It is interesting looking back at how we prepared our sales team, especially in light of a very thoughtful and highly relevant article I picked-up from the Harvard Business Review. The article was written by Mark Leslie, the managing director of Leslie Ventures, and Charles A. Holloway, an emeritus professor of management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California.
The article discusses the need for what might be called tempered, carefully considered and carefully planned enthusiasm for selling new products. You run a company, let’s say, and your engineering department has developed an impressive new product. You feel deeply that the product is really good – a conclusion borne out by technical research and testing — and will make a real impact on the market. Your strong temptation is to get out and make a full scale effort to sell the product. Don’t.
In their very first paragraph, Leslie and Holloway set out the problems a company will face if it plunges in too quickly into a full scale sales effort.
“When a company launches a new product, the temptation is to immediately ramp up sales force capacity to acquire customers as quickly as possible. Yet in our 25 years of experience with start-ups and new-product introductions, we’ve found that hiring a full sales force too fast just leads the company to burn through cash and fail to meet revenue expectations. Before it can sell the product efficiently, the entire organization needs to learn how customers will acquire and use it, a process we call the sales learning curve.”
The “learning curve” itself is a simple concept to understand. A person’s ability to do a task, a simple task or a complicated task, gets better and better the more practice they get – to a point. Learning starts slowly, and then speeds up, than slows down again after time spent doing the task. Basic ability should not decrease, just the rate of improvement of ability. An illustration of the process forms a bell-shaped curve, hence the title “learning curve.”
With the launch of a new product, service or solution, your organization will need to climb a sales learning curve. That is, you will need to learn how to sell the product – ideally with a group of salespeople who enjoy the novelty of a new product and who can work with the uncertainty of selling a product they haven’t sold before. As your company learns to sell the new product, you will refine your sales process, your sales messaging and your sales tools. Then, only after you learned to sell and support the sale of the product, should you roll out the product to your entire sales team.
This seems counter-intuitive to the natural sales instinct of selling as quickly and as much as possible. Remember, however, that though the process may be slower at the start, sales should speed up in the long term as you learn, in the field, how to most effectively sell and support the product.
How do you find out how to sell your product “in the field”? You start with giving your salespeople a good understanding of what the product can do. They should be able to use the product – but you are not training IT people. You increase the amount of contact with potential clients for the new product, even to the point of more client meetings in the initial phases of sales – or even earlier. Ask for their input. “You bought product x from us and like it. What do you think we should put in product X 2.0, or product Y?” Try to find a way of asking what would get them to replace the earlier product without making it seem like high pressure tactics. For those who buy the new product, check back and ask them how it is being used.
The sales learning curve is learning how the product is actually used, what it can really do, and adjusting sales techniques accordingly. Gathering facts as well as sales, in the sales learning curve, gives will also technical feedback. Let your engineering people know about any problems and get to work correcting any problems. They gave you a good new product. They can help you make it a great, and a popular, new product that fits market needs.
Selling a new product has to live with the reality of the learning curve. You start slowly, to see how your product fits in the business world. You research client needs, as a part of effective sales. You also monitor how your product meets these needs. (You keep monitoring, even when your sales forces ramps up towards a full-scale effort.) With the new facts your “pioneer” and follow-on sales staff gather, you adapt and alter your sales approach to meet client needs better, to meet the needs of more clients, and to increase your sales revenues.
 July-August 2006