When Ryan Williams was running west coast sales of AdRoll, dubbed the fastest growing company of 2012-2013 by Inc., he knew the most successful sales processes boiled down to the basics.
Three years ago, Ryan’s phone rang around ten o’clock on a Sunday night. It was a founder-friend of his, who blurted out (before even apologizing for waking up his wife and newborn): “I’m so sorry I didn’t take your advice—but what do I do now?”
Earlier, Ryan had advised him to hire two inside sales reps rather than someone more senior with a big rolodex. It shocked Ryan that, more often than not, building a sales team meant hiring the most senior person affordable. And, typically this means that a founder is looking to solve his or her sales woes by hiring a rolodex, rather than someone who will help build a process.
“Most of the founders I’ve met have been in this place,” says Ryan. “This is usually before they realize that sales is something you can experiment with. Like marketing, or product, sales is something you can try out, test, break and fix.”
Ryan has been building sales teams for over 13 years. Turns out, the reasons sales teams succeed are largely the same across sectors. And, tried and true, he’s experienced both highs and lows of these processes. He now has a method that focuses solely on basics.
Step one to building a sales process: Defining who wants to buy your product. In this interview, Ryan shares what he’s learned about building a sales process, from the early stages and onwards.
Define. Find. Connect. Understand. Simplify.
1.) Define: Who wants to buy your product?
In Ryan’s experience, there is a lot of uncertainty in early stages of defining an ideal customer profile (ICP). “It’s important to not only know what kind of company will be buying your product, but you have to really know what type of role within that company will be using your product.”
Ryan encourages everyone from founders to sales development reps (SDRs) as well as those outside of sales, to ask and answer a few questions: Are you selling something to a VP of Sales who actually uses the product? Are you selling to the VP of I.T. and then her manager is the one using it?
“I make sure to ask myself these questions—as well as anyone else involved in the process. This should be SDRs, marketers, engineers, designers, the whole crew, really.”
“Geography as well is really important. You should never say, ‘I’m thinking too basic.’ What market are you starting with? Are you planning on selling internationally? Locally? Does the price point match the industry that you’re selling to?”
“So, for example, say you’re selling specifically to H.R. companies in Northern California. How many of these companies have the revenue or funding that you know can support your product?”
“These questions might seem basic, but it’s essential to voice these answers, and move forward from there.”
Answering a litany of questions isn’t the only checklist when it comes to defining an ICP. Equally important, Ryan advises a set of ways to test certain sales hypotheses. However, he likes to make sure it’s not a game of darts. “Test two, three things at the most at one time.”
2.) Find: How do you find your buyers?
Once you’ve defined your ICP, Ryan notes there are some common approaches to prospecting.
Sleuthing on LinkedIn is a standard method for finding prospects. “You tend to find what looks like your ideal clients, and then you’ll want to look for a referral from someone—a friend, founder, whomever, but it’ll end there.”
Another less ideal strategy is finding your biggest competitors and checking out to whom they’re offering their services. More often than not, they’ll have published case studies highlighting their current clients.
But this competitor strategy, as Ryan calls it, often gives off an unruly impression: “It’s honestly like hearing a moose coming through the woods,” says Ryan (who grew up in the Midwest, but swears he’s seen a moose tons of times). “It’s kind of the loudest, most eeriest thing you can hear. Your competitors will know you’re hitting up their client base. They just will.”
Rather than these approaches, Ryan prefers a different angle. “I always look for other enthusiasts,” he says.
“You ask a question five, six times, you’ll get a response at least once. Then you have that insight from a targeted prospect, insight none of your competitors have.”
And even if they don’t buy, you’re now steps ahead of your competitors with these key insights.
3.) Connect: How do you connect with your buyers?
Like anyone in the age of the inbox, Ryan gets hundreds of cold emails a week. The mass amount of email automations are a meek attempt at personalization. Sometimes they look like newsletters. Sometimes certain words and phrases are highlighted. They come in many forms, too: pretty. Messy. A combination of rambling and highlights and bullet points (down right confusing). Direct and to-the-point, which he isn’t opposed to.
“What I am opposed to is the most obvious aspect of a poorly written cold email,” says Ryan. “The lack of connection. If you don’t create a relationship with me, I can’t care. I can’t connect.”
Ryan has smaller peeves that we can learn just as much from. Color changes, bullet points, over-highlighted call-to-actions all in one email. “The point is, I’m confused. I don’t know what I’m supposed to look at. If the writer is confused, then I’m confused. Bottom line.”
So what does matter when it comes to micro-connections with prospects? Being personal. Connected.
Ryan relays a common phrase among sales trainers: ‘Why you? Why now?’, coined by Jeff Hoffman. “It’s just a very simple email format, addressing the two things people genuinely care about.”
By answering the why-you, why-now questions, without forcing it, you’ve done what you need to do: addressed the problem a prospect is currently experiencing. “If I get an email that addresses those questions, then it’s clear to me they’ve done their homework. I’m more willing to give them time, because they’re invested in helping me out. It’s a basic exchange.”
Ryan suggests anyone interested in connecting organically with people read Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross. In it, Ross relays the referral email. ‘Can you introduce me to the guy who handles job postings?’. “What I love about this is, I can choose to intro, I can choose not to. If it’s simple enough, I don’t have to get caught up in the weeds. It’s a straight-forward way to get referrals.”
4.) Understand: Mapping out the differences between your Sales Process and their Buying Process
If you’re trying to figure out your own cost of acquisition, it’s best to think about it in stages. Before anything else, ask yourself: what are the five things that need to happen before I sell this product?
Here, Ryan breaks down a sample sales process into five basic steps:
- Find and email your prospects
- Conduct a discovery call (30 mins)
- Map out the organization (and their buying process)
- Demo with both prospect and decision maker/influencer
- Ask for the order
This, Ryan notes, excludes customer onboarding. “Onboarding needs to be its own thing” he says, “and naturally should involve its own process and steps.”
After you’ve established the essential steps for a sales process, your next move is assigning them in the most efficient manner. “For instance, the first three steps can be done by an SDR, and the last two can be done by the two founders.” When it’s this early, usually the founders are the only ones who can demo, or the only ones who should, because they alone know the product well enough.
This is where cutting out the fat is key. “I always have to ask myself what’s necessary. A lot of the time, it’s not necessary to hire an account executive, because the closing can be done by those who do the demo.”
“It’s a push vs. pull. You have to prioritize, and at this stage, a lot of prioritizing boils down to what weighs the heaviest.”
When prioritizing is complete on the sales side, then comes the buying side: “Mapping the buying process is important, so much more important than people think.”
Mapping the buyer’s process simplifies and clarifies your own sales process.
“You need to know their budget, who their influencers are, who’s on maternity or paternity leave, etc. It can be completely different than your organization’s buying process, and definitely different than your own sales process.”
Depending on the steps, there is usually one commonality between buying processes: people will discuss options with each other. “Even if you’ve got a good budget and can do whatever you want with it, everyone checks with somebody else. I have a sales tool budget. It’s not that I need permission, but I still talk to one of two people. My CEO, or my sales reps.”
With his CEO, Ryan likes to give a heads up on what’s happening in the sales world and why he might be purchasing a particular product. If he’s talking to his SDRs, he’s letting them know what he’s going to buy, and asking for their insight—will it make their job easier? Will they use it?
5.) Simplify: How complicated is your sales process?
Ryan likes to map things out based on a complexity spectrum with the opposite ends being ‘transactional’ and ‘complex’ sales.
“Transactional,” Ryan says, “meaning one decision maker and a low contract value, usually less than $10K. No tech, no onboarding. Take Yelp, for instance, who has a reputation for transactional sales. It’s about a $4K commitment to advertise on their site. It’s a decision you can make right there on the phone. In terms of technical onboarding, it’s a display ad.”
As for complex sales, “They’re more, well, complex.” Ryan notes the average complex sale (according to C.E.B, authors of The Challenger Sale,) requires 5.4 decision makers. “A lot of people have to sign off. You have to think how it will affect sales, marketing, operations, and who the decision makers are in this process. And the more technical you get, the more expensive you get, so naturally decision makers increase.”
When it comes to the complexity spectrum, the most important thing to know is where your own business fits into it.
This is something that is almost never thought about in early stages. “Most of the time, I get a lot of: ‘Okay, we need to get our sales process down. We need to define it.’ And if that’s done, that’s a huge piece of the pie. But what people are missing is understanding how your own sales process should affect whom you hire.”
“It’s key to understand this, because sooner or later a founder will go out and hire some sales reps, and you have to remember there are different types of sales reps.”
Compatibility, Ryan adds, is key. A sales rep needs to be both compatible to your sales model and your sales process. “If you hire a sales rep that is the best at enterprise, and they handle a ten million dollar quota, chances are they’re not going to fit as well as someone who has already done transactional sales.”
The opposite is also true: “Take someone who is really transactional, you try to teach them a complex sales process, and it’ll be a long, slow onboarding. They still may be the right person to hire. But time is a factor and needs to be considered.”
As you think through your own sales strategy, remember the following:
Ask the right questions when defining your ideal customer profile. Being able to define this correctly is half the battle. But it needs to be done right.
When finding your customers, always look for fellow enthusiasts. Don’t be afraid to reach out to second degree LinkedIn connections. Ask questions to get ahead. Referrals are valuable.
Establish connections early, especially when cold emailing. Readers can sniff out a rushed attempt. If you can’t give them time, they won’t give it back.
Be able to map out both your own sales process, and your prospect’s buying process. Understand the difference between the two—and find linking elements.
Know where your own sales process fits on the complexity spectrum. Be able to hire sales reps based on their strengths and understanding of your process.
“Always keep it simple.”