7 sales tips you won’t learn at business school

June 4, 2010

Top MBA programs go to great lengths to prepare students to be successful entrepreneurs. But for some reason, many don’t teach sales – one of the most important skills for founders. When you build a business, you sell constantly. You sell to bring on partners, customers, investors and employees. You sell when you talk to the press, go to trade shows – even when you chat with the person next to you on a plane or at a cocktail party.

So, what do you need to learn about selling? Here are a few basic tips, brought to you via the school of hard knocks:

1. Call on the right customer. No matter how good you are at selling, you’ll probably get nowhere pitching to a customer that’s a bad a match for what you are offering. Instead, do your homework. Network your way to ex-employees, investors, suppliers or other people who can give you the inside scoop. Learn about the company’s goals, the challenges they are grappling with, and the approaches they’ve tried in the past.

2. Understand the politics. At a small company, you may simply sell to the CEO or head of purchasing. But big companies can be tricky. Find out who the real decision maker is (Hint: That’s not always just about who is the “boss”). You may need to identify a “champion”, someone willing to bet on you, and shepherd you through the selling process. Also identify any haters—people who look at you and see more work, more headaches, or worse, a threat to their job. Think about how to get them on-board, or they may become an obstacle now, or later when it’s time for the customer to implement your solution.

3. Timing is everything. Learn about the customer’s planning cycle, so you approach them at the right time. Many big brands plan far in advance, so you don’t want to pitch them last season’s merchandise. Also, understand their tolerance for risk. Some companies want to see proven track records before they buy. If you are just starting out, better to find customers with a history of buying from innovative startups.

4. Define a “win”. Going into your sales call or meeting, know what you want out of it. A test order? A second meeting with the final decision maker? Other?

5. Go second. When you show up for your pitch, ask a few key questions, and listen carefully to the answers—including the way those answers are delivered (tone of voice and body language can help you read between the lines). Questions like: What would you like to do better, why, and what would happen if you got what you wanted (e.g. saving time, money, aggravation, etc.)? Also ask follow up questions, to show you are listening, and to get to the heart of the matters. Take notes, and run your synopsis by the customer to make sure you are on the same page.

6. Pitch against their problems. Don’t just roll out your boilerplate lines. Restate the problems your customer just mentioned, and explain both how you can address them, and what they’ll stand to gain by working with you.

7. Ask for the sale. No lesson in sales would be complete without a wink to Alec Baldwin’s line in Glengarry Glen Ross:  “A-B-C… Always be closing, always be closing”. Tell the customer what you’d like do next, and listen for a response.

To learn more, read Spin Selling by Neil Rackham. Got other tips or recommended reading? Please post suggestions.