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23 March 2021
Unsplash © Mika Baumeister

Your startup’s revenue problem is probably a broken sales process

There’s a single source of truth that determines the success or failure of your business. If you’re not generating the revenue numbers you need to extend your runway, hit your goals, and develop traction, then failure is a foregone conclusion.

Far too often in my 20+ years growing new companies, I see leaders obsess over every detail of their business except the one thing causing the actual problem.

Why does this happen?

Because a broken sales process is a silent killer. Flaws in your sales strategy will quietly linger and fester, systematically eating away at the health of your business. While on the outside, everything will appear to be rosy, just one small break away from an avalanche of new customers.

Here’s how to identify a broken sales process, why we keep overlooking it, and how to fix it.

Why we blame everything but sales

When I ask entrepreneurs and company leaders why they believe they’re not hitting the revenue numbers they want, they’ll point to a lot of different issues:

Messaging: This excuse is usually at the top: “We’re just not doing a good enough job explaining our value proposition to the customer.” Marketing will then fall on their sword to fix it, running through a series of expensive and time-consuming A/B tests and focus groups.

Product: “If it’s not broken, fix it so it sells more.” This backwards logic can easily sneak into leadership’s thesis. But the opposite is actually the truth. If you can’t sell the product you have, you’re not going to sell a newer, sexier version of it.

Pricing: Sales will tell you that the price point is too high. Marketing will tell you that the product isn’t aspirational enough. Or maybe the pricing model is just “wrong” — and you wind up experimenting with subscription or pay-as-you-go or any model that makes one price look like another price.

Reach: Another derivative of marketing. Basically, this means the channels you’ve chosen aren’t reaching the customers you’re targeting. The solution here might include the aforementioned messaging experiments across new channels, thereby making it even harder to tell if marketing is the issue.

External: Otherwise known as “it’s not our fault.” Anything from COVID to shrinking industry demand to disruptions in supply chains could be dampening sales flow. You can either wait until the problem abates or try a million work-arounds.

The complication here is that all of those are valid reasons for why revenue might be stagnant. So I’m not saying that you don’t have problems in any of those areas, but they’re usually secondary issues. If your sales process is busted, no amount of fix in any other area is going to produce results until that sales process is fixed.

So always do this first.

Buy your own product

When was the last time you bought and experienced your own product?

This is an anecdote I like to tell from my time as Chief Product at Spiffy — mobile vehicle wash and maintenance on demand in 20 cities.

Sometimes, my car would be dirty, and my friends would give me crap that would usually end with them saying a version of:

“If I got free car washes, I would get my car washed all the time.”

We don’t get free car washes. In fact, our folks don’t even get any discount that isn’t currently offered to the public. This is so all of us, from leadership to marketing to sales to technology, will go through the process of being a customer, buying the product, and experiencing the execution. With real, undiluted money, and no fringe benefits or insider preferences.

Look for friction in the funnel

How clunky is your sales process? Because it only has to be a little clunky to drive away almost every sale, every time.

Start by assessing your need, and document it, because it you don’t have a solid point of reference as a customer, you’re going to fall into your habits as an entrepreneur. In other words, you’ll be focused on the aspects of your sales process that benefit your business, not your customer.

Look at your the messaging at the top of your funnel. As a customer, do you find that messaging clever? Or do you find that messaging compelling you to click or call or whatever the intended action is.

When that action is taken, how quickly can the customer purchase? Do you measure that in days? Hours? Minutes?

Spoiler alert: It should be seconds.

There are all kinds of scenarios requiring all means of salesperson handholding and contracts and pre-qualifications. I understand that. But your primary sales case should not be catering to the wishy-washy, on-the-fence customer that needs convincing. It should be for the customer with the open wallet and the credit card out with enough credit on that card to cover the purchase of your product that they so desperately need.

Look for value in the funnel

Is your sales process fun?

I’m totally serious about fun.

One of strategic tenets I hammer home to entrepreneurs about their product is that it needs to evolve from a cool new toy to a must-have item.

Everything about the product, from what it does to how it’s explained, should reflect a feeling of necessity.

However, on the sales side, you have to evolve your approach from necessary evil to palpable excitement. Most business people look at a potential sale and do everything in their power not to lose it. The customer does not look at your product this way. They want you to prove value, not disprove all the potential problems. It’s a nuanced change in your approach, but it’s critical.

Think about the last time you bought something you really wanted. What drove you was the expectation you had for the end of the process — the fun, the enjoyment, the satisfaction you were going to feel when that thing was yours. You were vibing on the value of that thing.

The same is true when you really need something. The value driving you there is the anticipation of the removal of pain, frustration, expense, or any other gating issues that are preventing you from living your best life.

Your sales process needs to reflect that value at every point.

There are necessary evils in this life — dental work, auto insurance, tax preparation. Don’t be those. But even if you are, remember that those products are sold on bright smiles, smooth claims processes, and quick tax refunds.

When you buy your own product, are you excited at the end of the transaction? If not, document all the reasons why and attack those reasons in your sales process before you attack what you believe to be the root cause.

Distractions kill transactions

I like the food at Restaurant A better than I like the food at Restaurant B. But the online ordering at Restaurant A is tragically difficult, with way too many extra clicks. Furthermore, the pickup process at Restaurant A is not enjoyable, usually resulting in a 10-minute wait regardless of when I arrive. Oh, also Restaurant A gets my order wrong about half the time.

You can see where this is going, right? I order from Restaurant B way more often even though their product is inferior.

Remember, transaction and even fulfilment are still critical parts of the sales process.

On the transaction side, decide the bare minimum information you need from the customer and collect only that. I recently made a change in Teaching Startup to remove the collection of the customer’s name, because although it was a cool thing to be able to refer to a member by name, I realised I didn’t need it and it didn’t matter to them.

My conversion rate tripled.

On the fulfilment side, ask how your sales process reinforces a long relationship with each customer?

At Precision Fermentation, we’re working on a Customer Success program right now that white-gloves new customers until they understand the unique value they’re getting from the product they just purchased.

Because your customer isn’t your customer until this moment happens.

This means we need to know each customer’s story going in, so we can determine how they define value, and then show them that value in a quantifiable way. Then they’re a customer for life, as long as we don’t screw it up.

Once you have a sales process that doesn’t have leaks in the funnel, you really do have an opportunity to go out and land an avalanche of new customers. Then, and only then, it’s time to look at marketing, feature set, and how to rise above those external factors that are keeping you down.

This article was originally published on Medium by Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio is a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. In 2015, he sold Automated Insights to Vista Equity Partners. In 2013, he sold ExitEvent to Capitol Broadcasting. Before that, he built Intrepid Media, the first social network for writers. You can read more and sign up for his newsletter at www.joeprocopio.com