What Makes a Top Technology Sales Person?

Steve W. Martin did a study of over 1,000 technology sales reps and categorized what makes them successful.

I found the findings consistent with my own anecdotal evidence and thoughts around enterprise sales.  I also started thinking about how these apply to startup sales professionals, as it seemed that Steve focused primarily on Enterprise companies.  Herewith I offer my thoughts on these same areas, focusing on sales requirements for startups.

1. Achievement orientation – I would describe this as a consultative sales style.  This is an excellent trait for a startup sales person and/or entrepreneur.  It is extremely difficult to convince somebody that something new can make their life easier – most people focus on the wisdom of crowds – if it’s working for all these other people, it should work for me.  It is the rare person who will look (or seek out) value simply because they know they need it – even when nobody else seems to have solved that particular problem.

2. Curiosity – One of the biggest challenges at a startup is determining product fit. As we have learned from the Lean Startup movement, your initial product idea will almost never be where you eventually end up having success.  Salespeople at startups cannot be focused on simply talking about their product features and benefits.  Listening closely to potential customers and asking deep questions about requirements, needs and ultimate goals is a critical attribute of an early stage software startup salesperson.

3. Modesty – Another huge attribute for a startup – not just for the sales team, but the entire team. We tend to have an innate human need to be “right”, but at a startup, this can be a killer.  It is so important to be humble and realize that you are searching for a business model, you don’t have one yet! Acting like you already know how (and where and to whom) your product is going to win may actually be the act that causes you to fail.  And the ability to bring all the different functions of the company into Customer Development will be crucial to success – sales folks cannot do it themselves at a startup – there just isn’t a repeatable process defined yet.

4. Lack of gregariousness – This is one I’m not sure I buy into.  I’m not saying being gregarious is required for success, but I don’t see how or why it hurts.  Some people will be put off by gregarious people, but many people like somebody else to be the “life of the party”.  I guess the argument could be that life at a startup isn’t really a party, but the fact still remains that people like to buy from people they enjoy being with – so if your potential customer responds to gregarious behavior, why not?

5. Lack of discouragement – Anybody that has experienced competitive events (sports, debates, etc) tends to do better in sales, and somebody that can hear “No” repeatedly and keep on going is a must.  You will hear “No” much more at a startup than at an established company – so if rejection gets you down, starting your own company or joining a fledgling startup may not be for you.

6. Lack of self-consciousness – I was taught in college to be “assertive” rather than “aggressive”.  I still follow that mantra today. I do think self-consciousness is an important attribute, but it shouldn’t get in the way of finding where your product/market fit lies (See #5).  There will be a lot of learning and self-improvement at a startup – you should be ready to do lots of self-inflection.

7. Conscientiousness – Not just this, but responsibility and ownership.  Again, this permeates the entire startup – not just sales – but sales will take a lead role here if they are doing it right.  A salesperson is the ultimate bridge between the customer and the product – so in many respects, they “run the show”.  What features should get prioritized, what items to negotiate (and which to drop) with the customer – nobody will have as much information about both sides of the equation as the sales person if they are doing their job. A startup sales rep cannot expect the product team to have everything all figured out and working perfectly, and they must request that customers work with them, not against them, to make a deal that is a win-win for all parties.

Most of these attributes are required in a startup sales person, but with certain caveats and the right expectations. Most importantly, it comes back to whether your personality is more of a Maverick or a Journeyman, but if you’re a Maverick and you have the qualities above, you could be rocking it at a startup!

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