Traditional discussions of sales focus on the “sales cycle.” Entrepreneurial selling, however, must use a sales model to generate a “sales model cycle” that stretches the sales cycle at both ends. The sales model cycle encompasses the process of defining target customers, plans to reach those customers, how the interaction with customers will take place, and assessment of the process and relationships.
There’s a pervasive myth in entrepreneurship. It drives me crazy. And it’s the myth that you need professional salespeople right off the bat. You don’t. There’s one person and one person only who is equipped to sell what you have to sell early on and that’s you. I think we fall into this trap. And it happens to all of us. When we fall into this trap that we‑‑ as entrepreneurs we think well I’m the product person, I’m the visionary, I’m the creative, I’m the innovator, and I have this thing. And I’m‑‑ and then oh by the way, I’m going to hire these professional salespeople to sell for me. The landscape is littered with people who have made that mistake.
I know a very successful entrepreneur in Chicago who almost lost her business right off the start. She got started, consumer goods company and hired five, highly‑trained, professional salespeople. These were all successful people and good people in their own right. And in six months they had collectively sold $1,200 worth of product. Luckily she had a great relationship with her banker. She went to her banker and said I’m out of business, I’m going to shut this thing down. He said why. She said we can’t sell it. We can’t sell this product. Nobody wants it. And luckily he said hey, can you sell it? And she said well yeah, I sold it at the beginning. I can sell it. But obviously it’s not scaleable, these salespeople can’t sell it. He said look, go back to the drawing board get rid of those five people, sell it yourself. That’s exactly what she did. And about nine months later she was in hundreds of Wal‑Marts, 700 park districts around the country and she’s been a huge success since then. But she almost fell victim to that very common mistake.
And why does this happen? Well, we assume, you know, sales is a profession, which it is, it’s a great profession. But professional salespeople follow a process. And it looks kind of like this, just imagine a triangle. And professional salespeople, because they are from an organization, they sit at the top of a very powerful triangle. And there’s this huge wonderful infrastructure sitting under that salesperson. It’s marketing, and HR and training and they have brochures and you’ve been given a territory. And everything in that structure is built to support your ability to go close a deal with that customer. That’s great. That’s professional selling. Here’s the problem, the distinction comes in because when you become an entrepreneur that whole triangle turns upside down. And now you’re like this (indicating). And guess what, you’re still at the top. And you’re running crazy across this top teetering on this little tiny point, this little tip. And you’re doing sales and operation and marketing and finance and hiring of the team and taking out the trash and cleaning the coffee pot. And you’re running back and forth just praying that this thing doesn’t tip over and crash and burn. That’s what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.
And so one of the things I talk to entrepreneurs about is entrepreneurial selling, is taking a professional sales process and stretching it at both ends. Meaning a professional sales process is, you know, you find a lead, you do some things in the middle and then you close that lead, you close the deal. That’s selling. That’s professional selling. But that doesn’t encompass nearly enough for entrepreneurs. For entrepreneurs we have to take this beginning part, stretch it back in time to encompass targeting. Why are you calling that lead? Why are you calling that lead and not that one over there? Because that person, why is that person better than this one over here? Why is that person a better fit? So there’s all kinds of filtering and things, thinking you need to do as an entrepreneur here and targeting before you even start the sales process. Then the sales process does look remarkably similar to a professional sales process. You find the lead, do you generate the lead right from your network that’s right around you or do you go outside the network, go into the cold ocean to find leads? That’s step 1.
Step two is qualifying. You got to qualify early and often. You’ve got to make sure that the people you’re spending time with can spend the money, have the time, are the decision maker, et cetera, in that qualifying stage.
The third step of the selling process, the entrepreneurial selling process, is determining fit. It’s that dance you do with the customer. Now you found a lead, you’ve begun to qualify, and now I’m figuring out is the solution that I have equal to the pain that you’re feeling. Can we do a, do we have a deal here?
Then you propose, you write that stuff down, you give a proposal, then you close. And then the final step of the entrepreneurial selling process is resetting expectations. Think of it as buying insurance on everything you just did. You are resetting expectations. You’re making sure that proposal fits and that your ability to deliver is roughly equal with the client’s expectations.
And then finally, stretching the sales process at the other end to encompass analysis. Meaning you as an entrepreneur are responsible for figuring, looking out at that whole landscape and figuring out did I target the right people at the beginning, did I execute properly along the way, were they the right customers and are they good for my business.
And that whole cycle I call the sales model cycle. Most professional sales people, we’re all used to the sales cycle. I open, I do something, I close. How long does that take me? That’s the sales cycle. But we as entrepreneurs, we have to broaden our perspective and think from targeting all the way through selling and analysis. That’s my sales model cycle. And that engine has to be continually tuned to be successful. That’s the entrepreneurial selling process.
James, Geoffrey. 2 Sentences That Engage Customers. Inc. Magazine. June 3, 2013.
Dvir, Omer. ClairVoyance Inc. Chicago: IL: University of Chicago Booth School of Business, 2009. (PDF)
Blank, Steve and Bob Dorf. Startup Owners Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company. K&S Ranch, Inc., 2012. Chapters 9-10.
Try using the Business Model Canvas to build your overall business model, and, within it, your sales model.
8 Steps to Actually Get Good at Phone Calls. Fast Company, June 28, 2013.
Questions for You
Can you articulate your sales model by answering these questions:
- Who is your target?
- How will you reach them?
- How will you delight them?
- How will you know if they are right for your business?
- Where do you excel in the entrepreneurial sales process?
Have you narrowed your target market? How many filters can you apply to further narrow your target? Have you tailored your web and verbal messaging to talk directly to that target?
How will you generate leads? What questions will you ask either verbally or on your site to qualify those potential customers?
How will you know when you should hire professional salespeople? Mr. Kauffman hired salesmen one at a time as he could afford them. What will your approach be?
One entrepreneur in the Founder Genius series talks about sales experts. In the context of the sales model cycle how is this role different from that of professional sales?
Tools and exercises
Find a CRM and use it: How do you track your opportunities? If you are like most people, you have contacts in a hodgepodge of places (Outlook, Mac Address Book, an Excel spreadsheet, post-it notes. If you are going to get serious about selling, you need to professionalize the way you track your opportunities. There are a plethora of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems available, and my advice is to just pick one and get going. All of these tools work well, but you have to USE them! Move all of your contacts from disparate places into one of these, and then use that as your sole window into your contact information, your pipeline and your to-do list.