Interview: Sales is about spending time with the customer

Build your sales on personal contact with customers and do not hand it over too soon to salespeople, advises sales consultant and UP21 copilot Petr Sobotka. Only then will you not burn your budget in the beginning and you will be able to build strong relationships with people who will want to buy your product.

What should be the first steps in sales?

Every entrepreneur should first make a market segmentation that will help him determine who his customers are. People often make the mistake of selling when they do not know what they are selling and to whom. They cannot even explain to customers why they should buy their product. As soon as I know my customers, I can set up a business strategy and start meeting them. Some of today's startups tend to talk only about marketing, but sales is mainly about being with customers.

Petr Sobotka, sales consultant and UP21 copilot

So, you think that classic salespeople who meet clients in person are still meaningful in today's digital age?

Yes. People still want to have personal contact. There are a lot of things you can solve by phone and online, but the most important meetings are always in person.

Can you advise me on how to find the right customers?

You have to understand your product well. For example, if you are selling a telecommunication product, you should know all the potential customers in that market who would buy your product or solution.

But how do I find them?

At the beginning, all you need is Google. Or, you can pay for access to the Merk and Bisnode databases that offer a detailed market survey. You will see who the customers in your segment are and what their sales are. When your product is expensive, you cannot count on selling it to a company with sales of 50 million CZK, but rather to the one with 200 million CZK turnover. The Leady.czpage might also be useful to you for determining which companies visit your site and finding a way to contact them. Subscriptions do not cost much, and you can buy them for only a few months when you need them to process customer segmentation.

After I create customer segmentation, how should I proceed?

You need to find your way to customers. And there are several of them. Networking is the best one. One should first start with oneself. Try to reach out to people you have on your LinkedIn profile and ask them for a reference. Other ways are conferences where you can go to find new contacts or talk about your product. You can also create your own event, which you can invite companies to, and informally get yourself in touch with them. Of course, you need to use social networks and content marketing which brings many interesting leads. Cold emailing and cold calling come only when you have done all the previous choices.

Do you have any recommendations on how to network?

When you meet someone for the first time, do not go for the hard-sell in the sense that you just want to sell your product. Networking is mainly about connecting people and having fun talking to them. Tell people what you're doing, but do not expect to make use of contacts right away. One can connect you with someone they know in two weeks or maybe even later. If you are constantly building community, your network of important contacts will grow. But I would recommend looking at the people you already know. Sometimes people are surprised to see what their friends and acquaintances are doing.

But what if I need to get customers who are on the other side of the globe? Say, in the US.

It always depends on what you are selling. If you sell a product for 200 USD, just connect via Skype, but if your product costs 100,000 USD, you will not be able to sell it without meeting the person. In the beginning, you can reach out to potential customers through online tools, but in the end, you will have to go there. In the long run, it is worthwhile to have a representative in the country. I am mentoring one startup and we are now looking for a sales representative in Germany. If you do not have a Czech person with native German skills or a native German who lives in the Czech Republic, you have to find someone on the spot.

If we are talking about salespeople, what do you think an ideal trader should be like?

They must have grit and be willing to work hard. Sales is hard work – you need to call people, go to conferences and sign contracts. A lot of things can be learned, but the main thing is to “want”. A good salesman must also understand the product he is selling well.

Startups lack good salesmen because they can never offer them as high a salary as corporations do. Do you see any solution?

It is true that one of the main motivators for traders is money. In this sense, startups are in a tough situation. You can try to offer them a fixed salary and commission, or you can offer them the opportunity of career growth with the ability to build the startup’s sales from the beginning. This may be interesting for many salesmen because corporations cannot offer this to them. There is also the chance to have a share in the company. Still, salesmen have a problem getting into the startup when they do not see that the startup is selling its products well. Startups can change this uncertainty by showing them how founders are working hard on sales. Founders are the main bearers of the idea and they are the ones in sales from the very beginning.

In the long run, however, it is necessary to hire good salesmen. How can you persuade an experienced expert to go into your startup when 9 out of 10 don’t make it?

You have to convince him that yours will make it. You have to show him that you have a strong vision, you know what you are doing and you have results. After my experience of startup mentoring, I would not start hiring salesmen until I have some results. The founder is the creator of the product or solution, and therefore he knows it the best. While working in the startup scene, I understood that corporations want to talk to startup founders rather than salesmen at the beginning of the life of startup. The founder must convince the customer that his company will still be there in 5 years.

So if you think that in the first months the founders themselves, who might not have economic education or experience, should do sales, how would you advise them?

Do not wait too long for your product to be completed. Go to your customers with a product sheet and ask them what they think. If the product is interesting for them, it is a good signal. If not, you can still redefine it. Sometimes entrepreneurs think that people need their product, but it's just their presumption. I sometimes feel that founders do not want to go outside and talk to people. But without that they will not get anywhere. They need to lose their shyness and go out and take the reins.

Have you noticed any other mistakes that founders are doing repeatedly?

Yes. They are waiting too long for sales. They are still thinking about the strategy of what to do. Sales is about activities and performance. It's simple. You must connect with customers, as many customers as possible.

We have been talking about sales the whole time, but what about marketing? What’sthe ideal relationship between sales and marketing?

If we talk about B2C, marketing plays a dominant role. It targets a large mass of people across social networks and through various online campaigns. In B2B, you have to know the right people personally, spend time with them and explain to them the benefits that their solutions will bring them. B2B, in my opinion, relies largely on sales, but marketing should also play a role.

Do salespeople work with marketing personas as well?

In B2B, we are working with the concept of personality typology. We are interested in what type of person we are talking to and what kind of communication we should use. While a financial analyst will want to hear facts, a creative type will want to talk and listen to your story. Based on the type of personality we then choose the right type of communication.

Okay, but how can I know in advance who I'm going to negotiate with?

You never know 100% for the first time, but you can find out a lot of information in advance. Preparing for a negotiation is crucial and is greatly underestimated. If you do not find out ahead of time, you will find out after a moment when you're talking to the person. I call it research through battle. You have to learn to respect your marketer’s type of communication and bring them the benefits that are of interest to them in their "mother tongue". Sometimes I go to business meetings of the startup I mentor. After the meeting, we sit down and talk about what they did well and what should be improved.

If I manage to acquire a customer, how should I maintain my relationship with him?

By getting the customer, everything is just starting. Here, I think, lies the stumbling block of many startups – delivering your product on time and at the requested quality. If the startup can handle it, they have an advantage and a satisfied customer who will be happy to provide a reference or recommendation. Building a long-term relationship is about trust. If you promise something, you have to deliver it on time. It is important to spend time with the customer. You can prevent many potential problems, and you can get additional jobs from other departments or affiliate companies.

Could you summarize what you think is key in sales?

The key to good sales is to know your product and trust it, to know what benefits it brings the customer, to know your customers and to be able to cope with failure. If someone refuses you, you should not give up. On the contrary!