight stage battle plan.
1. Narrowly define the target territory
The idea that startups operate in markets worth $100 million to $1 billion, or more, is a fantasy. “We only need to capture 1%” is one of many lies founders tell themselves and investors. Although investors usually have the good sense to discount unrealistic statements.
Your real market is the one you can reach in 9 months – more likely 6 – and secure enough revenue from to either break even or secure more funding. So don’t shoot for the moon. Aim instead for a small, niche, ideally a local group of target customers first.
2. Tailor the message
Learn from the stated or unstated needs of this group of prospects the best way to pitch to them. Look at the language they use. Consider their pain points and how your product or service solves a problem for them. Then tailor the marketing material accordingly.
3. Beg, borrow or steal contact details
Don’t steal, we don’t condone hacking. But do all you can to get the contact details for your list of prospects. Those within target organisations who will use the product/benefit from it and those who control the budgets (it isn’t always the same person) are who you need to contact.
When import.io was launched, one Twitter user said it finally addressed ‘the elephant in the technology industry’s room,’ which is that everyone scrapes data. It’s a necessary, albeit dull part of the sales process.
4. Make contact
Time to cold call, or email. This depends on your audience. More established companies generally prefer the phone. Most who operate in the digital space prefer email. Making this cold contact a bit warmer, whether through contacts you can lean on for an introduction or extra research, will help.
No one likes to field an unsolicited contact. Which is also why it’s worth noting that persistence pays off because most – almost all in fact – of your first emails and calls will be ignored or rejected.
5. Time to pitch
Most will be rejected, but not all. A few, a small percentage, will be interested and want to set up a demo or sales call. This is it. You win or lose a sale within that first call. It also normally comes down to human behaviour and psychology. Both you and the prospect are assessing whether working together is something you want to commit to and whether what you are selling genuinely solves a problem.
The hard sell rarely works. The best sales calls are where both parties decide this potential mutually beneficial relationship becomes official.
6. Quick: follow up with action
A warm lead can go cold if there’s not sufficiently quick follow up. Both parties need to do what they agree on the call. Failure to do so puts either party on the wrong foot if a relationship is going to get off the ground.
Most will ask for a more detailed proposal, or more information, a firm price, or something they can take to the budget holder. Aim to get that to them as soon as you can.
7. Close the sale
Working on the sales frontline is always about lots of preparation, short bursts of activity, followed by lots of waiting. Keep in contact with a prospect until you get an answer. This is when your company is now at the mercy of another’s internal processes. Once you have an answer get terms agreed or get feedback. Either way, you’ll be ready for the next pitch.
8. Go over the game highlights
Look at your role in the process. Examine what was done, what could have been done better, what you need to do more of. Each scenario is different, but with enough data from a decent number of sales pitches, you should be able to figure out how to develop a playbook which works with a predictable success rate.
Once you have that you should also have a happy customer and a cost per acquisition (CPA) – which if you need further investment will keep investors happy too.