7 Tips to Understanding Sales

“In some professions such a difference would be obvious. A salesman who sells 10x as much as his peers will be noticed, and compensated accordingly. Sales are easy to measure, and some salesmen make orders of magnitude more money than others.” ~ Joe Cook

Within the software development community there can often times be a lack of understanding for how the sales department works. This disconnect can lead to lack of communication between the two departments which in turn leads to salesmen making promises that cannot be kept by the development team. On the other side it can also lead to a focus on development of features that customers are not interested in having in the product.

By fixing this disconnect both developers and salesmen can benefit. When the two departments work together the company grows and prospers. When they do not it falls to shambles.

This post was inspired by an episode of Complete Developer Podcast I wrote about my experience in sales and what I learned there. At the bottom of the post you can listen to the full episode and hear not only my perspective as a junior developer but also from a senior developer who has been working in the field for over a decade.

Sales School 101

1. The Role of Sales in a Company

“Their job is to get you a paycheck” ~ Will Gant

A salesman’s job is to make the customers happy. They accomplish this by being happy themselves, or at least appearing to be happy. A depressed salesman does not sell.

Each company approaches sales differently. For a sales driven company such as an ad agency or a marketing firm it will be more important. For a software company with an established product new sales will be less important than customer retention.

No product sells itself, note even Apple. Steve Jobs was more of a salesman than a developer or engineer. The first and primary objective in sales is to make people aware of the product. If it is a new technology or innovative software product a need must be created.

2. Managing Perceptions

Sales is more than just going to lunch with clients and partying. It is all about managing perceptions through customer acquisition, product knowledge, customer satisfaction and public relations. Customers are acquired through advertising either by television, web, radio, or print and through one-on-one meetings and sales pitches. Sales teams also retain customers through support, account management, and knowledge of which product best serves the customer’s need.

The sales team is the public face of the company. They maintain public relations through writing, attending events, and customer interactions. To do this they need advanced knowledge of the product and it’s quality, reliability, and ease of use for training customers on how to meet their needs with the product. Knowledge of the design and visual aesthetic will help promote sales and for some products promote a “cool factor”.

3. 5 Steps of The Sales Process

Variations on the sales process range from five to seven steps. For simplicity the five step process is listed here. They cover the same functions but the 7-step is broken down further. To compare the two read more about the 7 Steps of Sales.

  1. Preparation

    Just as a software developer would not just start writing code without a plan a salesman doesn’t just go out and start selling. They prepare by getting to know the target audience. Salesmen must first know who is the customer. Are they selling to individuals or businesses? A pharmaceutical salesman would not do well walking into a homeopathic office. Even more specific an orthotics salesman would not do well at a proctologist’s office. Preparation involves generating qualified leads. Qualified leads are the potential customers most likely to benefit from the product and be able to afford it.

    Knowledge of the market to which one is selling includes competitor’s products. Sales teams study the competitors products to be able to answer questions and overcome objections posed by the potential customer. They also need to know the needs of the market and how their product meets those needs better than other products.

    Finally and most importantly the sales team must know the product they are selling. Knowledge of what the product does and does not do helps to determine which products best fit the customer’s needs and allows for customer education and expectations. Product knowledge can also reduce the amount of promises that cannot be kept and benefit the retention of customers.

  2. Prospecting

    Prospecting is the act of going out and finding new customers. It’s time to put that preparation to work and go meet potential customers. This involves the initial approach and any follow-ups necessary to making the sale.

    Prospecting uses the qualified leads created in the previous step. The majority of a salesman’s time is spent prospecting new customers. By pre-qualifying leads in the preparation step less time is spent on leads that are not likely to convert to customers.

  3. Needs Assessment

    In this step the salesman is gathering intelligence. It can be done in multiple ways from researching the potential customer to asking questions in a one-on-one meeting.

    The salesman must determine does the customer need the product. If there are multiple products which product does the customer need. “Building the need for the product”” is a phrase used in sales to describe the process of getting the potential customer to recognize the need for the product.

    Usually taking place as part of the intro to step 4, the needs assessment leads into the product presentation.

  4. Presentation

    Product knowledge is key here. The salesman must show how the product meets the need of the potential customer. In the previous step the need was determined and recognized by the customer now the salesman provides a solution to that need.

    Many forms of presentation exist from group Powerpoints to one-on-one sit downs. The purpose is to demonstrate product. Show how it works and why it is needed and the value gained by the potential customer in purchasing the product.

    During the course of the presentation potential customers raise questions and objections. The salesman must be able to answer these questions and manage potential objections.

  5. Close

    Finally the most important part of the process, the close. This is the make it or break it of the sales process. The entire process has been leading up to this point. The potential customer has recognized the need and understands how the product meets that need. Now the salesman converts a potential customer into a customer

    The close is part of all stages of sales process. Good salesmen start the preparation step with the close in mind. In business to business sales the close changes along the process. A close early in the sales process may be to get an appointment to discuss the product, in that case the salesman is selling an appointment not a product. In a later stage a salesman might need to meet with a committee, in that case he is selling a meeting. Ultimately the goal is to convert potential customers to customers and sell the product.

4. The ABC’s of Sales

From the initial approach through customer retention the ABC’s of sales applies to all aspects of the sales process. It is the foundations of sales and used by the best sales teams. What is the ABC’s of sales?

Always Be Closing

It sounds simple in concept but the practical application can be a challenge. A good salesman will balance the close with product knowledge and other aspects of the sales process. Always be closing is a mentality of focusing on the goal of making the sale. Everything a salesman does or says is with the goal of making the sale.

We’ve all seen when this goes wrong but few notice when it is done successfully. Think of the archetypal pushy salesman, used cars come to mind. These pushy salesmen are applying the ABC’s but in such a way that it is off-putting for most customers. Salesmen need to know when how to apply the ABC’s without being obvious or putting the customer off.

5. Pay Structure of Sales vs Programming

As seen in the quote at the beginning of this post pay does not always match the ability of a programmer. However, in sales pay is directly related to ability. For example, a coder that is ten times better than the average can expect a 20% higher pay rate. Whereas, a salesman that is ten times better than average will receive ten times the pay.

This is because salesmen are paid commission on their sales. This can be both good and bad for the salesman. There is no cap on his income and his pay is based purely on performance. However, with no ceiling comes no floor. There are not regular paychecks for commission sales.

Programmers on the other hand are generally paid an hourly rate or a predetermined salary. Hourly programmers are paid for time completing work. Like commission sales this can mean more pay for more work. Salaried programmers are usually exempt from over-time meaning that they get paid the same if they work 40 hours or 60 hours in a week. The benefit of salary is the knowledge of a regular paycheck and less worry about losing a job.

6. How Developers can Help Sales

In software sales the developers know the most about the product. They know what it can and cannot do. They know the timelines of production. Developers know the future of the product through backlogged features or future versions. This knowledge can add benefit to the sales process. They need to know the promises they can make to potential customers. They do not however need to know the details of coding.

Developers can help sales to make promises that can be kept. Have conversations will the sales team about what customers can expect from the product. Discuss product timelines and what is possible. Help them to understand realistic requests and timelines. Mostly put it in terms they can understand.

7. Sales Teams Have Their Own Intelligence

Finally, don’t underestimate or devalue the intelligence of sales. Most salesmen will admit to a lack of understanding of coding. Some may even see computers as a magic box and programmers as the wizards that control the magic. The good ones will want to learn about the product.

When educating sales teams it is possible to talk code without talking down. Think back to first learning to code and try not to use confusing jargon. It’s best to use examples when explaining and put it in their terms. For a good sampling of how to do this listen to the podcast. Both Will and I constantly use examples and metaphors to explain what we are saying in terms that listeners feel familiar and comfortable.

While not as good as attending a sales school or sales conference these seven tips will help developers to understand the sales team. Use them to create a dialog between developers and sales within the company. It will be a mutually beneficial cooperation.

Listen to the Episode of Complete Developer Podcast.