December 14, 2021

Building sales impact and process

Corinne Moran
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Building sales impact and processBuilding sales impact and process
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Editor's note: 

At early-stage startups every member of the team needs to be a builder. While it’s common to talk about “building” many aspects of a company (product, culture, business, etc.), it’s less common to hold sales to the same standard. That needs to change. Early-stage sales is not merely about driving revenue, it’s about building the system that generates revenue, and scaling it for the long term.

Founders often think of sales as a somewhat transient function — a traditional playbook for a bit part in a startup’s journey. The best early-stage organizations, however, see salespeople as having a more fundamental role. I like how Unusual Ventures describes the early-stage salespeople as being a “revenue-generating Product Manager.”

As a sales leader who has excelled at the hustle required for Sales Development Representative (SDR) success, as well as building a repeatable playbook for sales enablement, I have found that sales excellence is about taking that builder’s mindset and applying it to the discipline of sales. It’s a job centered around building durable elements of a startup’s growth: teams, relationships, skills, processes, audience insight and validation. Great sales teams function almost like a machine, propelled by repeatable processes and guided by the wants and needs of its prospective customers.

In my career I have loved getting to build early-stage pipeline and ARR, and then make that impact stick by building a machine-like process. That’s why I’m excited to join Unusual Ventures as a Senior Associate of Go-to-Market (GTM) Sales. As part of the Founder Services team I embed within a portfolio company as a true member of the startup, to generate near-term sales and then build the scalable playbook and team for their long-term success. 

Early-stage startups need partners who DO THE WORK, rather than merely advising. Unusual’s Founder Services team is unique in this regard because we are embedded in a full-time capacity to produce results day in and day out. In a startup’s earliest days it’s hard to get world-class operators to join and build from scratch, but the Founder Services team sets the foundation and early momentum that increases a startup’s odds of success, and thus its ability to attract top-tier talent.

Firsthand sales insights and impact
One of my early insights into sales impact came from observing that success didn’t come from bombarding engineers with feature lists but from understanding their business challenges and demonstrating how our product was best suited to address those needs.

I got to do this at Databricks, where I joined in late 2017, just as the company started to take off. I was the seventh hire on the sales team and we had to fight for every single conversation. Databricks wasn’t the household name that it is now, and we were selling a whole new approach to data. As I sat in meeting after meeting with engineers, data scientists and other technical people, I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to win any deals by going feature-by-feature.

Instead of proving that Databricks was the superior product, or that I knew more about it than anyone else, I realized that my actual job was to be strategic and consultative. To diagnose the business challenges that prospective customers had and explain in practical terms how Databricks fixed it. At core, I needed to tell a story about how I was going to help them fix their business. As I honed that problem-solving approach I saw a dramatic impact on pipeline and ARR. I started climbing the ranks of the organization, and eventually helped build the sales playbook that propelled the company toward the public markets.

Putting it into practice

A sales playbook — a systematic process that teaches everyone in the organization how to sell — is a foundational piece of every successful sales organization. From picking a design partner to closing marquee clients, these skills all start with having a clear profile of your target audience and thoughtfully, effectively converting them.

Of course, every playbook is different and I’ll write more in the future about how founders and sales leaders should think about playbooks that suit their organization and GTM motion, but these factors are universal elements of sales success:

  1. Don’t keep reinventing the wheel. Your sales motion should be repeatable amongst a broad set of potential customers. You can, of course, modify it a little bit as you go on, or tailor it to a specific customer’s need, but it should be a template that can be recreated by everyone in the organization.
  2. Ask great questions. Too many sales people just want to get in the room and dazzle a prospect, and they don’t take the time to really get to know what’s motivating that person to make a change. Asking good discovery questions is crucial preparation for any deal. Why can't you do that today? Have you tried to solve that in the past? What didn't work? Why didn't it work? Who does this affect? Who cares about this problem? Why are you trying to solve this now? What happens if you don't do anything? These types of questions provide essential insight into how the prospect is thinking, no matter what technology or solution you’re selling.
  3. Always Be Closing. It’s the most shopworn and tired cliche in sales, but there’s a reason. Each step of the sales playbook has a purpose and a methodical next step. Make sure that you know what the ideal outcome is in any conversation and that you’re progressing toward that. When you’re on a call, make sure you’re getting the next meeting set, or asking who's responsible for helping with the deployment and getting that person’s email.
  4. Qualification. A founder’s time is valuable, and so is a customer’s. Prior to getting on the phone with a new company/individual, make sure it’s a conversation worth having — for both parties. The ideal customer needs to be willing to move very fast, interested in partnering with a startup, and able to provide great product feedback to you. Their company’s reputation should lend credibility to yours.
  • Prior to getting on the phone, ask yourself “Do they align with our ideal customer profile? Do they represent the right persona for what we need?”
  • Do they properly map to your ICP?
  • Do they have the money for this project? Overall, what is their funding level?
  • How mature is the company?
  • What roles and responsibilities does this individual have? Do they have authority to properly support this project?

For other sales guidance and actionable tools, check out the enterprise sales section of our Field Guide.

The hard work of sales will never go away. There will always be another cold call to make, or another email to send, but having a proven, successful process behind you so you know exactly what you’re going to say on that call, or why you’re sending that email is the difference between a winning or losing organization. Seeing that brought to life in the companies I work with over the years will be an incredibly fulfilling experience. I can’t wait to go on that journey with you.

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