When I was a young marketer I learned how to listen to customers by making a fool of myself.
Twenty eight years ago I was the bright, young, eager product marketing manager called out to the field to support sales by explaining the technical details of Convergent Technologies products to potential customers.
The OEM Business
Convergent’s business was selling desktop computers (with our own operating system and office applications) to other computer manufacturers – most of them long gone: Burroughs, Prime, Monroe Data Systems, ADP, Mohawk, Gould, NCR, 4-Phase, AT&T. These companies would take our computers and put their name on them and resell them to their customers.
Business customers were starting to ask for “office automation solutions” – word processing, spreadsheets, graphing software on a desktop. This was just before the IBM PC hit the desktop so there were no “standard” operating systems or applications for desktop platforms. Computer hardware companies were faced with their customers asking for low-cost (relatively) desktop computers they had no experience in building. Their engineering teams didn’t have the expertise using off-the-shelf microprocessors (back then “real” computer companies designed their own instruction sets and operating systems.) They couldn’t keep up with the fast product development times that were enabled by using standard microprocessors. So their management teams were insisting that they OEM (buy from someone else) these products. Convergent Technologies was one of those OEM suppliers.
Their engineers hated us.
I was traveling with the regional sales manager who had called on these companies, gotten them interested and now needed someone from the factory to provide technical details and answer questions about how the product could be configured and customized.
See How Smart I Am
As the eager young marketer on my first sales call, as soon as we shook hands I was in front of the room pitching our product and technical features. I knew everything about our operating system, hardware and applications – and I was going to prove it. I talked all about how great the new products were and went into excruciating detail on our hardware and operating system and explained why no one other than our company could build something so brilliantly designed. (This being presented to another company’s proud engineering team who was being forced to buy product from us because they couldn’t build their own in time.) After I sat down I was convinced the only logical conclusion was for the customer to tell us how many they wanted to buy.
The result wasn’t what I expected. The customers didn’t act particularly excited about the product and how brilliantly I presented it. I do believe some actually rolled their eyes. They looked at their watches, gave our sales guy a quizzical look and left.
After the meeting our sale rep took me aside and asked if “perhaps I wouldn’t mind watching him on the next call.“
The next day, as I drove to our next meeting the sales guy was intently reading the sports section of the newspaper and as I glanced over he seemed to be writing down the scores. I wondered if he had a bookie. When we got to the meeting he reminded me to be quiet and follow his lead.
We shook hands with the customers, but instead of launching into a product pitch (or better, letting me launch into the pitch) he started asking how their families were. He even remembered the names of their wives and kids and some details about schools or events. (I couldn’t believe it, here we were wasting precious time and the dumb sales guy is talking about other stuff.)
Just as I thought we were going to talk about the product, he then mentioned the previous nights football game. (Damn, another five minutes down the tube as the whole room chimed in with an opinion as we talked about something else unimportant.)
The Customer is a Genius
Then instead of talking about our products he segued the conversation into their products. He complemented their elegantly designed minicomputers and made some astute comment about their architecture (now I’m rolling my eyes, their computers were dinosaurs) and asked who were the brilliant designers. I was surprised to see that they were in the room. And soon the conversation were about architectural tradeoffs and then how customers didn’t appreciate the elegant designs and how the world was going to hell in a handbasket because of these commodity microprocessors. And our sales guy was agreeing and commiserating. (And I’m thinking why is he doing all this, just tell these idiots that the world has passed them by and they need to buy our stuff and lets get an order.)
The engineers spoke about all the pressure they were getting from management to build desktop personal computers rather than their traditional minicomputers. And that their management wanted these new systems on a schedule that was impossible to meet. Then our sales guy says something that makes me stop breathing for a while. “I bet if your management team would give you guys the resources you guys could build desktop computers better than anyone, even better than us.” There’s a unanimous agreement around the table about how great they were and how bad management was.
The Consultative Sale
Our sales guy then quietly asked if there was any way we could help them. (Help them?!! We’re here to sell them our stuff, why can’t we just present what we got and they’ll buy it.) The VP of Engineering says, “well we don’t have the resources or time, and as long as you know we could build better computers then you guys, why don’t you tell us the details about your computers.”
I had just watched a master of the consultative sale.
Engineers as Salesmen
I thought (and still do) that this sales guy walked on water. He had spent 12 years at DEC, first as a hardware engineer designing part of the PDP-16, then as the marketing manager for the LSI-11 and then into sales.
Making sales calls with him taught me what a world class salesperson was like. It also made me understand what kind of support sales people needed from marketing and what marketing programs were wasted motion.
It also made me realize that there are times you don’t want any sales people in your company.
Startups and Sales
If you read this post you can come away with the impression that every startup with a direct salesforce needs a consultative sales team. Not true.
The answer depends on your answer to two questions:
- which step in the Customer Development process are you on?
- what Market Type is your startup?
Customer Development and Selling Strategy
If you’ve just started your company you are in customer discovery. If you’ve tried to slog your way through my book on Customer Development you know that I’m insistent that the founders need to be the ones getting outside the building (physically or virtually) to validate all the initial hypotheses of the business model and product. If you hire a VP of Sales with the idea that they can do customer discovery you violated the first principle of Customer Development – this isn’t a step the can be outsourced to a non-founder.
Hiring a VP of Sales in customer discovery typically sets a startup back. It’s only after you’re done with customer discovery and are in the final steps of customer validation (building a repeatable and scalable sales process) that you start hiring a sales executive.
The next thing you need to do is match your sales team with your market type.
Market Type and Sales Teams
If you remember from a previous post, startups fall into four Types of Markets. You need to hire the right type of sales people for the type of market.
If you are in a New Market, (delivering what Clayton Christensen calls disruptive innovation) the market doesn’t even have a name and customers have no clue on how your product works or how it could help them. This market cries out for a sales force that can help educate and guide the market to making the right choices. Your sales team is an extension of your marketing department. The same is true if you are in an existing marketing and trying to sell to a niche or a segment of the market based on your knowledge of their particular needs. Both New Markets and Resegmented Niche Markets required a skilled consultative sales force.
This is very different from the sales team you would hire to sell in an existing market or a cheaper product.
If you’re in an existing market and you have a superior product, by all means tout your features and specifications. However, your product itself will be doing a lot of the selling. If it is demonstrably better as you claim your marketing department needs to communicate that competitive advantage and your sales curve should look linear as you take share from the existing incumbents.
If you are resegmenting an existing market a product with a cheaper alternative, by all means tout your price. Your marketing department should be all over this. In both cases you really don’t need a skilled/consultative sales force. A sales team with a great rolodex will do.
- Get out of the building (physically or virtually)
- Sales calls aren’t your IQ test or PhD defense
- Stop talking and listen to the customers problem
- Hire a sales team at the Customer Validation step
- Match the sales team to market type
Filed under: Convergent Technologies, Customer Development, Technology Tagged: | Customer Development, Customer Discovery, Customer Validation, Early Stage Startup, Entrepreneurs, Steve Blank, Tips for Startups