There are dozens of Dilbert cartoons that make fun of the sales guy. In Dilbert’s world, the logical engineer is king while the salespeople — and frankly all the other business people — are dolts.
The transition from being an R&D and product development company to a sales- and marketing-driven company is often a bumpy one for founders. The technically-minded people — who lead most of the high-tech companies we work with at Ben Franklin — often do not get very excited about making sales calls. In fact, many founders have very little understanding and respect for the sales process. They reveal themselves through comments like, “We’ll just find a business guy,” or “We’ll sell it through distributors,” as if they could just as easily hire a monkey to do sales.
We see it over and over again. Did you ever notice that there is no sales course or sales major in MBA programs? Yet our experience tells us that having an ability to sell is at least as important to success as the ability to develop new products.
Many of our tech founders confuse the existence of a market with the existence of demand. This confusion leads many entrepreneurs to read a Gartner market study and declare that they will be a success by capturing just 1 percent of the market. They assume that by developing a new formula or device, a small market capture percentage will just naturally be theirs. That assumption might be exacerbated if they worked for a large corporation: In the case of a Cisco or SAP or Siemens or any Fortune 5000 company, the difficulty of obtaining customers is distorted by brand. A large part of creating the demand for a product is already finished when a salesperson mentions who they work for.
When I notice this phenomenon, I draw on my inner Zen and say, “Grasshopper. Markets exist. Demand is created.” Many of the best products and services were developed and sold by first understanding individual customers. When you find two — and hopefully more — customers who share characteristics and needs, then you’ve discovered a market. It’s important at this point to realize that you haven’t “created” the market; you’ve “discovered” it.
Many Dilbert disciples cannot grasp the idea that a successful salesperson has a fundamentally different personality and skill set than a technology founder. In a startup fighting for its first customers, these talents are essential.
- Good salespeople listen first and speak about their product after they have heard the customer talk about their problems.
- Good salespeople understand that customers are busy. They will follow up consistently and politely. Technology-first founders are often accustomed to being the teacher — they might even be a professor or MD — so why should they follow up if the customer didn’t understand them the first time?
- Good startup salespeople seek ways of remaining involved with their prospects to identify solutions to future business problems, even if it isn’t with their company’s product.
- Good salespeople know what metrics to track for their business’ sales goals and understand how to manage and interpret the pipeline of sales prospects.
Do not live in Dilbert’s world. If you’re building a technology company and have spent most of your life developing advanced technological products — or managing teams of people doing so — but have spent little time in the presence of your prospective customers, seek the best possible sales force you can. If you do not, you’re likely to end up with an expensive hobby rather than a successful venture.