Here’s what’s inside:
- How to get first customers? Where to find them? How to approach them?
- Is it good to outsource sales?
- What should be the founders’ approach towards seeking customers?
- Why personalization matters?
- What apps can be of help?
- Why is honesty the thing?
Mike: So how to get first traffic?
Mick: That’s a very common questions and the cool thing is that there’s no right or wrong answer. Every time I talk to a CEO they would always do it in a different way. My advice is to use your own network. If you have a friend and you know that what you’re selling will improve something for them, offer it.
Mike: What if you have no network? How do you get those first sales?
Mick: You’ve got to grind them out. It’s the second reason most businesses fail – there’s no market need. You have to solve a problem. If you do, there would be complete strangers that are talking about the problem and it will be easy to identify your potential customers. If there aren’t any, you’re before their time or just not solving their problem
Mike: Is it possible that someone’s trying to fix a problem outside their current environment? For example, I see a lot of problems corporates have even though I don’t spend a lot of time with them.
Mick: If you’re selling to everybody, you’re selling to nobody. Even if you don’t have any experience in the corporate world but you know your new service solves a corporate problem, try to narrow in who the perfect buyer is. It’s not just cooperation. Which cooperation? People with more than 500 customers or 5 million? Or X amount of employees. Then you narrow a little bit more and more. Then you can really say: “I’m going to go after these 100 people, because they’re exactly the people that I saw the problem of.
Mike: What if your community is outside your target customer base? When we were launching the US version of Brand24, we didn’t know anybody. How to grind out the initial context if you’re, for example, here in Poland and want to launch your product internationally?
Mick: There are two ways to do it. One way is to go traditional, use tools like LinkedIn, targeting by demographics, etc. But what I would really recommend, because in the long-term it saves you a ton of money, is to become an expert in what you’re doing. If you’re selling cheese abroad, be the go-to person for the topic of cheese. That will pay you back not only for the first sales but also forever.
When we do recruitment or talk to salespeople, the worst thing anyone can say to me is “I can sell anything. I can sell sand to the Egyptians”. I don’t like that. If you’re perfect at selling everything, you’re probably not passionate about what you’re selling. And that comes over to customers. They feel if you really believe in what you’re talking about.
Mike: So getting to the practical point: where do you get these initial leads? You mentioned LinkedIn. Any other sources that we could look for leads depending on the problems you solve?
Mick: It all depends on the problem. LinkedIn is the most obvious one, especially in the B2B space. If it was B2C, there are also specific forums. The easiest way to do it is to put into Google the problem you actually solve and look what’s ranking high. Is it a blog post, a forum, a company?
Mike: This way you’ll find communities to engage and hopefully get the feedback.
Mick: The days of going through Yellow Pages are gone. My first job was selling recycling bins for print cartridges…
Mike: No way! We’ve known each other for a while, but I had no idea you used to sell bins… We wouldn’t hire somebody with that background! (laugher)
Mick: But the fact is that my day one was like “here’s the car keys, the company car, the map, you can go”. I was like “wow… awesome…” I think the first place I went to was McDonald’s. But this is how it used to be. A lot of companies still do it and it’s crazy.
Mike: But is it really that different from hustling and finding these leads on the Web, rather than in the real world?
Mick: It’s still hustling. It’s still awkward, even on LinkedIn: “Hello, I don’t know you, would you like to buy something?”. But you told me this and I think a lot of CEOs say it: when you actually grow, you miss those days when you really give time to each lead. Once I read a book and there was the best thing ever: as a salesperson, you decide what is a no, you decide what’s a fail. When you think “oh, that lead didn’t give me his money, that’s a fail!”, well, maybe it’s not. Maybe he told you 10 things you can improve. It’s still a benefit, still a win. It might not be dollars, but it’s value. You’ve got to decide because there are so many other levels.
Mike: I feel like “sales” becomes a bad word in a way. Being a salesman is instantly related to those pushy guys that call and offer you financial advising or whatever.
Mick: It’s true. Even if I meet new people and they ask me what I do, and if it’s a totally relaxed party, and I say I’m in sales, there’s something like: “he’s going to convince me to do something I don’t want to do”. It’s the stereotype, but it’s earned. It’s a real stereotype because there’s a lot of shitty salespeople.
Mike: My initial thoughts about sales, especially in the early days, were that it’s more about asking people for feedback, rather than their money. You don’t use words like “offer”, “money”, “pricing”, or “buy”. You contact as many people as you can to get feedback which is super valuable for creators. Actually, one of the things that were surprising when we launched the beta version of Brand24 and before we formalized the company, was that we had people asking us for pricing even before we had a payment system. I feel like this should be the approach. We never asked them about money. We always asked them for the feedback.
The first sales are not about sales per say. They should be a by-product of really good relationships with those early adopters.
Mick: Sure. It’s a little bit like life skills. It’s confidence. People like confidence. If you’ll have to give discounts away to get the first 50 sales, it’s not because of the discount. You’ll probably have a look and say “well, maybe we’re overpriced”, if that’s the only reason. It’s just about being confident. Like you said: if somebody says “it’s not for me”, you’ve got to believe you make the right product for the right people. It’s all in the ideal world. Like Gary Vee says: “Don’t be like the 18-year-old dude and don’t try to score on the first date”. You’ve got to play the long game. Give value, give value, give value and they will come back to you anyway. But businesses also need to make money. You’ve got to find the middle ground.
Mike: There’s nothing wrong with making money while providing value and solving problems. It’s just like you said: it’s all about providing value. I feel like the young companies don’t necessarily get it. They feel like that’s all about making money. I made a huge mistake like this. I used to think the same. In a way, I used to think about it subconsciously. For example, I found myself agreeing to customer requests to share something on my personal Facebook wall, going everywhere to do workshops just because I felt I owe them.
Mick: Exactly. At Brand24, we’ve lately outlawed discount codes. We try not to do it anymore apart from very specific situations. It makes you feel a little bit desperate, especially at the end of the month: you have to hit your target and you’re like “the only way to do this, is to offer a discount code”. You’re actually being more detrimental because if someone is to buy and you’ve just lowered the price, they will ask themselves “why?”. Any tool that is free forever momentarily gets you thinking why is it free.
Mike: It’s much harder to sell a free product, even with a paid version. People don’t really respect free products.
Mick: Yeah, they haven’t invested anything themselves. They haven’t had to put in there a single dollar. By the way, an investment doesn’t have to be money. It could be time, an email address. If it costs them nothing, it costs them nothing to lose it. That’s the tough part.
Mike: We talked a little bit about the early days of Brand24, how we had our first sales and I actually remember doing all this stuff by myself, and this is how we get to the second point of our discussion.
Is it good to outsource your sales at the early stage? You create a cool product and have a company that’s awesome at sales and they get to sell your product. Is it a good idea?
Mick: I’d love to say no because I don’t believe in it and I wouldn’t do it, but, of course, there would be some success stories of people who did. I like working at Brand24 because we have the same vision of value first. Customer satisfaction is everything. At Brand24 we don’t have sales and customer support. Everybody pitches in. I feel that when you pass a customer at any point of their journey, it causes confusion. You have what we call a “chaser”. It’s that one person in the sales department that does a thousand calls, but they’re just appointment setting. And how stupid it is when they call you and say “hey Mick, I’d love to talk to you”, and if I said “okay, I wanna buy now”, they couldn’t sell it.
When it comes to outsourcing, I feel it’s diluting the value. It’s diluting the product. Nos give probably more value than yeses in the early days because you learn why.
Mike: I couldn’t agree more. The feedback you get from customers is the most important thing you can get in the early stage. That’s because typically, the early version of the product is not necessarily a customer’s dream-come-true solution. The early days are the best source of feedback. I actually miss it a lot. In 2011, when we launched Brand24 and I was doing sales, I learned the most about customer needs and problems.
Mick: I think a lot of it is down to being afraid that doing sales in a scary thing. The second thing is that for some people, building a product is just a process. They’re not in it because they love what they do. Hiring and outsourcing sales teams will guarantee you a certain amount of sales. It’s a machine. But the feeling the customers are left with, the life cycle of these customers… I feel that it hurts in the long run.
Mike: I remember when you shared on our Slack Elon Musk’s letter to his employees talking about no discount policy, because it devalues the product. There’s also another insight that I got from Elon Musk’s biography. When they were on the verge of bankruptcy, he made engineers work as salespeople. In the early stage, founders, creators or engineers may be better at sales that people from outside the company who don’t necessarily understand what problem they solve.
Mick: And that’s the key. If you want to be successful as a product, you need to solve a problem and keep repeating that. And if you solve a problem, the people at your company have to know the same thing, know the problem. And you need to believe in it as cheesy as it sounds.
I still get a little bit frustrated when people pitch me on LinkedIn or email in Polish. I get it but it’s one click of looking through my past history that would tell them I probably don’t speak Polish.
Mike: Let’s get back to stats for a moment. Our currents stats are based, let’s say, on a thousand contacts. We mostly get inbound sales. From 1000 new people visiting our website 8% of them sing up, so it’s around 80 trials. From these 80 demo accounts we get, on average, 4-5% conversion so it’s 4-5 sales.
Mick: So for every thousand visitors we get 4 new customers.
Mike: FOUR new customers for every thousand contacts. And it’s still a pretty good business. I feel like young companies forget about it and think that knocking on 10 doors will get them X amount of customers.
Mick: Yeah, you have to have a thick skin. Imagine this is a real-life scenario that you have to speak to a thousand people and 996 of them said “no” in your face. And you have to be like: “Okay, next one!”.
Mike: I actually always imagined that during conferences. Imagine all of the audience saying no and just 4 people saying yes. It sounds like a really shitty business but, apparently, it’s a good one.
Mick: When you hear these stories that companies have a bell ringing when they get a sale, they sound cheesy but you need to. Those sales should make you emotionally feel good. And that’s why you do it. Because if you’re not selling, you’re off the target, you feel like you want the ground to open up.
Mike: You talked a little bit about personalization that you get some offers on LinkedIn that don’t even make the effort to see that you’re British and Polish isn’t your primary language. What do you recommend in terms of personalization? Is there a sweet spot? Is it the quality or quantity and just grind that numbers?
Mick: You’ve probably got between 3 and 7 seconds of someone’s attention to show them that you did a little bit of research. You don’t have to know their life story. In these 3 to 7 seconds, you need to make them realize that you checked them out. And nobody will think that you’re a stalker. You can obviously overdo it like “hey, I know you so well, here’s a picture of you in your garden”. But if you do a sale like “hey, I see that you guys have been on the market for 3 years”, and you’re the founder, you’re like “shit, I’m on a market for 3 years”. The first stumbling point is to get someone to give you their attention so don’t spend hours and hours on leads, but just drop in there, into the first three lines something that will make them realize.
Mike: Probably a name would be a good start. So many emails start with “Dear Sir or Madam, we’re in an innovative company that does this and this” and, yet, you’re not innovative enough to check my name.
Mick: You instantly know it’s not worth your time. And people value their time. A good salesperson will know when to be like “Dear Mr Griffin”, or “hey Mick!”, or “what’s up Mick?!”. You could go through my Facebook and easily know what kind of language I’m okay communicating by. I love when people do “hey Mick!” with the explanation mark at the end. Just drop in something that says “I gave enough shit today to learn a little bit about you”. And that’s it. The rest of the pitch is obviously different for each product.
Mike: Again, in the early days, I sent 3000 personal messages that were like this: “Congrats on becoming the PR manager for this company! I was wondering if you’d like to (here I talk about the benefits of our product). If you want to test it out, it’s an early beta. I’d love to have your insights”. That’s it. No sales, no offer, no pricing or whatever. Just insights. It’s super personalized. I used a lot of Facebook, LinkedIn and email. The conversion rate to demo accounts was like 30%. The personalization was the key. I feel like young companies try to google sales…
Mick: Yeah, you have stories of people buying half a million addresses from eBay…
Mike: Or scraping email addresses and just doing cold mailing.
Mick: And the sad thing is: it will get you sales. The conversion rate is there, it’s super low but you have to appreciate how much you’re not only turning off people that don’t buy, but they will never come back to you.
Mike: And probably the loyalty of the customers that you sign is much lower. It’s actually like generating customers rather than making sales.
Mick: This may sound really weird or backward but at we panic the most at Brand24 when someone buys on day zero. We suddenly think that they might not know what they bought, they reacted too quickly. For us, it’s the first person on the list to call and say “are you sure you know what you’ve got? Can I show you our benefits?”. It’s panic for us. Anyone who buys your product from a super cold email that wasn’t personalized, wasn’t sent at the right time, it’s luck. It’s forcing a sale. I don’t think it’s scalable and I don’t think it’s the right way to do it but like I said in the beginning – people will be doing it. But it’s not our way.
Mike: So we discussed how to get the initial audience: one needs to engage message boards, to write personalized emails asking for insights, not money. Any tools we might recommend?
Mick: The first thing: track what you do. Count even manually on a notepad: this is how many emails I sent, etc.
There’s no way you’re gonna get 996 nos and feel you’re winning. But if you look at see that you have 4% conversion, you’ll feel good about it.
Mike: We just met with guys from Wroclaw-based Woodpecker which is a really cool high-deliverability tool good for any stage at sales.
Mick: The way to sell is to hit the right consumer at the right point when they’re ready to buy. I wouldn’t even buy a CRM system at day one.
Mike: Yeah, this is one of the mistakes that early-stage companies do. They get too excited about tools or workflows. They make it super professional, yet they don’t grind enough numbers, they don’t make enough contacts to generate sales.
Mick: Maybe it’s right for your business, maybe having a CRM day one is a good thing. My opinion would be don’t go super complex. Don’t jump into Salesforce day one. Count but count in the easiest way from day one. You can always upgrade your tools from a Google Doc to the next tool to the next tool. And that’s also because you cut money to spend. Don’t blow your budget on the best CRM system in the world when you don’t have any leads to manage. There’s so many nice little tools and plugins for Gmail that, for example, when you hover over an address, it shows you LinkedIn data or Klout Score data. They are the little things that streamline the way you work.
Mike: I use Charlie App. It connects with your Google Calendar, picks your scheduled meetings with people haven’t met before and the app researches these people. It sends you an email 24 hours before the meeting and cross references your social with their social, including Twitter, Facebook or whatever. And you see the common ground. For example, I see that Mick likes Premier League and I see that we have something in common we can talk about.
Mick: You get into that conversation and be like “I saw that you like Liverpool. What happened last week?!”. It relaxes people. When people think that you’re gonna sell them, they put barriers. And your job as a salesperson is to lower those barriers.
Another tool, which is a life-saver for us, is an appointment tool. So there’s Calendly, there’s Appoint.ly from Poland. Imagine how much time you waste with clients when you’re like:
X: What time would you like to talk tomorrow?
Y: I’d like to talk at 3 PM.
X: I can’t do 3 PM. Can you do 4 PM?
Every step you add, you lose conversion. Calendly and Appoint.ly these are life-savers because you just say “pick the time that suits you”. And me, as a salesperson, I’m walking into 3 scheduled calls that clients scheduled. Leads are coming in and saying “talk to me at 3 PM”. It’s a win-win. I’m not being selfless. We get a lot of questions from people how to do this and that and I want to give them attention, but the flipside is everytime someone asks me, it makes me challenge myself and ask how do we really go out and get leads. Is it still accurate? Is there a better way?
Mike: We’re talking about a tool that will help you get the first sales and I feel that we talk a lot about the pipeline, tools to optimize conversion, to make the workflow automated, but I just realized that getting sales is mostly about the number of contacts and being open enough to get as many contacts as possible. I feel like so many companies have their contact site with a bad form asking about a quadrillion details about your company that they need. They forget that contact is the best feedback. Especially in the early days. It’s typical that at the later stage, companies get more proxy, more firewalled between them and customers. And it’s kinda normal when you have the scale. We used to have my phone number all over the website but we don’t do this anymore. Tools like LiveChat or marketing automation tools like Intercom or User Engage, they are live-savers, especially at the early stage. We used LiveChat in our early days and it was a lifesaver because I could be in the cinema, in the queue and I could talk to customers. They were always one click away from me.
Mick: You don’t have to pretend and do bullshit. About 3 weeks ago the customer success team had gone home, someone asked a question and I replied like “listen, I’m literally on the train, I can’t answer right now. Is that okay? Should I wake someone up?”. And the customer said something like: “No worries. Thanks for replying”.
Mike: This honesty, like being in the cinema, is okay if you’re in a different time zone…
Mick: It actually builds more loyalty.
Mike: It can often convert into a really good PR and good marketing.
Mick: You should know your ideal customer. If you’re selling a tool for hardcore developers, you do not run a cold calling campaign. Developers don’t like people. They like sitting away with their headphones on. They like to be in the zone. They don’t want to be interrupted by a phone call. I’m in sales. I prefer to be sold online…
Mike: I hate phone calls. If you want to pitch me anything, do that on Facebook. Because it’s on my terms. And customers want to be pitched on their terms.
Mick: On the other hand, my dad loves phone calls. He hates anything else. If I’ve got a tool that’s perfect for sixty-year-old guys, I’m gonna do call and not Twitter or email. You’ve got to know your audience. We know that people who usually buy our Personal Plus plan like online conversations, infographics and short content. When we pitch Pro Max, it’s white papers, Top 100 Influencers report, because we’ve got to adapt to them.
Mike: The key insight here is that we have to make it easy enough for customers to contact us and there’s no bad way. You don’t have to make your email like contact@ or helpcenter@ to try to look like a huge company.
Mick: And don’t be afraid like: “Oh, we started a live chat so we have to answer all the time…”. Be honest. Leave a little autoresponder.
Mike: It’s super easy. If you’re not available, it goes through your email and it’s pretty much the same thing as a form.
Mick: We have challenges being a Polish company. We have vacation days that aren’t vacation days in other countries. When we’re off, it’s okay to say to our American customers: “Listen, it’s actually a holiday when our team is based. If it needs to be escalated, of course we’ll do it”. Don’t bullshit that you have a 24/7 support because you don’t need to do it.
Mike: So key takeaways here are honesty and being able to make it as easy as possible for a customer to start a conversation.