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To Clean Up Your Startup’s B.S., Bring Sales Into The Leadership Team

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“Coin-operated idiots”. Even if no one says it out loud about sales people anymore, they might still think it.

It’s the perception some startup CEOs have when it comes to their sales force (unless the founders have come from sales themselves). Just load ‘em up and watch them do their mindless best … like at a laundromat.

To make matters worse, the phrase is often accompanied by a smirk, as if it’s something funny.

I am not amused.

The “coin operated idiots” mindset toward sales is a mistake for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s a kind of bigotry, because it basically writes off an entire workforce of human beings who create so much value everyday. An outstanding and involved sales force can often make or break a company. It’s why companies with an inferior product but a superior sales force sometimes still win.

But the real problem with the coin-operated idiots mindset is that it relegates salespeople only to the field or to the phone, when they really should be considered part of the company leadership. Not this decapitated thing you “slot onto” your organization when you need to.

Sales should be front and center in leadership and strategy, because your sales force might be one of your most valuable assets — regardless of whether it’s enterprise or consumer facing. (Enterprise people: yes, Twitter, Google, and Facebook all have close to 1,000+ sales reps. The ads don’t sell themselves!)

The real problem with the coin-operated idiots mindset is that it relegates salespeople only to the field or to the phone, when they really should be considered part of the company leadership.

In addition to bringing the actual bacon — in the form of paying customers that make everything work — salespeople are the one group constantly in front of the very people you’re selling to. They can visualize the market like no one else, help build the go-to-market strategy, and give you intimate customer and competitive insights for the overall company strategy.

When I worked in sales at a major Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company in New Jersey years ago, there was one voicemail box where sales reps were asked to leave messages about stuff they were seeing in the field. Once I came in-house from being in field sales, I was dying to tap into that goldmine of market and product information.

What I found was exasperating: Nobody had ever listened to it, for years — it was a black hole — so when I sat down to listen to them all, there were almost 10,000 messages! And they were gold, solid gold; we actually took a number of them and turned them into products that have since made millions.

The point here is that there was a clear wall between sales and the rest of the organization. And that’s the kind of divisive mindset that can kill your company.

The Steve Jobs balance

Some people will say, but wait, does this mean we need to act on everything our salespeople are saying? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, they’ll cite the famous Steve Jobs quote about how you can’t design products by group feedback because “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Well, the likelihood that you’re Steve Jobs is small, and it took him 40 years to become Steve Jobs (Apple had 3% market share for decades). And why would anyone ever want to miss out on such crisp and incredibly tangible information about their buyers?

Include the sales force… It’s the only way to strike the balance between abstract vision and concrete truth.

Of course you don’t have to listen to everything sales shares; some insights will be real nuggets, and others will simply be too short-term for the long-term vision of the company.

Sometimes reps cannot see a breakout idea and they have to trust product management’s view that it really is a breakthrough. Finally, some views may be tainted because the salesperson is trying to land an unhealthy, overly customized deal for the company that’s too far from the long-term roadmap or what the masses will actually buy. It’s a balance. Either way, if you’re not in contact with customers, you won’t know how to strike this balance.

So what should CEOs do?

Include the sales force. Include them in product management meetings, executive meetings, any meeting where the product roadmap is being discussed. It’s the only way to strike the balance between abstract vision and concrete truth. In most cases, I have found sales reps to be more creative than people expect. Sales reps can also be quick-witted and feisty, which brings a fun energy into the organization.

Still, it won’t be easy. Product managers won’t like including sales at first, because they end up with a different caliber of “truth-sayer” in their meetings. A truth-sayer that very likely won’t make their — or your — jobs smooth sailing.

The bullshit meter

funny gifs

A lot of product management is like being in a big, dark closet: Everyone’s agreeing with each other, in the office, satisfying themselves internally … and then six months later they pop out with a product. (And by product I mean a full product, not a feature release, though both of these should equally benefit from reps’ input.) Valuable time will sometimes be spent on features that should never have been developed in the first place — and that sales reps could have shot down immediately.

Having a salesperson in the room means bringing in a bullshit meter. The sales rep is the one who is going to say, “I know you’re excited that this product was built on/with such-and-such, but so what? That’s not going to excite my customers. How is this differentiated from everything else out there?” They’ll ask the hard questions.

Instead of intellectually obsessing over the ideas, sales reps are the ones who ask, “Yeah, but what am I actually selling?”

Without sales in the room, you’re also missing out on a great opportunity to get instant customer feedback. Sales can also help convene customer boards with prospects who aren’t sold yet to answer the question “what would make you change your mind about buying this product today”.

Having a salesperson in the room means bringing in a bullshit meter. The sales rep is the one who is going to say, “I know you’re excited that this product was built on/with such-and-such, but so what? “

In fact, think of salespeople as a proxy for your customers. It’s not just one of many hats they put on; sales reps think, live, and breathe customers all day, every day.

The value that sales reps bring is different than marketing research, because it’s a concrete analysis of how to outperform. In some cases, sales reps, account managers, and customer service reps bring a type of “well-rounded insight” that can’t be ignored (as my friend Grady Burnett, a veteran global sales & operations officer who worked at Facebook and Google argues), because they often know product and market needs better than anyone else — “They are on the front line using it, describing it, discovering bugs, and learning about other competitive technologies.”

Facing real prospects and real customers early — while you have your powder of cash and fresh ideas — is how to build a company that can weather the storm, that can sustain any type of attack, grow faster than everyone else, and still delight customers.

Truth-saying is also why I think it’s important to go far away from Silicon Valley to hire the early sales reps, especially as tech companies grow beyond the tech industry. (By the way, I think hiring managers should consider this even if they’re doing inside sales.) Selling to one’s buddies is one of the worst things a company can do. The further away you go, though, the less the bullshit factor and the greater the bullshit detector — you will get real answers that can help you win.

Inclusive = more thrust

One of the biggest problems in companies of scale is getting anyone to talk about and sell the new products with confidence. Sales reps have so much confidence in the successful existing products, why should they risk the customer relationship for a new product that’s unproven and that they just heard about 10 days ago? By involving sales early, however, founders can overcome the problem of a product that launches but never turns into revenue because the sales reps are now net-promoting it to their troops.

Having a more inclusive mindset around sales also forces companies to commit to a roadmap. Often, product management is let off the hook when it comes to taking accountability for a sharp roadmap: “Yes, it’s on the roadmap, I just don’t know what date exactly…” or “Well we can’t think beyond six months, we’re busy delivering this stuff now.”

Great sales teams are incredibly professional and organized; they have to be, in order to constantly outperform and raise their quotas. So the more clarity you give them, the better they can execute — and in much shorter time.

Even if the roadmap changes, at least the sales reps have some guidelines around what it is they’re allowed to sell (or not). This, by the way, is a strong motivator for a strong sales team.

Great sales teams are incredibly professional and organized; they have to be, in order to constantly outperform and raise their quotas. So the more clarity you give them, the better they can execute — and in much shorter time. Not only that, these are the deals that tend to renew easier, and buy earlier, as well.

Note, sales reps still need a bit of flexibility in selling the product. But the alignment — or rather inclusion — of sales and product management is key. If nobody is giving any clarity around where the product roadmap is, and the sales rep doesn’t fully get it or oversells the product (which happens a lot in software), then they make it practically impossible for the company to ever implement it.

* * *

When I ran SuccessFactors, I made it mandatory to have a sales rep in product management meetings. It cleaned up our talk, our bullshit, our nonsense… all the fights. It completely changed the discussion, and for the better.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be the VP of Sales (especially in companies with more than 30 people); a successful senior sales rep would suffice. And to be clear: The product manager still owns the product, and has to own both short-and long-term thinking about that product. But if you’re growing a company, you have to sell something, and now. Having salespeople in the room helps brings that urgency. The union of product management and sales done right produces so much more than they ever did before.

I made it mandatory to have a sales rep in product management meetings. It cleaned up our talk, our bullshit, our nonsense… all the fights.

Try it. But be sure to try it 100%; that’s the only way it works.

You might notice that in talking about the “coin-operated idiots” mindset I didn’t mention anything about the coin — that is, how reps get paid and how best to compensate a sales force. I’ll cover that in the next post. Just know that if salespeople don’t perform, they don’t make money, and that makes them easier to set targets and align expectations with than anyone else in your organization.

It actually makes them some of the most honest people working for you since it’s all so straightforward and direct. That’s the furthest thing possible from coin-operated idiots…

Featured Image: Brad Perkins/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-ND 2.0 LICENSE