Discovery vs. Persuasion

One of the reasons that sales teams try to specialize as much as possible (SDRs vs. AEs vs. customer success, etc.) is that, despite the fact that they all fall into the broad bucket of “sales,” the activities at the top of the funnel are quite different from those in the middle and at the bottom of the funnel. It is very rare that someone who possesses the skill set to get prospects to the meeting also has the same skill set to get them to buy or continue being customers. This is one reason that the best SDRs do not always make the best AEs and why the best AEs almost never make the best managers.

A way to think about this issue is to organize the world into three very broad categories:

  1. “Fans” - People who will always buy your product or service regardless of the sales process
  2. “Detractors” - People who will never buy your product or service regardless of the sales process
  3. “Evaluators” - People who could be persuaded to buy your product or service depending on the sales process

At different stages of the funnel, interactions are primarily with one group or another, and the skill sets necessary to succeed with each group are vastly different.

Of the groups above, the second group (we call them Detractors) is almost always the biggest, which is why sales is hard. Some of you will be fortunate enough to work for companies with a comparative large set of prospects in the first group (Fans), but for a B2B startup, there are basically always more Detractors than Fans.

Most CEOs, product people, etc. tend to think of sales as dealing with the third group of prospects (Evaluators). As a society, we possess a collective image of an old school used car salesman (probably overweight, probably with a mustache) chomping on a cigar and doing whatever he can to make a deal. The image persists even as technology changes the world (including the world of sales) more and more quickly with each passing year.

It is true that, even today, there are people who are extremely good at dealing with Evaluators. These are the “natural salespeople” of the world (including our used car salesman above). But the secret to good cold outbound sales--particularly for companies that have not yet achieved product-market fit or crossed the chasm--is that the job for early-stage B2B companies is much more about working hard to find Fans than working hard to persuade Evaluators.

If you let that sink in for a moment, it’s actually a startling revelation. Sales: An exercise in discovery instead of persuasion. It has dramatic implications for how to use your early-stage company’s precious time. For example:

What do you do when someone says no?
Don’t be tenacious. Instead, walk away immediately and stop wasting time.

How should you allocate the majority of your team’s time?
Don’t wordsmith marketing copy. Instead, dig deep to uncover good leads.

What techniques should you use to reach customers?
Don’t focus on those that persuade a small group of marginal customers. Instead, use those that scale well to find ideal customers.

When we start to work with clients, they read “sales” in our backgrounds and assume that our cold email campaigns exist to persuade Evaluators to buy. This isn’t the case: Cold outbound emails are not built to persuade Evaluators… they are built to discover Fans. Email as a medium is weak in persuasion. It is two-dimensional, lacks flair, is difficult to personalize, and does not allow for any of the creative sales techniques that need to happen in a good pitch. But email is very, very good at scale. I am writing this newsletter post once and sending it to hundreds of you. While I do so, dozens of cold campaigns for clients are running in the background. With the understanding that discovery is the job of sales teams at early stage companies, this advantage becomes hugely valuable.

A few weeks ago, one of my cold emails elicited an automated response that someone had set up, thinking they were clever. The response included sales advice like the following:

Rather than talking about “you” – you would be much more successful in your sales if you demonstrated you knew my business and can show me how I can get my bonus and sleep well at night.

I don’t know who you are yet you are asking about my operations and yet not a single discussion that you understand my pain points or goals that I might be challenged with this year.

Unsurprisingly, this email recommended some run-of-the-mill sales books for me to read. It offered many generic pieces of sales advice that could be picked up in hundreds of seminars across the country every day.

The email assumed that my cold outreach was trying to persuade an Evaluator (worth noting as well is the fact that this prospect was almost certainly a Detractor). I was instead reaching out to as many corners of the market as possible to find Fans wherever they may be hiding. With that as my goal, I should absolutely talk about the product I am pitching. I should spend almost no time identifying this prospect’s pain points because Fans raise their hands when prodded.

This is why advice that you get about sales often does not apply to cold email: You need to be direct. Only once you get to the meeting can you listen, consult, and sell.

The key conclusion here, whether or not you consider yourself a salesperson, is to know where in the funnel you operate and to understand whether your job is to discover or persuade. Then, optimize your efforts for the specific job you are doing, and stay lean! Have you spent an hour editing an email that is going to a group you’re not sure will even buy your product? Are you on your 15th follow up call to a prospect who was wishy-washy when you pitched her? Carefully consider the value of your time in relation to the key task of your role. Hustle is fine, but efficiency is better.

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