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!When do you start sales?
If you’re a founder you’re probably already doing sales even if you don’t really understand exactly what you’re doing. Your passion and domain understanding can translate remarkably well into enthusiastic product pitches and demos. You probably built your software to solve a problem, perhaps one you suffered from yourself, so you know all about it. This has pushed you well into the sales sphere.

You might be doing a lot of “low-touch” sales, in which case it may be that you don’t even need a sales force—for years Fog Creek didn’t have one, and most of our sales still happen without any human intervention.

These low-touch sales are driven by marketing. You make a great website, you test how it’s doing, you change what’s failing.  You send out automatic emails, you try different copy—you dump the one that started, “I am the prince regent of a great and wealthy country…”

The line between sales and marketing is not clearly drawn, and the functions have huge overlap.  I almost think we need a new word for this.  Smarketing? Smales?

OK, smales.  This is the world of Patrick MacKenzie of Bingo Card Creator fame (and Avinash Kaushik, and Rob Walling, and Darmesh Shah, and so on). Smales is hugely important. It’s a low-cost way to increase sales, and especially if you’re technical, you should do this first. Do it frequently and do it always. You’ll want to start a sales team after you think you’ve squeezed everything you can out of smales. Remember, though, at some level, sales is always going on.

For now I only want to talk about the sales that human beings conduct with other human beings.

Even though the internet has radically changed sales channels, the basics of selling person-to-person haven’t changed at all.

!What is Sales?

Many technical people tend to have a rather, shall we say, uncharitable view of sales people.  They think something like the following: Sales is full of charlatans and hucksters who lie and inveigle and pressure; no one wants to talk to them and the thought of actually being one makes a root canal sound like a vacation.

That’s not so good.

But this is just a stereotype—not without some cause, for sure, but it doesn’t really deserve the weight it once did. Mature and responsible salespeople don’t act like that because they don’t need to, and because they understand that such behavior is classic win-lose.  The sales people of the stereotype are trying to force you into something you are unsure about and they make the whole thing feel like a battle where you have a lot to lose.  You don’t have to be that kind of salesperson, or have that kind of sales culture, and in fact, if you do, then you’re taking a very short-term view of your business.

So let’s try that again.

* ''Sales is a conversation.''

Ah! That’s it. That’s the most basic thing you need to know in order to demystify sales.  You’ve all had conversations, so you’re off to a good start. Sales conversations just tend to be a specific kind of conversation, one that you can become better at, and one that tends to take a particular form.

There is one other part to this sales demystification process that deserves top billing before we move on.

* ''Sales is problem solving.''

There are people in the world with a problem of some kind.  Some subset of those people need this problem fixed and is seeking a solution. You’re one of the people who can fix that problem, and you need to show them that your fix is the best one for them.  Again, that’s it.

Sales is a mindset as much as it is a set of skills.  If you believe that sales is hard, scary, underhanded, and manipulative, then that’s what it will be, and you’ll hate it, and fear it.

Let’s put these ideas together into one sales demystifying sentence: Sales is a conversation about how to solve a problem.

At its core it really is that simple. If you can learn the truth of that, sales will become radically less frightening.

There is more to it of course, but when you strip away all the advice contained in all the vast number of books on sales, this is what it’s all about.

Let’s talk specifics.

!Breaking Sales Down to Two Things

The success of salespeople hinges on two factors:
1) The quality of the things that come out of their mouths, and
2) The discipline they develop for their sales day.

The first one, quality, tends to be a bit softer—a sort of “I know it when I see it” thing—but it’s still exceptionally important.  You certainly know a good movie when you see one.  You might not be able to explain what makes the movie good, but you still know it. The same will hold for good sales people, and when you educate yourself about what to look for, you’ll become very good at figuring out what actually separates good sales people from bad ones.

The second part, discipline, focuses on process and more readily yields to data analysis. We’ll get to that in a later section.

When talking about the quality of things emerging from your mouth, there are again two main parts to consider, a) your sales and presentation skills, and b) your product and market knowledge.

!!Product knowledge

I am assuming that you make a great effort to understand everything you can about your product and your market. Study. Memorize. Practice. I don’t have much to add here, except to say, that the better your domain knowledge, the better your conversations will go. Neglect this and you’re crippling yourself as a sales person.

You’ll often find that sales people frequently have a fear of sounding dumb, especially if there is a large difference between the technical skills of the salesperson and the people they normally talk to.  This tends to lead to timid and boring presentations.  It also involves a lot of mumbling and low-talking while the sales person desperately prays for a change of topic from the one they only dimly grasp. Sometimes they will just blurt out, “Java!” and hope the whole thing goes away.

There are two fixes for this, the first I already mentioned, which is to crush your areas of ignorance.  If you plan to be a top performer in your field, then this is part of the cost. Just accept it.

The other way to mitigate this worry is to never pretend to know things you don’t know. Learn to say, “I don’t know” with total ease.  If you start to get into tricky terrain, don’t guess, and don’t speculate, just say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”

Always be fearless with “I don’t know,” but also do a bit of self-analysis. Recognize that if you find yourself saying this so often that it would just be easier to have someone else handle the call, then you’ve got ignorance crushing to do and you better get to it!

!Sales Skills

!!The buying process

Understanding the buying process is important because it gives you a framework for understanding and analyzing what you’re doing.  Good sales books all have some view about how the sales process unfolds. I think the clearest and most useful articulation of this is in Frank McNair’s book, [[How you make the sale]]. It’s a short and readable book which will give you a nice foundation in the sales process. In an abbreviated form the sales process looks like this: You find out what problems the prospect is having, you present your solution, you deal with objections, you close, and usually you follow up.

Each of these can be exhaustively discussed and dissected (plus I left a couple out), but remember, we’re doing the basics.

<<tiddler [[Questions]]>>
<<tiddler [[Stories]]>>
!!Features and Benefits
<<tiddler [[Features and Benefits]]>>
<<tiddler [[Closing]]>>
<<tiddler [[Objections]]>>
<<tiddler [[Quality]]>>
A couple of last semi-random thoughts about quality
* Don’t interrupt your prospect when she is talking. Rude. Annoying. You miss good information.
 Don’t ask about the weather. It’s a cliché, and it’s so painfully artificial. Feel free to get down to business quickly. That’s why you’re all on the phone.
* Do everything for your prospects. For god’s sake don’t ever tell them the documentation is on the website and they can search for it. Are you serious? Find what they need and send it to them. Take care of everything. Everything you don’t take care of is a thing they probably won’t do even if they say they will.

Next we’re going to shift over to the second large area I said sales people need to be concerned with: how you spend your day.


If you’re a small shop, or a technical founder, or have technical resources available to you, then look around for things to automate. This is all about saving time and creating efficiencies so that you have more time for the squishy, but very valuable, person-to-person stuff.

New trials of FogBugz and Kiln at Fog Creek get turned into cases in our internal FogBugz install. Cases are assigned to a salesperson based on criteria we’ve set, and then the prospect is marked as belonging to the salesperson in our CRM system.

For over a year I did this manually, and it took me about 2.5 hours per week. What a total waste of time. We got a bit of (incredibly useful) spare tech time and now this all happens automatically, and I only know about it when it breaks, which it never does.

These sorts of internal process automations often get neglected because they’re not a new feature or a new product and don’t bring in new money in obvious ways. But never forget that operations efficiencies made Michael Dell a rich man. It’s one of the primary competitive advantages that a company can go for, and even if it isn’t one of yours, make absolutely sure operations inefficiencies are not an active drag.

You always have to do the cost-benefit-analysis, but it’s a pretty safe assumption that operations automations will save you time and money. Just make sure you don’t get overzealous—it’s this kind of thinking that has given the world the Acherontic automated phone tree.

!!What to do with your day
I don’t like to be rigid about this because autonomy is an important element of job satisfaction.

But I have found that sometimes people just need some guidance here. I’ve made the mistake of assuming that everyone would figure out a way that works for them, but they often don’t, so what follows is some advice on being better at the process side of sales.

First, have a sales tool of some kind that you use. I don’t care what it is; Fogbugz, Highrise, Salesforce, SugarCRM—it doesn’t really matter as long as you use it consistently and you don’t lose things in it. This system is the center of your day and gives you confidence that you’re not missing anything. It’s where you schedule your activities. It’s the tool you rely on to set your daily agenda.

In a perfect world someone will be able to pull lots of different kinds of data from it to do interesting analysis, like how long it takes to convert someone, which are the highest value prospects, and many other nuggets of useful business analysis.

How you spend your day will vary a lot depending on your business.  Do you do a lot of outbound, cold calls? Do you make $100,000 sales or do you tend to hover in the $2,000 range?  There will be many factors determining how your sales team operates. It might be that you’re the only sales person and also the technical lead (and bookkeeper, and hiring manager, and wastebasket cleaner).

There is at least one thing that is common to all of these situations: The need to set aside some time for uninterrupted planning each day. Sales people are interrupted a lot, and this can be mentally taxing. Take some time every day to calmly think about what you need to get done for the next day. Turn your phone off and let calls go to voicemail—there is no sales call that can’t wait an hour if necessary.

Whether you plan the night before or in the morning is a matter of taste, but this I know from lots of observation and experience: if you get to work and dive in without some semblance of a plan your day will be much more chaotic and reactive than it needs to be. All day will feel like you’re playing catch-up and you’ll likely go home with the nagging sense that you didn’t get to something important.

Do this: Just commit to one week of planning your sales day before you jump into the actual work and see if it makes a difference.

!!Your day in some more detail
I’m going to assume that you spend most or all of your day doing sales—adjust as necessary if that’s not the case.

Salespeople all have a pipeline—this is the set of prospects or leads that might convert to users or sales. Keeping that pipeline healthy is important. Doing that is often a function of smales (see part 1) which feeds you new leads, it’s also a function of the quality of things that come out of your mouth, but crucially, it’s a function of your personal organization and follow-up.

People that are good at the process aspect of sales have a very high tolerance for making lots of calls and sending out lots of email replies, and all other things being equal, they create an advantage for themselves.

!!The phone

Many places set really draconian call targets that salespeople must meet each day. Seventy calls, eighty calls, sometimes more. We don’t do that at Fog Creek because these sorts of targets are so easily gamed and don’t often serve your larger business goals.

But the purpose behind them is sound, even if the execution is not. What these goals attempt to capture is the importance of getting on the phone. If you convert the prospects you talk to at a 3% rate, and you talk to one hundred prospects, wallah, you have three new customers. Obviously, if you talk to two hundred prospects, you have six new customers. That’s what these call number requirements are after (by the way, the whole quality section of this series is about improving that conversion percentage).

I much prefer to have that impulse come naturally from the sales people. I certainly monitor the number of calls that are happening, and I’ll have a conversation if they get too low, but an internally motivated person is a million times preferable to the people you have to berate. I hate it, they hate it, and then they are working from fear, and not the personal desire for accomplishment, praise, self-satisfaction, or what have you.

So here is the point: block out a significant section of each day for sustained and uninterrupted calls. Paul Kenny told me the story of the most successful salesperson he ever saw—a guy whose business had failed, and who was doing sales to build up his stock of capital so he could start a new business—in other words, a highly motivated and focused person. This guy, pay attention, there is an important lesson coming here, this guy would block out around four hours each day and make calls non-stop. He made it a personal rule that the phone would not touch the cradle for that whole time, so he kept it draped over his shoulder as he dialed the next call, or made his notes from the previous call.

Similarly, one of the best salespeople we ever had at FogCreek would open up twenty-five or thirty tabs in her browser, each of them a prospect she wanted to call.  She worked from right to left through the list and closed each tab when she was done with it.

When you plan your calling day, do your most valuable calls first. Then if you need to slip calls to the next day, you’re shifting the less important ones. Just be cautious that you’re not forever slipping calls that then never get made.

This discipline matters and it makes an enormous difference. It’s not easy, but if you do it, you will be light years ahead of your peers. In fact, you might have to stop calling them peers.

!!How many calls?

There is no set number since there are so many variables that can affect what makes sense.  But keep in mind that many sales people estimate the number of calls they can make based on getting through to people, and so they think they can make eight or twelve calls. This is a mistake.  The vast majority of your calls will result in no talking at all.

What you want is a fairly heavy rotation for people you’re trying to get a hold of. Try to reach them often. At one point I discovered that some of the salespeople at Fog Creek would make an initial call to  someone with a new trial and if the salesperson didn’t get through, the prospect was put in for another call in two weeks.


Call them the next day. Hell, maybe later the same day. Initially you just won’t leave any voicemail messages. It’s just a call with no result. Note it and move on. Remember this is about keeping your pipeline healthy and having productive conversations. It’s just like the 3% close example above. If 10% of your calls result in a conversation and you have ten calls per day, you get one conversation ….ok, you get it. Make your calls.

A call without a conversation costs you maybe two minutes at the outside. If you’re well organized it’s not unreasonable to think you could do thirty calls in an hour, possibly more. If you have a conversation, fantastic!  That’s what we’re after, not some arbitrary number.

Now, I strongly suggest that you reserve an hour or two a day for this level of sustained calling. I don’t think most people can keep that high pace going all day long, but if you do an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, you can certainly keep that up. Do more if you can. And just abandon and forget the notion that you’ll “get to the calls in between other things.” This is a fallacy a fraud and a fantasy.

You must reserve time exclusively for calls. Anything else is sub-optimal and is often just avoidance. Anything else is like hunting for gnats when you can order a porterhouse.

At some point after they’ve been in the rotation for a bit you may shift over to email, leave a voicemail, send a snail mail, put them on a much less frequent rotation, or abandon them. You’ll have to figure out where those lines are, but they are probably not as tight as your first impulse suggests.

Save voicemails for when you’ve tried to reach the prospect five or ten times. Most people just never return voicemails from a salesperson, so this tends to be a waste of time. Opinions differ on this topic, but that’s mine. It really depends on what you have to offer, though. If your voicemail said, “If you call me today I can get you 75% off your purchase,” well, OK, then they’ll call you back.


The purpose of the calls is to help people decide to use your product if it’s a good fit for them. In addition to calling new prospects, you should make follow-up calls so you can keep tabs on how the evaluation is going. It lets you intervene if there are bumps in the road. If a problem has developed and you have not been in contact with them, you will not know it until you’ve lost the sale.

Let me tell you another story.

I recently moved to a new apartment and needed to get blinds for the windows.  I had a guy come out and take measurements, show me samples, and give me the whole spiel.  Really nice guy. Did a great job. Explained everything clearly and set expectations really well.  And then? Nothing. Total silence.

Actually I was on the fence about buying.  It was a little more than I wanted to spend, so I sat on the decision for a while. Even so, there is a high chance that if he had called to follow up with me once or twice he could have convinced me to take the plunge.

He just lost a sale because he doesn’t have a good (or perhaps any) system for following up.  All I had was a price objection, and he probably has several ways to overcome that.  For the investment of maybe two phone calls, he had perhaps a 75% chance to make the sale.  In the end I bought from and did it myself.  Oh well.

The price objection won because that was the only debater at the debate. No one else showed up. When you follow-up you’re getting yourself a seat at the conversation. You might still lose, but you can’t win if you don’t show.

And please remember the cardinal rule—do what you say you will. Part of sales is establishing credibility and trust, and these things can rise and fall on small moments like sending the article you promised to send, so always do that. Get it into your to do list, make a slot for it like it was a call, whatever it takes, but don’t forget.

Don’t chase inside straights

Develop, preferably through data or a formal process, a sense of what constitutes a good lead. Too many times I’ve heard this from a salesperson, “Had a great conversation with Company X and I think they’ll purchase next week.”

Awesome, sounds good.

Me: How many users?
Salesperson: I don’t know.
Me: Did you talk to the person who is going to make the decision?
Salesperson: I think so.
Me: When are they going to make a final decision?
Salesperson: Mmmm, not sure.
Me: What other tools are they looking at?
Salesperson: I didn’t ask.

OK, if you’re that salesperson you don’t get a cookie. You don’t know anything. That’s not a qualified lead, that’s a pipedream.

In order to know which leads are your most important, you need to get some of these very basic facts. If you don’t have those facts you’ll spend your time chasing chimeras while the real prospects go unattended.

We use a checklist to determine where in the buying process any given prospect we’ve spoken to happens to be right now. At a minimum you should be able to answer these questions about any lead you’re spending time on: 1) Who is making the final decision? 2) When are they going to make the decision? 3) How much will they need to buy? 4) What are they using now? 5) What other solutions are they considering?

You’re a lot further ahead if you know these things. If asking about any of this stuff makes you uncomfortable, go back to the questions section. You are trying to gather information so you can save everyone’s time and give them more precise answers to their needs.

!Last Thoughts
Anyone can learn to do sales, you just need to have the right mindset. Yes, it can seem very scary, but you’re just talking to other people, who have jobs, and desires, and concerns just like you. Try to be yourself, and remember you are simply having conversations about how to solve a problem.

Like any skill you can get better at it with practice, but find time to practice when you’re not talking to a prospect. No one got any good at the violin by practicing only during concerts.

If you have an obnoxious and pushy sales culture you’re doing it wrong. You can become exceptionally good at sales without making people hate you. In fact, people will really appreciate the help you give them.

Lastly, I’ve got a secret for you. Even though this was directed mainly at people who spend a chunk of time directly in sales conversations, the fact is everyone in your company is in sales. Everyone. Self-identification has nothing to do with it. You have a product or a service, and you want people to buy it or use it (or join or donate). That’s the fundamental purpose of your organization no matter what other noble and laudable goals you adorn it with. Every programmer, receptionist, support tech, accountant, and CEO is a salesperson in your organization, and they would all do well to think about how the above advice might apply to them.
Fri, 03 Jun 2011 08:12:02 GMT
Fri, 03 Jun 2011 08:12:02 GMT