How Startups Sell Without a Sales Team
It’s every founder’s dream, right? You wake up in the morning, go to a dashboard, and bask in the sweet glow of how much product you sold yesterday.
But it’s more likely that a company’s leadership team wakes up in the morning and waits for the customer relationship management (CRM) system to get updated. And waits. And waits. And then, by the end of the day, they realize nothing was closed. Or maybe it was and it will all come cascading in on Friday afternoon.
One of the most difficult functions for any company to put trackable numbers around is the sales funnel. How many prospects are in the funnel? How many of those are actually qualified prospects? What’s the likelihood the prospects are closed at each level? Have any of them closed? Why aren’t they closing?
The usually vague answers to these questions are even more vague when your company is a startup. That lack of clarity screams for automation.
All Selling Can Be Automated, but Not Automatically
If car dealerships can replace salespeople — and I’m looking at Carvana, TrueCar, and the like — any startup can automate the sales process of any product. But automated selling doesn’t happen automatically.
The proliferation of two-sided markets (2SM) makes it seem like any product or service can be transacted through a digital middleman, one that takes a much smaller cut of the sale and returns those savings to both the customer and the vendor.
But for every 2SM that gets traction, there are tens or hundreds more that don’t. And the reason for that is very simple to state, but very difficult to overcome.
Sales Is Like Selling Used Cars, Not Diet Cokes
People, especially entrepreneurs, like to think of sales as a vending machine (looking at Carvana again), with a zero-friction experience. The customer points to what they want, they swipe a credit card, they receive the product and smile. The hardest part of the process is getting your hand back out of that thief-proof door at the bottom.
But sales, as any revenue-generating entrepreneur will tell you, is less like a vending machine and more like the much-maligned used car salesperson at the discount lot.
And the customer isn’t a smiler-and-pointer. They’re a customer who doesn’t know what they want, is not sure what they can afford, has very little idea of how the transaction process works, definitely has misconceptions about how much purchasing power they have, and wants as much as they deserve for as little as they can pay.
Also, they hate you, and they don’t believe you’ll mind if you don’t get any commission on this one.
Again, most entrepreneurs don’t think of the sales process this way. If they did, they’d never become founders.
OK, I Lied. You Actually Do Need a Sales Team.
Just not right away.
If you had millions of marketing dollars and a lot of time and failure behind you, you could put cars or treadmills or home mortgages behind a glass wall and make them point-and-clickable products for a smiling customer base.
You probably don’t have millions of dollars to throw at a Super Bowl commercial. And if you’re an entrepreneur, time is your most valuable asset. Chasing failure is necessary when you’re a founder, but despite what all the coaches tell you, the most successful founders spend the least amount of time failing.
And the most amount of time learning.
You need to start with a sales team, the more seasoned, the better, but it’s OK if it’s just you, or your founding or leadership team. It’s not OK if it’s a hastily thrown-together digital marketplace. It’s not even OK if it’s a group of volunteer college students looking to make summer money doing the least amount of work possible.
This doesn’t have to be a team of used car salespeople, but it needs to be the team that knows the product and the company intimately and can make snap decisions that have an actual impact on the sales process.
Put Your Sales Team to Work and Document Everything
While the eventual goal is automating part or all of the sales process, your sales team will need to learn to overcome all of the issues that the used car salesperson faces day-to-day on that discount lot.
When you’re selling an unknown product to a loosely defined market, you can’t rely on any standard for customer knowledge and expectations. Look, the BMW and Mercedes and Porsche salespeople know, generally, what kind of customer is walking into their dealership and how much that customer already knows about the vehicle, even if it’s just the emotional push from the commercials.
Your customers aren’t there. Yet.
Your sales team needs to learn what that customer knowledge level is and what the customer expectation level is, as well as where the outliers are and how to anticipate and react to them. At a minimum, your sales team needs to discover, understand, and document the answers to these four questions.
- Why are your customers interested?
- What do they already know about your solution?
- What kind of pain are they feeling from the problem?
- What are their value and cost expectations?
Digital marketplace platforms and teams of college freshmen can’t do this. Only those folks that know your product and company up and down — as well as your model and the market you’re targeting — have the knowledge and the skills to generate and document these answers.
Learn How to Sell or Find Someone Who Can
I find it ironic that I started my technical career because I didn’t want to be in sales. Somewhere during my journey in entrepreneurism, I learned to love sales. You wouldn’t know it from looking at me or talking to me, but I’ve gotten pretty good at sales.
Because I had to.
Don’t go get a sales ninja. Not yet. But understand that you and your team either need to be selling the product, making the product, or both. If you can’t sell or if you find that you’re not getting any results out of your team, go find someone who can get results.
To get to sales automation, you need to define that moment of truth where the product sells itself in the way it’s positioned and in the way you message it. There are two ways to do this, one is to guess what that positioning and messaging should be, and the other is to distill that positioning and messaging out of documented answers from positive sales outcomes.
The guessing method actually takes far more money and time than hiring an experienced salesperson.
Sell Once. Learn. Repeat.
Start with the first sale. Sell once, learn to sell again. This is step selling. Figure out the reasons why your product is not just a cool toy, but a must-have. Then learn how to sell that must-have. You may need to reinvent everything about the process and the product before you lean on the accelerator.
Once you start getting traction with that process, go back to the four questions I asked earlier and start automating the answers.
- Why are your customers interested? How can you amplify that interest before they even speak to a salesperson?
- What do they already know about your solution? How do you turn that into what they need to know about your product to make the purchasing decision?
- What kind of pain are they feeling from the problem? How can you quantify a reduction in that pain and get that information to them as early in the process as possible?
- What are their value and cost expectations? How do you boost both of those expectations such that they see a bargain when presented with the price and the pricing model?
Once you’ve got a sales team established that is getting results and documenting the data from those positive outcomes, you can eventually evolve that team to an enterprise model once the product starts selling itself.
Use one win to get another win. Hit and announce milestones, get testimonials and display them, develop partnerships with large organizations. You may have to redefine all your marketing, materials, your pitch, even your position, but do it and collect what works and discard what doesn’t.
This puts your step selling on steroids. Pile up learning and mold your product positioning and messaging to reduce the time it takes to get from the customer’s first awareness of your existence until they are presented with a credit card form.
Yes, a credit card form. If your product can’t be sold by swiping a credit card or entering one online, you need to determine all the reasons why and automate and eliminate or reduce those reasons.
Your Customers Are Your Secret Weapon in Automation
Your best customers will help you sell, so talk to them. Help them to individually meet their goals and look for patterns you can take advantage of. Be transparent with what you’re trying to accomplish. You’ll be surprised at how powerful converting individual customer actions to goals can be when placed against aggregated stats and words on a website.
Let’s go back to that discount used car lot. The problem there really isn’t the salesperson, it’s the customer. More specifically, it’s the lack of customer knowledge and the artificially increased customer expectations.
Your automation goal is to address those weaknesses to make your prospect a better prospect before they even get to the sales team, such that all they have to do is close. Eventually, customers will close themselves, digitally, using the parts of the funnel you’ve now automated.