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Sales advice for the technical founder
Years ago, in the early days of my first startup, Ksplice, I got a call from a system administrator at Nintendo. He had heard that we were doing rebootless software updates and was interested in giving us a try.
I was ecstatic—Nintendo! How great would it be if they signed up? I started to tell him all about the feature set. The thing is, I had no formal sales training—my cofounders and I started the company right out of school, where we’d all studied computer science. We knew nothing about how to run a business or sell a product, but sales sounded interesting to me, so I took it on.
After a great conversation, I hung up and turned to my cofounders to tell them what had happened—only to realize that I didn’t get the Nintendo guy’s name or phone number, and would never be able to reach him again. A decade later, I still think about him.
As a technical founder learning on the job, doing sales at Ksplice and our next two companies taught me a lot, including the basics like remembering to get a potential customer’s contact information—and here’s what I’ve learned: The short of it with sales, as with anything, is that it’s all about practice. The more you do something, the better you become at it.
Here’s the long of it:
Sales is a very personal and weirdly intimate act. You’re asking a stranger for their trust—to trust that your product or service will solve their problem, and that they should give you money for it. Being “salesy” is often far less effective than being genuine and honest. People can tell when you’re being real with them, and they appreciate it.
Solve an actual problem
The most effective salespeople help their clients solve a problem they have. Hopefully, the solution to this problem is the thing you’re selling. But before jumping into all the amazing technical specifications of your product, step back and make sure you understand: What problem does your potential customer have? How are they solving it today? How satisfied are they with that solution? How big of a pain point is it?
And if your product doesn't solve their problem, just say so. Nothing will endear you more to a potential customer than being honest. Yes, you might not get the sale, but you’ve earned their trust and found someone who might refer potential customers down the road.
Remember that you’re there to listen. The more you listen, the more you’ll understand, and the better you’ll sell. Sometimes when I’m on the phone, I literally cover my mouth with my hand to remind myself not to talk. Only after you’ve fully understood the situation are you allowed to explain how your product can help.
Plan for each interaction
Whether it’s an email, a call, or an in-person visit, you should know: what am I trying to get the customer to do? What is the shortest path to achieve that? What are the possible conclusions of this interaction? If you don’t have a plan, your call or meeting will meander, and no one feels good about that.
For example, when we do sales calls at Pilot, our objective is to get you to sign up for our service. There are three possible ways they end:
We conclude you’re not a good fit for the service. Next step: We tell you so and end the call
You might be a good fit for the service but we need to learn more. Next step: We’d like to take a look at your QuickBooks to decide for sure
You’re definitely a good fit. Next step: We send over a quote and you sign up.
And remember, once you’ve achieved your objective, get off the phone. The only thing you can achieve by continuing to talk is to have the customer change their mind.
Track your conversations
You must have good tracking on the state of your customer conversations. This can be as basic as a spreadsheet in the early days and a CRM as you grow—it doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re tracking who you’re talking to, what you’ve discussed, what the next step is, and when you next need to follow up.
If you don’t have a good tracking system in place, you’ll fail to follow up on things or you’ll seem sloppy, both of which hurt your ability to sell.
Ask for the sale
This may seem obvious, but you need to actually ask the customer to buy your product. Yes, this can be very awkward at first. But ask for the sale, then stop talking. You must resist the temptation to fill the silence. At this point, they’ll either tell you they’re going to buy—or they’ll tell you why they won’t, and you don’t want to interrupt them in either case. Yes, the silence will be uncomfortable, but if you don’t actually ask, they won’t buy.
Don’t take it personally
Most people are going to tell you no. That’s ok. If you’re winning 20% of your deals, you’re actually doing pretty well. The important thing is that you understand why you lost the deal, and use that to inform how you handle the next call. The good thing is, the more you do this, the better you’ll be at it.
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