I was just having coffee with Mark, the founder of Citrus Communications and we got onto the subject of how to acquire clients. He shared with me that him and his wife had talked about hiring a salesperson later this year and wanted my thoughts.
I told him that he’s not ready for a salesperson yet.
Our Own History With Sales People
A few things immediately popped into my mind. For one thing, Vincent and I had also talked about hiring a sales team many times. In fact, we had even tried before, each time with disastrous results.
So what went wrong each time? Simply put, we weren’t ready to hire on a salesperson.
Every tech founder wants to find that “business guy” who is going to step in and get loads of clients and work for you to work on. That was me, ten years ago. I didn’t want to handle sales, I didn’t want to be the business-end of things. I had worked in sales before and I prefered to deal with the production-side. This is a very typical situation.
Each time, we hired, or came close to hiring, someone for sales, it blew up in our faces. The very reason Vincent and I started Drive in the first place was because we had gotten burned by a third partner years ago and, out of frustration, wanted to take control of the business side of things ourselves.
The problem is that, just like finding a good technical mind, finding a good business mind is not so easy a task. The person running the business side of things, will also be the person determining the culture of the company. Let that sink in for a moment.
The sales guys that Vincent and I tried to work with in the past would push through deals that would cut corners, have tight deadlines, for low budgets, with clients who were unhappy about having a pushy salesman force them into a contract in the first place. The result was a culture where the production team was always under the gun, clients were never happy, and no one was doing project management because the sales guy’s job was to “get sales”.
This is not the kind of company I wanted to build, let alone work for.
What I failed to recognize at the time was that the salesman was doing a bad job. A salesman’s job is not to “get sales” but to filter clients. A seasoned sales person will properly assess the needs of a client, figure out whether or not the client and our services are a good fit, and then negotiate a deal where everyone wins. This is sales.
So getting back to my original point, why don’t we have a salesperson and why am I telling Mark not to get one?
Simple. We haven’t finished building our marketing funnel yet and Mark doesn’t even have a marketing funnel.
A Division of Labour (yes “labour” is spelled with a “u”, eh?)
For a sales person to operate effectively, they need to have leads. A lot of leads. A salesperson’s job is to qualify leads and turn the good ones into customers. This means that a good sales person will spend a lot of time vetting and burning through leads.
A common misunderstanding is that a salesperson will generate leads. This is wrong. This is also the mistake that Vincent and I made in the past and it’s worth learning from us.
Generating leads is called “prospecting”. While in some cases, you will have one person prospecting and selling, this is not usually the case and this is not the most efficient use of a good closer.
(not this kind of funnel, though caffeine is definitely part of it)
A prospectors job is to cast a wide net and find interested parties. When you hear about people starting their own companies and hustling, this is what they’re talking about. You get a lot of “no”s. You get a lot of people hanging up on you. You get a lot of coffee meetings that go nowhere.
A salesperson’s job is to close the deal. They should be senior enough to know which potential clients are a good fit for the organization and will help grow the organization, and which potential clients are going to be a hindrance.
To me, a prospector is part of the marketing funnel while the salesperson is part of the sales funnel. I think it’s important to distinguish the two.
Marketing Vs. Sales
Many people I talk to think that marketing and sales are one and the same. They are not. They have different goals, serve different purposes, and look extremely different from all angles.
The purpose of a marketing funnel is to generate interest and to communicate who you are and what you’re about. Somewhere in there, you can talk about your products and your services.
Marketing’s goal is to generate leads and get someone interested enough to fall into your sales funnel.
(not this kind of prospector)
Your sales funnel is about finalizing the details and closing the deal. The sales funnel is where you want to vet the client and make sure everything is clear before completing the transaction. The sales process sits between your marketing and your production as a gatekeeper to make sure prices are negotiated, contracts are signed, expectations are clear, and contingencies are planned for.
A good salesperson is concerned about all of the technical aspects and delivering value in the form of a relationship between the customer and the company. A good salesperson is there to calm the waters when there is a dispute between a fussy client’s expectations and an overwhelmed production team. And above all, a good salesperson protects the interests of the company above the clients.
This is the lesson that experience has taught me.
(not this kind of funnel, though it looks delicious)
So what we really need first is our marketing funnel. What does that look like at Drive?
First, content. Elena, Brent, and myself are constantly mandated to create new content that reflects the company’s values and image. Vincent makes sure that everything looks good and consistent across platforms so that our messages look unified.
Next, appropriate channels. When we figured out or brand guidelines (which I will talk about in another post) we zeroed in on our target audience. Part of that work was knowing where they hang out and where to reach them. We know that we’re dealing with a B2B audience so naturally, LinkedIn is a no-brainer.
Because we know where we’re posting content and who we’re targeting, we were able to find an appropriate voice for our brand. Each platform also has unwritten rules about what kind of posts are most effective so we keep that in mind when we’re developing our content strategy.
As we build out content, we are also sharing it in different spaces (like Reddit and Medium) and SEOing the content to improve the chances of articles ranking organically.
We also have a few other strategies to actively promote the company but these are the main points.
All of our efforts point our traffic back to our main website where we have several call-to-actions that lead potential clients to reach out to us. This generates leads.
(last funnel joke, we promise)
Right now, we still don’t have a clear sales funnel. This is something I am actively working on with Vincent and Jack. Part of the work is to built up appropriate assets so that we can showcase case studies, portfolio work, and pricing whenever someone asks. Because of the rebranding, we also need things like business cards and other print material.
We have a persona in mind of the kind of clients we want to work with and are vetting future clients against this benchmark. We have also started establishing sales targets for growth and are making a point not to take on too much work at a time.
Eventually, the point is to replace Vincent and myself with a dedicated salesperson, but for the time being, we’re it.
At the end of the meeting, Mark thanked me for my input. I thought it was an interesting discussion so I figured I would write a quick post about it and pull back the curtain for others to learn from.
The important lessons that we’ve learned over the years are (1) to not let a salesperson dictate the direction of the company, (2) that a marketing funnel is key to sales, and (3) that the sales process serves a very different purpose than just drumming up work.
I have shared this story with friends and colleagues many times over the years so that they don’t have to make the same costly mistakes we’ve made in the past. I hope people reading this can take away some ideas of what not to do when approaching sales and will prevent someone else from getting burned by bad salespeople.
Just remember that with the right strategy, sales doesn’t have to be scary and can be a science instead of an art.