Engineering the sales engine: founders must lead sales

From mucking around with Lego as a kid, to studying mechanical engineering at Uni, I’m a builder and a tinkerer at heart. Much like an engineer who refines a car to improve performance, the machine I most liked to tinker with at Aconex was our sales engine. I loved the challenge of solving new sales problems as they arose, continually trying to improve how we took our product to market and finding the most efficient way to reach and serve our customers.

By “sales engine” I mean the entire go-to-market process that you use to reach, sell to, retain and grow customers. It’s not just the sales function – it includes every aspect of marketing, sales and customer success.

In this series, I’ll work through key focus areas to build and tune the sales engine, based largely on what I learned about sales at Aconex. While we made plenty of mistakes, sales was one area in which we performed well relative to competitors. In the early days, while we had a good product, I believe our sales capability set us apart, enabling us to outpace the competition. As revenue grew, we were able to reinvest in the product, creating a virtuous growth cycle.

The first three rules are about embedding a sales mindset, which must start with the founders. In future posts I’ll move to the importance of the go-to-market strategy, followed by marketing approaches, particularly digital marketing, sales processes and how to build a sales team.

1. Learn to love sales

Sales is the lifeblood of a company. If you don’t sell, you don’t have customers and you don’t have a business. As a founder or CEO, you need to be your number one salesperson and lead from the front. After all, if you don’t love selling your product, how can you expect your team to?

One of the toughest periods for me at Aconex was in the very early days, as our very first salesperson. I realised that to get the company off the ground I was going to have to sell. While Rob was involved in our early sales efforts, he was primarily focussed on the product and customer support. I was the sales team.

Around that time, an advisor who recognised the importance of sales asked if I’d ever done any sales training or even read a book about it. Somewhat embarrassed, I respond with a no. He made the point that sales was like any other skill that can be learned and that I should learn how to sell. It was great advice.

I knew very little about the strategy and tactics of managing a sales process or closing a deal. So, I started by reading a few old-school business books – ‘How to Master the Art of Selling’, by Tom Hopkins; ‘The Art of Closing the Sale’ and ‘The Psychology of Selling’, both by Brian Tracy; and ‘Secrets of Closing the Sale’, by Zig Ziglar. These books were invaluable in helping me learn how to sell and become a stronger salesperson.

Sales, especially in the early days, was about hard work, discipline and perseverance. I’d structure my week to allow time for both customer meetings and cold calls. At first I hated cold calling, but that was what was needed. I’d set myself a goal each day for the number of calls I would make, and would work my way through a prospect list with the aim of getting a meeting.

Most people would say no but I’d get the occasional yes. Then I’d get out on the road and meet with the prospects. If I was interstate, I’d try to schedule five to six meetings per day over two to three days to minimise travel.

To be effective in selling, you must love it, not just like or tolerate it. Often this will come from the passion you have for your product and serving your customers. But sometimes that is not enough – if you’re not a natural salesperson, you’ll have to learn how to sell. Make the time. Get to love it. It is an important investment in your company’s success.

2. Founder-led sales

Regardless of how your company sells – whether product-led, through digital marketing or using a field sales team – as the founder or CEO you must lead the sales effort.

Founder-led selling is critical to start-up success, and it sets up your early trajectory. In addition to delivering cash flow, selling to potential customers informs your strategy and business model. Understanding your customer as a buyer – why they buy (or don’t) and the process through which they make purchasing decisions – helps refine your business model and informs how you construct your sales engine. To be successful, it’s important to have a solid grasp of:

  • Product market fit – your customer’s problems and how your product can solve them

  • Positioning and differentiation – how the customer addresses these problems today, what alternative solutions exist, and how yours is unique or better than the others

  • Pricing – the value to the customer of solving the problems and how much are they prepared to pay

  • Referrals – how the customer interacts with its ecosystem and whether they can help you sell to others in the market.

This interaction with new and existing customers will also inform your thinking around product and support:

  • Product – where to direct product and engineering resources; what features customers values most, and why

  • Support – what is required for the product to be implemented; and how time to value can be accelerated.

Being the first salesperson and spending so much time in the early years with prospects and customers ultimately builds a customer-centric company. That’s something I’ll write more on another time.

During our early stages of growth, I ran the sales team myself for a couple of years. As the business grew, we were able to hire more experienced sales leaders. They continued to build out the team and run day-to-day activity, but I maintained close involvement. Over time I took a more strategic approach, focussed on developing and refining our sales engine.

3. Sales is everyone’s business

A founder-led sales effort sends a strong signal to the business about the importance of sales to every employee and helps ensure you build a strong sales culture across all functions.

Your entire team needs to swing in behind sales. Embedding a sales culture doesn’t mean that every person is able to sell. However, everyone should clearly understand how their job helps reach, sell to, retain and grow customers, or in some cases, how they support others in the company to do this.

Sales always start with the customer so in some functions it’s obvious how your job contributes. In product you’ll understand the features that encourage customers to buy and what drives the value for their business. In customer success you’ll do all you can to ensure the customer is happy and using the product well.

In other areas, like finance, you’ll understand the importance of prompt invoicing and collections to make sure that the money flows in from customers. In HR you’ll focus on hiring great people for the company, including a strong sales team.

Be purposeful about creating company-wide habits that highlight your sales effort:

  • Celebrate customer wins to continually make sales visible. This can be done through internal blog posts, town hall meetings, ringing a bell or hitting a gong for each win, or having a dashboard on screens around the office ticking off customer wins.

  • Set an expectation that teams will be acknowledged when something they have done has helped close a sale. The sales team should make a habit of thanking other functions for their assistance, for example sending a note to product and engineering when a recent new feature helped get a customer across the line, or to the customer success team when an existing customer provided a glowing reference.

  • Weave stories about customers into internal meetings and communication. Our “customer moment” at Aconex was one of the ways we created a customer-centric business. It enabled sales to tell their customer stories and for others to talk about how we sold to, supported and grew customer accounts.

In summary, as a founder you need to love sales and you must lead it. If that doesn’t come naturally, look for support from a mentor, in books, or elsewhere. Showing the team your passion for your customer and your solution is infectious. It builds alignment around the customer, a shared understanding of the importance of the sales engine and, ultimately, a strong company-wide sales culture.

In the next post in this series I will address developing your sales strategy.