Successful Selling Tips for the Technically Gifted

May 3, 2006

Disclaimer:  I’m not a sales person – and I don’t play one on TV.  So, in case you’re wondering what qualifies a technology guy like me to offer advice on sales, my only response is this:  The fact that I’m not a sales person is precisely why you might benefit from some of these tips, given that chances are, you’re not a sales person either.  If it makes you feel any better, and gives you some more confidence in what I have to say, it might help to know that I’ve sold over $20 million dollars worth of software for my startups.   This may not sound like a lot to some of you, but for bootstrapped software startups that haven’t raised outside capital, its not bad.
There is a widely held belief that technology people make terrible sales people.  This is probably true.  But, its also true that you don’t have to be a great sales person to sell.  
My motivation for the title of this article is to focus on technology founders of startups and what they can do to drive early sales of the product.  Many of these tips apply to higher price-point products (as the tips assume that you’re actually selling).  The tips also are geared towards “early stage” software startups (where the product is not in Version 4.0 and you don’t already have a ton of customers).
For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that sales means you’re actually conversing with a customer and trying to get them to part with money for your product.  Though this is a somewhat simplistic definition, it does what we need to put the sales tips below in context.  If your startup can drive revenue without actually talking to customers and having to close deals, more power to you.  You can then focus on marketing (a topic for another article) and not have to worry about the whole ugly “sales” business.  For the rest of you, read on.
Software Sales Tips For The Tecnically Talented
  1. You Don’t Need Sales People, You Need Sales.  This is going to sound obvious, but its an important distinction.  The reason startup founders go out and hire sales people is to…wait for it…make sales!  However, this assumes that the only (or best) way to make early software sales is to hire sales people.  This is simply not true.  If you’ve raised venture capital, have a mostly working product and truly want to “rise to the next level”, that’s great.  Find a great VP of Sales and let them do their thing.  However, if you don’t have the capital, then remember that sales people are simply a “means to an end” and there are other ways to get to that end.  In every successful startup I’ve ever seen, one or more (and ideally all) of the founders were selling. So, what if you as technology founder are not good at selling?  Buddy, you’ve got a long, uphill battle.  My advice to you would be to learn how to sell.  Life will get much easier.  The remaining tips assume that you, as the technology founder, are doing the sales.

  1. Reveal Your Geekiness:  As a general rule, whenever I went on sales meetings for my software startup, I’d begin the meeting with a simple disclaimer:  “I’m not a sales guy, I’m a programmer.  My apologies in advance for not having any PowerPoint slides or a polished sales pitch.  That’s just not my thing.”  Obviously, you shouldn’t say this if it isn’t true.  But, for this article, I’m going to assume it is true and that your primary calling in life and what gets you excited is developing software – not selling.  In my experience, making this kind of disclaimer upfront works wonders.  Customers relax.  You get instant credibility as they (rightfully) assume that you actually know something useful.  You’re not there to just push them to buy whatever whiz-bang product your company happens to have built.  Most customers I’ve met would much rather talk to a programmer than a sales person.

  1. Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood:  Selling software as a startup is very different from the classic stereotypes we have in our heads of what sales is like.  Your focus should be to attempt to understand the customer, not have them understand your offering.  Don’t start a sales conversation by trying to “pitch” the customer on all the features and benefits of your product (as tempting as it may be).  Try to have a semi-structured conversation about their problem.  Understand it. 

  1. Pretend Like You Don’t Already Have A Product:  If you’re anything like me, as the customer is trying to explain their problem, you’re thinking about all the different ways your existing product solves their problem.  Try not to do this too early (you’ll need to do it eventually).  If you start pushing your product too early, you reduce your chances of understanding what the real customer problem is.  You’re looking at the problem through the lens of your existing solution.  That’s not a good thing.  Mentally, see if you can get through most of the meeting pretending like you’re going to take the knowledge the customer is giving you and then you’re going to go back and write the code for the product they want.  Pretend like you need enough information to actually build a product for this customer.  Of course, this is hypothetical, because you already have a product, but it helps to tell yourself you don’t.

  1. Treat The Demo As Evidence Of A “Head Start”:  Chances are, sometime during the course of the sales meeting, you’re going to need to do a demo.  (On a side note, once I got really good at sales, I actually stopped doing demos, but we’ll save that idea for a different article).  When doing the demo, remember that the purpose of the demo is not to demonstrate all (or even most) of the product features.  The purpose of the demo is to provide evidence that you have already developed something that is reasonably close to what the customer thinks she wants.  If you did your job right so far, you have a pretty good idea of what the perfect product would be for the customer (at least in her mind).  Your goal is to demonstrate enough functionality so that the customer gets a sense that you’re “ahead of the game” in giving them what they want.  Key point here:  Customers don’t expect for you to have built the perfect product for their needs already (even if you have), and you lose credibility if you try to convince them of it.   A more effective path is to recognize that the problem they are trying to solve is non-trivial, that they have brilliantly articulated their needs and that you’d like some time to think through if your product might be a good fit.  

  1. Try To Get The Customer To Sell YouThis is not easy and takes a fair amount of finesse, but when it works, it works really well.  I’m not suggesting you try some contrived “reverse psychology” thing like parents might try on their kids or that you’d learn from a Psychology 101 class.  I’m talking about something much more nuanced.  In a healthy customer relationship, there should be a degree of balance.  Sure, the burden is on you to sell the customer, but there should be some reason why the customer would rather buy from you than their other alternatives.  It shouldn’t completely be a case of trying to move a two ton ball uphill on your own.  The customer has to want to buy from you at some level.  My most successful sales calls have been when I worked towards getting the customer to convince me that the relationship was a good fit and we should work together for mutual benefit.  You might think that this is very hard, and you’d be right.  But, if you think its impossible, you may have the wrong product or overestimated the needs of the market (which is a different problem).

  1. Improve The Product Immediately:  When I say immediately, I mean as soon as you can get some quality time with your compiler.  The plan ride back, that very night back at the hotel, whatever.  As a rule, I would be writing code to improve the product and add features after every sales call.  The reason is actually pretty simple.  There is a strong commonality amongst customers and what their needs are (though they may use different words sometimes).  Oddly, if you try to build the same feature yourself its not the same as when you do it in response to a customer meeting.  It just turns out differently.  Trust me on this one.  If you can keep improving the product based on sales meetings, you will increase sales.  Period.  (Obviously, I’m not advocating adding features to your product willy-nilly.  Hopefully, you’re too smart for that and are not going to take me too literally).

Notice that nowhere in these tips do I provide the standard cliché of ABC (“Always Be Closing”).  In today’s market, I just don’t think that works (if it ever did, for the kinds of sales we’re talking about).  Sure, you may ultimately need to ask for the sale, but in more cases than not, the process, if moving smoothly, just naturally progresses into a sale closing.  The best sales calls are when you’re solving a problem together with the customer and have a sense of objectivity about you that the customer trusts.  
On  a final note, I’ll share with you one additional thought:  In my first company, we never called one of these meetings a sales call.  We never asked for a sales call, and customers never brought us in to do a sales call.  Sometimes they were “strategy meetings”, and if we had a pre-existing relationship, they were “technology/product update meetings”.  Our message to our customers were clear:  “We’re not here to sell you, we’re here to help you solve a problem…”
Quick Summary and Wrap-Up:  As a founder, your ability to sell your own product (and not rely on others to do it for you) is one of the biggest predictors of future success.  As the lead developer/architect/designer, nobody knows the product better than you do and this is an immense advantage.  If you are passionate about what you’ve built (and why shouldn’t you be?), then you will get deals done as long as you are honest, committed and focused on the customer.  
How about you?  Any sales tips for the technically gifted that you’ve found particularly effective?

Written by Dharmesh Shah

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