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Developing Your Sales Strategy
BitWide CEO and Technology Alberta board member Shawn Baldwin has been helping Canadian entrepreneurs scale their small- to medium-sized companies since 1987. When starting out, most companies have extensive staffing and other needs – healthy sales are a crucial first step to expansion because they generate the necessary revenue to allow founders to reinvest in other areas.
This month he shared some of his insights with Technology Alberta volunteer Celia Nicholls about designing and developing a sales process, building a team of effective salespeople and supporting their success.
Tell us a bit about yourself, what’s your background and what are the passions you bring to the Alberta tech community?
My own entrepreneurial career started in the mid 90s within the staffing and recruitment world. In more recent years, when we were meeting with companies about their recruitment requirements, we found they were interested, but they generally had a roadblock before they would be ready to recruit – which was usually some sort of monetary challenge. It could be they had to grow their sales to a certain level, they had to close a deal or close a project, they needed investment capital – essentially they needed some sort of financial achievement to happen in order for them to move towards filling their recruitment needs.
So then we asked these companies if they would be interested in us helping them with their monetary challenges, or sales, before using us for recruitment – and we gained considerable interest. Therefore we translated our company – from recruitment and staffing, over into outsourced sales. Since then, that’s really taken over my life as far as being an entrepreneur here in the province. About 95% of the business that we do is in supporting small to mid-sized companies with their sales efforts – in design and strategy, all the way through to execution. I definitely am passionate about the tactics behind sales, and the strategy and design surrounding effective selling – and also helping companies that would otherwise be struggling to be successful. A lot of the companies we work with have cool, well-built products – they just struggle with the fact that they can’t get enough customers. So my passion comes from seeing companies that we work with become more successful.
When in a company’s development process, should they start thinking about building a sales team?
You want to start thinking about it right away but it really comes down to dollars and cents. I think that most entrepreneurs that have been working at it for awhile recognise that the flaw in most small businesses is that the top sales person is also the CEO, who is also the accountant, and so on. Therefore you have an inherent limitation as a CEO on the scalability of your business when you are the person that does everything. Sales is what drives business obviously, and therefore you need to dedicate a high level of effort to this critical function of your company. A CEO often has a problem with being able to dedicate the necessary time, energy, and even the emotional capacity that goes into selling all the time, and if they do put in that effort, then other areas of the business suffer. To be an effective, scalable and sustainable company you need to have people that are dedicated to bringing in sales.
If the company has the money to hire full-time sales efforts, then you’re way better off – but if you’re low on budget, then you have opportunities around a pure commission-style option where the person basically gets paid for performance. I think if you talk to most companies, that’s what they would love to see, but it does limit your talent pool considerably because most people can’t afford to work off of a commission-only system and need some sort of base-predictability around their income. As soon as possible, you want to dedicate your efforts towards having people do the sales for you as opposed to doing it yourself as a CEO, simply because then you can scale the business.
I think the complexity of your product, and the complexity of your sales process, are going to determine the runway that’s required in order to get your sales team up to speed. If your company’s product is something that’s really easy for your sales team and customers to wrap their heads around, then your getting “ramped up” happens fairly quickly. If you’ve got a more complex situation – let’s say an agency model where you customise development or marketing for your customers – then it’s often a more complex process because there are so many different paths that your customer interactions and your customer experience could go down. That complexity basically creates a longer runway that will be required for a salesperson to go out and effectively sell those varied options.
What does a typical sales process look like?
When it comes to planning your process, what you want to do before your sales team starts to ramp up their efforts is create a “first draft” of what your sales cadence is going to look like. So what are the steps – lead generation, prospecting, all the way up to the close – that someone needs to take in order for your sales team to be successful? A company that is a good sales organisation typically has a thoroughness to how they move a prospect through their sales funnel. So what they might do is say, ok, we had a prospect come on to the website, for example, and they signed up for our newsletter. We have that information, now how do we reach out to that prospect? What mechanisms do we use to reach out to that prospect? Is it through LinkedIn or email or phone calls, or, more realistically, is it a hybrid combination of a number of these different things? We’re going to send them the newsletter on a monthly basis. We’re also going to email them once a month, in the middle of the month, just to see if there’s an opportunity for a meeting. We’re going to invite them to connect on LinkedIn, then after three days we’re going to send them a thank-you message if they do accept the invite, and then after seven days we’re going to send them a follow-up message there. Let’s say we haven’t heard back from them after seven days, maybe we’re going to shoot them a personalised email to convince the prospect to engage with us that way.
One of the biggest mistakes that companies make is that they hire a sales person, who might be a good sales person, but they’re kind of left to their own devices. Their follow-ups aren’t structured, they’re just based on having a conversation with this prospect that looks good, so they’re going to follow up in a month or three months, and then they put it into their calendar or they put it into the customer relationship management software which notifies them that it’s time to follow up with Jane Doe with XYZ company from two months ago, and that’s the extent of their structured cadence. It’s not an effective sales process within a company or an approach that creates scalability. What you need to try and think about is that if you’re talking to a prospect, you have to talk to them in different ways. It might be on social if it’s more consumer-based, or professional social like LinkedIn. It might be digital like email, it might be through other applications like Slack or Discord. But you need to keep in mind that you have to touch these prospects in multiple ways, and you need to be thoughtful on timing of those communications, and the process you follow.
Understand too that the first iteration – the first draft of sales cadence that you create – is just a draft. You give it a shot and see where your response rates are coming through. Once you see what’s happening from a tracking standpoint, then you can make modifications to that as you go. Don’t spend too much time on the first draft, you just need to kind of throw something together to get the ball rolling on how your sales structure will work. Once the ball’s rolling, you can always go back and figure out how to get it to move in a slightly different direction.
How do you build a sales team? What should you be looking for in your hires, and how do you use their skillsets to your advantage?
It kind of depends on who your target demographic is. If you’re going after enterprise clients, bigger businesses in, let’s say, a sector like energy, you typically need a different style of sales person. It’s very relationship-focused, it’s going to take a long time to get a close, and when you do get a close – it’s going to be a bigger deal. You’re probably going to have to have a lot of different prospects within the same organisation that you’re talking to. You’re probably going to try, and you probably will get some initial projects that are smaller so that the company can get used to working with you and decide if you’re good at what you do. Then from there you’ll build out a more robust sales process. So, in this case, you might have someone that’s more professional, more experienced and polished, someone that can talk to an executive at a 5,000 employee or 10,000 employee company, and just knows the language that’s used and is not intimidated by talking to the CEO of a 10,000 employee organisation. You need to have someone that has a different level of confidence, swagger, experience – those kinds of things.
Maybe you’re going with smaller companies that are 10 employees, or 20 employees, or 30 employees. In this case, chances are it’s a lot more of a casual and down-to-earth conversation, the distance between initially prospecting and closing the deal is usually much shorter. You might only talk to one decision-maker, who is the one that also writes the cheques and therefore that person’s it. So then you can use a salesperson that’s a little bit more laid back and casual.
The vast majority of salespeople that I like to hire need to come across as trustworthy, friendly and easy to talk to, but predominantly it’s about work ethic. Likeable, trustworthy, and hard-working individuals will be successful in sales – since I know that people generally buy from brands or people that they trust – so that’s half the battle. Designing a sales process is relatively easy, building a sales funnel or sales cadence can be done relatively quickly – but the hard part is the execution of it all. I can guarantee that people reading this have had the experience where they have designed a sales funnel, and if they look at it six months after they designed it, they’ll recognise that they aren’t actually following it and are still kind of winging the sales process. If you have someone that has the work ethic that is willing to look at the process and trust that if they do all of the steps on a consistent basis, every single day, if they follow a schedule every day and are disciplined about it and just keep persevering, then prospects are just going to keep going through the funnel. For the first maybe three months, six months, or a year it’s going to be a struggle because they’re still trying so hard to get people consistently going through but it will come to fruition and the prospects will turn into sales.
What makes a sales team the most successful? Is increased sales growth the best or only metric by which to measure a team’s success?
Selling something you believe in is just easier. It’s an easier thing to sell if you have an inherent passion about it. I think that often comes down to leadership more than anything, and whether the leader is passionate about what they believe in. With our company BitWide, I genuinely believe in what we’re doing and how we’re going about doing it. I also believe in full transparency, so everybody here knows pretty much everything about the company. They know where we’re at financially, they know what our goals are each quarter, and where we’re at within those goals. We talk about good stories everyday and we also talk about challenges or bad things that are going on that we have to work on or fix. I think if the people around you, whether they’re in sales or not, believe in the leaders and believe in the offering – and that what they’re doing can genuinely benefit the people or the organisations that they’re trying to sell to – then it’s something that will naturally be effective.
I don’t know if you can train passion for a product – but you can train process, and you can train tactics. If you’re physically meeting – which is rare these days – but if you’re physically meeting and you shake hands, you ensure you replicate the handshake tension. If you’re talking to a customer, you use the customer’s language. So if I’m listening to you and you’re talking to me about some barrier or issue, a pain point, or just about your company in general, you’re going to use language that’s relevant to you – and if I’m doing a good job as a salesperson, the tactic I would use would be to then use those same words when I’m communicating what we do, so that you have an easy way to understand it. If I use your language you can easily determine whether or not we get you, because that’s often all the customer really wants: a company that they can trust that just gets them and what they’re doing or trying to do.
I actually don’t buy into a results-based sales rating – as I need more leading indicators. I don’t judge the success of our salespeople based on whether they have driven a certain amount of revenue to the company. What I actually look at, is if you’re following certain activities – then I believe the results will take care of themselves. When we’re looking at metrics, we’re looking at the process that we follow, and we look at how we track all of those different things. I am much more interested in the stats around each step of the process than I am in whether or not we ended up selling something at the end of the day. Some other organisations are results-based. They don’t care how you do it, they don’t care how you get selling or how you do your job as long as the money is there at the end that justifies your cost. As a salesperson though, you have to decide for yourself what you want. Do you want to be given full autonomy and just be able to go and sell the way you’ve sold before – or do you want to have a structure that you need to follow, and that we believe, and have proven, will work?
What’s one thing you wish the Alberta tech ecosystem knew or was doing better than they’re doing currently?
This isn’t an Alberta-specific issue, but a broader Canadian issue as well: it’s really hard to sell to Canadian companies. There’s almost a sense of being offended by being sold to. If you look at a lot of other markets around the world it’s just so much easier because, if you’re using, say, the US as an example, there’s a nuance that they seem to understand about sales being the way that things work; it’s how we get things, it’s how they make money themselves. So there’s an openness to having a sales conversation there. In Canada when you try and sell something to someone, people seem to get really upset and offended that you’re reaching out to them or that you want to talk to them about selling something. It would be great if we had a little bit more of an open-mindedness to sales in the province. I think there is a distrust. Even society in general sees companies as individual entities making decisions, but they’re not. Companies are just people. The actual company is just a document. All the company actually is, is just an incorporation – it’s a document, that’s it. What makes a company tick and who makes the decisions within the company are its people. People make decisions around their own success and the success of the people around them, just like everybody does. For us as a company, we’re just a group of people, but our number one priority is our people. So our number one priority is making sure that we’re earning enough to make sure everybody’s paid, and paid fairly, and paid on time. A lot of what we strive for, and do, is about how it is that we can support the people that are doing the things that we do – and it all comes together, by making our customers successful.