Life is sales…and (nearly) no one teaches it
Sales is everywhere: raising money is sales, hiring is sales, dating is sales, life is sales.
Sales is everywhere: raising money is sales, hiring is sales, dating is sales, life is sales.
Let me share with you what I have learned about sales that might be helpful to you. I’ll share two main sales principles and a few pro tips. There are no right answers, only pro tips :-)
My Sales Journey
I left Kenya in 2015 to go to Silicon Valley to learn sales because I felt my previous businesses would have been better off if I knew sales (I’m an engineer). I got an entry-level sales job, which was actually rather hard because everyone I interviewed with said, “you're an entrepreneur. You're going to leave us in a few months. Why would I hire you?” Until a friend hired me for a sales role. Now I'm less bad at a few kinds of sales, specifically cold email outreach to SMEs and proposal driven sales. I don't know much about B2C sales, D2C, complex enterprise sales with many stakeholders, etc.
I've raised $10m, sold $200k in business consultancy services, sold $500k of equipment to rural farmers in Kenya, sold $50k of Airbnb rentals and sold about $3m LTV in SaaS so if you've done more than that or in a different industry take everything I say with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, this essay might be valuable to you because I don’t see many people talking about sales honestly. I’ll only share techniques I've used myself.
Two Golden Principles
Sales is everywhere: raising money is sales, hiring is sales, dating is sales, life is sales. But weirdly few teach sales. Maybe because we are at the very early stages of understanding human relationships (sales is human relationships). Maybe sales is where astronomy was in the 1500s. We think the earth actually goes around the sun, but we are still hammering out the principles. However, there are some principles of sales which are known. I don't know why they aren't taught in school–seems more useful than trigonometry. Of course, I can’t teach B2B sales in an essay any more than one could teach football or fashion design: which part, which role? It's made up of tons of skills practiced repeatedly.
1) The most important principle I learned in sales was to ask questions. It does three things:
People get to talk about their favorite subject, themselves and their problems,
I get to find out what their problems are so I know what aspect of my solution to pitch
I control the conversation because most people respond to questions they are asked so I can ask things like, 'what do you not like about your current solution?' and they will tell me. Or leading questions like "Is it important for your business to be in retail stores for the Christmas season?" if I'm selling retail space.
After I discovered the importance of questions in sales for myself I found several sales "gurus" say the same thing: spend 90% of the time asking questions and 10% of the time pitching.
2) The second most important principle is to manage my own psychology. I've had great days where I sell 2 or 3 things and then whole months where I sell nothing. Even more infuriatingly, my effort feels uncorrelated with sales at the micro level. I went a whole year without winning any grants and then won one on a Monday and one on Tuesday. What do you make of that!? Years ago when I started grant writing I went 0-21. Then the 22nd was for $1.2m. So not allowing yourself to sink when you’re low is key. I find 3 workouts a week, occasional breathwork or meditation, parties, latin dance class, entrepreneur mastermind groups and inspirational podcasts like The Game help me manage my psychology. Probably everyone has their own formula for managing their own psychology.
Other Sales Principles That Helped Me
Lead gen separate from closing. Often lead gen is repetitive and requires different skills than closing. I don’t expect my electrician to fix my plumbing.
For cold email outreach, add value in the first email. My grant writing company adds links to 1-3 grants we think would be a fit for an entrepreneur. We get many responses saying, “I think this is the first time I'm responding to a cold email.” The way I did cold outreach when I was selling retail space was to say "hey, do you want to get your product in retail?" which is the dream of every product company so that got them to open the email and respond.
Pro tip: raise urgency.ending someone a funding opportunity with a deadline creates urgency. Delay kills so many sales because people generally prefer to delay decisions. But having an application deadline means we have to close something by a certain date. This creates FOMO and drives the sale to a close. If I can find a natural source of urgency or scarcity that is better than creating false urgency.
The best cold emails are really short. I cold emailed Jeff Bezos (his email can be found online) saying "Hi Jeff, We have a store (link to the store so he could see that it looked beautiful) for innovative products and I wanted to sell the Amazon Echo. Who's the best person to talk to about this at Amazon? Yours, Kyle." A few days later I got a call from Amazon and a few months later we had the Amazon Echo in our store.Here’s the formula I use for cold emails: Hey (“Hi” or “Dear” depending on the ethos of my brand) [name]. Love what you are doing at [company]. [Possibly add something interesting I saw about them online.] [Add value to them by offering something of value] [Lead into how we can help; a teaser is fine. Don’t explain how the sausage gets made]. Is there a good time for a call this week or next? (making the call to action clear). [email signature with useful info like a blog link that might pique their interest. I don’t put my phone number or calendly in the email signature because I might want to qualify the lead before setting up a 30 minute call]
Cold emails are a volume game. I have a wide top of funnel and a strong filter. Knowing what we do and what we don't do is clear to filter people out. For example we work with entrepreneurs doing $250k-$20m in revenue. When my cold outreach (SDR, Sales Development Rep) colleague brings a company doing $100k in revenue that he says is "really great", they just aren't a fit… yet.
Find 10-100 new leads a week (or recycle old leads). Adding leads to the funnel as I find them in random places isn’t enough, so I think it’s important to find “lead mines,” places with a high concentration of good leads. For example, when I was selling to startup consumer electronics companies, I would go to Kickstarter and look for projects that had raised $100k+ 18 months ago or more. This means they had a successful project and 18 months later is when they start thinking about getting into retail. For our grant writing business I look for: 1) lists of conference attendees, 2) the portfolio companies of any investor I want to raise money from and 3) companies that were in startup accelerators in our space. These I call “lead mines”. When I find a lead mine, I hire someone on Fiverr, send the freelancer a list of pages to mine from and ask the freelancer to get the CEO's email, CEO's name, location, sector for all of the companies as this is rather repetitive work. Finding a lead mine is tricky. Often it takes months to figure out a good lead mine.
Find the correct email addresses to contact. Finding an email address is rather easy with tools like hunter.io. Alternatively, I can guess the right email and gmail reveals if the email is correct. I can type email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and if any of those are correct gmail will display a picture of them. Bingo.
Only the correct email pops up with my profile picture:
Avoid becoming spam. Because cold outreach is a numbers game, I have the risk of receivers marking my address as spam. This would cause all future emails to that address to be sent to the spam folder, never to be seen. Even worse, google could mark my whole domain as spam and even new leads get my emails sent to their spam. To avoid this there are four precautions:
1. Put an unsubscribe link in your email so that receivers can opt out rather than mark spam.
2. Use warmupinbox.com to increase the deliverability of the domain.
3. Aim for high response rates of around 10-50%. Check your spam folder in gmail. You’ll see lots of fishy emails in there. These guys are probably getting a 0.1 to 1% response rate. Google has banished their domain to the spam underworld.
4. Use a different domain for cold emails like the thegrant.app instead of thegrant.co, for example, so that organization-wide deliverability is not affected in case I mess up on 1, 2 and 3 above. Deliverability can be a big problem.
Start with a wide funnel for fundraising. We review about 100 opportunities a week and of those apply for 2-3 a month. We only apply for money between $100k and $10m focused on for-profit companies in Africa in Ag, energy or tech. These guidelines help our SDR know what's inbounds.
Note that above is a system designed for operational efficiency, not finding product-market fit. In the beginning I interviewed 10 startup friends about their experience raising capital and realized 2 of them were a good fit and went in that direction, with many modifications over time. How to make my first sale was different from my 10th or 100th sale.
There’s a big difference between operational sales and pre-product-market fit sales. The latter, I need to provide a higher base salary for. Commission makes people optimize for one metric. But what if I don’t know what to optimize for yet? Better to have someone who is curious in helping customers get their problem solved, relay that info to the product team so they can build a product people want.
On this point often it is best for the CEO to do sales until there is some kind of product market fit. Also of note, sales is THE key skill of a CEO, not building product, counter-intuitively. If a CEO can sell and build a great product then dynamite, but sales is the must have.
Follow up is key. People are busy and forget about my email. Maybe deep down they want to see if I'm serious. Simple follow ups like “Subject: Right contact? Body: are you the one in charge of fundraising at abc company? If not, could you forward this to the right person?” It’s shocking how often they forward the email. Most people want to be helpful. But if I don’t tell them what I need they won’t know what to do. When I make a specific ask then they know all I want from them is to forward this. There’s software to automate this.
Create an obvious ask at the end of each email with only ONE action they should take. Not 3 different options. Just one. Usually a link to my calendly, but maybe qualifying questions like what was your revenue last year? Or “could you forward this to so and so?”
Calendly is a great, free tool to schedule meetings. The prospect can pick a time on my calendar without any back and forth. But an important principle here is power dynamic. If I say “I want to sell you on this, now you pick a time on my calendar” it feels like I’m asking them for two favors at once. But if I say “When’s a good time for you to meet up? Or if it’s easier for you, you can pick a time on my calendly at [link]”. Now I’m doing them a favor by making scheduling easier for them.
Qualifying leads is key. How to funnel down leads from the many to the few. The lead gen person plays a numbers game. The closer plays a quality game. Maybe only 1-5% of leads turn into a call, but 25% of calls close. BANT (Budget Authority Needs Timeline) is a good framework to manage the transition from lead gen to closer (Sales Development Rep to Account Executive). The AE should only get on the call with people who have Budget for the project, Authority to sign a deal, Need for the product and a Timeline to make this happen. If they don’t have all four they are not a sales qualified lead and I don’t get on the phone with them. (Note it’s different when I’m trying to establish product market fit and just gather data.)
Don’t be too hard on SDRs. They are on the front lines getting a lot of rejection. Ideally 50 to 90% of leads they send the AE should be qualified leads (that is, pass the BANT test). If 100% of leads pass BANT that means the SDR is being too selective and screening out potentially qualified leads and we are missing out on opportunities. To make sure my leniency can’t be gamed, I only recognize the SDR for qualified leads but there is no disincentive for sending unqualified leads as long as >50% are qualified.
Advice from “experienced” people (like me) might not be suited to your situation. When I first started as an entrepreneur 12 years ago, experienced business people would ask if I had a CRM because that's what you need to scale. I looked around and there was nothing that fit so we made a custom CRM. This was a total waste of time. We had 12 customers at the time. I could have memorized all of their phone numbers. I should have been out there selling. That said, once you have too many leads to keep track of…
…have a fit for purpose, CRM. Now I use StreakCRM (free for the first user and sits directly in gmail inbox) which covers most of our needs and Google Sheets is adaptable to most situations.
Do quick research before outreach and calls. I used to think that I should consume all the content someone created before talking with them for a sales call, but actually just reviewing their linkedIn and googling their name provides enough info without being stalkerish.
On a call,start with 1-2 minutes of report building. Where are you today? How was your weekend? If report building is important to them they will drop hints about things you should ask about. I was in Virginia visiting my daughter? Now I know I can ask "Oh yeah? What's she working on there?" “She works at a gun shop in the mountains. Beautiful there…” "Yeah, actually I've been a couple times to VA. My brother lives in Norfolk. have you been?" Now I have material to understand their view of the world and make our pitch relatable. If report building is not important to them I move on.
Learn to be okay with interrupting (at appropriate times). After report building, I turn the conversation towards their problem. This requires me interrupting their story. Otherwise they will ask me what our service is and I don't want to pitch that until after I know what their problem is. (See “asking question” above.) I start by saying "I understand that xyz about your company" based on my previous online research and what our SDR has put in the call notes. Then they know I've done my research and they can also correct me. The fastest way to get the right answer is to present the wrong answer and people can’t help but correct me. (This requires additional psychology management to allow myself to be wrong.)
I Record sales calls when possible. Every time I do, I find it valuable. If someone asks why I just say to make sure I get all the important info from you. If they ever asked for me to turn it off I would but no one has.
Repeat back their key points
“So what you are saying is you have a grant writer but you are having a hard time getting enough deal flow of grants to write. Is that right?” Sometimes people don’t understand their problem until someone says it back to them
I repeat back in a summary, not verbatim like a parrot.
What all humans want is to be understood. More than anything else. That is why they started a business; to be seen and understood for the entrepreneurial person they are. By repeating back to them I am showing that I understand them.
Life hack: this is a great way to defuse situations in romantic relationships too: “So what you’re saying is… Did I get that right?”
It is ESPECIALLY important to use this technique in sales even if I don’t agree with them. And that is the hardest time to remember to do it. “So you’re saying that all grant writers are pretty much useless and it’s been nothing but frustration for you. Is that right?”
I try not to overuse it. Once or twice per conversation is enough.
Don’t explain how the sausage gets made. I used to make this mistake all of the time. When we had a biogas company, I would share the technical drawings with potential clients and try to explain how the pressure of the gas was x PSI yadda yadda. The prospect doesn’t need to know how it happens, they just need to believe that I can deliver. This is inferred from my previous work, my confidence, how I am dressed (if I’m hiring a plumber I want the plumber to look like a plumber not a banking executive) and how well they believe I understand their problem (which comes from asking questions 😀).
Objection handling. This is a key concept in sales. The prospect usually has objections and they come in three flavors:
I don’t have the money
I don’t have the authority
I need to think about it.
They say “Isn’t that expensive?”
Yes. It is expensive (own it). I hope we are the MOST expensive. Because we are also the best. Would you expect the best to be the cheapest? If anyone is more expensive than us let me know. If I did everything I said we can do for you would you think it’s worthwhile? If you didn’t have money problems and you could focus on your business? If I said it was cheap to solve your financing problems would you even believe me? (If you are actually a budget option this is not a good way to handle this objection 😆) Podcast on this topic
It's not about how much it costs. It's about how much I can make you.
but if I offered to sell you a new Range Rover for $2000, would you find the money to get it? I’m saying for $2,000 I can give you a Range Rover worth of value in a grant.
Of course handling the money objection like this only works if couched in the right way. When the prospect says it’s too expensive or they don’t have the money I say “can I offer a way for you to think about this that might be helpful?” To which they always say yes. This is better than trying to force my analogy down their throat. Now I have their permission and it would be rude for them to interrupt me. Notice also that this is a question. “Can I offer you something useful?” not “Here’s how you need to think about this…”
I don’t have authority to make the decision
“How do you make decisions about something like this at your company? Are you the one in charge or do you rely on someone else to decide?” Now I can find out if they are making an excuse or if there really is someone else I should be speaking to. If there should be someone else to speak to I say: “For us to do the best work it’s important to work with the decision maker. When would be a good time?”
I need to think about it:
Awesome, what are your main concerns? (They think they get to walk away with that but you ask them right away.)
When someone has an objection, I get curious. “Interesting… Tell me more.” or “If I understand correctly, you want to solve your cash flow problems, is that right? Well, you have spent $3m on this so far, would you spend $2,000 if you thought it would solve your cash flow problems?” Now we start to peel back the onion on what is really causing them to pause.
Backchanneling when dealing with multiple stakeholders
One time we brought a deal to our client. They were excited and brought it to their partner who rejected the idea. My initial reaction was to talk to the client to understand the partner’s objection but using them as a go-between was a mess. So I back channeled and called the partner out of the blue. This saved a lot of time and we were able to resolve things amicably.
Sometimes people don’t show up to sales meetings. I could hound them to try to get another call, but by not showing up they have disrespected our time and organization. This creates an undesirable power dynamic. If they are 5 mins late I send a message saying “Hey, I’m on Google Meet. If you are having any technical trouble call me at [number].” That way I have given them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they just had a family emergency, I made the effort to make it happen but the ball is in their court and I’m not going to chase them; There are lots of fish in the sea.
Many people get weird about selling: I am helping them solve a problem. They are on this sales call because they want me to help them solve a problem. If at the end of this call,l I haven't either sold them, told them what additional information I need from them, said I can't help them or told them where else to go to find their solution I have wasted their time. If I can help them solve their problem, then I have some kind of moral responsibility to sell them.
The contract is part of the sale. I try to make contracts short (2 pages) and readable so that the prospect doesn’t get a lawyer involved. At a previous company, we had Terms of Service instead of a contract so that we could say these terms are standard and not negotiable. Lawyers cause deals to stagnate; I get them involved only as much as absolutely necessary.
Try to schedule a follow up call in the initial call even if they say they will sign. I t do it at the same time the next week for easy scheduling purposes.
After sales, the next step is implementation. A signed contract without implementation isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Once the sale is closed the relationship has just begun. But that's a post for another day… sign up here to find out.
If you want help doing lead gen for your company selling to African SMEs message me and let’s schedule a call.
More sales resources:
Psycho cybernetics (for managing your psychology)
Never split the difference (negotiation)
$100m Offers (closing)
Cold email manifesto (lead gen)
Traction (on the 17 different ways to reach a customer)
Yes! 50 Scientifically proven ways to be Persuasive (behavior)
What inspired this post: