Colin Nederkoorn

Don't make the sales mistakes we did

We took the long way around to appreciating the value of sales.

May 08, 2019

My co-founder and I thought sales was evil; a dark art that separates people from their money.

A lot of founders from product and engineering backgrounds are skeptical of sales. We were no different. We wanted to build a product people would purchase because it was great. Our product wouldn’t need to be sold to anyone.

After starting Customer.io in 2012, both my co-founder John and I would talk one-on-one with prospective customers. They’d ask us to explain Customer.io. They’d tell us about their business and their challenges. We’d connect the dots when Customer.io could help them and we’d recommend how to use us. If we couldn’t help them, we’d point them in the right direction.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was sales.

We had no training to sell, no system to track leads or close rates and as a result no way to know if we had achieved product / market fit. We were just talking to people. We were trying to find customers and create allies.

It took us years beyond that early experience before we formalized sales as a function. Here are some hard lessons we learned by not doing things the right way early on:

The More Complex the Product, the More Value Sales Can Provide

What we thought: We’d build a product that would be so simple we wouldn’t need documentation or people to answer questions before someone would buy.

What we learned: Our customers valued flexibility in the product so we made it more advanced. The more advanced our product became, the more people wanted to talk to someone who could help them understand their fit before buying.

Bigger Companies Are Complex and Benefit from a Sales Rep

What we thought: Big companies would sign up and try the software, then they would put in a credit card.

What we learned: At a bigger company, a buyer often has to make an internal case for the purchase. A great sales rep can help the buyer articulate the business value of buying the product to their internal stakeholders.

Create a Sales Plan and Quota

What we thought: We thought that commission plans and quotas meant that people wouldn’t act in the best interest of customers. We were scared that bad sales could degrade how people saw our company.

What we learned: Great sales people love to help their leads succeed. If you hire people who share your company values and give them a well defined plan and quota, they’ll raise the perception of your company to prospective customers.

Make it clear you’re hiring for sales

What we thought: If we hired for “sales”, we’d get people who wouldn’t put customers first so we tried using euphemistic titles like “onboarding specialist” and we didn’t have clear goals.

What we learned: There are standard titles in sales, and euphemisms get in the way of clarity, especially internally. Have clear performance metrics that are sales metrics. New hires will embrace the clarity around how they are measured.

Go After the Customers You Want to Have

What we thought: We’d put the right words on the marketing site, and our ideal customers would arrive at our door.

What we learned: The world is noisy. Some of our best customers have come from word of mouth. However, I’ll be honest: about half of our customers today aren’t companies we’re specifically looking for. If the fit isn’t good enough, that can lead to frustration and bad experiences. Having a mix of inbound and outbound will probably help you build a customer base that more closely fits your ideal customer.

Don’t Make Our Mistakes

If you’re starting a new company and you don’t think sales can add value, consider some of the lessons we learned. There are places your company should innovate, and how customers buy your software is probably not one of them.

Our sales team is still small at three people. We’re adding Business Development Reps and a VP of Sales to help us continue building a world-class sales experience. If you or someone you know can help, reach out to me.