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Sales Aren’t My Thing: How To Reframe Your Perspective and Close Multi-Million Dollar Deals

When I founded Anonymizer, I struggled with selling and marketing our solutions. I want to talk about how I overcame my engineering and science habits and prejudices to become effective at sales and marketing.

Selling does not come naturally to most technical people. From a cultural perspective, we see it as a “bad thing.” Engineers typically dislike being sold and don’t want to sell. It is a bad word. However, selling is a core responsibility of any founder. You need to do it all the time, in many contexts, and do it well if you want to be successful.

I want to help you by sharing a mental framework for approaching sales and marketing that worked for my technical/scientific brain. It worked well enough that after Ntrepid acquired Anonymizer, even though I was chief scientist, they had the marketing department report to me.

Selling is Not a Bad Word

First off, I want to tackle the aversion to sales among so many engineers and technologists. I do not want you to learn used-car sales tactics, high-pressure pitches, or start making overblown claims. I am talking about creating and delivering compelling communications intended to persuade an audience to take some action.

As a founder, you will be selling all the time. Of course, you will be selling your actual product or solutions. But, you will also be selling investors on your company. You will sell employees on the fun and potential of working for you and sell partners on the advantages of working together. You will even sell reporters on how much their readers would like the story you are trying to pitch.

You have to sell because merely putting information out in public is unlikely to generate results.” Build it, and they will come” rarely works. Or, put another way, “Hope is not a strategy.” Sales and Marketing are about taking control of your destiny.

Let go of any resistance to the idea of selling that you might have and commit to it in all these contexts. I spent years fighting my instinct to be “fair” and “even-handed.” I would talk about the pros and cons of my solutions. You don’t need to do that. You have no obligation to be a neutral party. Promote yourself and your company, not by bragging or lying, but by making the best case for the outcome you want. 

Humans are Emotional Monkeys

Engineers and scientists are trained to focus on logic, which often leads to a severe blind spot when trying to sell or market things. In reality, most purchasing decisions are primarily emotional (HBS Study). Although most of us think our own decisions are purely rational. They aren’t. We are just good at fooling ourselves.

This reality suggests that it would be difficult to argue your way to a sale. Unfortunately, that approach was my first instinct. I would effectively say, “Here is a clear and airtight argument for why you should buy my solution.” How could that possibly fail unless the customer was an idiot who could not follow my reasoning? 

To the shock of no one but me, this approach did not work well. So, I doubled down and tried to teach my customers to understand why they should accept my proposal. Of course, that just made things worse.

They felt like I was trying to school them on their own business. I was assuming a position of authority, which caused resentment and pushback. That feeling of conflict between us actively harmed my chances of closing the deal.

Once I finally embraced the reality of our species’ emotional decision-making process, everything changed. My new approach requires adopting a very different perspective.

Our monkey minds react to the world through emotion, then often use logic to build a framework to support those feelings. Your job is to create the feelings that will lead to a sale or whatever outcome you need. 

Two of the most commonly used emotions are fear and desire for status. Almost all security products leverage fear in their sales process. “If you don’t use our new malware detection system, the hackers will destroy your business!” It can also work with things like personal care products where they might say, “If you don’t whiten your teeth with our amazing toothpaste, you will be unattractive to potential mates.” Fear can even work when pitching investors where you try to create FOMO or “Fear Of Missing Out.”

Like fear, desire for status is almost universal among primates. We don’t buy fancy cars because they are many times better at getting us to work, but because they show how successful we are. I certainly don’t need a car that goes from zero to sixty in 2.4 seconds for any logical reason; I just love it! Five thousand-dollar purses don’t hold more or last longer than twenty buck bags, yet some people have a closet full of them. Status can be about success, power, group membership, or any other signal of worth.

When selling cyber-stealth solutions to the US National Security community, I tried to inspire four different emotions. I was talking to very mission-focused people. I wanted them to feel excited about the possibility of achieving their missions more successfully and with greater impact. I enflamed their ambition by showing how deploying our solution would make them look like heroes and visionaries within their organization. I demonstrated how complex our solution was and the vast number of risks that needed to be addressed, to instill trepidation about their ability to do it themselves. Finally, I focused on our track record and experience to create confidence that we could deliver on our commitments.

Engaging with an audience’s emotions does not mean everything is fluff. I used facts, information, and sound arguments where appropriate to create these feelings, but the feelings were my primary objective when delivering sales presentations. Think about what emotions you want to activate within your audience to achieve your goal.

Clarify Your Purpose

When you launch your company, you will probably build a website, create a product brochure, have sales meetings, and speak at conferences. But why? 

Sometimes we create materials because it seems like we should. Of course, you need to have a website. Obviously, you need a product spec-sheet. So, you build them, but to what end? Without understanding the purpose, you will waste your time and end up with ineffective content.

Understand who your audience is and their starting mental state. For example, if you are creating a product brochure, is this something that you will dump in a pile at a coffee shop or a document you will leave with a prospective customer after a sales meeting? In the first case, the reader probably has no idea who you are, so the document is an introduction. In the second, the audience knows you well, so the paper should reinforce the meeting’s messages and allow them to carry your message to others within the organization. 

Once you identify and understand the audience, the next question is: what do you want them to Think, Feel, and Do?

Going back to my example of selling Anonymizer’s solutions, I might have said:

  • Think that we can solve their need for an undercover operations platform
  • Feel confident in us and uncertain about doing it themselves
  • Do commit to moving forward with a trial deployment

Try to keep these objectives narrowly focused. People rarely retain more than about three key concepts from any single communication. You may have fifty data points in a white paper, but forty-seven of them should only be there to support the three things you want them to remember.

Fortunately, in addition to being more powerful, emotions also last. Long after my memory fog has consumed your slick arguments, I will remember the way you made me feel. If you do that, the warm halo you have created will color all your future interactions.

Communicate From Your Customer’s Perspective

When technical founders start selling, we often imagine our users as molded in our image. In the early days at Anonymizer, I would ask myself what I would want. It’s natural to use ourselves as a model for our customers or audience. After all, we have a lot of insight into what we like. 

I designed one of the early versions of Anonymizer with amazingly sophisticated privacy settings. I could dial in precisely what I wanted to allow any specific website to learn about me. It was super cool. Also, the customers hated it and never used those features. 

It turns out I was a terrible model for my customers, and you probably are as well. The next and far better-received version of Anonymizer had only a single control, on or off. It broke my heart but made lots of money. 

This insight applies to communications as well. Learn about your customers and speak to them in terms of their priorities. How does your solution fit into their world?

Most often, engineers make the mistake of talking about features rather than benefits. We want to tell our customers about how amazing our technology is and how it works. Generally, your audience does not care. They want to know how it makes their lives better. Does it make them money, save them time, prevent pain, provide pleasure, or enable them to achieve some objective?

Because I see this mistake so frequently, some specific examples might be helpful. A company I invested in, and where I sit on the board of directors, makes smart collars, and an associated mobile app, for dogs and cats. One of the key features is a GPS tracker. The related benefit is knowing that your pet is safe and finding it quickly if it gets loose. The mobile app includes a marketplace for purchasing all kinds of pet products. The benefit is getting alerted about needing supplies before running out and easily ordering them with a single tap. Finally, they have motion and temperature sensors to track the animal’s health, activity, and environment. But the benefit is keeping your fur baby healthy and happy.

Focusing on benefits over features even applies to your visuals. Pictures of happy customers are almost always more effective than screenshots of your user interface.

Aesthetics Matter

When finally forced to start selling, engineers usually focus on the details of our argument. Unfortunately, when it comes to conveying ideas and instilling emotions, the words you choose play a small role. The visual impression and tone can have a much more significant impact. The book Silent Messages suggested that your visual appearance makes up 55% of the effect, the character of your voice is 38%, while the words you speak account for only 7%. In meetings and talks, focus at least as much on your energy, attitude, posture, and eye contact, as on the content.

Steve Jobs was a true master of presenting. Many people talk about his ability to create a “reality distortion field.” He would linger on the experience of using a new product, with lush visuals showing how amazing it would feel. Even if the product was not that innovative or objectively exciting, people left the theater desperate to get their hands on it.

The same effect applies to written communications as well. The layout of a document, and the choice of visuals, can do more to sway your prospects than the words within. When marketing collateral looks “professional” and polished, those ideas and feelings carry over to your solution and company as a whole. Conversely, a clunky layout and awkward design suggest that your company is slipshod, and using your solution will be an unpleasant experience.

Another essential soft sales and marketing technique is communicating with narrative rather than data. We are story-telling monkeys. If you present your information in the form of characters on some kind of journey, it will be far more memorable.

I see many pitch decks start with a statement of a problem or pain point followed by information about the size of the market, and finally, a short description of the solution. There is nothing wrong with that approach, but it can be much more effective to talk about Sally, who needs to do something but experiences some challenge shared by a substantial population of people like her. You could then describe the same scenario after adopting your solution and the miraculous improvement in the outcome. The audience gets the same information but will remember it longer and better.

If you can paint your customer as the hero of the story, even better. It will involve them personally and emotionally in the experience.

A Sales & Marketing Framework for Technical Founders

The core of this framework comes down to recognizing and embracing the illogical way humans think and make decisions. Focus on the emotional impact you want to achieve. Laser in on the specific purpose and desired results of each communication. Always talk from the customer’s perspective, highlighting benefits rather than features. And finally, put in the time and effort to make the soft aspects of your messages, the visuals, tone, and stories, at least as strong as the argument itself.

This simple framework took me from being totally ineffective as sales to closing huge deals left and right. I hope it will do the same for you.

*  *  *

This post was written by Lance Cottrell (Creator of Feel the Boot, an advice and information resource for founders), a successful entrepreneur, board member of the North Bay Angels, and a Global Entrepreneur in Residence at the Founder Institute; and was originally published on Feel the Boot.

Graduates of the Founder Institute are creating some of the world's fastest growing startups, having raised over $950M in funding, and building products people love across over 200 cities worldwide.

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