How to Manage a One-Person Sales Force
Entrepreneurs wear many hats, and that of director of sales is very often one of them. In fact, if you're a CEO and your company's sole salesperson, then welcome to the club — many small companies operate this way. But just beacuse a practice is commonplace does not mean it's easy. We put the word out that we were looking for advice on how to manage and balance the dual roles of CEO and salesperson and guess what? It took a whole train ride from New York City to Boston to wade through the responses. Here are the best of them:
1. Manage your time religiously. Jen Sterling, the CEO of the marketing company Red Thinking, has played the CEO/sole salesperson role in three companies and says she is now "much more militant about how I block time in my calendar. If I've scheduled a prospect meeting, I have already scheduled an hour to write their proposal." And she also blocks in fixed period of time to focus on CEO duties such as charting her South Riding, Virginia, firm's long-term strategy and marketing messages.
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2. Sell your product or service, not your company. It's your company and you're proud of it, so of course you're inclined to tell your story to potential clients. But that's not always an efficient use of your time. "I slip into selling our business instead of our product all the time," says Keith Chung, the CEO of Amobius Group, a Toronto company that publishes Veribook, a web application for booking appointments. But the pitch you would make to potential partners or investors should not be the same as the pitch you make to potential customers. "Selling," Chung says he realized, "is about convincing people that they want to use your services, not that your services are cool, innovative, or otherwise interest-worthy. Prove that you provide a solution to a problem, and the users will come."
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3. Don't neglect existing clients. Your current clients are your best source of additional revenue, so don't get so wrapped up in pursuing new leads that you neglect their needs. "I firmly believe that your current clients should come first," says Rebecca Andino, CEO of Highlight Technologies, an IT government contractor in Arlington, Virginia. "If I have a meeting conflict, I would re-schedule a business development meeting to make a client meeting."
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4. Leverage a simplified feedback loop. One of the great advantages of CEO selling is consistent, direct contact with your customers, so don't squander the opportunity to get honest feedback on your product or service. "There are no bureaucratic layers in our organization and the customer's voice is never lost," says Marc Zawel, the CEO of EqualApp, a Research Triangle start-up that offers online college admissions resources. Customers can "tell me what they love about EqualApp, and what additional features they would like to see, and I'm in a position to take action." As CEO, you're not just selling a product; you're selling access to yourself.
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5. Reduce your travel. Until cloning technology becomes more advanced, you can only be in one place at time, and traveling is a huge time suck. Some potential clients will always demand your presence for an initial pitch, but you'll find that many others will gladly settle for alternatives. "When I conduct an initial presentation with a new client, I set-up WebEx meetings," says Joe Sriver, the CEO of DoAPP, a mobile-technology developer in Minneapolis. "People are becoming accustomed to this type of computer-based, virtual communication. It helps me contact and present to more clients in a day."
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6. Delegate, delegate, and then delegate more. If you're spending the bulk of your time selling, then other day-to-day responsibilities are very likely to fall by the wayside. Don't let that happen. Outsource administrative tasks to a virtual assistant, and take advantage of a huge pool of unemployed professionals for part time or temporarily help with marketing, PR, and bookkeeping. Hire interns for the grunt work and to help you with lead generation. You should also realize that you don't need to handle every aspect of sales on your own. "We spread responsibility for prospecting, scheduling, and demonstrations among the team, says T.A. McCann, the CEO of Gist, on Seattle-based Web start-up that manages e-mail and social networking contacts. "It's okay to let others help you qualify and manage accounts, but view yourself as an essential part of the closing process and hold yourself personally responsible for getting the order," he says.
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7. Find a mentor. Some CEOs are natural salespeople, and some are not. If you're not, then you need help. Judy Davids, the CEO of PostEgram knows that she is the best salesperson for her business because "nobody is more passionate or understands our product better." But she concedes that the pitfall is that "I have no idea what I am doing." Her Detroit company puts Facebook status updates and photos into full-color newsletters for older family members. She has a web design background and is passionate about public relations and marketing, so she relies heavily on a mentor to help coach her on sales. "It's something that I think I have learned to be good at," says Davids. "My mentor has been brutally honest with me."
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8. Hold yourself accountable. A salesperson would be accountable to you. So who you are you accountable to? When you're the sole salesperson, says Rebecca Andino of Highlight Technologies (see No. 3), "its easy to slip into an undisciplined, haphazard sales and marketing approach." You'd require a full time salesperson to create a strategic plan and to be diligent about using a CRM system to track leads and results. "As a business owner, I don't always have time to document all leads in our online system, and sometimes I get pulled into operations and human resources issues," says Andino. Nonetheless, you need to work extra-hard to document the sales process so that when and if you a hire a successor, you'll be able to pass that on.
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9. Create an "everyone sells" culture. "Make sure your entire team understands that everyone is really in sales, even if it's not on their business card," suggests Barbara O'Connell, CEO of WhereToFindCare.com, a company in Ypsilanti, Michigan, that helps consumers find health care providers. Your employees should be ambassadors for your company, talking up your product or service and on the look-out for potential leads wherever they go.
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10. Make the tough choice. It's inevitable. You're going to have to hire a salesperson at some point, so sit down and figure out when that will be. Is there a magic revenue target that will, once hit, allow you to hire a top-notch salesperson? Or perhaps the benchmark is your number of customers, or your headcount of billable employees. Whatever it is, commit to it and start meeting in a casual way with qualified candidates.
Of course, there's another alternative. Jared Orkin, the 22-year old founder of CoupMe, a Groupon-like, deal-a-day website, was both CEO and sole salesperson at his Boston-area company, until he raised a round of seed capital and was persuaded by his new investors to replace himself as CEO. Orkin happily stepped down to focus on what he's best at and loves most—and that would be sales. Different strokes.
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DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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