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Entrepreneurship for Engineers: Do You Need a Salesperson?

Yes, because ultimately, your would-be customers want to talk to a human. Check out advice in the latest column for developers who want to build businesses.
Aug 27th, 2021 9:00am by
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Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Emily Omier that will explore the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business around their innovations. We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.

Emily Omier
Emily is a positioning consultant who works with startups to stake out the right position in the cloud native/ Kubernetes ecosystem so that end users immediately understand their value. She also hosts The Business of Cloud Native, a podcast about the business reasons that push and pull organizations towards cloud native.

There’s a persistent myth in the software engineering ecosystem about sales. Engineers don’t like sales, won’t interact with sales and don’t need sales. Anyway, an awesome product should just sell itself!

Let’s start with some obvious observations: If your product is entirely software-as-a-service (SaaS)/ self-service, you don’t “need” potential customers to interact with a person before paying money and using the product. But even in a complete self-service scenario, you still need to think about sales; it’s just a different sales process. And even if complete self-service is possible, a sales team that can answer questions and guide potential customers through their options can be extremely valuable.

If, on the other hand, you have a product you expect large companies to pay you for, they will expect a salesperson, or team, to see the deal to completion and increase the chances that everyone is happy with it.

In this column, I’m going to dive into what the sales team does in technical product companies and why they are so important to the company’s short-term and long-term growth.

What Do Those Expensive Salespeople Do, Anyway?

At the beginning, almost all founders will be handling sales themselves. This is in fact a best practice, because founders need to be involved with the sales process and the customers at the beginning to get direct feedback about what is working and what isn’t. But sales is far from the only things a CEO is expected to do, and at a certain scale it becomes unmanageable.

“I don’t think salespeople are like super magical beings where they can just look deep into your eyes and make you give them money,” said Ádám Sándor, solutions architect at Styra, founders and maintainers of Open Policy Agent. “But it’s a lot of work.”

Selling is also a skill, certainly one that can be learned, but salespeople have spent years developing specific expertise related to sales. “The reason you hire a sales team is for expertise and for offload,” said Kit Wetzler, vice president of sales at ShiftLeft, a code-security platform.

There’s also an element of distance from the product that a good sales person can bring to the conversation, helping founders really understand what potential customers are saying. Just having someone other than the CEO in a sales role can also mean more honest feedback about the product and the problem it’s meant to solve.

“Founders sometimes are so enamored with their vision of the future of the company that they get so wrapped up in themselves,” said Chris Pomeroy, who’s had sales leadership roles at a number of developer-focused companies including Codefresh, Google Cloud, Stackdriver and Acquia. “You have to truly put all of that aside and really think about asking the hard questions, like is this problem a problem?”

So how exactly would experienced salespeople describe the skill of selling software for software engineers?

“Basically, what I do is consulting,” Sándor said. “It’s helping our potential new clients solve problems.” His background is as a software consultant, and he drew many parallels between working in sales and that experience.

When he’s working with a prospective customer, it’s usually about doing a proof of concept to see if the product really works for them, to ensure that the customer doesn’t overlook any features and that all the integrations work. It’s about making sure that the customer can be successful with the product, Sándor said, similar to a consultant helping a client become successful with any other technology.

The Developer/Sales Relationship

In addition to problem-solving, the other word that salespeople use to describe what they do is “empathy.”

The people who sell enterprise software are nothing like the stereotypical, ethics-challenged hawkers of used cars. At the same time, they are entirely aware that their profession can evoke some negative connotations, particularly for developers.

“I think that people dramatically underestimate how much salespeople actually care about people,” Wetzler said. “What I find that makes a good salesperson is actually a lot of empathy and a lot of wanting to see other people succeed. Because really successful salespeople truly value making someone else’s life better.”

To be successful, salespeople have to truly believe in the product they’re selling, reiterated everyone I spoke to for this column.

In Pomeroy’s experience, developers don’t have as many negative feelings about salespeople as the stereotypes suggest. But they do expect salespeople to be knowledgeable about the product and are particularly good at sniffing out B.S. answers to their questions.

However, he added, many developers view a product demo with a salesperson as a more efficient way to get information about the product than just reading the docs themselves. This is a sign that the developer/salesperson relationship is working. In those initial interactions, both parties have exactly the same goal: to determine whether the product is appropriate for the developer’s use case.

“At some price point, you know, maybe not $10 a month, but at some price point like thousands of dollars, a business decision, there’s going to be a lot of education and questions and answers,” Pomeroy said. “ The most important part of the sales process is just guiding someone through how to use your products, especially in the early phases.”

Especially for these larger ticket sales, but even for smaller projects, developers expect to be able to reach a human and ask them questions.

But Don’t Products Sell Themselves?

Some founders have the idea that their product should just be so amazing that it will sell itself. Is that ever true?

“The first problem is there are lots of awesome products out there,” Sándor said. “When you’re looking at the world from a point of view of you might want to buy something to solve your problem, you will be overwhelmed with way too many possibilities.”

Some products would probably sell without a sales team. But the goal of a sales team is to make it as easy as possible for potential customers to get their questions answered, see if the product is right for them and then make the purchase.

Without sales, “customers would have to figure out how to use the product by themselves,” Sándor said. “That means it would take them longer, and there would be a higher chance that they would fail.”

Regardless of the deal size, a salesperson will reduce the friction in the sales process. This can either be by making sure an individual gets quick, appropriate answers to technical questions or ushering a large deal through an enterprise procurement process. Regardless of your industry, you want potential customers to be able to become customers as easily as possible — and that is exactly what salespeople do.

Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column for The New Stack. Have a comment or want to suggest a topic? Feel free to connect with me on Twitter. 

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