People in startups often have what large companies do not: real passion about the product. However, startups often lack market sense and an understanding of who the client is and what their needs really are.
To many, selling is seen as a ‘black art’: practised by a mythical breed of individual with a stated ability to sell anything! I would argue that selling is just like any other process and can be managed in the same way – up to a point!
At the core is an ability to uncover and to understand complex client needs and making sure that the product fulfils these needs at a price that the client is willing to pay. There is also the challenge of reaching the right people within the client organisation, communicating just how the product will solve their challenges and then providing sufficient ammunition to allow them to convince the rest of the decision-makers to agree.
This requires organisation and persistence. The best way to manage this is using a simple sales pipeline supported by a client database. It does not have to be Salesforce: a simple database and a spreadsheet will also suffice. The key thing is to have a method of capturing data and recording progress.
The sales process itself can be broken down into a number of discrete steps: preparation; the approach; dealing with gatekeepers; making the pitch; handling objections; and the close.
Preparation is all about defining the target market and qualifying the potential customers in terms of whether they will benefit from your product and have the ability to pay. The targets must also be within reach – geographically and otherwise. It also involves developing an understanding of which person in the organisations you are selling to – bearing in mind that this could vary from company to company. Armed with this information, you will need to develop a simple and clear benefit statement communicating what problem you are going to solve and how. This is what will persuade them to give you some of their valuable time. If you cannot do this, you simply will not make it through the door.
The approach can often be the most difficult part. Cold calls are sometimes unavoidable but are the hardest to pull off and, if done too forcefully, can alienate the client and damage your company. It is far better to find ways of getting the word out so that when you approach them, they have heard something about your company and its offer. This can be done by old-fashioned public relations, social media and creating a presence at the right exhibitions or conferences. Once the approach is made, you have reached the point at which the so-called ‘elevator pitch’ might come in handy. Before agreeing to a meeting, they will need to quickly understand just why they should commit their time.
Dealing with gatekeepers
Often you will find someone getting in the way of all this progress! These are the ‘gatekeepers’ – a group you ignore at your peril. Gatekeepers can take many forms: a zealous PA protecting their boss’s precious time; or employees of the client who really should be on your side (ones who will benefit from the sale). They may want the sale to take place, but possibly when it suits them, and they will control the process and work at their pace, not yours. Getting past these requires patience and an ability to listen and address their stated ‘concerns’. Attempting to bypass and ignore is another approach, but one that can create problems downstream!
Making the pitch
Making the pitch also requires homework. You need information about the client and the people you are meeting. Be clear about your expectations and set objectives for the meeting. Making the sale may be a tempting one – but rarely achieved on the first visit. Objectives should be realistic – often they are about gaining insights: what are the real client needs and how can your product help? Who are the decision-makers and the influencers? What are the realistic timescales for a decision? Progress with this type of information gathering is called an ‘advance’. Each advance takes you one step closer to your ultimate goal.
Any meeting should start with a clear statement of why you are there and why they should listen. This is something you need to rehearse and perfect. Keep it short – get it down to a few sentences and you will have their attention before you launch into the detail. When you are pitching the product, sell the benefits not the features. It is not about what the product does, it is about the outcomes they will experience by buying it. What will it save them – in time and money? What new opportunities does it provide for them? How will it enable them to serve their customers better and beat their competitors?
It will not always go smoothly. It is in their interest to ask questions or raise objections. These could take the form of responses such as: ‘We can see that it will help us, but we can’t afford it at that price’, or ‘Our current software does most of that, why should we go through the disruption of installing yours?’ Dealing with objections is often the most skilful part of the process. It requires an ability to assimilate information and to come back with a calm and well-argued response. Whatever you do, do not interrupt and do not appear uninterested or dismissive. Nothing here is personal. It is very important to show that you are listening and can respond appropriately. Are their objections actually valid? Were they the result of miscommunication on your part? In many cases, the objections cannot be dealt with in the meeting. They could require you to take it back to the office for a more considered response – or perhaps a modification to the product or proposition. This is a decision that the organisation must make. Could this be an anomaly, or is the market proposition wrong?
Once you are beyond the objections stage, you will start to hear a change in language. Talk will switch to ‘hypothetical’ delivery dates and payment terms. These are the buying signals that should allow you to move on and close the sale. Closing is also a skill. Knowing the right time to narrow down the options and get the client into the mode where their concerns are about the ‘when’ rather than the ‘if’. This does require experience and judgement and often a light touch. However, by now we should be back to the original advantage that startups possess – a zeal for their product and confidence in its value.