The Psychology of Startup Sales

“Can I sell this?” is the first question that goes through a sales person at a new startup. It may be phrased as “will the customers buy this product?” but represents the same psychological state — a lack of confidence in an unproven product.

All startups I’ve worked with start from this point. From the first day the challenge is to get your sales staff over this psychological hurdle. If your business relies on direct sales, it’s important to get your sales people cold calling and talking to customers. Businesses that rely on converting web site visitors to customers, it’s important to test messaging and web flow. Both of these excises are leading to the same outcome — confidence that we can indeed sell this product.

Before the sales team has crossed this mental chasm, before they have to confidence to sell, it is pointless to scale up. Increasing cold call leads without product confidence just leads to wasted dials. Increasing web site traffic without confidence that the site can sell leads to wasted clicks.

As CEO we are taught to measure our conversion rate then figure out how to get more leads into the pipe to meet our targets at the current conversion rate. But doing this too soon, before the sales team has confidence they can sell the product, can lead to pushback that seems irrational.

I’ve had a sales process has a 2% conversion and a target of 4 new accounts per month. My knee jerk reaction is to look at ways to increase sales leads (only need 200 / month) and optimizing the process (hire a telemarketing firm to prescreen leads so we have a better efficiency). When discussing with my sales team how to do scale the process I was hurt and confused at their push back to this idea. Instead of feeling hurt, it is important to recognize this response and work with the sales team to get past the confidence barrier instead of pushing harder on customers into the pipe.

So how can you tell when sales has mentally crossed this barrier? I my experience you see a change in the sales conversation. Before the confidence is there, the team responsible for sales seems almost reluctant to put more leads into the pipe. Once the confidence is there suddenly the sales team complaining about the lack of leads (this of course is your fault for not having addressed it sooner!). In the previous example, the sales team reached conversion rates of 20% and before having enough confidence to focus on scaling the lead generation.

Another warning sign that the sales team doesn’t yet have the confidence to sell is an over reliance on 3rd parties. For direct sales this manifests as a focus on channels; for web sites this can be SEO. Both situations transfer the lack of confidence to another person. “I don’t think I can sell this but so-and-so has lots of experience selling something similar.” These options are fine when the team has confidence and is focused on scaling the leads, but beware if you hear this out of the gate.

What have you observed about the psychology of sales teams? Does this match your experience? Please leave a comment with your own observations!

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