The Death Of Enterprise Sales

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a guy that specializes in something called "disruption consulting". Basically he goes into mature companies and works with their management teams to help them think through how they would disrupt their own business. This is a healthy exercise for large, successful organizations and something individuals ought to think about with regard to their own company and -- more importantly -- their own role in their own company. This got me thinking about enterprise SaaS sales and the theory that salespeople have become less of a necessity in this new world. As I've written in the past I actually think the opposite is true. Sales is growing, not shrinking, in importance. That said, here are some of the trends that I've seen out there that are giving the skeptics some ammunition:

  1. Micro budgets. With the 'consumerization' of enterprise software, lots of companies are letting their employees directly buy and expense their own productivity tools circumventing the traditional buying process. 
  2. Pay-per-use contracts. Traditionally enterprise salespeople have sold large buckets of access to their software -- e.g. Salesforce has negotiable pricing tiers based on the number of licenses purchased. Companies like Slack and others are getting away from this model and are pricing based on who actually uses the system. At the end of a month, they look at how many people logged-in and then send an invoice accordingly. This pushes the revenue responsibility pendulum far away from sales and much closer to product.
  3. Freemium enterprise software. This is a model where software can be accessed for free by an individual employee and an enterprise deal gets triggered at some critical mass of employee usage (e.g. B2E2B).
  4. Standardized contracts. More enterprise software companies are creating click-through agreements that can't be negotiated by the buyer. And there does seem to be a very slow but steady move towards more consistency across companies in what they want a contract to look like. Corporate attorneys will make this really difficult, but the idea does seem to be gaining momentum. 
  5. Data in the cloud. The advent of the cloud has made the old-fashioned, big, CIO-based sale a bit less prominent. Cloud-based software programs require much less of an implementation burden and thus much less of the need to sell the bureaucratic IT department. That said, much of the work these teams do has moved towards integration into the cloud, which still requires a hefty sales process.

There's no doubt that the landscape in enterprise sales has changed. And all of these trends are worth watching. But what the skeptics miss is that this is nothing new. Buyers and sellers always been trying to minimize the cost of their transactions. These are just new variations of that process. It simply means that to stay relevant enterprise salespeople must continue to shift their energy towards larger, more complex deals and higher value sales activity.

When real estate listings became available to everyone on the web, real estate brokers didn't disappear (in fact, there are more of them now). They simply started focusing on higher value activity. Instead of their core asset being access to listings, their new asset is helping someone navigate the process of buying a home (over half of home buyers find their home online, but 90% still use a broker to make the purchase).

Similarly, when employees begin buying their own software, enterprise sales teams will just shift their activity towards more strategic, higher value deals. They'll focus on the things that can't be bought or implemented by a single employee.

In short, enterprise sales drives new and incremental growth. It's the hard stuff. The easy stuff gets automated. And diffusion of the greatest innovations and the highest value deals can't be automated.

Companies that aren't growing their enterprise sales teams are likely either very early-stage and don't have enough product to sell, or they're later stage and aren't trying hard enough.

Why Are Salespeople Paid On Performance?

Andreesen Horowtiz had a great podcast a few weeks ago on the topic of Getting Sales Right.  It was a conversation between Peter Levine, a GP at the firm, and Daniel Shapero, who helped build LinkedIn’s initial enterprise sales team. Levine asked a question about sales compensation, and why are salespeople paid mostly on commission where almost every other role is paid a flat salary. Surely companies care about getting the best out of every employee, why isn’t every employee paid mostly on commission?

Two interesting insights came out of this discussion.

  1. Salespeople are unique in that they spend most of their time facing the outside world and are constantly being told ‘no’. They face rejection on behalf of their company all day long. To offset some of this pain, when they finally do get a yes and a big win, it’s something that should be celebrated; both in the form of compensation (commission) and public recognition. The commission helps keep salespeople motivated to go get the next one in the face of all that rejection.
  2. There have been studies that suggest that when a person is paid largely on commission, they’ll tend to go after a win at all costs. They’ll look for shortcuts and take the quickest path to success. There are lots of roles where that “win” isn’t so easy to define and measure. Further, for some roles like product and engineering, shortcuts could cause longer term damage and stifle creativity and long term thinking.

For these reasons most of the sales teams I've seen are paid largely on commission. But the other side of this issue is the failure rate of sales versus other roles. In nearly all of the companies I’ve worked with, salespeople fail at a far higher rate than any other role. This also begs the question, why?

Are recruiters just really bad at hiring for sales roles and really good at hiring other roles? Of course not. In my view the reason for the discrepancy is that the performance of a salesperson is easy to measure. If a salesperson is failing, everyone knows it. If an engineer is failing it's not as easy to see. That's why you'll often see 30% variances in termination rates between these roles.

The best companies I've seen are aware of this and take this on as a challenge and expose these numbers and try fix the imbalance.  If the termination rate of a sales team is 40% and the termination rate of other roles is 5% then non-sales managers either aren’t measuring performance or they don’t have a high enough bar for success. Measuring success in non-sales roles is hard (that’s a topic for another day). But measuring the difference in the failure rate of a non-sales team versus a sales team is easy. And an important thing to expose. 

7 Lessons From A Tough Negotiation

Lots of people that know me know that I'm huge fan of Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots. The thing I like about him more than anything else is that he never, ever makes excuses. When the Patriots lose a close game, the media will ask him about the weather, the referees, the tough schedule, the rules, the player injuries, you name it. And he never acknowledges any of it. He only talks about the things that his team can control. As a result, he's the winningest coach of the last decade. He obsesses about what he can control and ignores everything else. That is the exact approach people should take at work -- especially when negotiating a deal. You can't control the prospect, the prospect's attorneys, the bad economy, your product capabilities, the law, or your executive team. You can only control your own actions. And when you fully take that approach, you'll find that your energy won't go outwards towards things you can't control, but will instead go inwards towards things that you can. That's how you get better. That's how you win.

I recently finished a long, painful and frustrating 3 month negotiation. Thinking back on it, I'm tempted to blame the other side or blame other factors for why it was so long and so frustrating. But that's not helpful because I can't control any of that. I can only control what I do and try to do it better.

So with Bill Belicheck in mind, here are seven tactical things (that I can control) that I'll do better next time:

1. Never assume the deal is done. Make sure you have asked and asked and asked about the other side's approval process. More often than not someone is going to come along to do one final review of your deal. Document their process and track to it.

2. When you've created urgency, continuously validate that the other side values that urgency. Over a long negotiation they may not.

3. In addition to urgency, throughout the negotiation continuously reinforce your value and why the other side should want to partner with you. Don't get too caught up in the weeds and the specifics of the deal and neglect to remind the other side why they wanted to partner in the first place.

4. Have a 'time and energy walk away point'. Most negotiators know the concept of BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) but don't forget to include your own time and energy in that calculation. Take this really seriously. Focusing on a deal that is too time consuming has an exponentially negative effect. You can dig yourself deeper because you're not focusing on other opportunities and you lose your leverage (you need the deal more now because you have fewer options now because you've been too focused on this one deal).

5. When you're down to the last few items, setup a recurring daily meeting with the other side until it gets done. It's amazing how you can lose weeks if you don't do this. People get busy and each side may use time lags to build leverage.

6. When things get ugly, negotiate in person. Your situation will improve 10x faster in person than it will over the phone.

7. Bring in other people. I tend to be a lone wolf when it comes to these things. It's better to have multiple personalities involved. Two people are harder to read than one and the other person will always think of things you haven't.

Pitching Innovation: Short & Simple

I've never been a big fan of the psychology of sales. I've always felt that if you're challenging a buyer, providing insights, selling efficiently and helping them understand a problem, the psychological side will sort itself out. But the fact is there's absolutely a psychological impact that comes with your approach (hopefully a positive one).

I thought about all of this a few weeks ago while sitting on a plane reading Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff. Early on in the book he talks about the evolution of the human brain. There are three fundamental layers of the brain that have been built on top of one another as the human species has evolved. We started with the 'crocodile brain' and then added the mid-brain and then added the neocortex part of the brain.

The first and most fundamental part of our brain is the crocodile brain. This is basically the thing that keeps us alive. We use it to recognize danger and threats. It's an extremely simple part of our brain. It can't think critically and it can't reason. Its only purpose is to protect us.

When you walk into a room to pitch something this is the part of the brain that your buyer is using. The buyer's crocodile brain is on high alert. The buyer is asking themselves questions like: Is this person going to hurt me? Is this person trying to fool me?  Is buying this product going to get me fired? Should I trust this person?

In that first interaction, these are the things that the buyer cares about. That's their focus.

The problem for you as a seller is that when you're pitching, you're not using your crocodile brain. You're using your neocortex brain -- the most sophisticated part of your brain. You're thinking critically. You're giving insights. You're talking about details. You're probably showing detailed charts and graphs. You're probing, engaging and being thoughtful.

But the crocodile part of the brain doesn't understand the neocortex part of the brain. So you're completely missing the mark. You're speaking different languages. You might as well be speaking German to someone that only speaks English. Being smart, in this case, is actually hurting you.

As I said, I don't like diving into the psychology of sales, but there are some good lessons in here.

This insight is a great reminder that when you're meeting someone for the first time, talk to their crocodile brain. Keep it short, simple, concise and clear and don't try to do too much. Save the fancy charts and data tables for next time. Nobody is going to seriously engage with you until you have credibility and some level of trust. That's the goal of the first meeting: build credibility and trust. And try to get to the next step of your education process. But forget about complex models and detailed financial analysis. They won't listen to it, they won't digest it and they definitely won't believe it. Save all of that for the next meeting, after you've satisfied their crocodile brain.

Also, on the topic of keeping your presentation short, Klaff points out that in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick introduced the double-helix DNA structure (e.g. the secret of life), the presentation that earned them the Nobel Prize, was five minutes long. That's right, the most important scientific discovery of our time was pitched in five minutes.

Regardless of what you're selling, something tells me that in your next meeting you don't need to be pitching for the full hour.

Enterprise Software: Sales Still Matters More Than Product

Last week I spoke to a guy that works for a multi-billion dollar, publicly traded company that makes the software that runs a health system's daily operations. The software that he sells is used by thousands of health system employees all day, every day. He told me that, in most cases, when selling his product he does not do a demo. No product demo at any point in the process. So the executive team at a health system buys his software and then forces thousands of employees to use it every day (locked into a 5+ year contract) without ever seeing or testing its usability. As I've written many times in the past, this is why most B2B software is awful. Because it can be.

In big enterprise software, good selling is unfortunately still far more important than a good product.

A Mid-year Gap To Goal Analysis

Today is the second day of the second half of the year. It's worth taking a couple minutes to assess where you are against your goal for the year. This is a great exercise whether you're running a sales team or selling yourself. Below is a sample of a model I've used in the past. Note that to build this for yourself you'll have to fill in the fields in blue to match it to your pipeline (definitions of each field below).

Gap to Goal Analysis


  • Goal - 2014 goal
  • Actual - revenue closed to date
  • Value of late stage deals - deals that are either in contract or just about to be in contract
  • Late stage close rate - likelihood that late stage deals will close (in the next 6 months)
  • Number of highly engaged deals - number of early stage deals that you're speaking to weekly
  • Highly engaged close rate - likelihood that you'll close the average early stage deal (in the next 6 months)
  • Average deal size - for early stage deals you very likely don't know how much their worth; go back and look at the last 5 to 10 deals that you've closed and take an average

The number in red should give you a very good sense of where you need to focus your time for the rest of the year. That is, should you focus on executing and growing deals that are already in motion or do you need fill up the pipeline with new opportunities. Based on this number, it's a good idea to write down three things that you're going to focus on over the next six months to ensure that you get to goal.

If you'd like the model in Excel feel free to email me

5 Counterintuitive Sales Tips

To state the obvious, if you want to be much better than the average salesperson then you have to do something much different than the average salesperson. With that in mind, I've picked up a few things over the years that most salespeople definitely do not do but that do seem to improve sales outcomes significantly. I've written about some of these before. Here are five:

1. Never leave an introductory meeting without talking about your product's flaws. If you tell a prospect that your product doesn't have weak areas you're either lying or your product hasn't chosen an area where it can add significant value. Be proud of your product's flaws -- be proud of the areas where you've decided to focus and those areas that you've chosen to deprioritize. Those decisions are what make your product unique. You'll gain much more credibility by discussing those areas with a buyer.

2. Never criticize the competition (because you have no competition). No two companies prioritize the same features and do things exactly the same way. There is no competitor that does what you do. It's simply not possible. So instead of saying, "we're better than the competition", point out the areas where you've chosen to focus and the areas you've chosen to prioritize. Help the buyer line up their priorities with the right seller. If the competition is a more appropriate fit you should tell them that. Again, you're far more credible when you take this approach.

3. Instead of "always be closing" you should "always be leaving". I've written about this before and I think I first picked it up in Mastering The Complex Sale. Remember, you are not talking to a buyer because you're there to close them. You are talking to a buyer to determine whether or not you can create a mutually beneficial relationship. Be laser focused on mutually beneficial relationships. Have a healthy paranoia that the person you’re talking to doesn’t care about what you’re saying. If you don’t know, ask them. Walk away from prospects and people that aren’t interested. You’re bringing value and your prospects are bringing value — if there isn’t a match, walk away. In short, don't be a salesperson.

4. Don't ask too many questions. There's nothing worse than the seller that starts a presentation asking a bunch of questions about the buyer's business. What are your biggest priorities? What keeps you up at night? I get it. Sellers want to be appear that they care about the buyer's business. But don't ask too many questions. It's annoying and insincere. You're there to determine if a partnership makes sense. Get to it.

5. Be confident but not certain. Whenever you get a question from a buyer and you're unsure of the answer don't be afraid to tell them you're not sure. Walk them through your thinking on the issue, but don't be certain when you're not certain. Buyers are afraid of sellers that know everything. Think things through with the seller when you don't the answer.

SaaS & Minimizing Buyer Risk

Andreessen Horowitz had a podcast recently on software company valuations. All of their podcasts are excellent by the way and definitely worth listening to when you have some time. This one discussed the fact that, traditionally, big enterprise software deals were sold as "perpetual" licenses. This meant that the enterprise would pay big money upfront for software that could be used forever. This was a nice thing for the seller from an accounting point of view. You'd get big bucks on day one that you could use to pay your engineering team and sales force. Your financials would look really good in that period. The software as a service model (SaaS) is much different. With SaaS, the license is sold as a subscription and revenues and costs are spread out over the life of the agreement. At first glance, the SaaS model doesn't make a seller's financials look so good. When the deal is closed the seller has to pay their engineering team and sales force upfront. All that cash is out the door but the revenue is collected and realized over several years. This is why Castlight Health was called the most overpriced IPO of the century when they went public a couple months ago at a valuation of $1.4 billion on only $13 million in revenue (an outrageous 100x revenue multiple). I don't have a strong opinion on the company or their valuation but what many people in the media missed is the fact that most of that multiple was being driven by the company's "deferred revenue" -- or deals that have been closed but not yet realized from a revenue recognition perspective. Deferred revenue is a critical measure of a SaaS company's health.

I say all of this to make a related point. One of the challenges in selling enterprise software is the buyer's concern about risk -- e.g. a buyer might say "what if we make a big investment in your product and we find that it doesn't work for us, do you provide a guarantee?" When you're selling SaaS (as opposed to a perpetual license) it's important to explain to your buyer that you are totally aligned on risk. The entire SaaS model is built around getting renewals. During the initial contract period, the cost of selling the software likely exceeds the revenue collected so it's critical for the seller to get the buyer to renew. The good news for the seller is that over time the costs are amortized and when the client renews the relationship becomes quite profitable. So the entire model is setup to drive customer renewals -- in many cases, most of the risk is actually on the seller. It's worth explaining some of this simple accounting to a buyer when they push back on risk.

Unlike a perpetual license, the buyer and seller's interests are completely aligned: the buyer needs great software and the seller needs a renewal.

The Contrast Principle

Another tidbit from To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink (the book I wrote about the other day) is the notion of the 'Contrast Principle'. Pink tells the story of when two ad executives were walking through Central Park and came upon a blind man begging for money holding a sign that read, "I'm blind."

They found that the man had only collected a few coins.

One of the ad executives decided to help. He asked the man if he could make a small change to his sign.  The man complied and the exec added four simple words to the sign.

Immediately, the execs noticed that people began to give the blind man more and more money. This continued throughout the day and the blind man had his most profitable day ever.

The four words that the exec added to the sign? "It's spring time and...".

"It's spring time and I'm blind."

By contrasting the experience of the person walking by with the experience of the blind man asking for change, the sign was able to give people better perspective on the blind man's situation.

Who knows if this story is true. But the point is a great one. Providing buyers with a contrast is critical. For innovation sales to work, there has to be a significant contrast between what exists now and what will exist in the future. The buyer must fully understand the current state.

Humans notice the difference between things, we don't notice absolutes.

Sales 3.0 & 'Problem Finding'

I've been reading To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink, a great book that argues quite persuasively that we are all salespeople; that the most important thing that each of us does every day -- regardless of whether or not we're in sales -- is to sell. Selling your family, your friends, your colleagues, your customers, your boss. And he argues that most of the jobs of the future (mostly focused around education and healthcare) are going to be all about "moving people", e.g. selling people. Pink also puts a fine point on what I wrote about the other day where I compared Sales 1.0 and Sales 3.0. He notes that today's sales environment is more about “problem finding” than “problem solving”. He uses the example of someone purchasing a vacuum cleaner.

A guy might say, "I need a new vacuum cleaner". So the problem, is: he needs a new vacuum cleaner. It used to be that to solve this problem he would drive down to a a store and talk to a vacuum cleaner salesperson who would explain the options, features and pricing. This salesperson no longer exists -- or if they do, they're not that valuable anymore. Information on vacuum cleaners is easy to find on the internet. You can educate yourself on everything you need to know about buying a vacuum cleaner while sitting on your couch. The information is now a commodity. So the “problem solver" type of seller is going away. We don't need salespeople to solve the "I need a new vacuum cleaner" problem anymore.

But suppose that this guy’s problem isn’t that he needs a new vacuum cleaner. What if the screens in his house are letting too much dust into the house? Or what if his carpets are of poor quality and are attracting too much dust and replacing them would solve his problem?

This is what sales 3.0 does. It gives buyers insights (that's where the value is). But not insights on how to solve the problem, but what their problem actually is. Remember, information on the solution, in most cases, is now a relative commodity.

I love the vacuum cleaner analogy.

Sales 3.0 is about helping buyers understand their true problem.

Related to this, this is why RFPs (request for proposals) are now so backwards. Large enterprises don't need to execute an RFP to figure out what feature set will solve their problem at the lowest cost, they need advisers (sellers) to help them figure out what their problem is.

As more and more salespeople adopt the sales 3.0 approach, I think we’ll start to see the perception of salespeople begin to improve. If sellers are sincerely trying to provide buyers with insights on their business and helping them think through their problem, buyers won't avoid salespeople, they'll seek them out.

Sales 3.0

I've written about this topic here in the past but lately I've been thinking a lot about modern methods of selling and figured it was time to update my thoughts. Over the years, I have witnessed three phases of sales:

Sales 1.0: Pitching and objection handling. This is the old fashioned approach of 'sell, sell, sell' and 'always be closing'. This is where a salesperson talks about themselves and their company and their product's features and makes bold claims and defends their pitch by responding to objections. It's selling with brute force. There are lots of salespeople still using this approach.

Sales 2.0: Consultative or solution selling. This is where a sales person focuses most of their time learning about a prospect's business, asking questions, understanding the prospect's challenges and problems and 'what keeps them up at night'. The trick, of course, is that the answers to these scripted questions result in the prospect believing that they need the seller's product to solve their problem. This is almost the exact opposite of Sales 1.0. The thinking is that the sale is not about the seller, it's about the prospect and the prospect's business. I've found that most people still believe this is the right way to sell.

Sales 3.0: Disruptive selling. With the emergence of the Challenger Sale, this approach is becoming more and more popular. With disruptive selling, a seller is basically saying this:

I don't know much about your business, but I know a lot about the specific area that my product focuses on. And the way that you are currently addressing the problem that my product solves is completely inadequate. I'm not here to sell you something and I'm not here to ask a bunch of questions about your business. I'm here to challenge you on a very specific part of your business and to get you to think about it differently and change the context with which you think about it. I'm here to educate you and inspire you and move you. Again, I don't know your business all that well but I do know this area much better than you do. I think about it all the time and I talk to your peers about it all the time. So I'm going to give you our perspective on it. If at any point you don't think what I'm saying is interesting or don't think that a partnership makes sense, please tell me and we'll shake hands and I'll leave. And if at any point I don't think a partnership makes sense I'll do the same. This is not a sale, it's a discussion about an issue that is relevant to you and an opportunity to determine whether a partnership might make sense.

The seller likely wouldn't say this so bluntly, but you get the idea.

Sales 3.0 is most frequently used in selling innovation, but from what I hear it's becoming more popular across all industries. The world is incredibly complex. It's simply not possible for an executive to understand and manage all aspects of their business perfectly. And that's ok. And that's why they need specialists (salespeople) that are super competent experts in their domain to challenge them aggressively on different aspects of their business. Increasingly, for salespeople, knowing the product (Sales 1.0) and knowing the customer (Sales 2.0) are commodities. That should be a given.

Salespeople should know everything about their domain: products, customers, competitors, trends, the history, the future. Everything. And then use that extreme expertise to challenge a prospect on that aspect of their business. With Sales 3.0, salespeople shouldn't sell or ask a bunch of scripted questions. They should be interesting. They should give insights. They should have a point of view. They should influence. They should challenge. They should find authentic synergies.

And if authentic synergies aren't there, they should leave.

5 Ways To Address The 'Build Versus Buy' Question

When a prospect says something like, "well, at this point, our decision really comes down to build versus buy", don't fear, you've already won most of the battle. Your prospect has recognized that they need a product like yours and that they have to act. Getting a prospect to act -- and act quickly -- is the hardest part of selling innovation.

That said, you still have to address the issue.

I've always believed that the best way to address this concern isn't to give an opinion or a pitch; instead, the best approach is to give the prospect some topical things to consider as they look to make a decision. You're an expert in this area, you know lots of stuff that they don't. Help them think it through.

Here are five things you can encourage them to consider.

1. Specialization -- the world is complicated, companies need to focus on what they do well. Your prospect is good at their business and you're good at your business. Is it worth it for them to deviate from what they do well to try doing what you do well? Could that energy and those resources be better utilized on their core business? As Peter Drucker said, "do what you do best, and outsource the rest."

2. Unintended costs -- project and product managers know that when they begin a new project they don't know what they don't know. There are always unintended costs, requirements, hurdles and delays that come up when pursuing a new venture. It can be helpful to lay out, based on your own experience, what some of those unintended costs might be as your prospect sets out on building it themselves. Give examples. Highlight some of the things you've learned yourself.

3. Leverage with vendors -- because your prospect would be building the product for just one client (themselves) there are no economies of scale and little leverage with vendors. The costs could be far greater than they might think. List some vendors where this might apply.

4. Risk --  in my experience, when a company is considering building something themselves, they generally don't believe that the thing that they're looking to build is all that important. They'd admit that they might not do it as well as an expert but, "what's the big deal?" It's worth having a few ideas about what might make it a big deal if your prospect doesn't build it well; e.g. "if you don't want to be very high quality in this area, that's ok, but here are some potential consequences."

5. Experience -- over the last few years I've interviewed lots of consultants at top consulting firms. I always push them on describing why they're valuable. That is, how do they justify going into a business that they know nothing about to people there what to do?  The answer is the same every time: "experience". They've worked on similar problems with similar companies in similar industries. They've been through it before. The same thing exists in 'build versus buy'. If you're really good at what you do, it's generally not because you hit a few home runs, it's usually because you've done all of the little things over the years, learned some tough lessons and iterated to make the product better. Your prospect is going to have to go through that pain too. Is it worth it?

As Drucker says in the quote above, if a project deviates from a company's core mission, it's generally best to outsource it. Pushing a prospect to consider these five things not only positions you as a thoughtful expert but it also helps screen out clients that aren't a good fit.

That said, be sincerely open to the fact that building might be the right thing for your prospect. So don't "tell" them, help "guide" them. If after considering each of these factors your prospect still decides to build it themselves, that's a good outcome. It truly is. It means that they don't value the uniqueness of your mission or product offering and likely won't make a great partner down the road. There's nothing wrong with that.

When a prospect is considering build versus buy, raise the five issues above. You'll typically find that the way your prospect addresses these concerns will either help them see your value more clearly or will help you screen out a partner that isn't a great fit.

Presenting To Large Groups Is A Bad Idea

No matter how much research, planning and preparation you do prior to a presentation, you should know going into the meeting that the presentation you've prepared is wrong. It's going to miss the mark. No matter what you do, it won't be perfect. It can be good. It can be great. But it won't be perfect. The reason for this is that you can't get inside of the mind of your listeners to understand the precise things you need to show and say and do to get them to fully understand and support your message. It's just not possible. You don't know your listener that well.

The way to deal with this challenge is simple: don't present.

Instead of presenting, have a conversation. You can have an agenda and slides and talking points and a message you want to get across, but you have to be ready to abandon it completely as you chat with and get a reaction from your listener.

Given this, it's important that you turn the presentation into a conversation right off the bat. The best way I know to do this is to start the conversation with something provocative. For example, "we think that the way that you run this aspect of your business is completely unacceptable". Another way is to point out one of the features of your product that is most controversial and generates the most questions.

Whatever it is, find a way to get them interested and engaged. You have to make it into a conversation because if you're the only one talking you're going to be slowly become more and more off the mark. Having a dialogue ensures that you're talking about things that matter to your prospect in a context that is relevant to your prospect.

That said, of course this is much, much easier to do when you're doing a presentation to one or two people. It's much harder to execute when you're presenting to a large group -- in fact, it's impossible. You can't possibly have a productive conversation with 10 people at the same time. No matter how well you present, some number of people are going to leave frustrated that you didn't answer their questions or that you didn't talk about things that were relevant to them in their context.

So try not to find yourself in a situation where you're presenting to a large group -- anything more than 2 people is generally bad. But if you can't avoid it, I recommend starting the meeting by asking the group what they know about the topic you're about to discuss. Then go around the room and ask people to point out hesitations or concerns they have about the topic you're about to present. This is a great way to get some insight into what matters to people and what's on each person's mind.

If possible, do this again at the end of the meeting. And then ask the group who are the best one or two people to work with on next steps and setup a follow-up meeting with that person immediately. Remember, you were off the mark, you need to get that person to be your champion and get you back on track.

But again, whenever you can, try to reduce the number of people in the room when you're making a presentation, this may require you to do multiple meetings, and may drag things on, but when you're trying to influence people to innovate, the fewer minds you have in the room, the higher your chance of a successful presentation conversation.

Selling Innovation & The Challenger Sale

When you go to market with an innovative product the good news and bad news quickly become obvious. The good news is that, depending on how novel your product is, there’s generally little (if any) competition.

The bad news is that your buyer doesn’t need what you’re selling.

Your buyer has been running their business just fine without your product. They’re busy. They generally don’t want to think about something that isn’t already on their radar.

Trucking companies need tires. Building developers need concrete. Apartment buildings need insurance. Of course selling that stuff is never easy, but buyers have budgets, buying processes and an understood need for those products. If you do the things that good sellers do -- present well, build relationships, follow-up promptly, address concerns, be responsive -- by the end of the year you’ll sell some tires.

But when you’re selling innovation -- that is, selling something that your buyer has never bought and doesn't know they need -- you can do all of the things that good sellers do and still end up selling nothing. Literally nothing. Zero.

This is why the notion of the Challenger Sale is so important. To sell innovation the seller has to challenge the buyer.

  • Challenge what business they’re in
  • Challenge their buying process
  • Challenge their future state
  • Challenge their goals
  • Challenge their understanding of their own market and where their market is heading
  • Challenge how they think of themselves against the competition
  • Challenge who their customer is and what that customer wants

A buyer has a point of view on their work that satisfies them, that makes them comfortable. And that point of view, up until now, doesn't include your product. To win, you have to break that point of view and shift the context so that they see a future where your product is a must have. Successful innovation selling is a function of a seller's ability to change the context and point of view of the buyer.

Your Product Doesn't Sell Itself

Blake Masters posted his notes from a class that Peter Thiel taught at Stanford a while back. The class was focused on distribution for startups and the notes are awesome, awesome, awesome. I've been meaning to write about them for a while. They're a must read for start-up sales & marketing professionals. The whole thing is great but the piece I want to talk about today is where he points out that the idea that a product can sell itself is a complete myth.

Given all of the focus on product lately – particularly in the consumer internet space – you might be surprised to hear this from Peter Thiel. But he’s spot-on. Here are the key paragraphs:

People say it all the time: this product is so good that it sells itself. This is almost never true. These people are lying, either to themselves, to others, or both. But why do they lie? The straightforward answer is that they are trying to convince other people that their product is, in fact, good.  They do not want to say “our product is so bad that it takes the best salespeople in the world to convince people to buy it.” So one should always evaluate such claims carefully. Is it an empirical fact that product x sells itself? Or is that a sales pitch?

The truth is that selling things—whether we’re talking about advertising, mass marketing, cookie-cutter sales, or complex sales—is not a purely rational enterprise. It is not just about perfect information sharing, where you simply provide prospective customers with all the relevant information that they then use to make dispassionate, rational decisions. There is much stranger stuff at work here.

To emphasize his point, he uses this framework:

Consider the quadrants:

Product sells itself, no sales effort. Does not exist. Product needs selling, no sales effort. You have no revenue. Product needs selling, strong sales piece. This is a sales-driven company. Product sells itself, strong sales piece. This is ideal.

If you believe that your product is so great that it can sell itself you’re either delusional or your aspirations aren't nearly high enough – and it’s great to see a hugely successful, product-driven investor make that point.

Sell The Concept Before You Show The Data

The other day I wrote about how I believe that salespeople should go easy on the data in their initial sales presentation. I feel this way because 1.) I think the right approach is to sell people on your product's concept first and then back it up with data and 2.) in that initial meeting most people aren't going to take your data seriously -- they don't trust you yet and they know that data can be manipulated to tell any story you want. Seth Godin recently wrote a two sentence post titled, Belief is more powerful than proof. This is really what I'm trying to say. That is, get your prospects to believe what you're saying -- to "buy" your concept -- and then back it up with proof.

For example, if you try to tell people that fewer and fewer people are using the internet, no matter how much proof you show, nobody is going to believe you. It doesn't make sense. They won't believe it.

But, if you tell people that mobile is the fastest growing internet access channel, due to increased Wi-fi access, the growing prominence of the "mobile-only" user, increased processing speeds, etc., people will believe you. They'll buy the concept. It makes sense.

Only after you've confirmed that your story and your concept make sense to the prospect should you show them the data (data that validates and drives home the point). Something like the chart below. Concept first, data second.

Mobile is eating the world

5 Sales Presentation Tips

Here are 5 somewhat random things to consider when giving a sales presentation to a group of people that you're meeting for the first time. 1.  Take their guard down. I don't believe in "always be closing." I believe in "always be leaving." Be clear and open about the fact that it's very likely that the solution you have is not right for your audience (depending on your close rate, it's probably not). This is not emotional, you're simply there to determine whether or not there's a fit. If at any moment you determine that this prospect is not a good fit for your solution you should be ready to politely pack up and leave. You want your prospect leaning forward to learn more, not leaning back trying to avoid a pushy salesperson.

2.  Give credit to the competition. Never, ever bad mouth your competitors. Whatever you say they won't believe you. Compliment your competitors but differentiate yourself by explaining what they do better than you and what you do better than them. In fact, I don't believe that you have competitors. You may be trying to solve the same problem, but I guarantee you're going about it differently. Carve out that niche. Don't say you're better, say you're different. And help craft a framework for the audience on how they should think about the different solutions.

3. Go easy on the data. They don't know you and they don't trust you and most people are smart enough to know that data can be manipulated to tell any story you want. Sell them on the concept. Appeal to their logic or their compassion. Get into the data in follow-up meetings once you've built up some credibility.

4. At least once tell them something your product doesn't do well. Be humble. There's nothing wrong with product flaws. There is something wrong with salespeople that don't recognize that their product has them. You're not selling features anyway, you're selling a concept and a potential business impact. You'll gain credibility and generate a more honest discussion by admitting your weaknesses.

5. Be interesting. Most of the stuff that the people in the room are going to do for the rest of their day is likely to be somewhat boring. Raise the bar and be compelling. Challenge the audience's thinking. This actually isn't that hard and it's much more fun. I don't say this out loud, but when I'm about to start presenting, here's what I'm thinking: "I know you're busy and you're expecting a boring presentation, so I'm going to keep this short, efficient, interesting and provocative. I'm going to make you think about something that you don't think about that much but I think about all the time. And at the end you very likely may not buy this product but I guarantee you'll be glad you spent this hour with me."

As I'm writing this I'm thinking of more and more tips. I'll post more of these soon.

B2B Pricing & Malcolm Gladwell's New Book

Last Sunday night on a late plane ride back to New York I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath. It’s not his best work, but it's still thought provoking and worth the time. David And Goliath

The cliff notes version of the book is that it turns out that David wasn't such an underdog after all. He was actually at a huge advantage in his battle with Goliath because he was able to change the rules of the game. Lots of underdogs win by changing the rules of the game so that they become the favorite. To prove his point, Gladwell discusses the civil rights movement, World War II, middle school basketball and many other examples. It's an interesting concept and a pretty good read.

Anyway, as part of his argument, he spends a lot of time talking about the difference between linear curves and U-curves. He argues that there are some things that correlate and may seem like they should sit on a linear curve, but in reality they sit on a U-curve.

Perhaps the most interesting and classic example that Gladwell uses is the correlation between class size and test scores. You might think that the class size/test score graph would be linear -- as class size increases (the X-axis), test scores go down (the Y-axis). That's the conventional thinking.

But it turns out that's not true. The reality is that when class size gets really small, studies have shown that test scores actually begin to decrease again. When there isn’t a range of opinions and when the teacher is too focused on one student, the quality of education goes down. Students benefit from the energy and discussion that comes with having lots of other students in the class. So the correlation between test scores and class size really looks more like a U-curve. Test scores are optimal when the class is around 25 students. Too big is bad and too small is bad.

U Curve

This is also true of crime and punishment. Many believe that as the severity of punishment increases, the amount of crime goes down. But studies have found that there’s a U-curve effect here as well. As punishment becomes more and more severe for smaller crimes, citizens begin to believe that the system isn't fair. That it’s us against them. And they commit more crimes as a result. So you obviously don't want punishment to be too lenient, but you also don't want it to be too strict. Like a lot of things, eliminating crime isn't simple. It isn't linear.

The corollary back to the story of David and Goliath is that you can't improve education simply by adding more teachers and reducing class size and you can't reduce crime by simply making punishment more severe. With complex problems, brute force doesn't always win.

With the U-curve in mind, I've been thinking a bit about price increases and how they impact client relationships. Traditionally, companies like to have modest annual price increases of, say, 2% to 5% per year. Companies like these small increases because they reduce the risk of putting a large strain on their client relationships or losing clients all together. And generally, due to inflation and other factors, clients usually find these increases acceptable.

But as you begin to raise the annual price increase more and more you'll generally see clients resist more and more; 2% is acceptable,15% is not. Like the examples above, on the surface, it seems that the correlation between price increases and client resistance should be graphed on a linear curve. As the price goes up (the Y-axis), so does resistance from clients (the X-axis). Keep your price increases low and your clients will be happy.

But I don't think this is true either. As price increases, client resistance certainly increases, but only to a certain degree. At some point, say 10% and up, in order for the increase to make sense there has to be a substantial and fundamental product change. A 20% increase isn't caused by inflation, increased labor costs, or a greedy salesperson. The increase is happening because there's a substantial change in the product and the product's value. As a result, clients should be much more accepting of this change and client resistance will start to go back down -- creating a U-curve. If the increase is sold and communicated properly, clients will begin to recognize that they're buying a much different product, or at least a much more valuable one. They'll understand that the rules have changed. In fact, I'd argue that at some point most clients would welcome these large but less frequent increases more than they would the small, annoying increases that don't show a corresponding increase in product value.

Increasing price is a requirement of any sustainable long term B2B relationship. And like most things, it's not simple. It's not linear. So when considering a strategic approach to pricing, companies should consider the U-curve and not rely on small, inflation-based annual increases that barely impact revenue. They should cancel those increases. That energy is better spent finding ways to change the rules -- to completely rethink product function, value and positioning. To make a splash. To delight rather than satisfy.

In short, the lesson of the U-curve is actually pretty simple. Don't avoid client resistance by keeping price increases small, modest and frequent; get clients behind them by making them big, bold and rare.

What To Do When A Prospect Goes Dark

The CEO of a startup that I’ve been doing some consulting for wrote to me with the following question about a prospect that went dark. I know this is a challenge that comes up for a lot of people so I thought I’d post my response here. Here was the question:

I have a question for you. If a lead that you've been pursuing / developing for like over 6 months goes unresponsive to two emails, what do you do? In most instances where the development time has been that long, usually someone has said "yes" or "no" or "not now" but this is the first time of just radio silence.

Thoughts? And one backdrop to this is that our point person that we were working with for the 6 months left for a new job, we were handed off to another person that we had met with maybe for the last 3 months but in a different division.

My answer:

Your question is a good one. This is always a challenge. A few thoughts:

1. One approach could be to just get the person on the phone live. Block out some time during the day and just call the person (though I know it's hard to get people live these days). If you reach them, be clear that you're not pushing things -- that you just thought you'd call to check in to see where things stand as you're trying to prioritize projects for next year, etc. You want to gauge if there's still some interest.

2. If you reach out again by email, look for the 'no'. That is, do not reach out with the purpose of moving the conversation forward; reach out with the purpose of finding out what's going on. If it's a no that's great because you can put your energy in another direction. It’s hard to say no to salespeople, make it easy for them. something like "hi, sorry to reach out again, we're in the process of prioritizing projects for next year -- assume I shouldn't include you on that list? Please confirm when you get a moment. Thanks so much."

3. Another alternative would just be to back off. Remember nobody wants to date the guy that keeps calling and texting begging them to go out. Keep that credibility, you have better things to do than reach out to them. Perhapsgive it a couple months and reach out when you have a real update -- new clients, new funding, product improvements, etc. and setup a meeting to give them an update on what some of their competitors are doing, etc.

4. Finally, you'd know better if it's appropriate but you can always reach out to others in the organization. Just to validate that you're talking to the right person. There may be other groups interested in the product -- you can always try to go up to more senior execs. But if you do be careful to position that conversation as broader than the initial one you had (a CEO level conversation as opposed to simply a business unit conversation).

I don't know the situation well enough to accurately pick the right approach but I hope some of that is helpful.

When Selling A B2C Marketplace, Worry About The C, Not The B

A traditional tactic for enterprise salespeople is to be very focused on their prospect’s business – their strategic priorities, their competitors, what keeps them up at night, how they’re growing, etc. But when you're selling a marketplace the focus should be less on the prospect’s business and more on the consumer. Some examples of these businesses include:

  • Yelp
  • Etsy
  • Open Table
  • WorkMarket
  • Expedia
  • Skillshare
  • Amazon Marketplace

These businesses are selling their marketplace. They're really just a middleman between a business and a set of (hopefully) engaged consumers.

It's important for Open Table’s restaurant salespeople to understand their prospect’s business, but it’s much more important for them to understand the consumer. What do they want to eat, when do they want to eat, what kind of experience do they want, how do they want to be marketed to, etc. And most importantly, why is Open Table going to be their destination when they look for a restaurant?

Your customer’s know their business better than you do. There’s not much you can tell them that they don’t already know. But they very likely don't understand the consumer as well as you do. So when you’re selling a marketplace, don’t bore them by trying to be an expert on their business, educate them by being an expert on the consumer.