Most of you who start new ventures don't think of yourselves as sales experts. In fact, you may feel on the opposite end of the spectrum, more focused on delivering the perfect solution and managing the finances to grow the business.
Yet in today's competitive and rapidly changing world, top notch sales and marketing skills are critical to the success of every business.
As an advisor to technical entrepreneurs, the most common mistake I see is the "If we build it, they will come" approach with no sales plan, under the assumption that the technology is so spectacular that customers will buy the product.
In todays' rapidly changing world, there are over 30,000 new products introduced every year, so it's easy to slip into that unseen majority and fail.
Thus, in my view, it's never too early to brush up on your selling and marketing skills. Here are the key steps I have found to work from my own experience in large companies, as well as startups:
1. Practice showing some passion in every conversation.
Being positive and excited about what you offer should not be reserved for stand-up pitches and closing large deals.
Everyone inside your company, as well as potential customers, needs to be inspired by your message before they believe it. Stand tall - keep your fears and doubts to yourself.
It always helps to ask questions first, and keying off an element of passion in the other person's perspective. For example, if they show a passion for fitness and life balance, highlight how your solution shortens the time and pain of solving their business problems.
2. Work hard on perfecting your value proposition.
The value of your solution may be self-evident to you, but everyone has a different perspective.
Make sure you engage fully and often with your ideal customer, to understand what will appeal most to their heart, mind, and pocketbook. Then craft an irresistible pitch, and iterate often to keep tuning it.
Effective value propositions are quantified and personalized for each customer or target segment. For example, "reduces your cost per application by 30 percent" is far better than "easier and faster to apply." Eliminate the fuzzy hype words from your message.
3. Hone in and capitalize on your best assets.
Your strongest asset may be your personality, expertise, location, or your solution. Highlight what you do best, unique benefits to your customers, and an honest statement of why you do what you do.
Make it real for your customers with professionally prepared collateral based on these assets.
Dale Carnegie, for example, was recently ranked as one of the ten greatest salespeople of all time, by virtue of his presence and conviction, even though his courses on public speaking contained no great innovations or breakthroughs. He was the asset he sold.
4. Build real relationships with people who can help.
Starting and growing a business is not a solo operation. You need all the help you can get, and people will help you if they know and trust you.
These may be partners who can complement your skills, mentors who can show you what you need, or customers who can be your best sales people.
Even the most successful business executives have mentoring relationships with helpful peers. Bill Gates has a long-standing mentor relationship with Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg openly acknowledges that he was mentored in the early days by Steve Jobs.
5. Don't forget to ask for the close, with confidence.
You can't win if you don't ask, and confidently asking a customer for their decision shows leadership on your part.
The best sales people look for ways to inspire a customer's emotional involvement, create the urgency to take ownership, and then ask for the decision. Don't be shy on this point.
Five basic rules for closing include treating closing as a process, setting a closing objective, waiting for the right moment, wrapping a conversation around it, and then celebrating every victory. If you can't close deals, you don't have a business, no matter how great the product.
I'm not suggesting that you as the business founder has to do all the selling, but you do have to be the role model that the rest of team follows. You also have to deeply understand what sells to your customers, or you can't properly lead the other key business areas of development, finance, and operations.
In reality, leadership requires first selling yourself, so these same steps apply.