November 04, 2006

"Sell! Sell! Sell!" by Sanjay Anandaram

Indipreneur column (No. 6) by Sanjay Anandaram in the Financial Express:
Sell! Sell! Sell!

In the competitive nature of the world we now live in, there's no running away from the sales function. And the chief salesman in a startup is the CEO.

A recent conference brought together entrepreneurs and VCs from various places. What struck me the most was the total lack of a sales culture. Everyone was in their allotted booths or rooms and waited for people to walk in and ask questions about their product.

Imagine the opportunity: about 750-1000 people present. And as CEO of a startup, there could be myriad opportunities for selling, striking alliances, partnerships etc for your company.

Each and every such opportunity should converted into sales events. The CEO and other company executives should be busy meeting people and building relationships.

Indians in general are hesitant to talk about themselves. We are hesitant to say "I created the business" or "I designed the system" or "I took revenues from INR 10m to INR 100m in 2 years".

In a corporate setting, this shows up in laconic answers to questions about capabilities and achievements. This shows up in nondescript product literature. This shows up in plain-vanilla product demonstrations. This shows up in the inability to create and close deals. While the prevailing logic used to be: "If the product and company are good and reliable, customers will come" or something to that effect. It sounds uncannily similar to the earlier production-side argument "build it and they will come". It was not considered 'nice' to be talking about yourself or your company. Others had to do it. Unfortunately, given the competitive nature of the world we now live in, there's no running away from the sales function. Else, 'others' will start talking about 'other' companies, not yours!

CEOs have to sell the vision of the company to the other founders or key management to get them to sign away a few years of their working lives towards making this vision a reality. They have to sell the vision to savvy investors and get them to believe in the possibilities the company has to offer. They have to sell the company's vision to their employees. They have to sell the company's capabilities (no more sales of visions and possibilities!), its products, services, processes to prospective customers and partners. And now imagine things go sour - as they usually will. The sales function gets into overdrive: keeping employee motivation high, managing angry customers and partners, managing upset investors in the boardroom. It is important to keep in mind a few realities:

- Sales is NOT about smooth talking, wearing designer clothes and carrying a cell-phone. Sales is about understanding the product and service, understanding what the company stands for, and COMMUNICATING it clearly, forcefully, and simply.

- Sales is about building relationships with various constituents. This implies getting to know other people and their motivations. This means leveraging relationships in a mutually beneficial manner.

- Sales is not the art of the hard sell. But it means being persuasive. It means being persistent and relentless. It means having a driving desire to make the other person acknowledge the superiority of your product/service by paying for it. It means having the ability to spot an inch-wide opening to sell a mile-wide product.

- It does NOT mean being dishonest.

It is essential to be articulate, to have good presentation skills, to have good inter-personal skills. These skills have to be practised and learned. After all, if you are unable to communicate your capabilities, how can you expect the other person to know of them? What is the incentive for the other person to spend time to get to know of your company, its products and services when there are any number of competitors?

Winston Churchill once said this about a fellow parliamentarian: "He's a very modest man. With much to be modest about!" Well, next time you are modest about yourself, your company, its products and services, think of this saying.

What do you think?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.