In my last post I discussed why I transitioned from developer to sales person. It is far and away the most common question people ask me. Once I've explained it (which with the publishing of that post has become a lot simpler) the next most common question I get asked is along the lines of "What's it like?" or "How is it different?"
The perception of what sales people do among developers is usually amusing to me; primarily because it's a perception I very much shared. You put a suit on, go out and suck up to some people over coffee and voila you've made a sale right? Not quite.
It is true that a key component of my day is meeting with customers. Sometimes one or two, sometimes back to back all day. It's also true that some of these meetings involve coffee and some of them even take place in coffee shops, but the location is seldom important.
What is a sale?
The whole concept of selling is quite bizarre to me if I'm honest. When I think of selling, I think of some skeezy guy in a used car yard in a suit with too much brill cream in his hair trying to convince you that you should pay extra for speed holes 1. The truth is I don't really "sell" anything. I ask questions and listen to the answers people give me. I try to impart some wisdom along the way. That's all there really is to it. You're looking for problems that you know you can help create solutions for. The sale itself is really an offer of "we can help with that if you like". Obviously there is some discussion around the commercials of such a deal and establishing of credentials so the potential customer knows you're the right company for the job.
In essence sales is a bit like being a triage nurse; you help do the initial investigation and then refer the patient to the appropriate specialist. Some of your patients don't realise they are sick, so you arrange for multiple visits to help them understand (often you'll have to be the annoying person who pesters them to help them help themselves). Others have a clean bill of health and you send them on their way with a reminder that if they suffer any of the common maladies you can help with to give you a call any time.
The meetings are a key part of the job, but that's not all there is. You've got to do follow up. People will ask for proposals outlining exactly what you'll do. Depending on the level of detail they require to get sign off for the work depends how much work this is and whether you need to get other people involved in the process or not. Other times they'll want proof that your company knows what it's doing, so you'll work with marketing to pull case studies together and suitable reference together. Other times credentials are cemented by handballing the customer to another expert within the organisation who can talk in depth about a particular area of interest. Tight coordination of all these activities is essential.
On top of that I meet with people at various partner companies regularly to keep abreast of what they're doing and loop them in on the activity I'm engaged in.
Where do meetings come from?
I'd love to tell you that when a mummy meeting and daddy meeting love each other very much they get together and create a baby meeting. Sadly this is not the case. You know those annoying people that ring you up at random and want to offer you something you just can't live without? I get to be one of those people from time to time. This is by and far the hardest part of the job. It is often frustrating beyond belief and if you do it for extended periods it can break you to the point where a cleansing ale is needed at the end of the day. Fortunately there are a bunch of activities that can done so that you can at least make "warm" calls to people which takes some of the edge of. Still, the cold call is a necessary evil at times and it is a skill unto itself. I've come across people that are really quite good at it and I'm consistently in awe of them.
From Triage Nurse to Circus Performers
All sales activity is asynchronous. You put something out there and then at some point you'll get a response that triggers the next step in the process. Furthermore, you rarely have visibility over what the next step in the process is going to be until it's time to do it. i.e. when I walk in to a meeting for the first time I have no idea if I'm going to need to write a proposal at the end, schedule a follow up meeting, get a consultant in or walk away completely empty handed until I actually leave the meeting. The outcome could change my entire schedule for the rest of the day, or indeed the rest of the week.
Additionally, because you can't always easily predict when a deal will (if at all) close you need to have a strong pipeline. I liken this to throwing a handful of balls in the air; in one hand you have a bucket you're trying to catch them in, but they all fall at a variable rate (some of them will even pause in mid-air or actually ascend). With your other hand you are throwing another group of balls up. Rinse and repeat. Some you'll catch, others you'll miss, yet others still will never actually fall, but you have to ready to catch them just in case. Very rarely, someone else will walk up and place a ball directly in your bucket for you.
This workflow has been the biggest challenge for me personally. As a developer I was very used to a workflow that resembled the following:
- Take an item from the product backlog
- Complete item and commit it
- Have item accepted or rejected.
- GOTO 1.
You do this until the project is complete, or the product is released or you get moved on to something else. That's obviously an oversimplification, but I think you get the point. On top of this you usually have some ideas about what the next step will be as well. e.g. "When I finish working on this feature and it passes unit and integration tests I will have to merge my changes back in to the trunk."
In short, there's a level of certainty that I've sacrificed, and level of fluidity I've had to adjust to deal with. In spite of that I really find it a whole lot of fun. It's fast paced. It's challenging. It keeps me on my toes. My calendar is anything but static and I get to meet a lot of interesting people with a whole bunch of varying worldviews on software and the tech industry.
If you're one of those technical type people out there who think "I wonder if I could give this sales thing a shot and move to the dark side" I hope this post has been informative and useful.
Apologies to any car sales people I have offended with my stereotype. ↩