Startup Selling Lessons Learned: Confirm the “Why” of a sales presentation

The Situation:
Big meeting with a C-level executive at the top, top, top of the org chart. We’d been working with several operations managers to implement our software over the past nine months, and this meeting was set up to discuss how we might expand our work other business units.

preparationLesson Learned:
Confirm the meeting intentions and agenda. Always. No matter what the situation, no matter who the executive, no matter how much you think you know about the meeting from the most credible people around you.

We should have worked through the executive assistant ahead of the meeting – confirming the meeting and the agenda. I’m sure that the she would relayed a concise message and proposed agenda to the executive had we asked, and this could have saved us the awkward moments at the start of the meeting.

For the weeks leading up to the meeting, we relied on our own experience on how meetings like this should go and spent all of those hours interviewing operations executives. Yet we never took the time to simply connect with the executive or his assistant to confirm the meeting agenda and expected outcomes. Major fail…

What did we do right?

1. We spent several hours interviewing operations executives and managers throughout the company to learn and develop a clear value proposition at the meeting. We even spoke with an employee that recently left the company to learn what we could from an insider/outsiders perspective.

2. We were super prepared for the presentation, enabling us to quickly dive sideways in the presentation when the executive took us off of planned track. We had planned ahead to discuss all of software applications that were used by the company, not just the application that was the intended focus of the meeting. This proved to pay huge dividends for us.

Here’s how it went down…

When the executive we were meeting arrived to the conference room and sat down, and we began our introductions, he stopped us, looked around, looked at his phone and asked in the most honest way – “Who are you, and why are we here?” It wasn’t asked in a challenging way as happens with some executives that want you to get right to the point. He honestly did not know why he was in this meeting other than the fact that his assistant told him he was supposed to be here right now.

Even though, as we understood it, he was the person that had asked for the meeting several weeks ago. In fact, we were scheduled to meet the week prior and he pushed it back a week.

We had spent most of the past week developing our presentation – thinking through the economy of slides – what to show that matters most to him, interviewing professionals across the company about they thought he would want to see and what he cared most about. Our design teams worked extra hours to provide us with beautiful screen shot mock-ups to impress him. My colleague leading the project spent Super Bowl Sunday in the office by himself on final presentation preparations.

And now, all of that now completely obliterated.

Disaster-Recovery-PlanThe recovery,,,

First, I laughed a little (to myself).

Then I started over, as if he had been teleported to this room from another planet, and I had to explain my reason for existence – who our company was and why our our understanding for the purpose of the meeting. Together, we discussed our “Situation Slide” (which I highly recommend preparing – thank you to Peter Cohan at SecondDerivative for this powerful tip…)

When I did that, the executive seemed uncomfortable with what I was saying, so I asked – “Could I ask what’s frustrating you?”

He explained that he didn’t necessarily agree with a few of the assumptions I was making about the company’s intentions and objectives.

So I asked him to explain which parts exactly. Voila! Conversation started. Even though the conversation and presentation immediately drove off the rails from what we intended, the “Situation Slide” created the opportunity for conversation and discussion.

From there he shared his views about the particular situation we planned to address, and most importantly, he told us what he most cared about, and it turns out his major focus was not for the business area that we had prepared to discuss.

Eventually, we got into the presentation – skipping around from our plan, showing what was most relevant from his perspective, and even moving off-script to walk through a completely different software application than what we prepared to show. The meeting was scheduled to run an hour, and we went 20 minutes past that. We ended the conversation with the executive suggesting that we should be in consideration for a significant open RFP for one of the business divisions.

You might ask – “Hmmm…. Good save, but why didn’t you confirm the agenda and outcome with this executive ahead of the meeting? Why didn’t you do a pre-call?”

Valid questions. My reasons, though not good ones, and why this is a lesson…:

Firstly, the meeting was originally set up for us through another C-executive at the client, and we were told directly by the first executive how important this meeting was for this executive.

Secondly, this executive is at the top of the org chart – you literally can’t go any higher than this person. I allowed us to feel intimidated by this, and instead discussed the presentation all around the executive assuming this would prepare us accordingly.

Lesson learned…

My two cents: “10 things LinkedIn won’t tell you”

A friend forwarded an article to me last night – “10 things LinkedIn won’t tell you” – and having spent considerable time over the past year both using LinkedIn and leading workshops on how to use LinkedIn, I have a few thoughts… (Hint: I disagree with most of the article…)

diasgree1. LinkedIn is a “jobs site” – Disagree. While it is a jobs site for many people, it isn’t for all of us. Anyone that blindly searches and applies to a job posting on LinkedIn is missing the whole point of LinkedIn, which is to develop connections so that you never have to send a resume blindly to a job posting.

LinkedIn has three main business lines – LinkedIn Talent Solutions (recruiting & jobs), LinkedIn Sales Solutions (tools to help people like me…), and LinkedIn Marketing Solutions (advertisements). Talent Solutions were ~50% of their Q4-2014 revenue. That means there’s a heck of a lot people on LinkedIn for more than jobs.

2. People don’t hang out on LinkedIn: Well, sort of… I’m on LinkedIn all the time every day, but I’m not “hanging out” because I’m working. I’m researching people and learning their backgrounds, connecting with people I’ve recently met, and sending emails to connections/InMails to people I want to me. I occasionally read posts and articles. Maybe this doesn’t qualify as “hanging out,” but I’m sure spending hours and hours on LinkedIn every day.

3. Thanks for the free content – Disagree. When I publish, it’s to show some expertise or share my observations to my immediate network. I don’t care if 1000 or 10,000 people read it. If even 50 or 100 read it and I get a couple of “thumbs up” and comments, I’m plenty good. The content I post is more for solidifying who I am and what I do – it’s not to reach a million people. It’s also validation for people that come across my profile who don’t know me. If their first interaction with me is my LinkedIn profile, postings add soul and personality to the factual information about my work history, projects, and background.

4. Endorsements are only for ego – Agree. I wish LinkedIn would improve this. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that that the tags help your profile search results. i.e. If I have 100 endorsements for “enterprise sales,” that tells LinkedIn to bump me up a little in their search results. Here’s a post that did some number crunching on this. I find it annoying when I go to a profile and LinkedIn bumps the profile information below the fold because it’s compelling me to endorse someone. Maybe it should be more like recommendations – where you have to put in some effort to request or make an endorsement.

5. The site confusing – Agree. In fact, I wrote a post about this last Spring.

6. Privacy – blah blah blah

7. Needy members will creep you out – Disagree. If someone is contacting me from my network because they need something, um, yeah… that’s the whole point… That’s why I connected with them in the first place. Now… I don’t like to be sold to from my network and I don’t like unsolicited sales pitches – “Hi Scott – Do you have 10 minutes to talk about your lead development strategy because we can help….”, but if people need help with introductions or questions, I’m happy to try.

I occasionally get invite requests from people I’ve never met, and even then in most cases, they are people who at least are either in my industry, the sales profession, software or doing startups. And even in those cases, I usually reply back and say – “Thanks for the connection request. I don’t think we’ve met. Want to do a quick call to introduce ourselves? If the person is serious, they’ll take the time. If they don’t respond, I know I can ignore their connection request.”

8. Fake profiles - Disagree. First I’ve heard this is a problem.

baby-cell-phone9. Younger users – Disagree. Facebook had this problem too. Every site will go through this because of generational preferences and stigmas. There are plenty of smart people at LinkedIn. They’ll figure this out. Facebook is figuring it out with their mobile strategy. Remember that WhatsApp acquisition last year?  Check out Facebook’s Q4 results – it’s all about mobile.

I think the bigger problem is that universities haven’t caught up on the importance of LinkedIn, and now LinkedIn specifically helps this with their “Higher Education” section. I do see this issue when I give workshops and talks at universities and colleges. Too many students think of themselves as “just a student” and instead they should be leveraging that status to be curious and grow their connections. Check out Zachary Lukasiewicz’s LinkedIn profile. The guy did incredible things as an undergrad, using LinkedIn as a tool in his arsenal. Here are a couple of his stories on Quora. More undergrads need to learn to do what he’s done.

10. Share price – LinkedIn has a $33bln market cap. Jeez…. Give it a break. Yes, they have to figure out how to keep growing, and this is a pretty but yes, this is pretty common as a fast-growing company matures as a publicly-traded company. Check out Amazon’s stock price growth rate from 2000-2007. I’d say their doing pretty well right now… If the revenues are there, the stock growth will be there.

Startup Selling Lessons Learned: The Projector

The Situation: Big meeting with a C-level executive at the top of the org chart. We’d been working with several operations managers to implement our software, and this meeting was set up to discuss how we might integrate other business units into our software.

adapter

Lesson Learned:

  1. We should have previewed the room. No excuses here. We were onsite the day prior, and it would have been very easy to find the time to check out the room to see the physical set up and what presentation options we’d have – flat screen vs projector, etc.
  2. For situations when we won’t be onsite, call ahead to the executive assistant (or the meeting organizer) about the room details – explaining exactly what we’d like to do (i.e. demo software, show PowerPoint, etc.) and ask about room details – extension cords, adapters, room set up, etc.
  3. In the “call ahead,” it’s important to explain that you want to be prepared, and that you’re calling out of respect for the executive’s time. The assistant will absolutely appreciate that, and might even put in a good word for you – “Hey these guys are really great – they called me to make sure the meeting logistics were all set…”

The Details:

We thought we were 100% prepared for the big presentation. We brought a projector with us and double-checked that all of the adapters, cords, and required electronic gizmos where included in the projection kit.

When we arrived to the cavernous conference room, we were even more excited to see a gigantic flat screen TV on the wall, so instead of using the projector, we were excited to plug into the flat screen and use it like a giant monitor.

Except…

Well, the adaptor for our projector didn’t match the connection cord for the flat screen, rendering the flat screen completely useless. We asked the executive assistant to call IT, and when he arrived, he confirmed by suspicions that they didn’t support Macs or have any Mac-related equipment.

So back to using the projector. Oh well, we said – “Well – that’s why we brought our own projector!”

Except…

Despite the expansive size of the conference room, there were very, very, very few power outlets! There was one next to the flat screen, and another just about a small counter top that was probably placed there to serve as a plugin for a food warmer. Seriously? Not a single power outlet in the floor. This was a brand new building that just opened three weeks ago, yet the conference room had no power outlets. Worse, the IT guy didn’t have any extension cords, and because the projector cord reached all of four feet, we couldn’t even use our own projector.

Fortunately, I was able to call a colleague who had borrowed my Mac adapter earlier in the day (I should have retrieved it from him earlier when I had the chance, but didn’t because I knew that we had checked our projector kit, and checked it twice, I figured I didn’t need it.) My colleague sped over from another building nearby and dropped off my adapter with two minutes to spare. Whew! Now we were ready, and pretty darn lucky.

Lesson learned…

And If you’re wondering how we did in the meeting, more on that in another post forthcoming… It gets even better, meaning that we learned more lessons. :-p

 

Using LinkedIn for Sales: My UI suggestions to LinkedIn

Last night, I tweeted:

Screenshot 2014-03-12 07.47.35

And received this response:

Screenshot 2014-03-12 07.47.44

I consider myself a LinkedIn power user. I’m a Premium subscriber and keep LinkedIn open in my browser as part of my work flow  – identifying customer development and sales prospects, researching people on a call invite I’ve never met, and connecting with new and old contacts to continually build my network. Spending this much time in any application reveals warts, and LinkedIn is a pretty hairy toad.

So okay, LinkedIn. Here are a few – not all – of the problems I have with your UI:

1. Why do you shut off third party API access? I mean, I know why you do it. And it’s stupid. I received this email from RelateIQ, my CRM, yesterday:

As a result of changes LinkedIn made to its API policies, however, we can no longer authenticate directly with your LinkedIn account. Going forward, this means LinkedIn contact profiles will be one click away from the platform through URLs. No action is needed from you—we just wanted to give you a heads up about the change.

Screenshot 2014-03-12 08.16.52

I just googled “linkedin api shut down.”

Screenshot 2014-03-12 08.18.17

Silly. Just silly. You know that job change notification service you shut down? That’s how I got my current position at Blend Labs. I received one of these notices for our CEO when he updated his profile on starting the company. I thought – “Oh hey – I’ve haven’t talked to Nima in a while. I should ping him.” And I did. Three months later I was consulting for the company and now I’m the VP of Sales and Marketing. Pretty cool. Because of one simple, silly little email notification that you shut off. Thanks for that.

2. Why can I click the direct user page URL from a profile, especially if I’m connected to that person? I used the search box to find a contact and then clicked on the search result. See below. From this view, the URL is gobbly-gook. All I wanted to do is grab my contact’s personal LinkedIn URL to include in an email. Now I have click the “Contact Info” tab to find the contact’s personal URL. Ridiculous.

Screenshot 2014-03-12 07.40.47

Screenshot 2014-03-12 07.50.33

3. Why can’t “Reminders” be added to my top navigation bar? I started using the “Reminder” feature in the “Relationship” tab. The only place I’m reminding is buried at the bottom of my daily email feed from LinkedIn which I don’t get to everyday or simply forget to check:

Screenshot 2014-03-12 07.53.21

4. If I am a successful InMailer, why can’t I get props for that? My InMail ratings are 5-star. I’ve sent out more than 50 InMails, and received responses for about 50%, with 100% of those responses giving me a 5-star rating. No joke. 100%. For the rest, a response wasn’t received and the InMails were returned to me.

If I’m that good on InMailing, why not give me credit? Think of it like NFL challenge flags. When coaches challenge two calls successfully, they get another challenge. If the goal of LinkedIn is to build networks, why not reward excellent networkers like me with more InMails.

Getting three (3) InMails per month is kind of crappy, with the next step to 10 Inmails or pay $10 per InMail. In most cases, I think $10 for a successful InMail is a really good deal all things considered. It just feels like you’re nickeling and diming me, or just pushing me up to the next subscription level.

5. Why is your Inbox pull-down UI so bad? 

Screenshot 2014-03-12 08.04.32

When I hover over my mailbox icon, a pull-down menu shows my messages. The UI is so sensitive that clicking over the person’s name sends me to the person’s profile. To read the message, I have to remember to click on the gray space to the right of the message listing, which also happens to be to the right of the “Delete” button. The UI doesn’t discern for me what action I will be taking based on where I place my pointer. This is just bad usability.

6. Why can’t I tag, sort, or archive LinkedIn emails categorically?

Screenshot 2014-03-12 08.07.56

I’m doing some heavy outreach this week, setting up meetings at conference next week. As I’m pinging and emailing with people, my LinkedIn email inbox fills quickly and I can’t sort, tag, or otherwise categorize my emails. Instead I have to use  “Search Inbox” to find emails. I’d like to tag emails and correspondence into buckets – i.e. by conference, by client type, by outreach method and source, etc. I can’t do that.

7. Why do you have two search boxes within the Inbox page? Do you know how many times I’m trying to search for a person by name in this top navigation bar only to get search results from my Inbox? So. Freaking. Frustrating.

Screenshot 2014-03-12 08.24.08

8. Why can’t I search more naturally? For example, I searched “duke university fuqua 2002″ and the results were not ordered or relevant except for the very first result who was a classmate and a first-level connection. I have 10+ first-level connections from my MBA cohort in my Contacts. Why is only one shown and the rest of the search results garbage?

Screenshot 2014-03-12 08.25.42

9. Why does the page reset after viewing a profile on “People You May Know?” If I take a few minutes to scroll through your suggestions and then click on a profile, when I go back to the “People You May Know” page, I have to start all over at the top of the page. I may have been scrolling down for several minutes before clicking on an individual profile. Blech.

Screenshot 2014-03-12 08.29.44

So there are nine ideas for you. That’s all I’ve got time to do. Time to get to work. And spend a couple of hours in LinkedIn.

Buyer Remorse and Enterprise Sales

Let’s look at two emotions that many customers, in both B2C or B2B sales, experience after a purchase – whether it’s new sport coat or a $1,000,000 enterprise software purchase.

Buyer Remorse

Consumers experiencing Buyer Remorse might ask themselves three types of questions types after a purchase:

  1. Emotional – How do I feel? Happy, relieved, angry, frustrated?
  2. Wisdom – Did I make the right purchasing decision? Is this the right product or service for me? Should I have made the purchase at all?
  3. Concern – Was I “sold”? Am I getting ripped off?

The 7 x 1 Framework for Customer Success helps the salesperson address, or altogether prevent, Buyer’s Remorse. By providing immediate reinforcement to the customer that their purchase immediately sets off a stream of events and activities, they can see their decision turn into into action. It’s positive reinforcement.

buyer remorse2I had someone ask me - “If your customer is experiencing Buyer’s Remorse, and you’re following 7 x 1, doesn’t that just remind them of their decision?”

My answer: If my new customer is feeling even a hint of Buyer’s Remorse, I want to know about it as soon as possible so I can address any outstanding needs.

  • Maybe the customer isn’t altogether happy with the price or terms. Perhaps the contract negotiation felt too much like a negotiation…
  • Maybe the customer is worried about successful integration and training…
  • Maybe the customer has some doubt about achieving the stated 10x ROI, and they’ve put their backside on the line with their team, manager, IT department, and customers…

Customers must complete all of the steps of the sales process regardless of when they sign a contract and give you money. It’s unavoidable. This includes identifying and articulating their needs, evaluating all available options, resolving their concerns, and then implementing your solution. Now… Sometimes the customer will sign a contract and give you their money before the process is complete. They might be motivated for an acute reason. They might have an overzealous executive that unilaterally made a purchasing decision based on early discussions and references from their executive friends. Regardless, as a seller, you still need to complete the sales process with your customer. Using the 7 x 1 Framework, you can immediately begin to track my new customer’s behavior.

  • Are they responding to emails and calls the first day?
  • Did they accept a meeting invite to onboard their team leaders?
  • Do they commit to an onsite visit in two weeks?
  • Are they making introductions to team leaders with whom interaction is needed to assess KPIs?

If the customer isn’t reciprocating the communication and enthusiasm for their new purchase, I know I have a problem that needs to be fixed ASAP. I had a case just like this recently. We signed up a new client where contract process went very quickly and smoothly in the Fall. Then the holidays rolled around, and the communication between our teams slowed. By the end of January, it completely stopped. When I finally spoke to the CEO, I asked him – “What’s up?” Well… turned out that his management team and he had some reservations about the exit clauses and safeguards built into the contract, causing some cold feet during the implementation process.

In this case, it took nearly two months after we signed the contract to identify these concerns – much longer than I would have liked, and much sooner than I might have discovered without taking an active role in the implementation plan and monitoring progress on benchmarks we dually agreed to during the contract process. Using 7 x 1 and monitoring the implementation process enabled me to see that we were behind schedule and the customer’s behavior wasn’t consistent with our stated implementation plan.

Post-choice rationalization & Choice supportive bias

“Humans are not a rational animal, but a rationalizing one.” - Leon Festinger

Customers lie to us and themselves. They lie, lie, lie all of the time. They say things like:

  • “While I’m not getting the 10x ROI I expected, we’re definitely seeing the benefits of switching the service.”
  • “We had to switch vendors anyway. Our old vendor’s technology just couldn’t keep up with our needs.”
  • “The new system is a little slower than expected, but my team really likes their UI.”

lie2Choice supportive bias is great for customer retention if you already have the business. Sort of. But ask yourself:

  • What are your customer rationalizing about your product?
  • Are they living with marginal customer service?
  • Do they accept that you can’t keep up with their needs?

But if you really, really care about the customer achieving what they aspire to achieve, you need to fight this complacency even if you have the business. Because there are people like me out there competing against you. And when I take your business, I’m not giving it back.

This behavior depresses me the most because, if you’re the new vendor, the customer won’t tell you about their disappointment. They’ll pay their bills, and keep you as a vendor – sometimes for years before they make a switch. And all the while, you’ve been living under the false pretense that you’re kicking ass and your customer is happy. When a competitors enters the picture in a year or two or three, you have no chance of keeping the business. Just by bringing in another vendor to review, you’ve lost the relationship (or you never really had it in the first place…)

I experienced this as a seller when I sold textbooks to universities. Publishing companies updated textbook editions every three years, so every year, you knew exactly when academic departments and professors would need to make a new purchasing decision. They would either need to move to the new edition of their current textbook, or this would be the time they would entertain a switch. Competing against an entrenched textbook, especially for big classes like General Chemistry or Principles of Economics was an absolute bear.

Three years ago, the department made a purchasing decision based on technology and increasing student learning (and course evaluation scores! :-) Three year later, I’d hear from professors – “Well, the such-and-such text isn’t great, but I’ve already built out my class notes and I haven’t had any students tell me that they absolutely hate it, so I think I’m just going to rollover to the next edition.” Ahhhhh!!!!

Nooooo!!! Wait. Our General Chemistry book is better because of this and this and that! And we have a website with our book! And we have live tutoring. And we include the lab manual as part of the package!

Working through 7 x 1 with your customer early in the relationship and throughout the relationship enables you to track with your customer’s KPIs and identifies opportunities where you can grow as your customer’s needs grow and change.

The 7 x 1 Framework for Customer Success

paranoid“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

I’m a paranoid. I did a talk Monday night in San Francisco. When I got home, my wife asked me – “How was it?” I answered – “Why? What did you hear? Did someone say something bad on Twitter?”

I try to channel this paranoia into thinking like a buyer:

  • How do my customer feel during the sales process?
  • Are they happy after their decision to purchase a product from me?
  • What can I do to overwhelm the customer with love and attention?

This is why I developed the 7 x 1 Framework for Customer Success. It’s easy to execute with your customer to structure a clear, transparent plan that identifies unexpected outcomes during implementation, or negative feelings that your new customer may have about their purchase. That’s also why I include Implementation Planning as part of The Sales Model Canvas.

7 x 1 means that for each “first” time period following the conclusion of a sale, you have a specific action that you are taking for the client or with the client. For example, say you’ve been working on an enterprise software sale for nine months, and finally you get the call we all look for from your project sponsor – “Okay, we’re good here. I got the final budget approval and our SVP of Operations is signing the contract today. Let’s get started.”

Woohoo! With 7 x 1, your objective is to execute specific actions for:

  1. The first minute.
  2. The first hour.
  3. The first day.
  4. The first week.
  5. The first month.
  6. The first quarter.
  7. The first year.

Let’s look at how to use 7 x 1 in this example:

The first minute

  • Call the SVP’s admin to introduce yourself (if you don’t know him already)
  • Verify the contract is signed and how to get a copy to you.

The first hour

  • Notify your Customer Success team.
  • Contact the customer’s IT and implementation team by phone and email to set up a conference call to verify the key deliverables and work schedule over the next week.
  • This might be setting up data file transfers, opening up firewalls, and contacting Amazon web services to requisition more servers.

rabbit clockThe first day

  • Set up login accounts for individual users of your software
  • Send an email summary to your project sponsor and key executives of the actions taken today.
  • Book travel to the client site to accomplish critical deliverables with their IT and engineering team
  • Verify key performance indicators (KPIs) that your client and you established during the sales process and begin tracking.
  • Send written thank you notes to all of the key contributors on the sale

The first week

  • Send daily email summaries of actions taken
  • Do a first pass of the KPIs. The data might be sparse – that’s okay. The goal is to identify anything anomalous or interesting. Are there any quick wins by the individual users? Maybe a more technical user jumped in and is already using successfully for their daily workflow.
  • Review software usage by individual users to see which users are logging in and which aren’t.
  • Identify training timelines for user teams.
  • Review customer service tickets and logs, if any.

time machineThe first month

  • Review weekly updates and KPIs
  • Identify any users that missed training or are using the software less than expected.
  • Write up case studies of individual user wins.
  • Schedule next onsite meeting for end of the quarter to review if the KPIs are tracking, and whether the KPIs established are the right ones based on 2-3 months of actual implementation.
  • Identify three areas of strength and three weaknesses in the software implementation process. Develop work plan to address weaknesses.

The first quarter

  • Review customer service logs for feature requests and prioritize.
  • Provide insights to the customer about their usage – what’s working? What have they learned and accomplished that would not have been?
  • Ask for permission to use customer as a reference for future sales opportunities.
  • Identify partnership opportunities such as coauthoring a white paper or submitting a presentation at an industry conference.
  • Explore opportunities to expand the relationship through other divisions or business units.
  • Discuss business objectives for the rest of this year, and look ahead to prospective business cases in next fiscal/calendar year. Identify opportunities to grow the relationship in alignment with these client objectives.

stonehengeThe first year

  • Begin implementation with at least one additional business unit.
  • Review contractual terms and budget allocation to assure continuation of contract.
  • Review KPIs established before and after implementing your software.
  • Have KPIs been met or exceeded? Are there any ignored KPIs collecting dust?

That’s it. The 7 x 1 Framework for Customer Success. Give it a try.

Two examples of how meeting planning paid off

I’m traveling this week visiting a very major client and initiating the sales process with future clients (a.k.a. “prospects”). The act of simple meeting preparation helped me enormously. Twice.

Situation #1: Meeting on Wednesday with a potentially large client after several phone calls with an executive and his team.

What I did: In looking at the meeting invite and email correspondence, I noticed I didn’t have an address handy, so I went to the company website to map out their location. I noticed they happened to have three offices in the DC area, but I had been to their main office and was pretty sure that’s where we would be meeting. Then something in my head said – “You know what? You should confirm this anyway with Mr. Executive’s Assistant…”

So I shot her a quick email to confirm the meeting date and time, and pasted the address from the company website into the message:

Screenshot 2014-02-25 20.21.09

Her reply:

Screenshot 2014-02-25 20.21.26

Well… that would have sucked if I went to the wrong address with our company CEO…

Situation #2: A day and a half of meetings with a very big client.

What happened: The business manager we’re working with is super happy so far, and is helping with introductions to other executives across the company. He sent a list ahead of time of the four people we’d have meetings with during the visit. I took a few minutes to find their LinkedIn profiles and search them on their company website.

For one of the executives, I found a blog post he coauthored two years ago with another executive that was not on our meeting list. Once we got settled in a conference room, we reviewed the meetings and agenda for the next two days with our champion. I asked him about the person that I saw as a coauthor. “Hmmm…. you know, we should probably try to see her too.” Then three times during the day, our champion mentioned her name.

Coincidence? Maybe. Though probably not. A few minutes of research led to introduction to another executive in the company.

Net Promoter Score in action

NPS

Our pricing decision for the new “Startup Selling” course on Udemy

Our “Startup Selling: Sell More Stuff” course on Udemy is now live, and it’s free.

Straight up – choosing a price was an enormously difficult decision. After many, many customer development conversations and lots of sound advice from everyone all around, we decided that this very, very awesome course should be free. And so it shall be.

Here’s why:

1. It’s impossible to price based on each user’s perceived value.

We’ve worked with Udemy along the way – production tips, marketing ideas, pricing guidance. Most Udemy for-pay courses fall in the $49-99 range. So think of our course as a premium comparatively and should be $89 – at the higher end of this price spectrum.

But… $89 doesn’t capture the value of the course. Helping just one company build their sales process equates to millions of dollars of economic value created. Seriously. I’ve put this course into action myself in consulting arrangements and watched companies improve their sales performance.

We know when we provide value to people, real value, that’s the peak of our professional life. It happens every day with our paying consulting clients. When a client that pays a $10,000 retainer watches their sales pipeline grow and multi-million dollar deals advance in the sales cycle, that’s real value.

Attempting to capture this sort of value in an $89 price tag feel cheap. In fact, $89 feels cheaper than free.

And besides, for every startup CEO looking to meticulously implement the course ideas and build their sales process, there are thousands of entrepreneurs, salespeople, sales managers, technical cofounders, and engineers that are simply looking for a few ideas to jumpstart their learning today, this week, this month. Look at this Quora question I recently answered.

Do we really think this person would be willing to spend $89 for one course on Udemy, let alone our course? Doubtful. If we offer real value to this person though, they’ll remember and will come back for more when it’s time.

2. Buyer behavior and price elasticity

I picked one of our course users to analyze their behavior. This person is pretty active on Udemy, with 111 active or completed courses, and another 70 courses on their Wishlist. I reviewed all of their courses to see if a buying or behavioral pattern emerges.

Active & Completed Courses

Most of the person’s paid courses were tech-based, ranging from Excel to jQuery/AJAX to Joomla. They did pay for two “startup/business” courses. The rest of their business-related course were free courses. Here’s the rundown:

  • Startup “How To”: 7 Steps to Creating a Successful Product – Janice Fraser ($199)
  • Startup & Go – First Steps to Building a Technology Company by Founder Institute ($99)
  • Foundation of Business Strategy (Free)
  • Startup FAQs (Free)
  • Lean Canvas Course by Ash Maruya (Free – 2.2k students! Ash – you are the man…)
  • An Entrepreneur’s Checklist (Free)
  • Entrepreneurship – From Idea to Launch – (Free)
  • Plus lots of free tech-based courses along with the for-pay courses I mentioned above.

The for-pay startup courses are led by serious brand names – Janice Fraser and Founder Institute.

Wishlist courses:

All of the Wishlist courses are for-pay courses (obviously):

  • Sales & Persuasion Skills for Startups $180 by Len Smith (373 students)
  • The Ultimate Guide to Business Development at a Startup by Andrew Dumont $79 (550 students)
  • A Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Grow a Business $79 by TeleTime Video (16 students)
  • Become a Startup Founder by Founder Institute $399 (502 students)
  • Running Lean Workshop by Ash Mayura $297 (336 students)

This person paid $99 for a Founder Institute course, but hasn’t yet paid for their $399 course; took Ash Mayura’s free course, but hasn’t yet paid for Ash’s $297 course.

See the trend here? I do. I’m detecting a price curve.

Bottom line – until this person recognizes SalesQualia as a brand name delivering quality content, they won’t pay for our single course.

I’m 100% certain that pricing our course at $89 would have put us in the “WishList,” if at all. Instead I have the opportunity to interact with this person, help them grow, and also learn about their buying decisions for future courses.

3. From a customer development call: “People buy sales training to make themselves feel good. They like to feel like they’re doing something positive.”

This may be true, and if it is, we’d rather give away ideas for free to help that person feel good than try to squeeze $89 from them. And in most cases, we won’t be able to squeeze the $89 anyway. And we can’t help the people that are paying $89 to feel good anyway. We’re about improving sales performance, not Tony Robbins motivation. And the thought of squeezing anyone for money gives me shivers.

This person urged me to charge for the course after I told him it would be free.

Him: Respect the wallet. Why charge a shitty price for a shitty product?

Me: It’s not a shitty product.

Him: Then why are you charging a shitty price?

This person has three sales course on Udemy – two free and one paid ($97). He experimented with several price points:

$199 to start: 0 sales
$97: some sales
$34: 0 sales (his price was pushed down by Udemy in a course promotion, not by his choice.)

His $97 course has more than 100 users – !$9k in revenue. Seems like we’d need to really hustle to earn that $9000.

Or we can give the course away for free and we can concentrate our effort on learning and applying this learning to developing more products with a lifetime customer value much higher than $97.

We  think $89 says we’re a sales training company. A sales coaching company. We’ve done those things but that’s not who we want to be or who we want our customers to be. Sales training is a temporary fix. Sales coaching turns us into shrinks. We’re building our company to focus on the very best in sales analytics.

4. Information asymmetry

The people who know SalesQualia – workshop attendees, our Startup Sales Meetup group, tech group organizers, entrepreneurs, clients, and startup friends – know that we create really good stuff. They know we work hard to prepare and deliver awesome workshops. Our Net Promoter Score reflects this. (We’ve hit +40 in our workshops :-)

For our advisory clients, they know that what we’ve worked on has improved their sales performance.

So if we’re so awesome, why not charge for the course?

Because this community is a micro-unit of all of the entrepreneurs, startup CEOs, and sales people out there that we want to find – that we NEED to find to build a successful business. For every person that knows SalesQualia, there are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t. Literally. This is the first of many courses and products that we’ll to build over the next millennium.

5. Conversion Rates – Free & Prepays

In the week prior to launch, we tested landing pages – nearly 500 page views of 6 different designs – targeted on Twitter with the hash tags #leanstartup #startup. We had 4 conversions – <1%. We think this proves the information asymmetry exists for our brand. We learned that even getting free conversions is hard.

We didn’t try paid ads – Facebook, Google, LinkedIn – yet. We did a Clarity call with a previous Udemy executive. He shared that the paid ads had proven unsuccessful for Udemy courses, and I suspect it’s because of information asymmetry.

(Yes, we realize that our Landing Page tests are incomplete. It’s the best we could do given time and resource constraints, and I think that this test is a fair indicator of conversion for our product in our market.)

I built a small “Friends of Scott” list that included friends in the sales profession and current/recent advisory clients. Of the 17 friends and clients that prepaid, only one joined the class the day we launched the course. A second joined the day after.(Sheesh. C’mon people – we’re depending on you for testimonials!) We now need to go back to the other 15 and hound them. I’ll repeat that – I have to go back and hound the my friends that paid to take the course!

(Sidenote: Maybe there’s some sense that they’ve served their duty by prepaying – “I paid Scott $19. I contributed.” Funny huh? I don’t care about the money and yet we charged the people most likely to do us a favor. Did I burn the favor by asking for $19 when I should have asked friends to take the course instead and leave a testimonial? Maybe. I’ll find out. The good news is that we have 15 people in the course as of this morning with another 15 that should be joining in the next two days. That’s a good start considering we’ve posted only a single tweet about the course yesterday.)

People are busy. That’s the point. Even “free” means spending time. Literally spending the scarce amount of time that our target market has available.

Then why did you charge friends $19 before the launch?

During production, we felt we needed to charge for the course. One of our core beliefs in sales is that charging any amount, even $1, yields different and valuable consumer behavior and activity. We planned to run a tiered pricing schedule over three months – $19 in November, $39 in December, then $89 in January.

We thought the $19 would be a fair introductory price to find a few “friends and family” people to prepay, and thus be able to say that we had X number of people in the course at launch. Our goal was 25 prepays before launch.

This was a good test to see which of our friends were really willing to support us. We slowly expanded the circle of people as we asked for the $19 prepayment. We had to watch the face of people and deal with silent replies to our emails. Asking friends for $19 is really hard because you know you need to bring them value or damage your relationship with them.

Funny how you weed out people – who say they’ll do it and which people follow through. Most people followed through, a couple did not. Now we know who we can depend on for future projects likes this.

6. What about the people that sign up and don’t finish the course because it’s free?

That happens with for-pay courses too. See above – “People are busy.” We verified this with other Udemy course instructors.

Following people through the course also helps us discover which of the sections are cumbersome or difficult. Knowing that people sign up for a course and never take it measures actual saturation rates – not just customer transactions. We have more than five (5) hours of video on the course. I’m already thinking that this is too much. What? Yes, really. Maybe people would rather take five one-hour courses rather than one five-hour course. Guess we’ll find out, and real users yield that data.

Plus we have the opportunity to overwhelm our users with value. We can test new content ideas to see if that moves any of the stalled users to action. If it does, then maybe we’ve hit on a hot topic to explore more.

7. We’re still learning our marketing channels.

Here’s a partial list we’ve defined (suggestions welcome):

  • LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook to reach my immediate network.
  • LinkedIn Groups
  • Email campaigns to our lists and groups.
  • SlideShare and YouTube where we’ll publish course previews.
  • Hosted Webinars & Google Hangouts
  • Influencers and Multipliers that have agreed to amplify our message about the course.
  • Meetups and Technology groups willing to share the course with their members.
  • Universities & Entrepreneurship Groups
  • Incubators, Accelerators & Shared Workspaces
  • Communities like StackExchange and Reddit

Screenshot 2013-11-18 14.28.04

We have a list of ~2000 people on Quora that either follow me or have viewed at least one answer on mine of Quora. We can send a personal message to each person asking them to join the course. Quora publicly posts who are Followers of specific topics. Entrepreneurship: 448,638. Startups: 292,103. Lean Startups: 232,573. All the way down to SaaS Sales: 475. We can send each of them a note as well.

If we ping each of these people about a for-pay course, we’re spammers. If we message them about a really cool free course, we’re helping them. Will it work? We don’t know, but we’re about to try.

8. Add value, add value, add value.

$89 is a premium price in this market. For $89, people expect something to be pretty freaking awesome. And while we think our course is pretty freaking awesome, we’d rather someone take the course in utter disbelief that such a course could possibly be free.

“Free” also blows up the for-pay market on Udemy in our segment. Sure, there are a few excellent courses by the brand names or courses with content contributed by leading sales experts. Some of those are free too. For anyone else that wants to build a sales course on Udemy, it needs to be free or much, much, much better than our course. Or maybe just better at marketing. And we’ll work until our eyes bleed to make sure that never happens.

9. We can always charge later if we really, really want to.

We’d rather start with the course as free, then charge for new courses down the road.

We believe it’s better to have one course as free – forever free – then create more value down the road than to come out of the gate at $89, sell very few, then drop have to drop price dramatically (or have Udemy do that for us…) or changing it to a free course, giving the appearance that the course must not be very good otherwise more people would have spent $89 on it.

10. We’re building a company, not selling an online course.

This course is the one of many products we have on tap. If we’re wed to making money on this one product, we risk running a two-variable experiment. The first variable is whether or not the content is useful to the broader community, and the second variable is price.

Our goal is to reach 1000 users by the end of 2013. That’s 25 new people every day that will take the action to register for the course. Our goal by March 2014 is 2.5k users. We’re more concerned about reach, learning how to develop a great course, and learning how to reach our market than the money right now.

Of course it sounds like a cop out for those demanding that a product’s true value cannot be tested until it’s sold. I agree – for this product. We’re building lots of products and to isolate our learning, we need to reduce the variables in this experiment.

Heck, we don’t even really know the market wants this course in the first place. Sure, we did customer development and saw a demand based on in-person workshops hosted all over the country. This doesn’t mean the world wants this content in an online environment.

We can, and will, build more products. We’re committed to this market for the long, long run. Like the next millennium long run.

The 3rd Third – Creating solutions to client problems

In “Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking,” Tim Hurson discusses the concept of “wave thinking.” Examining a problem not once, not twice, but three times to determine a solution:

  • 1st solution = obvious
  • 2nd solution = more interesting
  • 3rd solution = creative

Ahhh… How about your client interactions? When you find a new prospect or begin learning customer needs, how quickly do we jump right to the first solution as it relates to our product. It’s the most obvious right? The prospect has a problem and has come to your website or agreed to a conversation with you. As you confirm the problem with the prospect, the most obvious tact is to discuss how your product solves that problem.

three

What if instead you just listened and then scheduled a second call a few days hence? What if you simply told the prospect – “I think I have a few ideas for your problem and I want to talk it over with my team some more.”? By the second conversation, bolstered with ideas and perspectives from your team on the prospect’s problem, you’d automatically present more interesting solutions that include your product and perhaps 2-3 ways to solve related parts of the prospect’s problem.

Then after discussing this 2nd level solution, you ended the conversation with – “I think there’s a few more ideas we can build on this. Can you bring in a couple of people from your team for one more round of conversations to analyze your situation? I think from there we’ll be able to craft a solution set for you and be much more able to develop a work plan to implement these solutions together.”

Wow – that would be something wouldn’t it?

[A big hat tip to Tina Seelig, who introduced me Hurson’s book in her book – “InGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity“. A very, very good read.]