Startup Sales Playbook – 6 Universal Tips

Many conventional sales tactics don’t work for startups. Their products are often innovative and their resources scarce. Startup sales means doing a lot with a little, and following principles often overlooked in traditional businesses.

Most young companies lack the budget for a legion of sales reps and heavy-arms-marketing. Also, they need to push their product to a market that yet has to be verified and established. It’s easy to waste energy and resources on the wrong people.

What’s more, people are often unfamiliar with the types of products offered by startups. This makes the persuasion of prospects a lot more effortful.

Both scenarios suggest focusing on people close to the buying decision, no matter whether you're selling inbound or outbound. Here are the key elements of a strategy to target those further down the sales funnel.

1
Find your buyer persona early on

Sales can be viewed like mounting a shelf on a wall. The sales techniques you use are your tools and materials, your buyer is the wall with its unique composition. Even the most superior wood drill will break if employed on solid stone.

A buyer persona is the detailed description of the wall’s condition and requirements. It allows you to pick the right tools and materials, to deploy your resources efficiently. Without one, you’re gambling. And while you do, you'll likely burn money. Therefore it should be defined as early as possible.

Trying to sell products and services without understanding your ideal customers is like driving with your eyes closed!

Gregory Ciotti, Help Scout

Buyer personas allow you to offer the right product in the right way, to play right into their hopes and challenges. They are the overarching constant throughout all sales aspects, from pricing to direct communication. In a previous post we described the best ways to identify customer needs and expectations. We suggested gathering the relevant information from:

  • customer conversations – by listening, asking the right questions, and differentiating.
  • customer metrics – with a focus on what drives customer satisfaction, retention, and loyalty.
  • the community – where people feel free to speak out.

Afterwards you categorize the data and look for distinguishable patterns in the behavior and valuations of your customers as well as where you usually find them. These patterns translate to product-related preferences in aspects like budget, purpose, quality, or design. They also translate to preferences in communication, like tonality or conversation time exposure. A combination of preferences is a buyer persona.

Finally, give your personas catchy, alliterative names for memorability. For example, Help Scout’s “Growth Graham” is concerned about missing important emails, while their “Helpdesk Heidi” is looking for a lean software solution. Userlike’s “Business Owner Bob” believes he can grow customer loyalty while cutting down costs, and our “Customer Service Manager Christie” is always seeking ways to increase her department’s efficiency.

2
Create default sales procedures for your buyer personas

You’re able to read buyer personas out of prospects, that’s good. But it’s useless if you’re unprepared to deliver on their preferences. Knowing what someone wants doesn’t necessarily mean knowing how to give it to them. This is especially true for startups, which often lack reliable numbers of solid use cases for their products.

Again, a startup should be ready and prepared so they don’t fall back on the uneconomical “spray and pray” approach.

To return to my shelf analogy: the buyer is the wall, the buyer persona describes its condition – and your sales procedure is a manual for dealing with it. Gregory Ciotti explains how every behavioral pattern of a potential customer prompts best-suited product features and communication styles.

Include in your procedure which of your products they like most, which alternatives they prefer, what doesn’t work for them, but also how your reps should react to common difficult situations with them. Obviously, you should remain flexible, so refrain from stiff protocols.

3
Focus on prospects further down the funnel

Startups either don’t have the financial reserves to circle above ‘possibly potential opportunities’, or they're eyed by stakeholders impatient for measurable results. So, they need to tackle prospects that promise quick revenue. Also, many startups offer products and services that people are not familiar with.

A startup needs to be close to the actual willingness to buy. This is why indirect sales via inbound marketing is the way to go for most startups.

Timoor Taufig, CEO and co-founder of Userlike

Which is why they should focus on those prospects closest to the buying decision. Or, as Userlike’s CEO and co-founder Timoor Taufig puts it, “close to the actual willingness to buy.”

Inbound leads are those prospects far down the sales funnel. They either have been searching about a need catered for by your service or product – or specifically for the kind of service or product that you sell. They found you and a readiness to buy is present. The decision for one provider, however, hasn’t been made yet.

infographic of the startup sales funnel
Startups best get a hold of prospects between stage two and three.

Here are some inbound marketing techniques that generated loads of high-quality leads at the end of the funnel for us:

4
Grow over your partners

An inbound machine running at full power brings in leads day and night. But it takes months of time and experience to make your content visible and convert predictably. Until then, returns are uncertain. And as mentioned above, many startups don’t have that time. Consequently, a two-pronged strategy integrating inbound and outbound sales is today’s most common approach.

Solely resorting to traditional outbound techniques can be more effective for some startups, but surely not for rookies. A popular example is partner selling. Committed associates elevate your sales through shared pipelines, analytics and resources. They won’t, however, team up with you just to pull you up. They will either ask for traction on your side or a real and unique benefit for their users. If you can offer that, riding in the slipstream can greatly speed up your sales.

5
Cold Calling 2.0

The most traditional idea of outbound sales doesn’t suit today’s startups anymore. The old Glengarry Glen Ross rule to “always be closing” once motivated millions of aspiring salesmen-of-the-month to force any product down their prospects’ throats, no matter how ill-fit. 25 years later, no startup with the intention to make long-term customers should waste their resources on a sales approach so ignorant of the consumer.

In their book Predictable Revenue, Aaron Ross and Marylou Tyler introduce an alternative to what they describe as “surprising people on the phone or trying to negotiate around gatekeepers.” It’s called Cold Calling 2.0 and shows up a path that unites quick revenue with qualified leads.

Salespeople should use a nonthreatening, research-oriented approach that uses the first half of the call to learn about the prospect’s business and needs. The salesperson positions their service and value at the end of the call, after they’ve uncovered what the prospect actually wants.

Aaron Ross, Predictable Revenue

The company in question in Predictable Revenue, Salesforce.com, wanted to set up a campaign that works for cold outbound leads, yet targets prospects further down the funnel. They were looking for ways to qualify leads before the first reach out. In their resulting Cold Calling 2.0 approach they made extensive research or referrals to the right person mandatory steps preceding any sales talk.

Effective research basically means checking whether the prospect matches one of your buyer personas. The referral approach is to make sure that you start cold sales facing the most promising prospect within an organization. So, you’d introduce your product not before you got someone on the line who can understand your product, call the shots, or at least influence the decision makers.

Imagine it like calling the house of a family to sell them a weekend trip to Hawaii. If one of the kids picks up, you’d ask for their parents since they’d be the ones to make a decision. If you’d want to sell a trip to Disneyland, maybe get the children started and follow-up with their parents after a week of their little ones nagging about Mickey and Donald.

6
Find sales people who stand behind your product

People know the value of socks. So, if you’re selling socks, you don’t need to be extra convincing or explain their unique features. It’s enough to bundle up a nice deal: 12 pairs per year, 1 per month, for $30. Anyone could put together solid offers like that.

If you’re trading an innovative product, however, you want sales reps with a firm belief in it so they can convince people who have never heard of it. And you’ll really need some power of persuasion. Firstly, because your product likely can’t be offered cheap yet since there’s no economy of scale. Secondly, because while people like progress, they don’t like change. Nir Eyal explained this coherently by taking the example of the California Roll.

So how do you find the perfect startup sales rep? You can reliably probe for general sales skills asking the right interview questions, like those provided by HubSpot’s Emma Brudner. But how do you cast for something abstract like ‘belief in our product’ when the product is new to the candidate across the table?

One solution is to brief invitees with an intro upfront, for instance through reading material or a test version of your product. Then ask them to sell you your own product face to face. This alteration of the famous “sell me this pen”-example simultaneously tests for the proficiency in direct sales techniques and for an understanding of your product.

So, it’s better to test directly for the capability to understand your product. Start with simple features of one of your items or services and ask the candidate how they could benefit your customer. Or, reversely, describe your buyer persona to the candidate and ask which of its features would suit them best.

If you’ve got that script for tomorrow’s motivational sales speech to your employees in your drawer already, leave it there for the moment. Start instead with a product onboarding. Show your reps how they’ll be selling actual value, not just stacking up numbers.