Hone Your Craft Like a Master Cabinetmaker
I was talking with a young entrepreneur friend of mine the other day about some challenges that she is having in her job. The gist of the conversation was about driving customer interaction. She wanted me to do a training course on selling. We had a five-minute conversation where I asked a bunch of questions about what issues she was having in sales. (You can read what is expected in a sales role via AMP Payment Systems.) Some of her issues stemmed from (1) a lack of knowledge about the selling process, and (2) a lack of experience in selling. However, there was also a third and even bigger issue that sits between #1 and #2. Let’s call it issue #1.5: It is Fear.
Selling is a craft. I think of it like being a master cabinetmaker. These craftsmen learn about the tools and the types of wood that can be used in cabinets. They study plans of other cabinetmakers. Then they usually take an apprenticeship under a master cabinetmaker to learn the craft. They start by being the helper. Just getting tools and watching. They may eventually be responsible for some sub-section of the project. Eventually, can they be responsible for making cabinets, and eventually they will be able to add their own creativity and artistic flair to their works.
To add even more complexity, sales is not a deterministic process since not all people are alike. This is akin to the artistic part of cabinetmaking. Some cabinets are just a place to store stuff. Others are works of art.
Selling products can be a task trying to appeal to your key demographic, however, the ‘sell’ can be pretty much done if you know how to advertise your products right. Using the best photo light box to capture the essence and professional look of your product is a strategy, contacting a business advertiser and discussing what marketing tricks to use to appeal to your target audience with buzzwords, etc. is another step to take. Promotion needs to be thought out as much as possible, but the end results will help you in the long run.
The CEO as Chief Promoter
The CEO of a startup needs to be the company’s chief promoter and evangelist. And, in many cases, the CEO will need to be the person who closes business with customers and closes financing rounds with investors. In all the companies that I have run, I have also been brought in by my team to close key employees. Selling is an essential skill for any CEO, but especially critical for the CEO of a startup.
I think a lot of founders and CEOs shy away from this because they don’t want to be “salesy”, disliking the negative connotations of selling. I have heard dozens of excuses why company leaders don’t want to sell: I don’t want to come-off sleazy or pushy? I’m afraid of being rejected? All I need to do is show the product to the customers and they will immediately see the value. I’m afraid to ask for something because they will want something in return. I’m afraid that discussing business will ruin our friendship.
Although there are potential elements of truth in each of these questions and statements, it is still critically important that the CEO can sell. Why?
The leader of an organization needs to have conviction, knowledge and be convincing about the business prospects in a startup. They need to be able to “sell” their ideas and their products to suppliers, customers, partners, customers, employees and board members.
It might be a bit easier if you think of selling from a service mentality versus a sales mentality. You want to service the client, employees, and shareholders. Don’t you? If what you have can help others, then it is in their best interest to have it. You need to explain it in such a way that they understand how it will help them and the value of using it. And, if you’re struggling with this, you have options. You can check out Impel Dynamic bespoke sales training services, do further reading on the subject, attend a specialty course, the list goes on.
The Selling Process
There are volumes of books and hundreds of classes that talk about the selling process, and it all boils down to “AIDA”:
I personally like the book, The 5 Great Rules of Selling. When I took the Dale Carnegie sales master class about 30 years ago, they used this book along with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The fact that they use both books emphasized the importance of selling to people, not just selling products. I think it is critical.
Weather you are asking someone on a date or asking them to write you a check for $5,000,000, the process is the same. AIDA. Back to the cabinetmaker, they should make cabinets that customers would want to buy and have in their homes, and cabinets that get lots of compliments from their friends.
Understanding Your Audience
People want to understand, “What’s in it for me?” Even in a corporate environment, there needs to be a “personal win” and a “corporate win” to close a sale.
Many technical founders want to focus on the product. It’s features. How awesome it is. While this may well be true, for someone to buy anything, they need to see the value for them, and be convinced that it is in their best interest to make a decision in favor of using it, whatever “it” is.
Before you can sell anything, you need to understand your audience. What are their interests? What are their problems? What do they lose sleep over?
The best way to understand these things is by asking open-ended questions. An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered simply by saying “yes” or “no”. If your company wanted to look into using an outsourced sales team to get to know your business and customers in order to potentially increase your sales, you could look at a company such as Pearl Lemon Sales or others.
Benefits or Value-Based Selling
With any prospective “buyer” of anything, weather your selling a product or an idea, you should focus on user benefits, not product features. You should give just enough facts that allow the client to justify the decision. In other words, you need to first convince their “head”. Next, you need to arousing desire by pointing out the lack of benefits today and your solution filling that void. This is called winning over their “heart”. This may all seem like BS to you if you are an engineer or scientist, but I can guarantee you that you need to win the head and the heart to close business. You should use stories, word picture, and analogies to help in the process. Even after you win over the head and the heart, you need to get a decision. This is the art of closing. If you don’t close the prospect, then you are leaving them in a state of indecisiveness, which is not a nice thing to do. If what you have adds value, then you are doing your client a great favor by closing them. A really good book that breaks down many of these concepts is Conceptual Selling by Robert Miller & Stephen Heiman.
What about Issue #1.5? Overcoming Your Own Fears
You don’t get great at anything just by reading books or taking classes. Of course you need to read, study, and learn, but you also need to overcome your fears, and the only way I know how to do this is to “just do it”. I always think it is best to get a mentor or a coach to guide you in this journey. It is like the cabinetmaker becoming an apprentice. Then building some cabinets. Finding out what works and what doesn’t. Hitting their thumb with a hammer a few times. Not all furniture is the same. There are different tools for different jobs. They need to make winning and servicing the customer their craft. Eventually it will be a work of art if they care about their work.
I am not saying that all CEOs should come from the sales organization, and that you shouldn’t hire a VP of sales at some point. And if you do hire a VP of sales, make sure they are really good and delegate to them!
However, there are some jobs that only the CEO can do. You’re head of sale in not going to close a round of financing. Your VP of sales may not be the right person to convince a key engineer or scientist to join your company. Be a craftsman when it comes to being the chief evangelist and promoter for your company.
More about #1.5: Getting into Action Yourself
You need to do things, not just think about them. You should have a willingness to be bold. Don’t let fear dominate you, especially fear of rejection. In dealing with clients, bring something to the table. Add value. Don’t waste their time. You will make mistakes, so learn from them. When a prospective client says “no” it really means “not right now”.
Gaining Experience and Cultivating Relationships
When working with people, keep in mind that interactions are not optimally efficient. First because people are not optimally efficient. Second, because the other person may have a different set of priorities than you have. When networking and building relationships, find a person’s personal and business “hook”. Do they like football? Snow skiing? Dinner at a nice restaurant? Art? Wine? Throwing sheep at you on Facebook? You may think I am making this up, but I have known high level executives at major companies that each have one of these personal hooks.
Building relationships requires a willingness to put yourself out there. You need to build friendships and have a personal connection. This does not mean that every prospective client will be your best friend. It means that you need to care about them and their interests. In managing your time, keep in mind that you may not be optimally efficient if you take time to build relationships. However, I can guarantee you that you will be more effective.
One additional thing that is really about managing sales in complex corporate environments: You may need to sell more than one person. This is why you need to have an excellent head of sales to manage the selling process. But as CEO you should understand how this is done and be able to ask “difficult questions”. I suggest a really terrific books to help you with this, also by Robert Miller & Stephen Heiman, Strategic Selling. There are other frameworks, but I think Miller and Heiman have a really terrific one that I’ve used in multiple companies in complex corporate sales environments where you are really doing team selling. The most important thing is you have a framework and common language where you and your team can communicate. The sales person is the quarterback on these situations, but the CEO is always the head coach.
What is your experience with “selling” to stakeholders like suppliers, shareholders, partners, and employees? How about customers? We would love to hear your stories about what worked and what didn’t. Have you ever used a mentor or a coach to help you through this process. That is what I do. If you need guidance or support, please let me know.
This is Patrick Henry, CEO of QuestFusion, with The Real Deal…What Matters.