By John Murray

John Murray is a 30 year sales veteran and current chairman of Maine Venture Fund.

So you are a budding entrepreneur with an amazing new product, app or service. You have a fantastic pitch deck that wows the audience and shows a hockey stick revenue forecast that looks believable if you can just get the money. Finally, you land that big first round of financing. You’re all set – right?

Not quite.

Time and again I see entrepreneurs and even experienced CEO’s misfire on an item of critical importance. Oh, they’ve created the revenue projections that justify their valuation, now all they have to do is hire a bunch of top-notch salespeople and it’s all going happen as planned – and there’s the rub.

Scarcity

Like all true professionals, top notch sales people are in limited supply, are a lot harder to identify and connect with than you think, and they are all currently employed. If you accept the prevalence of a normal, bell shaped curve distribution of the universe of salespeople, and you’re looking for a top performer, then you’re looking at less than 10% of the available population of salespeople. If you are building a sales team, you need at least one of these folks. You can backfill the team with people somewhat less talented, but never less than the top half of their sales “class”. These upper mid-range performers can provide good results, especially if the No. 1 salesperson will mentor and share his/her knowledge, and if the sales team is properly managed.

So how will you find and attract this lead horse? Since they are all employed, looking at your competition is a starting place. If you have no direct competitors consider other companies’ sales people who call on the same marketplace. It is easier to teach product to a good salesperson than it is to teach them your “market”, since most industries have lingo that can take a long time to understand and integrate into one’s sales discussions. Your top candidates should innately “get” your product or service, and should be able to give an elevator talk during an interview (provided enough information has been made available). Be aware also that the salesperson in this situation needs to be capable of selling concepts and products.  They have to help customers overcome the chasm from early adopters to main stream customers.

Care & Feeding

The best salespeople are motivated by aggressive pay scales based on performance, interesting work, freedom to exercise a degree of initiative, and especially recognition. In general, sales types have big egos, and the best ones have thick skins. Incongruous? Not really. Their egos are fed with the continuing “wins” of obtaining sales, while they understand that they have to “shake-off” the losses. Still, all of them require recognition by their peers, managers, and the company owner(s) when they meet or exceed expectations.

Leadership

Once you have more than one sales professional on board, the inclination will be to hire a sales manager. If the owner/entrepreneur is actively involved in sales activity, this can often be delayed for a period. However, if all is proceeding according to plan there will eventually be a need for the manager role to be filled. The tendency will be to take the top performing salesperson and move him/her into the sales management role. This should be given careful consideration. Rarely do top sales performers make good managers. I have seen this phenomenon in both the engineering and sales professions, where people who are outstanding in their field become “middling” managers of their cohorts. Unless the individual has a professional goal and the aptitude to be in management, it is better to continue to reward them financially and otherwise (titles, perks) and keep them producing.

In forthcoming posts, I will address the pros and cons of different compensation plans for sales teams, and also delve further into the topic of managing sales people and sales teams.

Final thoughts

I have witnessed several early revenue companies, with really interesting, unique and quality products, fail to achieve success because they have either not understood, or failed to implement, an aggressive sales strategy or had the wrong people. Alternatively I have also seen several companies reach extraordinary success with rather unremarkable products, all due to a well-developed sales strategy, focused sales management and high performing sales people. Therefore:

  • Hire the best quality sales people
  • Train them (on your product, your market(s) and your culture)
  • Then empower them and get out of the way

Your chance of success will improve exponentially.

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