The title of this article seems obvious; especially in a section titled “Building a Sales Team.” Unfortunately, many new companies, or companies that are launching new products, simply are not ready to start selling. The product or service offering may work perfectly in the labs or with trial customers, but may still be a long way off from being ready for mere mortal sales reps to begin the arduous sales process.
With very few exceptions, will prospects be waiting at your door or anxiously awaiting your online offering to suddenly appear? Even if this is the case, how did they find out that your product even existed? The actual product is only one small, albeit important, part of your offering. The list of other items is quite long and includes pricing, model numbers, specification sheets, list of features and benefits, ordering information, instruction manuals, competitive comparisons, cost justifications, and countless other related material and procedures. With the goal of quickly generating revenue, a natural tendency is to start selling as soon as the first product or service offering is available.
It is not uncommon to begin building a sales team even before the product is available. The result is almost always the same: frustration for everyone involved. The sales rep becomes frustrated because they do not have the support material to understand and share with their prospects. Prospects, once exposed to the “perfect” product as described by the sales rep, may find that they want to purchase the product, but cannot due to its unavailability. Finally, management will become frustrated with the constant demand for support material from the sales reps that is not yet available. Invariably, misconceptions will occur with all involved parties.
The misconceptions and frustrations that arise when products, like wine, are served before their time can have a significant, detrimental effect on a product. When these events occur, any initial excitement can be quickly replaced with a feeling of disappointment. When the issues are finally resolved the reaction may be “well, finally” instead of “this is great.”
During the recruiting process, shrewd sales reps will probe to determine the true status of the product offering. Sales reps are hired to make sales, not to make sales calls. Existing sales reps are equally likely to be turned off by pre-maturely announced products. These sales reps may have existing customers and have probably built trusted relationships with them. They naturally will be reluctant to risk those relationships by introducing new products to their customers that they cannot adequately represent. For those that do start the process with their customers, you can bet that the CEO, Marketing VP, and anyone else in the company’s phone directory will hear from them, demanding answers and support. Who can blame them?
The trap that many companies encounter is their single-minded focus on completing the new offering, while postponing all of the related support activities. A common excuse is that those items cannot be completed until after the product is finalized. The reality is that only minor tweaks will probably be required in support material and plans as the product reaches the finalization stage. In fact, focusing on those issues could significantly impact the product itself. As an example, over twenty years ago, the concept of “design for manufacturing” was embraced as an integral part of quality programs to insure that product designs could be reasonably built. These programs were highly successful and have become the accepted norms in virtually all segments. Unfortunately, today many companies do not embrace or even think about similar programs that are based on “design for sales.” This situation is most obvious when a company stumbles after its initial success when trying to increase sales. Methods that worked on a small scale, such as with a small, hand picked and trained sales force, are no longer applicable to a new or greatly expanded team of direct or indirect sales reps.
Another excuse often used to delay the start of support activities is that all available resources need to focus on the development activity and they will be diverted later. The reality is that very different skill sets are required to develop products than are necessary to develop supporting material. Developers, with their heavy, often long-term involvement, will generally have a hard time “unlearning” all they know about a new product and be able to relate to individuals that are exposed to it for the first time. Also, they may not have an appreciation for the business issues and practical issues that prospects may need to consider. A mix of individuals with different skill sets and experiences is required to address the wide variety of issues that sales reps, channel partners, prospects, and customers will encounter.
An observation that I made many years ago that has proven to be true, time and time again, is that when a product is working in the lab or can be demonstrated to senior management, break out the champagne and celebrate the fact that the company is ten percent of the way to having a new offering that mere mortals, not development engineers, can successfully use in the real world! This statement does not imply that ninety percent of the development work is still required. Instead, it is meant to highlight the fact that there are many more tasks, performed by a variety of individuals from different disciplines that need to be involved before the company “has something to sell.”