The very most basic things your company needs to know about sales (part 1 of 4)

May 3rd, 2011 by Dan Ostlund

NOTE: You can get this entire series as a pdf if you prefer: The Most Basic Things Your Company Needs to Know About Sales

I’m the first sales manager Fog Creek has had. I’m not a salesman by profession. Before I came to Fog Creek I was working as a sys admin at JibJab where I tried not to break things. What on Earth did I know about software sales? Wasn’t that done at a golf course, and please can I get directions?

Well, I learned. I learned a lot, and in the process we’ve built a sales team to be proud of. We made some mistakes along the way, and had to fire a few people, but month by month we got better and now we feel good about where we are, and we know where we need to go to be exceptional.

If I can learn this, than you can too. In fact, I am about to save you time, and prevent mistakes. What follows, in four parts, is what we learned and how we did it at Fog Creek.

I realize now that I started selling a long time ago. See, I used to work as a waiter, and we were supposed to up-sell various things like top-shelf margaritas and seasoned sour cream for the french fries. I sucked at it. Like, I was dead last every shift. You could have taken a long snooze and done better than me.

One day the manager wanted to know what was up, and I said something like, “Man, if they want top-shelf margaritas they’ll ask. I don’t need to push it on them.”

I was putting on a little front. Sure, I believed that, but…

My manager said, “That’s true, they are likely to ask if they want something, but what if they don’t know we have it?”

Wow… Hang on, that could be true… In fact, it probably was true fairly often. It was a simple and yet profound thing to say.

I think he knew what my real problem was: fear. I was afraid. I was afraid of sales. I feared that it insulted my customers and I even feared the anticipated rejection. It felt incredibly awkward to make these suggestions. I had developed a revulsion to the whole thing, and I hated doing it, so basically I didn’t.

But my manager helped me reframe it. Suddenly I was informing my customers about something rather than pushing things on them. They still made their own choice; but now they had more information with which to make it.

Doing sales can often generate fear in new sales people—even, sometimes, in veterans.

I’m guessing sales is scary for you in some ways—maybe all of them.

But read on, I think we can get a start on making this a tolerable, and maybe even an enjoyable thing to do.

When do you start sales?

If you’re a founder you’re probably already doing sales even if you don’t really understand exactly what you’re doing. Your passion and domain understanding can translate remarkably well into enthusiastic product pitches and demos. You probably built your software to solve a problem, perhaps one you suffered from yourself, so you know all about it. This has pushed you well into the sales sphere.

You might be doing a lot of “low-touch” sales, in which case it may be that you don’t even need a sales force—for years Fog Creek didn’t have one, and most of our sales still happen without any human intervention.

These low-touch sales are driven by marketing. You make a great website, you test how it’s doing, you change what’s failing.  You send out automatic emails, you try different copy—you dump the one that started, “I am the prince regent of a great and wealthy country…”

The line between sales and marketing is not clearly drawn, and the functions have huge overlap.  I almost think we need a new word for this.  Smarketing? Smales?

OK, smales.  This is the world of Patrick MacKenzie of Bingo Card Creator fame (and Avinash Kaushik, and Rob Walling, and Darmesh Shah, and so on). Smales is hugely important. It’s a low-cost way to increase sales, and especially if you’re technical, you should do this first. Do it frequently and do it always. You’ll want to start a sales team after you think you’ve squeezed everything you can out of smales. Remember, though, at some level, sales is always going on.

For now I only want to talk about the sales that human beings conduct with other human beings.

Even though the internet has radically changed sales channels, the basics of selling person-to-person haven’t changed at all.


What is Sales?

Many technical people tend to have a rather, shall we say, uncharitable view of sales people.  They think something like the following: Sales is full of charlatans and hucksters who lie and inveigle and pressure; no one wants to talk to them and the thought of actually being one makes a root canal sound like a vacation.

That’s not so good.

But this is just a stereotype—not without some cause, for sure, but it doesn’t really deserve the weight it once did. Mature and responsible salespeople don’t act like that because they don’t need to, and because they understand that such behavior is classic win-lose.  The sales people of the stereotype are trying to force you into something you are unsure about and they make the whole thing feel like a battle where you have a lot to lose.  You don’t have to be that kind of salesperson, or have that kind of sales culture, and in fact, if you do, then you’re taking a very short-term view of your business.

So let’s try that again.

Sales is a conversation.

Ah! That’s it. That’s the most basic thing you need to know in order to demystify sales.  You’ve all had conversations, so you’re off to a good start. Sales conversations just tend to be a specific kind of conversation, one that you can become better at, and one that tends to take a particular form.

There is one other part to this sales demystification process that deserves top billing before we move on.

Sales is problem solving.

There are people in the world with a problem of some kind.  Some subset of those people need this problem fixed and is seeking a solution. You’re one of the people who can fix that problem, and you need to show them that your fix is the best one for them.  Again, that’s it.

Sales is a mindset as much as it is a set of skills.  If you believe that sales is hard, scary, underhanded, and manipulative, then that’s what it will be, and you’ll hate it, and fear it.

Let’s put these ideas together into one sales demystifying sentence: Sales is a conversation about how to solve a problem.

At its core it really is that simple. If you can learn the truth of that, sales will become radically less frightening.

There is more to it of course, but when you strip away all the advice contained in all the vast number of books on sales, this is what it’s all about.

Let’s talk specifics.


Breaking Sales Down to Two Things

The success of salespeople hinges on two factors: 1) The quality of the things that come out of their mouths, and 2) the discipline they develop for their sales day.

The first one, quality, tends to be a bit softer—a sort of “I know it when I see it” thing—but it’s still exceptionally important.  You certainly know a good movie when you see one.  You might not be able to explain what makes the movie good, but you still know it. The same will hold for good sales people, and when you educate yourself about what to look for, you’ll become very good at figuring out what actually separates good sales people from bad ones.

The second part, discipline, focuses on process and more readily yields to data analysis. We’ll get to that in a later section.

When talking about the quality of things emerging from your mouth, there are again two main parts to consider, a) your sales and presentation skills, and b) your product and market knowledge.

Product knowledge

I am assuming that you make a great effort to understand everything you can about your product and your market. Study. Memorize. Practice. I don’t have much to add here, except to say, that the better your domain knowledge, the better your conversations will go. Neglect this and you’re crippling yourself as a sales person.

You’ll often find that sales people frequently have a fear of sounding dumb, especially if there is a large difference between the technical skills of the salesperson and the people they normally talk to.  This tends to lead to timid and boring presentations.  It also involves a lot of mumbling and low-talking while the sales person desperately prays for a change of topic from the one they only dimly grasp. Sometimes they will just blurt out, “Java!” and hope the whole thing goes away.

There are two fixes for this, the first I already mentioned, which is to crush your areas of ignorance.  If you plan to be a top performer in your field, then this is part of the cost. Just accept it.

The other way to mitigate this worry is to never pretend to know things you don’t know. Learn to say, “I don’t know” with total ease.  If you start to get into tricky terrain, don’t guess, and don’t speculate, just say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”

Always be fearless with “I don’t know,” but also do a bit of self-analysis. Recognize that if you find yourself saying this so often that it would just be easier to have someone else handle the call, then you’ve got ignorance crushing to do and you better get to it!

Sales Skills

The buying process

Understanding the buying process is important because it gives you a framework for understanding and analyzing what you’re doing.  Good sales books all have some view about how the sales process unfolds. I think the clearest and most useful articulation of this is in Frank McNair’s book, How You Make the Sale. It’s a short and readable book which will give you a nice foundation in the sales process. In an abbreviated form the sales process looks like this: You find out what problems the prospect is having, you present your solution, you deal with objections, you close, and usually you follow up.

Each of these can be exhaustively discussed and dissected (plus I left a couple out), but remember, we’re doing the basics.

Next: The most important sales skill you can learn.