This is part of my series on Startup Advice.
When I worked in London there were a ton of Aussies. I love working with Aussies because their outlook on life seems very similar to what I grew up with in California. Pretty laid back and non-hierarchic. I also loved learning all of their sayings.
My favorite was when I guy told me to beware of Crocodile Salesmen. What’s that? ”You know, big mouth and no ears.”
That’s always stuck with me. Crocodile Salesmen are people who are always talking. They’re pitching to you. They don’t take the time to realize what your true motivations are because they’re too busy telling you what they THINK you want to hear.
Trust me – your chances of selling are much lower if you’re talking rather than actively listening.
I’d like to talk about Crocodile Salesmen in 3 scenarios: 1) when YOU are selling (or someone on your team), 2) when you are trying to recruit a sales person and 3) raising VC
1. YOU Selling – My wise old friend & mentor, Ameet Shah, once told me after a meeting we had with clients (when I worked at Accenture), “there are two ways to run a meeting: asking or telling. You’re a persuasive guy but be careful not to always be telling people the answer. Nobody likes that. You learn much more about how other people think when you’re asking. And you get to better results.”
That stuck with me long before I was ever a CEO (aka chief salesman). It is my natural style to want to “tell.” I’m an ENTP. Many of you are “tellers,” too. I know because many entrepreneurs I spend time with I can tell are in their own brains when we’re meeting rather than trying to understand what my position is. You’re in sales mode. I still do this sometimes, too. But I’m keenly aware afterward when I’ve done it and kick myself.
This point is also echoed by the author of my favorite business (life) book of all time – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (by Stephen Covey) – in which he says as one of the habits, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If you follow that mantra I assure you it will lead to more positive results in whatever you’re doing.
But how to apply “listening” in a sales meeting? Let’s assume you run a Customer Support software company. Do you simply begin by asking, “I’d love to understand what your objectives are in customer support? Where are your current pains?”
You need to first establish two things: credibility and rapport. I recommend starting the meeting with a VERY brief introduction of your company, your background and why it’s relevant to the job you currently have. I would then always say, “Obviously we know a little bit about you but if you feel comfortable we’d love to know just a little bit more about you and about your role.”
Too many people are racing through the pitch, pitch, pitch that they don’t realize it’s polite to let the “opposing team” talk and do intro’s also. They’re into crocodile mode.
After that you need to begin discussing your company. You need to identify a customer problem and talk about how your solution meets the needs of that problem.
What I personally recommend is that you use “What We Find’s.” Highlighting a few problems that you have seen in some of your existing customers. You can mention them generically. Even better if you have permission to discuss actual names as a “reference client.”
So you would say (in the Customer Support example), “What we find is that many of our clients have existing ‘trouble ticketing’ systems. But many of these aren’t integrated with the way that their customers want to communicate with them in 2010. They don’t handle Twitter feedback, emails or IM. So ‘what we find’ is that many of our customers are using separate tools for managing these but don’t have a holistic view of the customer.”
So you’ve identified a problem. But DO NOT crocodile into your solution page. You have hopefully established enough rapport and credibility by this point to enable you to ask a question. Start very simply and subtly, such as, “do you find similar challenges at your company?” Hopefully this will elicit a long-enough answer for you to engage in a discussion.
If you get no love after that you might be in for a tough meeting. You have no choice but to jump into solution mode for a bit to see if your case studies on a successful implementation at other customers opens up the person you’re meeting a bit.
The end goal in your meeting is to get the customer to trust you enough to talk about their existing problems. You should be actively listening the whole time (actively listening as in listening, writing important things down and asking relevant questions as they talk about their problems). At the end I normally like to say “I’d love to list out what I think I heard are your issues to test whether I had properly understood them.” Normally after I read off my summary they clarify points a lot and I realize that I was only directionally correct. Always “test your understanding.”
The art of building rapport, establishing a base of credibility and then shifting to a discussion is how the best sales processes work. The quicker you slip into Crocodile Mode the greater the chance that you’re telling somebody about solutions you have to somebody else’s problems – not your prospect’s problems. Or you’re not speaking in their company’s vernacular so they’re not making the connection.
Beware of Crocodile Sales. They are seldom productive.
2. Hiring a Sales Person – So you’re running your own startup and you need to be able to hire a sales leader and ultimately more junior sales people. You conduct an interview. How do you know if you have the right person? The best sales people understand that an interview is a sale and they demonstrate that they understand the process by conducting your interview in the format I outlined above.
If they start the meeting with, “I’d like to know what you’re looking for in your VP Sales person – what’s important to you?” then it’s going to be a long meeting. They clearly don’t understand that until they’ve established rapport they haven’t earned the right to ask that question. This happens in about 10-15% of the candidates I interview.
The much more common is – you guessed it – the crocodile sales person. After some basic banter of getting to know each other I turn to their resume and ask some questions. A good sales person knows to answer each question briefly and then check back with you, “would you like me to go into more detail in that area?” A Crocodile Salesperson is off to the races. Turn on your stop watch – they’ll be talking for the next 12 minutes about all of the great and successful campaigns they’ve led – even before you’ve asked. Zzzzzzz.
I always politely listen even though I may have already written them off. I probably will jump in with a few questions about their industry and start a discussion. I know they’re not going to get the job but I don’t want to be rude and end the meeting in 10 minutes. But to spare me from 50 minutes of totally wasted time I figure I might as well use it as a chance to learn a bit more as an industry. Unfortunately this happens in at least 40% of my sales person interviews and confirms my theory that at least 40% of sales people suck. Probably higher.
The GREAT sales people know how to turn an “interview” into a “discussion.” This is a rare gift since the interviewer often feels empowered to run the meeting as he / she sees fit and doesn’t intend to cede control. But I’ve had situations where I’ve intended to interview a candidate and he’s flipped it to a point where I feel like I’m trying to convince him what a great opportunity this is.
It’s subtle and slow. It starts with the basics: rapport and credibility. Then it moves to politely answering questions as asked and short bursts. But after a few of these I’ve noticed some great sales people then throw in a question. They are not generic questions. They are specific ones that show that they’ve done their research. ”I noticed that you’ve had some success with your customer support software on Twitter accounts, but how do people using Salesforce.com typically respond? Do they want it all in one solution? I’d love to understand how that part of your sales process goes, if that would be ok.”
BOOM. Now I’m selling. And just when I thought I’d answered it he finds a clever way to ask a follow on question that demonstrates both his research / knowledge of my company AND he’s asked a question in a way that he’s demonstrating his sales knowledge so that he’s still scoring points, “when I was at Oracle the problem we ran into competing with Salesforce was A,B,C. We found some success when we tried D, E, F. Have you guys faced similar experiences in selling?”
3. Pitching a VC – As I said in a previous post – the best VC meetings are discussions and not sales pitches. Let’s be honest – raising money IS a sale and you need to treat it as such. You’re running a sales campaign to raise money. You have target customers, you have competitors and you have a product to sell.
So all the same rules apply. Prepare for your meetings by doing research before you go. Try to find out who in the organization is most likely to buy your product. It’s always best to “sell high,” which means to get in front of the most senior team if you can. But also to focus on somebody who is interested in your area – not just the partner you can most easily get intro’d to.
And importantly – when you have your meeting: build rapport, establish credibility (if you haven’t seen why I believe the first slide in your deck should be your bio’s see this post), and find a way to flip it and ask the VC to respond with their point of view on topics. VC’s have a crocodile aversion as much as the next guy.
(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)