Startup CEO’s can’t delegate sales and expect it to happen. Customer Validation needs to have the CEO actively involved.Here’s an example in a direct sales channel.
Customer Development Diagnostics over Lunch
A VC asked me to have lunch with the CEO of a startup building cloud-based enterprise software. (Boy did I feel like Rip Van Winkle.) The board was getting nervous as the company was missing its revenue plan.
These lunches always start with the CEO looking like they had much better things to do. Before lunch even came the CEO ticked off the names of 40 or so customers he talked to during the company’s first nine months and gave me a great dissertation on the day-in-the-life of his target customers and what their problems were. He went through his product feature by feature and matched them to the customer problems. He talked about how his business model would make money and how the prospects he talked to seem to agree with his assumptions.
It certainly sounded like he had done a great job of Customer Discovery.
Next, he took me through his sales process. They had five salespeople supported by two in marketing. (They had beta customers, using but not paying for the product.)
Over lunch the CEO told me he had stopped talking to customers since he had been tied up helping get the product out the door and his VP of Sales (a successful sales executive from a large company) had managed the sales process for the last six months. In fact, the few times he had asked to go out in the field the VP of Sales said, “Not yet, I don’t want to waste your time.”
Too Good to Be True
For the first time I started squirming in my seat. He said, “I insist on getting weekly status reports with forecasted deal size and probability of close. We have a great sales pipeline.” When I asked how close any of the deals on the forecast were to getting closed, he assured me the company’s two beta customers—well-known companies that would be marquee accounts if they closed—were imminent orders.
“How do you know this?” I asked. “Have you heard it personally from the customers?”
Now it was his turn to squirm a bit. “No, not exactly,” he replied, “but our VP of Sales assures me we will have a purchase order in the next few weeks or so.”
I put my fork down. Very few large companies write big checks to unknown startups without at least meeting the CEO. When I asked if he could draw the sales road map for these two accounts that were about to close, he admitted he didn’t know any of the details, given it was all in the VP of Sales’ head. Since we were running out of time, I said, “Your sales pipeline sounds great. In fact, it sounds too good to be true. If you really do close any of these accounts, my hat is off to you and your sales team. If, as I suspect they don’t close, do me a favour.”
“What’s that?” He asked, looking irritated.
“You need to pick up the phone and call the top five accounts on your sales pipeline. Ask them this question: if you gave them your product today for free, are they prepared to install and use it across their department and company? If the answer is no, you have absolutely no customers on your forecast who will be prepared to buy from you in the next six months.”
He smiled and stuck me with the tab for lunch. I didn’t expect to hear from him ever again.
What If the Price Were Zero?
Less than two weeks later, I got a call and was surprised to hear the agitated voice of the CEO. “Steve, our brand-name account, the one we have been working on for the last eight months, told us they weren’t going to buy the product this year. They just didn’t see the urgency.” Listening, I got the rest of the story.
“When my VP of Sales told me that,” he said, “I got on the phone and spoke to the account personally. I asked them your question—would they deploy the product in their department or company if the price were zero? I’m still stunned by the answer. They said the product wasn’t mission critical enough for their company to justify the disruption.”
“Wow, that’s not good,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic.
“It only gets worse,” he said. “Since I was hearing this from one of the accounts my VP of Sales thought was going to close, I insisted we jointly call our other ‘imminent’ account. It’s the same story as the first. Then I called the next three down the list and got essentially the same story. They all think our product is ‘interesting,’ but no one is ready to put serious money down now. I’m beginning to suspect our entire forecast is not real. What am I going to tell my board?”
My not-so-difficult advice was that he was going to have to tell his board exactly what was going on. But before he did, he needed to understand the sales situation in its entirety, and then come up with a plan for fixing it. Then he was going to present both the problem and suggested fix to his board. (You never want a board to have to tell you how to run your company. When that happens, it’s time to update your resume.)
The Phantom Sales Forecast
The implications of a phantom sales forecast meant something fundamental was broken. In talking to each of his salespeople, he discovered the sales team had no standardized sales process. Each was calling on different levels of an account and trying whatever seemed to work best. This was just a symptom of something deeper – while they thought they understood the target customer their initial hypotheses from Customer Discovery were wrong. But no one had told the CEO.
He realised the company was going to have to start from scratch, Pivot back to Customer Discovery and find out how to develop a sales road map. He presented his plan to the board, fired the VP of Sales and kept his best salesperson and the marketing VP. Then he went home, kissed his family goodbye, and went out to the field to discover what would make a customer buy. His board wished him luck and started the clock ticking on his remaining tenure. He had six months to get and close customers.
The CEO had discovered what happens when you do a good job on Customer Discovery but get too “busy” for to personally get involved in Customer Validation. It wasn’t that he didn’t need a VP of Sales, but he had entirely outsourced the Validation step to him. Until a scalable and repeatable business model is found the CEO needs to be intimately involved in the sales process.
- Ownership of Customer Validation belongs to the CEO.
- A VP of Sales can assist but the CEO needs to answer:
- Do I understand the sales process in detail?
- Is the sales process repeatable?
- Can I prove it’s repeatable? (Proof are multiple full-price orders in sufficient quantity.)
- Can we get these orders with the current product and release spec?
- Do we have a workable sales and distribution channel?
- Am I confident we can scale a profitable business?
Steve Blank teaches entrepreneurship at U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University and the Columbia University/Berkeley Joint Executive MBA program. He also wrote about building early stage companies in his book, Four Steps to the Epiphany. This post was originally published on his blog, and it is republished here with permission.
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