Sales Roles at Startups Are More Than Just Selling–Here’s How

Four skills that define startup salespeople

Whether you’re a startup with a revolutionary product, or one with an idea that can change the world, chances are that you will stay in business as long as you know how to sell it right.

Sales is one of the most critical functions within a company. In fact, according to a 2018 LinkedIn research report, two of top three most recruited-for jobs in technology were sales jobs, that of an enterprise account executive, and a sales rep.

Sales roles have seen an incredible evolution over time, but the core outcomes of the job remains the same–generating leads, closing deals, and managing customer relationships. What has changed is not what sales reps do – it’s how they do it.

Today’s salespeople are not selling anything as much as they are advising customers on what to buy. The real merit of a quality sell in a time of evolving technologies, is in helping customers make sense of the expanse of products, services, and information available today, and enabling them to find the right fit.

The essential sales technique, therefore, has shifted from selling a product or service, to selling a relationship, to what is now known as ‘conceptual selling’ – tailoring sales to focus on the unique pain points of customers.

The Sales Role: Startup Edition

According to an analysis by CBInsights, the number one reason why startups fail is that there is no market need for them. This pertains directly to sales roles, since the objective for a truly revolutionary startup is to create a market for the business.

At startups, people across the leadership chain are often involved in the sales process, especially in the early days. While C-suite executives focus on the big clients, managers and business developers tend to take on the ‘bread and butter’ deals that keep business going.

The level of authority notwithstanding, it is an all-hands-on-deck situation when it comes to generating customers at a startup. As the Director of Sales at one company put it, “the typical sales rep won’t survive on the startup sales floor… primarily because there is no ‘sales floor.'”

For salespeople working with a startup, this means building a set of transferable skills that enable them to take on the many curveballs that are likely to appear in the sales process.

1. Think and act like an entrepreneur

Sales reps at startups often have to sell the startup’s personality and competency more than its product or service, and they sell this to key business decision makers across corporate hierarchies.

Where at a corporate, sales reps might find all the networks they need arranged neatly in a bundle of handover documents and Excel sheets, sales reps at startups need to build these networks from scratch.

Further, they also need to maintain an agile and high-energy demeanor, even after a prospect has committed to a purchase. Startups work in a dynamic environment, and nothing is set in stone, not even protocols or sales playbooks. Much like founders, startup salespeople, too, must play several roles at one time.

Finally, without the equivalent of corporate customer service executives, sales reps are usually the first close point of contact for clients, and must be ready to constantly put out fires that spark either internally, or on the client’s end.

2. Negotiate hard

The leads that a startup acquires are not all buying in for the same reasons. Some may be looking for solutions that are more competitively priced, some might do it to foster internal innovation in their own companies, and some, to strike a better deal as a tradeoff for giving the startup its big break.

Moreover, the number of people involved in making a B2B solutions purchase was 6.8 persons in 2017, up from 5.4 in 2015. This means that nearly seven people now need be on the same page for a deal to close.

Sales reps, therefore, need to bring their best bargaining chips to the table. Unlike corporates, startups do not have historical performance indicators, and are incredibly susceptible to volatilities (as the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated).

Moreover, unless it is with a major client, the executive leadership of the startup is unlikely to be present during the deal making process.

Sales reps need to be prepared to negotiate deals that will factor in all of the above. They need to decipher what their prospect’s motivation is, figure out how to close the deal on a winning note, and then execute their strategy.

Most importantly, they may be expected to do all this on their own, or with very little oversight or guidance.

3. Be a storyteller and an expert

Marketing and sales today is all about storytelling, and the idea that one buys the company, not the product.

Even when giving someone the hard sell, sales reps need to keep in mind that they must remain authentic and root their pitch in the experiences of their clients. Not only does this help in winning customers, it is also the ethical thing to do.

Secondly, sales reps at startups are often communicating the story of a lesser known, possibly novel tech company. And so, it is very important for sales reps to know the startup inside out, as well as the industry that it operates within.

This knowledge is not only the empirical kind, but also the contextual, experiential information that is passed on through connections. This is why it is imperative that sales reps at startups know how to build genuine and authentic relationships.

4. Make do without supplementary sales tools

Salespeople at established companies are usually backed by an array of assistive platforms such as customer relationship platforms or sales forecasting tools.

However, at a bootstrapped startup, or one in its very early days, or even for a startup in a new-age industry, the leadership is focused more on making sure that everyone at the company gets paid. Any further capital investment is done with careful consideration, and every dollar counts.

Therefore, sales reps at startups often do not have the kind of analytical and administrative backing that those at a corporate would. The silver lining here is that this puts them in a position that challenges them to come up with creative solutions and get the job done.

Buyers are consumers first, and therefore, even B2B clients are influenced by consumer trends and expect to receive a personalized and transparent sales process that involves quick fulfillment.

At the same time, one study finds that over 65% respondents found value in engaging with a salesperson. Clearly, the role of a sales rep is still highly integral to business, and needs to evolve at the same pace as buyer behavior.

Startups, inherently agile, adaptable, and leaning towards innovation, should ideally be able to respond to this need the fastest, thereby redefining the role of the sales rep.

Header image by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

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