TLDR; Identify a champion at the prospect organization and be sure to build trust, have them identify the organization’s exact pain points, and be sure they have access to decision makers within the organization. Your presentation should include:
You’ve finally done it! That disruptive, industry-changing idea you had that one night years ago, is no longer just an idea. It’s real. Months of debugging and reworking, round after round of user testing, and your product is finally ready to put in the hands of your customer, not just to test, but to use; and ideally, pay to use.
If you’re a product or technical founder and you’ve never sold a product before, you may think that hiring a salesperson is the best next step, but I’m here to tell you it’s not. Now is not the time to remove yourself from the customer feedback loop yet. How will you differentiate between poor sales performance and a lack of product market fit? How will you know if your sales hire has the right experience and skill set for your sales process when you don’t have a process yet?
As the CEO of a startup, you should expect to be the Chief Sales Officer for your company through at least the first 5-10 customers. Despite your lack of sales experience, you are the most qualified person to sell your product in the early days. A sales hire won’t solve your sales problem. If you don’t know how to set a salesperson up for success, you shouldn’t hire one.
I know sales can be daunting for technically-minded founders, but once broken down into a simple process, similar to product development, I hope you’ll learn to love selling. This article is the first article in a series to help founders understand the processes and systems involved in selling at the early stage.
The typical sales process for selling to mid-market or enterprise customers can take anywhere from 3 – 18 months depending on the complexity and price point of your product and consists of seven important steps outlined below:
- Qualify – Identify a Champion within the organization who will help you navigate the sales process and build buy-in across decision makers and influencers
- Stakeholder Meeting – Align buyers around the value of using the software and outline the closing process
- Proposal – Outline of the terms of the relationship
- Negotiation – Align on pricing and timeline to signature
- Contract/Verbal – budget approved for agreed upon pricing, Terms of Service, and timeline.
- Legal – Legal review
- Close – Received signature
While this format is relevant for all startup founders, it’s specifically aimed at startups selling into mid-market or enterprise customers where there may be anywhere from 5 – 20 buyers involved in the decision making process. In Christopher Janz’s, “ Five ways to build a $100 million business” + Follow-up, you’d be categorized as selling into elephants and brontosauruses. It’s also worth noting that you want to aim at a contract valued at over $60k/year. Anything less and your CAC (customer acquisition costs) to LTV (lifetime value) ratio may be off since contracts and customers of this size typically require a direct sales approach rather than a self signup model.
Now that we’ve given you an idea of the larger picture, let’s dive a bit deeper into the significance of the first step in the sales process: qualifying.
GOALS OF A QUALlFYING CALL / MEETING
There are three main goals for any qualifying call. You want to:
- Build trust
- Uncover the customer’s pain point and figure out how it maps it to your product
- Identify whether the person you’re meeting with can get you in front of decision makers and champion your product through the sales process
One huge benefit of a qualifying call is how well it maps to a stakeholder meeting. There are a few minor differences though. In a qualifying call, you’re only speaking with one or two people vs everyone who needs to be involved in the decision making process. Your goals will also change slightly for each meeting. In a qualifying call, your main goal is to learn enough about your client to get, and crush a stakeholder meeting. Your success will depend on your ability to listen, learn, and eventually align each stakeholder’s thought process around your product. For now though, let’s focus on the qualifying meeting.
We’ve provided you a general overview of the sales process in theory, but like Einstein said, ‘in practice, practice and theory are not the same’. You’ll need someone who understands your client’s buying process and has been through it before. This is where a Champion comes in.
A Champion is a member of your potential customer’s team excited enough about your product to involve a team of decision makers and then guide you through their company’s buying process. They are going to help you uncover the specific pain points their company is having, their decision making criteria, and how they buy products. You know your product and they know their company. Your partnership can make or break your sale. Focus on building trust. They are putting themselves out there for you, so be sure to make them look good.
IDENTIFYING A CHAMPION
When selling at the enterprise level, you need to be strategic about when and who you reach out to in the sales process.
Your first step is knowing whether your product solves a strategic (a critical business issue) or tactical (day to day inefficiency for knowledge workers within an organization) pain point.
For instance, if you’re selling a product that addresses a tactical problem, it’s likely to be used by lower-level employees who deal with that exact pain point on a daily basis. A VP at a larger company may be too far removed from the pain point to know it exists. VPs typically solve problems at the strategic level where practical, day-to-day issues lower-level employees face rarely surface. In this case, you might want to find a Director or Sr manager who works with the decision-maker, but who also works with lower-level employees and understands the inefficiencies in their work.
The same process works for solutions at the strategic level. Ensure that you are speaking with someone who understands that the pain point exists, and has the ear of the decision maker to ensure you can move the sales process forward.
Now that you’re speaking with the right person and have clear goals for your call, let’s dive deeper into exactly how you achieve these goals: The Qualifying Meeting! This meeting is all about learning as much as you can about your potential customer. Think 80/20 – The customer should be speaking 80% of the time, you should spend 20% of the time guiding the conversation and asking questions. Below is an overview of visuals for a deck (if you use one or send one after the call. I call this a Send Deck) and the talking points for a Qualifying conversation.
STRUCTURE OF A QUALIFYING CALL
The initial visual for your buyers should always be a cover slide. This helps to establish familiarity and a sense of brand. Having a solid brand will aid in building trust.
Visual: Your cover slide should include both your company logo and your buyer’s company logo, a short 3-5 word description of your product, your name, contact information, and the date.
The talking points here should be simple. An introduction of each person on your team; their title(s), and responsibilities. Be sure to confirm how much time you have for this meeting.
Set a quick agenda for the time you have together: gain an understanding of the pain points they’re facing, discuss how you can potentially help them with those specific pain points, and if there’s a fit, discuss next steps.
For your own sake, make sure to let the other person know how to ask questions. Different cultures have different ways of engaging: “feel free to interrupt me”, pause for questions, “save them till the end”, etc. This is especially important for a video call.
Lastly, make sure to ask them if there’s anything they’d like to discuss. An educated buyer knows what they want to know. That’s a sign you’re speaking to someone in the market for a solution.
On this slide, show how the industry, technology, or customer expectations you’re targeting have changed leading to an unmet need; trends in the market that have led to the void your solution fills.
The visual should offer a few simple stats that support the problem statement in your founding story.
This is a great place to introduce your buyers to your founding story. The goal here is to get them all thinking the same way about the problem they are facing by educating them. Try this outline:
Story of a desired outcome, but you faced a challenge (problem). We decided to learn more and uncovered that (data on visual).
Frame the problem with data. This is a surefire way to earn questions and show your buyers that the problem is real. Envision this portion of the conversation as an opportunity to establish yourself as a thought leader and relate to your buyer.
Market Opportunity Slide
Why do current solutions not solve the problem? Are they point solutions built the wrong way, cumbersome to implement, inefficient, etc. This should be generic; not competitor specific.
Incorporate a strong visual diagram showing how other companies currently solve the problem. Ensure the diagram actually supports your claim that current solutions don’t work.
WHY CURRENT SOLUTIONS DON’T WORK
Add to your founding story at this point in the discussion. Try outlining like this:
We looked into current solutions/tried to do it manually and realized – (fragmented, took too long, inaccurate), etc. – there had to be a better way. So we built (product).
Talk about how you tried to solve the problem the same way everyone else does, with your competitors’ solutions, or manually, and emphasize the problems you encountered (or the problems your buyer is probably experiencing today). Maybe you ran into issues with fragmentation, complex processes or broken excel spreadsheets. Maybe the process was simply too time consuming or required too many people. Maybe it was a manual process that was inefficient and led to errors. Explain the challenge in a down to earth, logical manner.
Be ready for curveball questions that might come as a result of this slide. If someone is happy with the status quo questions will come up here.
Before and After Slide
This is your shining moment. You’ve explained the problem that inspired you to build your product. It’s time to show the result(s) of using your product.
Conclude your founding story here. Wrap it up in a personal experience that establishes empathy between you and your buyer. Then, hit them with a solution – the results you offer.
You’ve framed the problem in your potential Champions’ mind and showed the potential value you can offer. Now it’s time to qualify the Champion. The before and after visual is a great visual to have up while you do this because it visually tells your Champion there is potential value in speaking with you. This is the visual you’ll have on the screen for the remainder of the conversation.
Offer a simple before and after graphic with #s for your Champion’s sake. That’s all. Less is more throughout the process, but especially here.
CONCLUDE FOUNDING STORY
- Introduce your software/solution: “So we built…”
- Quantify the problem through personal experience: “And found…”
Now jump into your qualifying questions. There are three things you are seeking to learn when qualifying your Champion:
- What do you need to know about the company to know if they are a good customer for you?
- Pain – How do they experience that pain point your product solves for?
- Money – Do they have money to spend on this problem and are they spending it on this problem?
- Qualifying Event – Is there an internal event that is driving the need to solve this pain point now?
- What do you need to know to identify a relevant customer Use Case to share when you demo your product (PLEASE save your demo for the stakeholder meeting). This is part of being a strategic salesman.
Some notes on qualifying:
- Keep the tone of your questions and responses conversational vs formal
- Structure qualifying questions as open ended:
- “Talk me through…”
- “Walk me through…”
- “Help me understand…”
- Respond to every question in a way that establishes knowledge of the industry and credibility of the market or pain point your customer is experiencing. Don’t just fire off your next question or pitch your product. Use your responses to educate the buyer more about the problem you solve.
Now that you understand the problem(s) your Champion and their company face, walk your Champion through a relatable customer’s experience with your product. Emphasize and expand on benefits relevant to their organization through this customer’s experience. A customer’s experience is fact, not opinion. A skeptical Champion may contest relevance, but they can’t argue with another company’s experience with your product and the benefits they received.
Sharing a customer’s experience with your product establishes that you can indeed do what you said you can do. Tie your customer’s experience back into the challenges your buyer is facing. Hopefully, you uncovered a few while qualifying. Then pause for questions.
Questions will fall into one of two buckets: Process-oriented questions versus value-oriented questions.
Process oriented questions are ‘how’, ‘what’, and ‘who’ type questions:
- How long does implementation take?
- Who needs to be involved in implementation?
- What data do we need to provide?
These types of questions are strong buying signals because they indicate your Champion is trying to understand what it would take to get the product working for them.
Value oriented questions are ‘why’ type questions:
- Why do we need a solution like this?
- Why couldn’t we just modify this process to solve the same problem?
These indicate your Champion is not bought in on the problem or the value your product offers. In this case, you need to go back and requalify.
SALES QUESTION/ ROI – ADD NOTE ON PRICE
It’s time to help your Champion envision the value your product will offer them and their company. We do this through Sales Questions that help you quantify the ROI your product will offer.
Your sales questions should help you quantify the ROI your software offers this organization, or put together a clear use for your buyers. Dive deep into the key stakeholder’s day to day experience with the challenges they’re looking to solve. Validate your buyers’ challenges with customer examples. “That’s something we hear a lot…”
Your sales questions should help you answer:
- How will using your product impact your buyers’ business?
- What about their day to day?
Use this information to craft a clear ROI for your Champion:
“So it sounds like (problem) currently takes X number of people, X amount of time on a weekly/monthly basis. Do I understand that correctly? Ok if that’s the case, using (product) we can cut that down to X amount of time and X number of people. In addition to…”
This is a very simplified script, but you get the jist. Your Champion needs to have a clear understanding of how your solution impacts their day to day and their company at large.
On a side note – if your buyer asks for a price, make sure not to give them a specific number. Rather, offer them a range and explain the various criteria that go into putting together a proposal without committing to a specific price. Understand that they will be looking to buy at the lowest price estimate you provide, so play the long game. Don’t show your hand.
Next Steps/ Ask Slide
Everyone is clear on the value your product offers, now it’s time to map the buying process. You may find that you’re repeating questions you’ve already asked, but that is alright. There is nothing wrong with clarification. Have your basic steps to implement the solution on the screen to drive the conversation about the company’s steps to buying your product.
Show the next steps in the process – no more than 3. Less is more. Adding more steps makes working with you appear complicated and can turn off your buyers or delay the sale. Tip – the first next step is likely a Stakeholder meeting (assuming you’re talking to a true Champion)
There are two topics you will cover in this section of your conversation:
- BANT – Map the buying process. (You may use CHAMP or MEDDIC or another sales model)
- Immediate next steps based on what’s uncovered in BANT
BANT: Budget, Authority, Needs, Timeline
BANT stands for – Budget, Authority, Needs, Timeline. It’s a simple acronym to remember when mapping a potential customer’s buying process. If the person you’re speaking with can’t answer these questions, this may indicate that they are not influential enough within the organization to champion the product and you’ll need to find a better Champion.
Find out how your buyer typically evaluates tools like yours. Do they have resources and a budget allocated for implementation? Will sprint cycles play a part in when and how they implement the product? Make sure that you are asking about technical resources (if technical implementation is required), not just money.
Is there anyone else who would need to see the product or be involved in the decision-making process? If you’re dealing with a technical buyer, set up a separate call and include your technical resource (if that’s not you) who can speak the same language.
These should have been established earlier in the meeting during the QUALIFYING section of the conversation..
Figure out if your buyer has ever purchased a tool similar to yours, and ask them to walk you through that process. ‘Have you ever purchased a tool like this before? Can you walk me through that process?’ What does your legal process look like? What kind of security requirements do you have (if any)? Is there an internal deadline that your solution is a part of? This will allow you to work on their timeline and create urgency.
After you fully understand what the company’s buying process looks like and what is going to happen when you get off the call, repeat back what you heard to make sure you didn’t miss anything.
Time to close out the call!
Make sure both you and your Champion are clear on what homework you each have. Let your Champion know you’re on top of your end of things. They should never be waiting on something from you. The experience you give your buyers presale, is the experience they’ll expect post-sale.
ALWAYS schedule next step. Get on your buyers’ calendars while you have their attention. Don’t expect to be able to do this later. People get busy, and the longer this takes, the harder it is to get what you need from your buyer.
Send a calendar reminder for the next meeting, even if they say circle back with me in 2 weeks.
“Great I’ll shoot over a quick calendar invite 2 weeks from now and check in a week ahead of time to make sure the time still works for you.”
Congrats! You’ve made it to the end of your Qualifying call. At this point, you’ve ideally: established trust that your product can do what you said it can do, identified the problems the company is trying to solve and your Champion believes your product may be able to help them solve that problem, and have an understanding of the company’s buying process. You may need to collect some additional information, or sign an NDA, but the ideal next step after establishing a Champion is to schedule a Stakeholder meeting.