Let's talk sales, the critical measure of success and staying power for any company. For a company to grow and thrive, it needs to create a repeatable sales process. This means a template for a successful customer engagement can be described and taught to new sales team members. Equipped with this tool, new team members are expected to become productive in a few months.
Let's focus on what it takes to get to this level of sales maturity, which appears to be elusive for the new startup. How does an entrepreneur select the initial members of the sales team, knowing that these critical hires can make or break the company?
Setting the right context is important. When initial decisions are being made about hiring the foundation sales team, the emerging company's messaging, positioning, and ROI are not clear, refined, or even focused. That's why hiring the right person for the sales function is so vitally important to navigating the sales process.
Quite a few entrepreneurs close a few "partner" customers on their own without the help of a professional sales manager. This is often a wise choice, since it provides the entrepreneur with a direct link to the customer during the technology's early development phase. However, the entrepreneur quickly becomes a bottleneck if key roles are not delegated. The founder cannot be the CEO, vice president of engineering, super FAE, and sales manager while raising money and expect the company to grow.
The need to hire the initial sales executive will emerge early in the startup's development. What is this key team member's profile? It's the sales person who will find the right design team with the right set of problems that an unproven product may be able to handle and then traverse an imperfect situation. The product is not quite ready and needs more polish. The sales template is nonexistent. Though the course is uncharted, a good sales manager can be counted on to fill in the gaps.
The individual must have the savvy and skills to overcome this incomplete set of data by understanding the problem and solution and by determining whether there's a match between the two. He or she is the go between for the design team, R&D, the FAE, and the marketing team.
Throughout the initial engagement, the sales manager can't do it alone. Well before the sales process is codified, the sales person should marshal a support system to help steer through the various shoals that arise in the first customer engagements. The sales manager will know at what stage in the sales process to bring in the various players -- the technical founder, the FAE, the marketing manager -- and the roles they are cast to perform. It's a big responsibility, but it can be vastly rewarding, because he or she is helping refine the product and messaging and, ultimately, makes the initial sales.
Closing business is the first goal, followed quickly by creating a sales process that can be replicated in other sales engagements. Once the initial accounts have been closed and the product reaches maturity, the sales manager will be able to hire and train the sales team.
A network isn't everything
Savvy and persistence trumps the network in my book. It's great to have a long list of contacts and established credibility with them. These assets help open doors. But all too often, the contacts change jobs, get promoted, are assigned to other projects with different challenges, or leave engineering entirely. An impressive contacts list can become outdated quickly.
A motivated sales manager can overcome the lack of contacts with hard work by acquiring a deep understanding of the customers and by persevering beyond initial rejections. He or she should be a self-starter, since a startup won't have the resources a big company can provide. Most of the sales managers I know took a route out of engineering into application engineering and into sales. As a result, they have a grasp of the technical problem facing the design team. They learned sales through on-the-job training, and they can help fashion a solution.
I would be terribly remiss if I did not highlight the importance of the application engineers in a winning sales team's composition. The most successful sales managers rely on their FAEs who take an imperfect product, make it work in an actual customer environment, and hide all the emerging technology's warts. Meanwhile, they build relationships with the customers and identify the next opportunity.
So much of what I've written about in previous blogs applies to navigating the sales process, as well, and that means finding the right person. He or she needs sales savvy, technical expertise, excellent people and management skills, and the ability to function in an entrepreneurial environment where the rules are not yet in place. It can be a great opportunity and an exhilarating experience for the right person.
ó Michel Courtoy is a former design engineer and EDA executive who sits on the board of directors at Breker Verification Systems.