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The Death of a (complacent) salesman: Here’s the ABCs of selling to sustain your business

Without selling, businesses can’t and won’t survive. As a critical aspect of any business, this is why the selling should never stop

With over 35 years of experience in technology development, entrepreneurship, and international consulting, I have founded and worked in Cambridge IT startups, consulted for Silicon Valley-based advisory firms, and supported the development of innovation-focused incubation services across the world. In this series that I plan to write for ASPIRE, I will consider some of the things I have learned over 35 years in and around startups and share some advice for new CEOs. This month, we look at Sales which is probably, or should I say the most important aspect of any business.

The role of CEO / founder in a startup is probably one of the most diverse jobs it is possible to have. You do everything from buying the printer paper to paying the bills to develop the strategy. But the diversity is also the reward as you see your whole business grow and appreciate what went into that success.

Sales: Act Up / Ham It Up

Selling is acting. Whenever you are in front of an investor, a customer, an employee, you must be selling. Each audience needs a different script, but as CEO, it is your job to continuously sell the company, its future potential, and its products and services to whoever you meet. Just think about Elon Musk or Richard Branson; they are always selling their latest business idea. Ham it up, be bold, confident, and do it without notes; when did you last see Branson or Musk with a PowerPoint? No one says this is easy, but it is the ultimate role of the CEO. Develop your elevator pitches for each group. Be able to answer these questions: What do you do? What problem do you solve? How are you different? Why now? Why should I care? Have a 30-second version, a two-minute version and for investor pitches, follow Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule, and develop the 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 point text version.

The role of CEO / founder in a startup is probably one of the most diverse jobs it is possible to have. You do everything from buying the printer paper to paying the bills to develop the strategy

Sales: Follow Up

Follow-up is one of the hardest things to do, and most people are generally terrible at it. As a CEO, you will have many, many meetings with potential investors, customers, partners, and employees. Each meeting will generate a list of actions that will need following up. It would be best if you found a good way to manage this, or you will end up disappointing many people. The old adage of ‘under promise and over deliver’ should be in your mind when agreeing to do anything. Weigh up how the decision to take on a particular action will impact the business, your time, the time of others in the team, etc. Only if the return on investment of time makes sense should you agree. Follow-up of sales meetings is crucial, and you need to equip your sales team with the right tools. These tools will differ depending on whether you are selling $100 widgets or $1m services. And it would help if you found salespeople who are obsessed with follow-up. Without it, opportunities will just slip through the cracks.

Sales: Shut Up

In my first and only sales training course, I remember two things: “people buy people first”, and “selling isn’t telling; selling is asking questions.” The first quote relates to how you make an impression on potential customers. Be polite. Be dressed appropriately for your audience. Be on time (if in the UK or US, especially). If selling internationally, be prepared for local customs and be culturally aware. The second quote relates to the sales process. Yes, do your pitch when asked. But then shut up, stop ‘telling’ them things, and have a conversation. Ask the key questions that allow you to tailor your response and fit your product or service to your customer’s specific needs. And when the time comes to ask for the business, ask. And then be quiet, let them respond in their own time. Don’t be pushy.

Sales: Speak Up

Whatever business you are in, there will probably be a conference, congress, or key exhibition where the whole industry meets to buy, sell and do deals. Make sure you get into the program as a speaker – keynote ideally – but on a panel or even parallel session. Find something interesting or controversial to say about how the market is developing. Become a ‘thought leader’. Don’t, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t just pitch your product or service unless you are specifically asked to do this. By presenting something provocative, you will find yourself in conversation with many people and have the opportunity to make your sale at that point.

With 63 more ‘Ups’ (Crack up, Free up, Light up, Make up, etc.) in my book Upstart Ninja: So, you want to be a startup CEO? and at Hopefully, each ‘up’ will give you a simple takeaway about an aspect of CEO life that is worth remembering. Of course, no one CEO experience is exactly the same as another, but it’s incredibly rewarding seeing your ideas become a reality. As you grow, all the tasks you had when you started still need to be done, but you’ll slowly be able to pass them off to your team, leaving you more time for the strategic work allowing you to expand, hire more people, and grow further.

David can be reached at [email protected]

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