Skinned knees—what an MBA didn't teach you for rebel sales in a software startup

Agile Stacks brings this series of blogs to you as a way to help fellow startup sales folks. We know there are great days, there are good days and there are just ‘those’ days. Why not share what goes well and what doesn’t so we learn from each other. Please drop your experiences in the feedback section also.

Don’t stop learning when you are in a software startup 

This is the first post in a new series of thoughts on selling software as a startup titled “Skinned knees—what an MBA didn't teach you for rebel sales in a software startup”. My postings won’t be on a guaranteed schedule but will be the random thoughts as the Chief Revenue Officer for a young company selling enterprise infrastructure software. This first post will be to give a little bit of background on myself, but more importantly, to offer some advice to salespeople that are just beginning their career in business-to-business or enterprise sales.

 The software sales industry has evolved dramatically since I first started selling software. In the mid-80s, software was primarily written to add value to hardware. Most of the computers in those days could heat a room (or a building) and had the processing power that was less than the phone in your pocket. The real commission money came from selling the hardware, and the software was almost always a giveaway as part of the deal. Back then, a cloud was a visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere, typically high above the ground that blocked the sun and sometimes dropped rain to ruin your golf game.

 My alma mater is Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology where I graduated with a bachelors of science in mechanical engineering. Most of the time that I was a student I knew that I was going to be a lousy engineer. I love science and physics yet I despise the redundancy of a 9-to-5 office job that many young engineers experience. My tenure as an engineer was over before I walked off the graduation stage with my degree. I had accepted a position as a Sales Engineer with The Allen-Bradley Company of Milwaukee WI.

 In all of the jobs over the years, accepting a position with Allen-Bradley (A-B) was probably the best career decision that I ever made. A-B had just been bought by Rockwell and would eventually change its name to Rockwell Automation. At the time though, A-B was investing heavily in college engineers to become salespeople - they wanted smart, raw talent that they could mold. I moved to the company headquarters in Milwaukee, WI and began an 11-month sales training program under the wise mentorship of the A-B sales experts.

 Nearly every sales trainer explains that everyone sells. They give examples of selling from the youngest child trying to get a piece of candy to adults convincing a spouse for a new set of golf clubs. This is true, but unfortunately just because everyone sells, very few people do it really well. The sales profession is one of the hardest professions in the world, and enterprise sales is among the hardest of all types of sales positions. Going through an 11-month training program probably cut 5 years off of my on-the-job training.

 Few companies today can make the incredible investment that A-B made in me. I wish I could return this favor by doing the same to college graduates, but unfortunately, it is a different world. In that 11 month program, I learned many skills that I still use today. For myself and many others, this was our masters degree in sales. Here are some of the timeless skills that today make a better salesperson:

  • How to plan a sales call so that everyone on my team knew how to succeed
  • How to explain the benefits of a product rather than just its features
  • How to understand a prospect's business
  • How to build a relationship with a customer to make it a win/win relationship
  • How to manage the entire business with a customer, not just the next deal
  • How to effectively team sell to a customer
  • How to deliver a presentation that it is motivating
  • How to write effective letters
  • How to negotiate and close a deal

 Allen-Bradley put me through classes, seminars, and practice sessions for months. I was tested weekly to affirm that the information and techniques stuck. I made joint calls with seasoned salespeople having decades of experience. These were the masters, and I was excited to be along for the ride. Eventually, I made sales calls. The masters watched. Their feedback was foundational to my growth. A lesson I took away - find a great mentor and never let them go.

 In addition, Allen-Bradly was patient. This built a strong foundation to be the best salesperson that I could be. Teaching that continuous learning and continuous improvement creates more future opportunity is a value I cherish today. I pass this knowledge to you - my sales peers. You need to master the craft in the profession that you have chosen. Embrace the process of learning and improvement.

 It is often cited that you need 10 years of doing something to be an expert. I am sure this is true, but I have seen salespeople that have decades of experience and still are not experts in their craft. I theorize that this is because they are not continually learning and continuously striving to improve.

 While I am unable to train a group of young and eager college graduates for a year, I can pass on my experiences and learnings. That is my goal for this blog series. I am hopeful that it will be helpful to salespeople of all ages, new managers trying to learn how to motivate others, and entrepreneurs trying to start the next great software company. I hope that you will subscribe to the feed of this series so that I can help you sell more software and offer benefits to your customers.

 While reading this series, I hope you gain some insight into the above bullet points and I hope that you learn a little about what it takes to start an enterprise software company from scratch.

 If you like this series, you may also want to read my book on sales, Eliminate Your Competition and the blog tied to that book: If you go to that URL, you will find all you need to get access to my book.

Topics: Sales

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