3 Sales Tips for Startups That Don’t Print Money

Unless your startup is in the business of printing untraceable, impeccable counterfeit currency in large bills, you’ve got to make sales.

Assuming you’re not in a business that puts you on an FBI watch list, making a sale could be the difference between getting funding, growing your team and making it to IPO– or packing up your office and crawling back to the 9-6 cubicle job you escaped.

Not every startup founder has a sales background or, if they do, they may not have the time to properly focus their efforts on sales. It doesn’t matter if you’re a developer who has never sold a thing in their life or a seasoned sales veteran who is negotiating a lease, hiring a team, polishing a product and finalizing branding, sales doesn’t always rank high on the to-do list.

Granted I’m a sales guy and not a CPA, but I’d venture this is a really, really awful way to go about paying bills. Until landlords begin accepting promises of a great user experience on the mobile version as a form of rent payment, you have to sell.

Whether you desperately need to make your first sale to stay afloat or you’d like to walk into your next investor meeting with even better results than promised, these are tested ways to start making sales soon.

(I know because I tested them.)

Upsell your current clients (if you have them)

This is either incredibly obvious or it’s so obvious that you might’ve missed it– but there’s much to be unpacked here.

Arguably the best place to start increasing revenue is with the people who’ve bought from you already. They know about you, you have an agreement or their credit card on file and, ideally, they like you. You won’t need to spend much in the way of marketing dollars– and they’ll convert at a much higher rate than new leads.

Upselling your current clients can feel uncomfortable until you’ve had experience doing it. It’s a feeling of: really, these people who have been paying me– I’m going to go back to them and ask for more?

Yes. Yes, you are.

For one, if they’re your customers you’re bringing them value. And if you have the opportunity to give them a new tool, feature or offer– don’t they deserve to know about it? What if it transforms their business? Do you know your client so well that you can make the decision for them that they don’t want to buy more from you?

Imagine if your favorite app fixed one tiny feature you’ve always been bothered by with a $5 premium version– and you never found out about it because they didn’t bother to send out an email or announce it on social media.

Frustrating, right?

What does it look like when we talk about “upselling” your current clients? Here are a few areas to focus on:

Look at your agreements. Could you offer your client a slight discount if they’re willing to prepay for their next six months of service or sign an annual contract? Put yourself in their shoes and think of compelling reasons for them to sign up for more of your service, for longer and, ideally, with a chunk of cash up front for liquidity. This means the money will continue to roll in– and you spend less time worrying about churn and having to find new clients.

Look at your client relationships. Do you feel comfortable asking your clients for referrals? Referrals are testimonials and lead gen all in one– and four-times more likely to lead to a sale. I was consistently surprised how willing my clients were to offer up referrals or introductions when asked.

Look at your products and services. Is there room for a premium version, some way to white label and resell a related product– or is there a gap in your offerings that you can fill? What has your sales team been hearing from your clients that seems to be missing or lacking– and can you solve this in a way that has great ROI?

Look at your sales team’s commission plan. Are your sales people rewarded and motivated to not just maintain current clients, but grow their accounts? Do you take into account the fact that it’s more expensive to get new clients than maintain existing ones– and incentivize based on that fact? Is it possible to hire a salesperson whose sole job is selling to existing clients?

One important note: this really only works for happy, content clients. Know when to upsell and when not to. Build a sales team around great client service and a product team that takes feedback from your clients.

And to those of you who can only wish they had existing clients, just keep this strategy in your back pocket when you do have clients to upsell. It’ll happen.

Partner up

Hands down, this was one of the most powerful strategies I employed while working at my first startup for new business– and it’s one that many companies use to make sales.

The goal? Find partners who can introduce you to new business.

When approaching a possible partnership, your messaging needs to show that this is a mutually beneficial relationship. Maybe after some discussion about what’s important to them, you’ll offer commission or a spiff on every client they introduce you to.

Either A) they’re going to make money off of you through commission, sales or residuals or B) you’ll add value to their clients so they’ll introduce you for free.

How can you identify lucrative partnerships? Start here.

Consider your product. Is your product easily integrated with a major platform like Shopify or Salesforce? There are entire channel and partnership teams who would love to know about what you do so they can expand their product ecosystem.

Consider your market. Are there similar businesses in your industry that aren’t direct competitors– but serve the same type of customers? Send them an email and find out what they look for in a partnership and start referring business to each other.

Consider consultants and agencies. Marketing agencies and consultants make a living introducing their clients to new products and services to help them solve problems. If you sell an eCommerce plugin, wouldn’t it make sense to partner with a digital agency so they can add your tool to every site they sell?

The great thing about agencies (and why I always targeted them) is that they usually have a handful of clients– and are looking to bring on others. If you sign one agency, you now have access to multiple clients– instead of chasing after one single client.

Consider white labeling: If you don’t mind someone else taking credit for your product while you count the cash, this can be a smart option. Your branding is scrubbed from the product and replaced with the partner’s branding or interface– but they sell it.

This is especially helpful if you have a small sales team or haven’t sold before. Let someone else do the selling!

The big benefit of partnering up? You can work with dozens of partners who will feed you leads and clients. Instead of having to chase 50 cold leads, you’ll have partners who are equally invested in making a deal happen– and you’ll come recommended.

Find a company’s partnership or channel sales team or, if they’re quite small, someone in marketing, product or sales. They’ll typically be your best chance at getting a reply.

I’ve been on both sides of the partnership coin, from creating partnerships to getting paid commission from one. They were my highest value business relationships.

Revisit old leads

It’s what every salesperson doesn’t want to be asked to do by their manager.

I’d always think: really, I’m going to call someone who’d previously told us ‘no’?

And then I’d close a sale using that strategy and realized that’s why sales managers tell their teams to comb Salesforce and find old leads. I began hitting old leads and found thousands of dollars worth of sales.

I’m a big believer in disqualifying leads that will obviously waste your time so be ready to move on from them if it’s clear there’s no potential. However, you might be shocked how much cash is sitting in your CRM.

Think about it:

• This director might’ve been called around the holidays. Between Christmas shopping and family travel, they didn’t have the time to even think about your product. Now it’s January and they want to hear more.

• The person who’d told you “no” before doesn’t work there anymore; they were fired for making awful decisions, like not investing in awesome products like the one you’ve built.

• They’d used all of their budget and couldn’t make a deal happen, but it’s a new fiscal year– and the money is back and they’re ready to buy!

• The payment terms you were offering didn’t make sense for them– but your finance team now lets clients break up payments in quarterly chunks and it becomes possible for your client to buy.

• The integration they needed that you didn’t have before was just approved as a beta version– and it’s time to let your new client know the one road block that prevented you from working together has been cleared.

• They bought from your competitor and your competitor absolutely sucked. The onboarding didn’t go well, they’ve had four account managers in three months and it’s not working how they were told it would.

• The last sales rep they spoke with from your team? They didn’t click. There was nothing about the pricing or product they didn’t like, but the last guy’s used car salesman style turned them off.

Literally every single one of those scenarios has happened to me.

If you’re using some sort of CRM or even just a spreadsheet to track leads, also track why you’ve “lost” the sale. Over time this will help you identify common traits in leads that don’t close, shortcomings in the product, issues with pricing or even common objections to train on further.

A bonus tip

Over the years, I’ve found that sales is a science: you introduce new variables, attempt to add in as many controls as possible and test new hypotheses. Sometimes you’ll find a theory that works for a month– and then never works again. The Invisible Hand or some unknown force changes everything, I suppose. But what’s important is that you try something for a while to give it time to mature and find out if it’s effective.

No, you don’t want to have a losing strategy for a year– but don’t change course on a daily or weekly basis. Build a strategy that you try on a few leads or clients, change messaging, test new call approaches on low-quality leads to see how they react. But overall remain consistent with the same amount of activity, similar methods and approaches. You’ll eventually get a feel for what’s working.

Sales is far from just picking up the phone, making a few calls, being polite and slick with words. It’s a daily effort of keeping positive and motivated, being consistent, having high emotional intelligence and knowing how to move a conversation from “I’m not interested” to “How do we get started?”.

If you’re new to selling in a startup environment, the good news is you have all the agility and flexibility you could want. Focus on what works, take care of your clients, add value to every interaction and be the most useful person they’re speaking with that day.

Or at least until you can figure out a way to be the Uber of counterfeiting.

Photo Credit: Viktor Hanacek

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