Cut the bullshit – Sales unmasked for Tech Founders, Engineers and other Rationalists

You’re an engineer. Selling is alien to you, right? It’s the dark side. It certainly sounds like black magic when sales managers talk about it. Better hire someone who knows how to do it.

Look, it’s really not. You can do it, even if you don’t want to. And you can also manage a sales team.

I also know you don’t want to. because you have a hundred technical ideas you still want to pursue, because you hate small talk, because you feel uncomfortable asking for money, because you are bored by other peoples’ problems, or because you feel impure shilling for your beautiful technology. Or for all of these reasons. But here’s the rub: You want your own business? Congrats, you’re now in Sales.

You may never be a great salesman, but be prepared to learn how to be an effective one, or else maybe you should find a job in someone else’s business.

What’s the Minimum I need to Learn to be Effective in Sales?

1. Empathy

Not a natural talent you possess? Who cares – learn empathetic behaviors and make yourself a better human being at the same time: Put yourself in your prospect’s shoes. Imagine living in their world. The problems they have, the pressures and expectations they face, their ambitions, needs, goals, and fears. Who and what is influencing their decisions? What would you do in their situation?

2. Helping people

Successful salespeople don’t do what you think they do. Sales isn’t about talking people into giving you money for something you think they need. Ever bought anything from a pushy TV-style door-to-door sales rep? Me neither. 

If nothing else, take this away: Sales is about helping people. Customers are just people you have successfully been able to help. Take every opportunity to help people who may have a use for your product. 

Don’t misunderstand this. Don’t be sidetracked into trying to please people. Try to help them. Whether they like you is not in your control.

3. It’s a numbers game

This is alien to engineers; I can’t think of an equivalent phenomenon in development. But I find that when it comes to sales, 80% of what you do turns out to be a waste of time; you just don’t know in advance which things are in the golden 20%. It’s like a perversion of the Pareto principle. There’s no secret to unlock this – its unknowable. You might have to make 100 dials to have 10 conversations. You may need these 10 conversations to get 5 qualified opportunities, which you will need to win 1 deal at a typical 1 in 5 win ratio. 

Under-performing sales reps will often stop calling once they have secured the first discussion, then spend all their energy trying to talk or cajole that prospect into buying. If it doesn’t work out, they will generally have a plausible reason and an epic tale of a hard-fought contest to relate at the monthly sales review. 

4. Stop beating yourself up

You are going to lose a lot of deals. Accept my Sales version of the 80/20 rule. 80% of what you do will be wasted effort. But every unanswered call, every unproductive discussion, and every rejected quote is getting you closer to your next order. There is no shortcut, so stop looking for one.

5. Follow up and follow through

Be persistent. 

What do I look for when hiring a Sales Rep?

For Sales, you will need to hire people who aren’t like you. That’s always hard. But its easier once you break it down:

  • Look for evidence of their past work-rate, not the size of their Rolodex. Have they worked out the numbers – do they know how many calls they have to make every day to consistently make quota, or do they talk about  “that bluebird” they snared to bust quota that one time?
  • Empathy. Successful sales reps work hard to understand the prospect’s situation, and to help them. During the hiring process, they will work hard to understand your situation too. Whereas the “classic” sales type who does all the talking in your interview won’t have any idea by the end of it how you are going to reach your decision.
  • Persistence. A must-have trait for working in sales. 
  • Hit the eject button if you see any sign of hubris, entitlement, obvious lies, flexible principles, or variable integrity. If they relate an entertaining story intended to impress you about how they once got a great deal by cleverly hoodwinking a customer, ignore the voice telling you “we need that kind of street smarts here too.  If you have no compassion for your customers, then at least consider that this person won’t hesitate to get whatever they want out of you by playing the same tricks.

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