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Not Making Sales? Is Your Product, Sales Team, or Sales Process the Cause?

Small business sales success
Selling, especially for technology products always looks way easier than it actually is. Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of believing that their products are so good, they, literally, sell themselves. Not even close. In fact, three key elements have to be in sync for your sales to succeed – the right product, the right sales team, and the right sales process.

"I coached good; they played bad."

I’ve sat on the boards of more than a dozen companies. One that provides an excellent sales lesson was a high tech startup that within nine months of their first round of funding, completely turned over their sales staff of six people.

They were selling a new product, in a relatively new space, with little training. During this initial period, not one sales person was there longer than seven months and most had less than four months on the job. The company didn’t have great results over this time, with only two sales, generating minor revenue. The CEO and founder, who hired and fired the staff, blamed the lack of sales on two things.
 
First, he felt that the sales people did not know how to sell the product, even though it went through three different market positionings over that nine-month period, and they had little or no training, as previously noted.

Second, he felt that the customers didn’t appreciate or understand what the product could do for their business, even though the company couldn’t give prospects any hard data to prove it. This made it difficult to establish a value proposition for the customer. And, the CEO never addressed product issues, that had come up in the initial installations, despite being its creator.

  Now think about that.
 
It sounds like the old football coach, after a big-time defeat – “I coached good; they played bad” - blaming his team’s execution rather than his direction.

After some review and analysis, we learned that the sales cycle (from the initial intro to contract) for this product was, actually, an average of 6 months. Since only one of the six salespeople worked there for more than six months, the company never really gave them a chance to succeed.

Ultimately, with enough prodding by the board, the CEO saw the light, realized the product, which was developed without any real customer input, needed that feedback and some fixing. Plus, since it wasn’t going to sell itself, he hired a sales manager who rebuilt an experienced sales force that has developed a solid sales process by understanding and working the target market. This has resulted in some significant new customers and contracts and a host of new prospects.
 
What this confirmed was that successful selling is never easy. You have to have the right product for a target market; with the right team, knowledgeable in that market and the right sales process that works in that market. And the critical point - to be successful - all three, the product, the sales team and the sales process have to be in sync. And this applies whether you’re just starting out or have been in business for years.
 
Let’s take a look at each area, individually, and offer multiple ways to make each more effective and in sync with the others for your own business.
 

The Right Product

The right product, whether this is your first product or your tenth, is more than just a set of dazzling features and functions. They have to work! And, for a product to be sold into a given target market, it has to fill some need or solve some problem with economic benefit. It helps to have customer feedback in development so that the target market can corroborate benefits identified. Great ideas need not apply. Only products that can show real ROI stand a chance.
 
Get an MVP into customers hands as soon as possible/solicit/listen.
Develop your product WITH the market, not just FOR the market. Make customers a part of your development process. Get a minimum viable product (MVP) into as many customers’ hands as possible as early as possible. Let them use it, ask for their opinion and listen, particularly to their criticism and feed it back into the product development process. This gives the sales team something to sell, early in the product cycle.
 
Get to revenue as soon as you can, but keep early pricing fluid.
Get revenue, but don’t get hung up on margins or profitability. That will come. Better you get one-time or short-term deals that can be expanded or extended. Keep pricing simple and continue to get customer feedback on what works (for you and the customer).

The Right Sales Team

Then, you have to have the right sales team in place (even if it’s just you, the owner) that understands/is experienced (or can be trained) in the target market for that product.

Hire better, train better, manage expectations – products do not sell themselves.
When hiring, find salespeople already selling into your target market. Then you only have to train them on your product; they know the market. The more experienced in the market, the quicker they can bring prospects to the table. But be sure you do that and listen to their feedback about the target market. They probably know it better than you. This knowledge helps better establish the sales process and will help with feedback on your product.
 
Create an incentive plan that actually provides incentive.
Often, incentive programs set up by non-sales people (especially techies or bean counters) are self-defeating, putting caps on incentives or bonuses, or worse, limiting earnings. If you’ve never put one together before, ask for help from peers, advisors, etc., who have.
 

The Right Sales Process

Selling is a process, not an event. And that process is the sales cycle, and it’s rarely a “cookie cutter” process. Every target market operates in a unique buying rhythm, that drives the sales cycle. And if you don’t understand these key issues, you can’t get sustained sales.
 
Leads have to be more than just names, email addresses, and phone numbers.
The sales process starts with a qualified lead, and that’s way more than a contact name and contact information. This is where marketing comes in. That’s their job, to create qualified leads from the target market. They have to raise awareness and create interest for your product. And get you as much market information as possible.
 
If you do pilot make sure you have a “pass, fail.”
The term “pilot” is a shortened version of the term “pilot test.” And a test always has a pass/fail. So, set up the pilot so it’s an easy decision for the prospective customer (free or very low cost). It should have a definable term; simple, but specific and trackable objectives, and next steps (real contract, real revenue over an extended period) if the objectives are reached. Use pilots to help sync up the product into real-life customer situations and better opportunities for sales success.

What’s a rational sales cycle and how will you manage the process – from lead to contract?
This was key to helping us get the startup, we talked about earlier, back on track. Understand (or develop) what the ideal step-by-step process should be from qualified lead to contract execution. Know who, typically, needs to be involved from the prospective customer’s team to get a deal signed off. And know that like it or not, the more departments that need to be involved, the longer the sales cycle.
 
Successful selling is never easy. It requires the right product, the right sales team, and the right sales process. And to make it work, they have to all be in sync with each other.
 
"The Entrepreneur's Yoda" knows these things. He's been there. May success be with you!

Have you had slower than desired sales? Maybe you need to look at the three key elements of sales success. Please share your thoughts in your comments. It can help another entrepreneur or small business owner.

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