Small Business Sales – How To Sell Without Being A Salesperson
In a startup, no matter what you do, you’ll be selling something – so you better be good at it.
“You’re always selling” is one of those sayings you often hear about building startups. But many entrepreneurs try to avoid being a salesperson, as it still has a bad connotation. I’ll proudly admit, however, that I started my career – and learned the most tricks – in a job associated with the worst of all stereotypes: the used car salesperson.
I started selling when I was tall enough to look over the counter at my dad’s bike shop. After school, I’d help the customers so the bike mechanic could spend his time fixing the bikes, rather than selling parts to everyone that walked in from the street. During high school and university, I stuck around the store to help my dad, who would also sell cars.
The shop has been around for three generations with a very dedicated customer base. People would often come from far away to buy their cars there. They could easily have bought a new Range Rover elsewhere in a bigger city, but they enjoyed the experience of coming to our shop and felt they were getting great service. It still fascinate me that service can be such a strong differentiator for any business, it should be as basic as doing your bookkeeping.
I clearly remember one customer that had taken a 5-hour train trip from Copenhagen to buy a 10-year-old Volkswagen Passat, a mid-class passenger car that he could have easily found for the same price at 10 other dealerships. I drove 20 miles to the train station to pick him up so he could test-drive the car on our way back. It was a wonder to me why someone would spend this much time buying a car he could have surely purchased minutes from home, so I asked him why. He replied, “I did call all the other car shops, and every salesman I talked to told me the car was perfect. Your dad was the first one to say that his car wasn’t.”
This sentence has stuck with me ever since. The buyer knows that a perfect solution doesn’t exist, so if you try to sell one, you’ll only come across as less trustworthy. In the last few years, I’ve been selling software as part of building up podio (https://podio.com). And even though we don’t deal with dents and rust in the software industry, we certainly deal with customers that ask for more than we can and will deliver. So knowing when to say no applies just as well.
Earlier this year I met with Educational Services of America, a potential customer. They had lined up pages of feature requests. Some were fair, but others just didn’t fit our vision and design principles or help the customer achieve what he actually wanted. During the meeting, we went through the list, and they would ask, “Do you do X?” And I would often reply, “No, because Y.”
Afterwards, their CIO Alan Watson stepped back, pointed throughout the room and said: “You know, I like you guys, but I really like that guy.” Here he pointed at me. “Do you know why? Because when I ask him about a feature, he just says no – no more BS. Instead he help us understand where we need to go.” Alan is probably one of the more visionary CIOs I’ve met and I’m proud to have him as a customer. You can hear his story here.
The single best way to be good at sales is to do something you’re really passionate about. That’s why most entrepreneurs are actually great salespeople. But just like the guy who bought the older Volkswagen off my dad, I rarely believe those who present everything as perfect without any dents or challenges. Or as one of my friends, Max Marmer from Startup Genome, phased it the other day: “It is time Silicon Valley get over the ‘Everything is always good and awesome’ pathology”. If I were an investor, I’d be looking for people with a great vision and an trustworthy route to getting there.
Prominent angel investor Dave McClure once said that you need a developer, a designer and a hustler for young companies to succeed. No matter which role you fill, you’ll be selling your product, your company or yourself, so you better be good at it.