Sales is a science. And like most things that are role related, there are distinct best practices and skills that enable those who work in that function to successfully learn their tradecraft. The litany of training programs, books, and courses to improve all things sales are never ending. No one would argue that being a classically trained sales person isn't critical to speaking the vernacular that speeds up the buying process.
Sales is also an art. Because understanding the inner workings of a customers' mind takes a certain innate feel. There are people we have known who are just good at selling. They can see into the soul of others to know what motivates them to say yes when they want them to do so. Some people were just born to sell.
Over the course of modern business we have seen many different sales techniques that helped bring process to need over time. Whether it was the Sandler Method, Miller Heiman, Solution Selling or even the more recent Challenger Sales, people continue to try to create processes to help speed people's ability to say yes to buying new produces and services. A good historical summary can be found in the attached link .
Discussing a key issue in selling
What happens to the sales process when the market is nascent, the use cases don't exist, your persona isn't clear and more importantly the go to market strategy needs critical data to be launched or adjusted? This is one of the most fundamental questions I see many startups struggle with. CEO's are under great pressure when building their new or emerging business to scale as quickly as possible. But as you go from idea to product, what do you do when you want to begin selling to the market in earnest? How do you launch your sales function successfully? Do you hire the experience sales leader to formulate your strategy? Do you hire a more junior person who can help you (the CEO) manage the process for you?
When does the formal process of selling need to meet the more instinctive modalities of influencing people to buy?
Frankly, it's a never ending question. Even though there is no hard and fast rule to the previous question's balance, CEOs simply have to pick a direction and kick ass. And many companies fail because CEOs believe if they don't pick a direction and kick ass then they aren't leading. No one would say all the weights and measures a CEO faces aren't like spinning 15 plates simultaneously. The truth is, you need a great product to sell to the market but you also need a market willing to purchase said product if you want to build a business.
But what if there was another way? What if there was a more fluid way to sell in an ambiguous market where the need to scale isn't aligned with the market's desire to buy? Or perhaps you have a product that is like a ball of clay that needs more shaping before you commit to the place where your product is the bullseye for said market's needs?
The Scientific Selling Method...What the hell is that?
Sadly, the scientific method process used by millions of scientists around the world is a thorn in the side of most business leaders. They often find scientists' exactness, constant change in what they believe to be true (based on the data) and the overall speed at which they are ready to act a bother and/or waste of time.
On the other hand, scientists (and tech folks) often think that what is going on to sell their product is a bunch of undisciplined chaos. They think the inexactness of how products are sold is too touchy feely and not systematic. They often flippantly believe that it should be easy: if I give you a great product it should sell itself.
Frankly, the answer lies somewhere between. Most products, particularly new innovations and even more so SaaS products are constantly changing and forming. In addition, these innovations are selling into markets that may be completely unaware of how these solutions can make their lives easier. The great conundrum still remains how does one effectively and systematically sell into a still forming market with a product that is evolving in its design and function?
The simple innovation I am advocating for is the merging of the sales process with the principles of scientific method. I call it the SCIENTIFIC SELLING.
What is the definition of scientific selling?
The scientific selling method is a process where iterative testing and learning is used during every phase of the sales cycle in an effort to optimize your go to market strategy in near real time.
How should I think about it?
Let's put the 7 stages of selling next to the scientific method. What do you notice about each? What is similar? What is different?
What is similar?
- Both are systematic process that demonstrate a rinse and repeat loop structure
- Both are focused on a singular goal; sales to drive people to buy something and science to continue to expand the "best" we know about a subject through a constant improvement process.
What is different?
- The sales process is very functional and deeply structured.
- The sales process is focused on a singular purpose; to scale how people buy something.
- The sales process is quite convergent with the end result being very tangible and measurable; dollars out.
- Scientific method is a conceptual process of how something is done to drive constant and consistent improvement.
- Scientific method is meant to be never ending because while concrete provable conclusions are the result, the quest to learn more is inherent in the process.
- Scientific method's operates with the underlying goal to create the best results at that particular moment because in an ever changing and dynamic world nothing is static.
How do I use this?
To engage in the concept of scientific selling, you need to think about your go to market strategy differently. Once you have your product, you need to shift your mindset. The mistake many leaders make is thinking that after a long time in the lab creating the product, it is simply time to scale. What this usually means is after a period of development, quick market testing and some level of market traction (usually highlighted by the CEO believing their own hypothesis of why their idea is great), they hire a sales leader to build the sale process and away we go. The problem? Often times as the machine gets built many critical decisions get made. It requires you to map out, based on what little you know, who your target is, what the pricing should be, what type of experience and approach does the sales force need to have and the structured list goes on and on. What happens if you are wrong? I have seen it before. CEOs can lose months of time, tons of capital and often have to shift dramatically as they learn their initial data was off. This can lead to dilution, a reboot of people and a turnaround strategy.
Usually the first step in scientific selling is to admit that you will be in a period of iteration on your initial launch for a good while and by making this admission you are on your way. First, it allows you to test and learn many different parts of your sales process as you go. Second, it requires one of two things as you build your sales function. Either you, the CEO, will continue to own sales and hire an operational person to simply executes. Or you have to hire a sales leader who is both willing to build the sales strategy AND get their hands dirty. You can't let the whole thing go to a big game hunter who wants to hire and hire. You have to take your time to make sure that what you have is viable.
- Do they customers understand what your technology is?
- Do they even need a tool or is what they have good enough?
- Does your product meet their needs in a way that improves their process?
- Are there people at your customers' who will use what you give them?
- Is the pricing set up correctly?
- Is your perceived target the right one?
- What type of domain knowledge do your sales people need?
- Is an enterprise sell, a coin operated sale, a consultative sale etc?
- What does my pitch look like? Do I do a demo? How many meetings do we need?
- What is my overarching tag line (10 second pitch for my offering)
- What is my one core competency and how do I make sure my customers understand it?
This is the essence of scientific selling. Looking at each part of your sales cycle and as you sell your product, you need to test your hypotheses for all these things in each meeting until you collect enough data to net down on parts of it. And to do so you have to have patience, fortitude and a willingness to live with the go to market chaos. This approach leads to what appears to be a short term loss for a long term gain. You have to resist the pressure of the investors to scale too quickly otherwise a reboot will be in your future.
Why would this approach help?
Real time optimization: Scientific selling is a great way to make sure you optimize both your time and resources when going to market. If you approach your sales cycle as a constantly evolving process it enables you to take what you are ready to take to market and allows you to test what features/elements does the market care about. This is a great way to build the plane as you are flying it. More importantly, by putting a process in place that accepts this reality you can manage expectations of both your workforce and customers at the same time. If everyone is on the "test and learn" page as you sell what you have, no one's expectations are mismanaged and you can quickly react to the learnings you gain as you go.
Less human and cultural waste: A company that goes for coin operated scale often leaves a lot of bodies when they are wrong. It is inevitable that different people are useful along different parts of the growth ride, but if you execute relentlessly before you should, your brand will suffer when it's time to admit you went too fast. Let's be honest when a company who scales too fast starts to flail they can often fail or they can burn out great talent who are executing against unrealistic goals. This is like a ship heading 5 degrees off course, eventually you are no where near where you want to be. This means people will suffer, the morale will plummet and you culture will be branded poor.
Go to market self actualization: Learning to be honest about why your baby is ugly is a great way to help folks around see you are a humble leader. It seems counterintuitive to have this flexible focus on your go to market strategy, but by widening your guardrails you can honestly bring your teams along for the ride. And as you learn, you will of course narrow pieces of the bridge between what the product needs to be and what the process to get people to buy it is. Building honest self actualization into your process is the secret of continued and systematic success.
Some might say this is all logical, but ask yourself if you have worked at a company what thrashes wildly to perceived market shifts only to build products nobody wants. If you can say yes to this, then you are either looking at a company that is too tech heavy and believes its own innovation fantasies or a company who thinks that a massive front end team will drive scale effortlessly through brute force. While it's you need to build your product first before you build a salesforce to sell it, don't make the mistake of ignoring the power of using the same scientific and technical principals you use to create that product can be equally valuable as you go to market to drive wild success.