Labcast: Startup Sales Dos and Don’ts with Colleen Francis

August 11, 2011

Building a high-functioning sales team is no easy task, especially for startup companies eying expansion. In this episode of Labcast, Colleen Francis, Founder and President at Engage Selling Solutions, calls in to discuss some of the common missteps many young sales organizations make and offers some advice for staying on course at the startup stage.

Startup Sales Dos and Don’ts with Colleen Francis

For more from Colleen, check out her Sell More & Work Less Blog and follow her on Twitter @CFrancisVoice.


Brendan Cournoyer: Hello again, everyone, and welcome to this episode of Labcast. Today we are joined by Colleen Francis, founder and President at Engage Selling Solutions. Colleen, thanks very much for joining us today.

Colleen Francis: Hey, my pleasure. Great to be here.

Brendan: Before we get started, I would like to give you the chance to introduce yourself and fill folks in on your background if they’re not familiar with what you do and also some of the work you do at Engage Selling Solutions.

Colleen: Sure. Thanks. I think one of the most salient pieces of information that you guys should all know about me is that I come out of the startup software world. A number of years ago a company that I worked for that was really quite small in the mid-six figures in revenue, internally financed company, was able to grow under my sales leadership to upwards of $13 million to $15 million before we were bought by a large software company that many people might know called OpenText. As a result of my experience there, I founded Engaged Selling Solutions ten years ago to start working with high growth companies. A large percentage of the work that we do is with venture backed or internally financed software or technology companies. Our real passion is helping them grow through proper sales methodologies, whether that be selling technique, selling strategies, hiring strategies, pipeline management, you name it. We will do anything that we can to help your team succeed bringing revenue in.

Brendan: As you said, having started in startup software, that’s a perfect lead-in to my first question. I was curious for some of the startup and expansion-stage founders and leaders out there, what are some of the specific sales methodologies and practices that you recommend for startups and growing companies in the software and technology industry?

Colleen: There are a couple of things that I think are really important. Pipeline development is critical. The first thing that we always look at with a startup company is how are we going to build the pipeline of real opportunities? What I think is important is that we target the market very clearly and that we go after very specific customers who can close quickly and who can provide really good case studies, because the sooner that we can build practical case studies or use cases, the bigger opportunities will start to manifest and the more opportunities we can create. But it all starts with pipeline development.

The biggest mistake that I see a lot of startup companies make is they worry that they don’t have enough revenue coming in the door, but when I look at it, it’s not really a sales problem so much as it is a client traction problem. So we have to go back to that prospecting. Who are we targeting? What’s our message? What’s the value proposition, the business value proposition of that message? Who are the right buyers? And how many of these leads do we need to have in the pipeline in order to ensure success in a given month, quarter, or year?

Brendan: You talked about one of the big mistakes you see a lot of those companies make. What are some other common mistakes and issues and pitfalls as far as the sales process and program that you see that a lot of startup and expansion-stage tech companies should really try and avoid?

Colleen: One is not understanding just what it takes to build a pipeline and ignoring the prospecting side. Two is not really understanding the business value of the software or the technology. So as a result, what I see are a lot of early-stage startups hiring salespeople who either are technology based sales people that don’t understand the business case, which is a mistake because people ultimately buy your software or technology service based on the business value it provides. Also they make mistakes because they hire the wrong kind of salespeople. As a startup, you need to hire salespeople who are great hunters, who love to build pipelines, who have a proven background of building something from nothing. Founders often get a little bit excited let’s say about salespeople who have really great resumes in closing large deals or managing big, multi-million dollar opportunities. But they might not be the right personality fit or behavioral fit or DNA fit for a startup company that needs someone who can dig in the trenches, who can go after deals and hunt them really.

Brendan: Right.

Colleen: So oftentimes I get involved in a startup company and the founder says, “Ah, the last salespeople pulled the wool over my eyes,” or “I got conned by the last sales guy,” or “the best sales job he did was the sales job was he did on me.” It’s not that the salespeople are bad, it’s that they’re the wrong fit for the type of organization that you are at the startup phase.

Brendan: Certainly. I’d imagine that’s got to be right there like a major challenge. A major challenge for startups and companies in general is just finding talent, the right talent, for their sector.

Colleen: It’s huge. I’m working with a company right now, and they have an amazing technology. This company is the closest company I’ve ever come to wanting to dump Engage and go work for somebody else, it’s so incredible. The sales problem that they have is that they are a disruptive technology in a traditional environment. Everybody on their team has great experience selling the traditional products in the traditional environment, and they have no idea how to position a completely disruptive technology in this same environment. So everything they know about selling is based on how the traditional market in this particular marketplace operates, and so they are struggling because they can’t disrupt the buying process. The guys are great. Don’t get me wrong. They have amazing skills. They just don’t have the right skills to bring this product to market.

Brendan: I also want to talk to you a little bit about training. Obviously, that is what you do and I really want to get your advice that you could offer people as far as like what you traditionally offer people during your training sessions. I’d also first like to get your thoughts now that we’re talking about finding talent for your sales team. Say you found someone, you’ve made that hire. The next step obviously is onboarding them and ramping them up and training them. Do you find that the training process in place for a lot of younger technology companies is sort of all over the place? In general, do you feel like there are a lot of holes that need to be filled? Or what some of the things that you’ve seen in your experience?

Colleen: I think that it’s important to remember that just because you have people who are good at their job doesn’t mean that they should not receive training. The best baseball players in the world still have to report into their coaches during spring training. The best hockey players in the world still have to report into practice. The best golfers in the world still spend millions of dollars a year on a coach. Sales is not something that you just start doing and get better and better and better on your own.

In fact, when I am hiring sales reps for clients, I’m involved in that hiring process, one of the key questions I ask them is, “What is the last professional development you did? Did you read a book or go to a seminar? What did you learn? What have you implemented?” If they say things like, “Oh, I don’t go to those seminars anymore,” or “I did but it was all a review. I know it all already,” if they don’t show a willingness to learn and improve and change, then they are not the right fit for a startup company. Because our markets are changing so quickly, we have to have teams that are willing to look at what they are doing now, realize it might not be working, and are willing to make a change quickly. If you have people on your team who say to you, “But I’m doing all the things over and over again that I thought worked and we’re not having any result. It’s not my fault. It must be the technology. It must be the market,” then you’ve got the wrong fit. As a startup company, you have to be willing to course correct on a regular basis.

Brendan: Right.

Colleen: I find more than anything in this marketplace with startup companies, we have to look at what we’re doing on a weekly, on a monthly basis and say, “Hmm, it’s not working the way we want. Let’s course correct and make a change, because if we wait six months or a year, it could be too late.”

Brendan: Sure. I’d imagine the training process, even for new hires who are the right fit, I would expect the training process to be especially important for software and technology companies being that they’re selling a lot of times a product where they’re going to have to know the lingo. They’re going to be talking to IT people that speak a different language. That takes some time for people who are coming from a different company that might not obviously be 100% familiar with the software or the product that they’re selling. That training to me seems critical in that area. Wouldn’t you say?

Colleen: Yes, absolutely critical. Yes, there’s product training, skills training, relationship training, account management training, negotiation training. The list goes on and on.

Brendan: So, like I said, I want to get back to some of your training sessions and some of the things that you do and people you work with. What is some of the most frequent advice that you give out during your training sessions with companies like these?

Colleen: Well, one, never stop prospecting. We have to remember that the sales process starts with client attraction process. We work on lead generation or client attraction processes to make sure that the pipeline is constantly being filled, because what I don’t want to see is startup companies build a pipeline and then start closing deals, but while they’re closing deals, ignore the refilling of the pipeline because that’s what creates lumpy revenue. When you’re VC financed or when you’re internally financed, what’s really important to show is consistency of revenue and cash flow. Investors want to know that you can sell and repeat, sell and repeat, and that you’ve got a product that will be in constant demand and growing demand. If you’re internally financed, your bank wants to know you’ve got cash flow. If you’re the owner, you want to know you have cash flow too.

The key to making that happen is to put lead generation processes in place so that every time you close a deal or a deal gets lost, there’s at least three more leads coming into the top of that pipeline. So understanding those ratios is really important. Business owners and salespeople have to get comfortable with those numbers. How many calls does it take to get a meeting? On average, between 7 and 12. How many meetings does it take to get a sale? How many qualified leads does it take to get a sale? Generally, three to four. So when I’m starting my training, we always analyze the pipeline and say, “Okay, your goal is a million dollars this year. Do you have three to four million dollars in the pipeline that is qualified and ready to close? If not, we need to start working on backfilling that pipeline.”

Brendan: I also want to talk a little bit about leadership in sales as far as like everything from the VP of sales on down. A lot of these mistakes and best practices and advice you were talking about, that is going to come from the top down to the reps that are on the phones. Do you see some of these mistakes as being common as far as from a sales leadership and sales manager perspective? What are some of the common mistakes that the manager can make that can sort of derail the entire process?

Colleen: One of the mistakes that the manager could make is not setting the course and sticking to it. Managers that have bright, shiny object syndrome, that get tangled up in either too many other non-sales related activities in a company or managers who change the course of direction every month or managers who change the compensation plan can be really detrimental to the team. I also believe that although for a very short-term reason the manager may need to have also direct selling responsibilities. Your first goal as a sales manager, if you’re selling direct in a territory, needs to be to replace yourself, because I believe that sales teams need full-time management for two reasons. One, salespeople need to be managed full-time, but two, what can be very detrimental to a team is if your team feels you’re selling against them. If you’re managing a territory that has all of the best leads, if you’re managing the biggest accounts, if you’re stepping in and closing deals and preventing someone else from getting a commission, the team won’t work with you. They’ll work against you.

Thirdly, we need to make sure that how people are getting paid is congruent. Oftentimes, we see sales management getting paid one way, sales teams getting paid another, and the two are incongruent, which means they’re working towards different goals which puts them at odds against each other. Before we know it, we have teams that are not working together to hit their sales targets.

Brendan: And speaking of having goals that make sense or align from the top on down, from management down to the reps, I’ve heard of some situations where, particularly in younger companies, managers are actually making signs themselves, making sales themselves, and getting commission based on that, which in a way it seems to me sort of positions them sort of . . . it’s for the good for the company I suppose. They’re making sales, but also doesn’t that put them sort of at odds with the reps that are working under them if they’re taking leads and signing them up themselves? Isn’t that right?

Colleen: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean it puts them in direct competition, and unfortunately that’s the way the reps think, so they don’t come to you for management experience or coaching and they start to get embittered quite frankly. They start to feel, right or wrong, based on assumptions or not, they start to feel like, “Oh, yeah, Colleen, my manger, she takes all the best leads.”

Brendan: Right.

Colleen: Which is really disruptive to the team.

Brendan: Yeah, sure. I’ve heard of those situations, and it seems like there should certainly be a line drawn in the sand, not just for morale but just for motivation and everything like that. The last thing you want is an embittered sales team I would expect.

Colleen: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Brendan: Well, Colleen, I really appreciate you taking the time today. That’s about all the time we have. I’d love to give you a chance to direct people to your site to find more information from you. I know you do have a lot of content and information that they can find on the Engaged Selling Solutions website. Is that correct?

Colleen: Yes, absolutely. Just


Colleen: You can also find me at if that’s easier, and of course, you’re welcome to join us on our blog and our Twitter page and our Facebook page because we do post brand new, fresh content for people on a daily basis.

Brendan: Awesome, excellent. Well, I like that. Being a content marketer myself, I love more content, so keep churning that out. We appreciate it.

Colleen: Super.

Brendan: All right. Thanks very much, and hopefully we get to do this again soon.

Colleen: Thank you so much. It was really great talking to you, and I wish everyone the best of luck in their revenue generation activities.

Content Strategist

Brendan worked at OpenView from 2011 until 2012, where he was an editor, content manager and marketer. Currently Brendan is the Vice President of Corporate Marketing at <a href="">Brainshark</a> where he leads all corporate marketing initiatives related to content, creative, branding, events, press and analyst relations, and customer marketing.