This article is by Peter Kazanjy, co-founder of Atrium. It's excerpted from the sales narrative and product marketing chapter in his book, Founding Sales, which tackles everything founders and first-time sales staff need to know about acquiring early customers, building and scaling winning sales teams.
When Pete Kazanjy and Jason Heidema first started selling their new recruiting product, TalentBin, they got the same question over and over:“Why should I pay for software to find good candidates when I can just use LinkedIn or post to job boards?” Naturally, the answer to this question became one of the pillars of their sales pitch, but it also called attention to what a good pitch has to include: It must take existing solutions into account — and it must be crystal clear why the product you're selling is not only different but better.
After three years landing clients like Facebook, Microsoft and UPS, TalentBin got bought by Monster, and Kazanjy emerged with proven wisdom about building an effective sales strategy from the ground up. The first step?Building a persuasive, bulletproof narrative that will grab people's attention, get them to question existing solutions, and ultimately convince them that not using your product is costing them big.
A sales narrative is not to be confused with a sales pitch. Rather, it's the core story that can be adapted for slide decks and presentations, demos and calls. And despite popular belief, it shouldn't be a laundry list of why your company is awesome (in fact it should bake in some not-so-awesome facts too). In this exclusive preview of his book on enterprise sales, Kazanjy speaks directly about how startups can build a powerful narrative to expedite traction and scale.
Start with This Framework
What do you want in a sales process? First, you want it to be effective. It should inspire customers to convert and help you beat your goals. But second — and this is important or you'll regret it down the line — you want it to be repeatable and scaleable. That's why you need a narrative — a comprehensive story with all the components you need to then create slides, spoken messaging, website copy, videos, etc. You probably already have a lot of the language you'll want to use somewhere — either in product descriptions or fundraising pitches.But to make sure you have everything you need (in the right order to make a good argument to customers), it's critical to have structure.
Note, structure does not mean that your narrative should be set in stone. As you talk to more people and get customer feedback, you'll learn a tremendous amount about your market, your own strengths and what resonates with people. So keep it agile, and make sure you establish a healthy feedback loop between product and sales so that they can evolve side-by-side. That said, here's what I would recommend.
I am a fan of the Problem - Solution - Specifics framework:
Identify your problem: What are the pain points you want to solve?Who has them? How are they currently solved or not?
Solution: What has changed to make new solutions to your problem available? How does your new solution work to solve the problem?
Specifics: What are the quantitative and qualitative proof points that validate your argument?
These three steps will make up the skeleton of your narrative. Once you have that, you can build in other things specific to clients or situations (i.e. what competitors are doing, features coming down the line). But the benefit of this bare-bones structure is that each part builds on the one that came before, allowing you to make an increasingly stronger case.
This way, if someone disagrees with how you're defining the problem you set out to solve, you can focus on that (or end the conversation), rather than rehearsing parts of your pitch that aren't relevant. If the person you're talking to agrees with your problem, but isn't the one at their company who needs your solution — great — you save time and they can point you in the right direction. The narrative unfolds in a way that optimizes efficiency on both sides.
Once you have this framework mapped out, you can start filling in each section with the information that will make the biggest difference for prospective customers.
What's Your Problem?
As quickly and clearly as possible, you need to identify the business pain point that you're trying to solve so your audience can just as quickly assess whether it speaks to their needs.
As an example, TalentBin's problem statement was:“Technical recruiting is hard. It's hard to find software engineering talent with the relevant skills that people need to hire for, and even if you can find them, getting in contact with them is tough. And once you've found and contacted the relevant talent, keeping on top of all those conversations can be a huge time suck fraught with dropped balls, all leading to slower hire times and raised cost of hire.”
Or in the case of, say, Groupon, it might be: “Finding new customers for your local business is hard. With all the time you spend running your business, who has time to figure out how to drive new business through the door? But if you don’t grow your customer base to find new, repeat customers, how can you get off the hamster wheel and grow your business?”
Or in the case of Salesforce, it might be: “B2B sales is hard. You’re working on a million things at once, and it can be really easy to lose track of deals and let things fall through the cracks, which hurts your ability to reach your quota. And as a manager, it’s hard to know that your teams are working on the right things, that their efforts are directed towards the highest value opportunities, and how they’re tracking against their goals. Which leads to underperforming teams and missed forecasts. It’s tough.”
Or in the case of HubSpot, it might be: “Being an online marketer is hard. Sales wants more leads. And there’s so many things you could be spending your time on, but you’re constantly pulled in many directions, many of them not particularly fruitful. Really, you just want an all-in-one solution that can help you do the right things, automate them, and help you keep track of your success.”
Notice how colloquial the language is. Your explanation of the problem needs to be clear above all else, and shouldn't be overly elaborate or packed with jargon. It should be built to relate directly to the person with the problem.
A good test for whether you've nailed your problem statement is if you can ask anyone in the industry:“Have you encountered this?” and they not only say“yes,” but can have a more detailed conversation about it.
Who has the problem?
You need to know this for two reasons: You want to make sure you're talking to the right person (the one who needs your product and has the power to buy it), and they shouldwantto listen to what you have to say. In B2B sales, there's usually a specific person or group of people responsible for solving the problem you've laid out. As organizations get larger, you're likely to have more stakeholders.
In these situations, your number one goal is to focus on the people who are purely responsible for eliminating these pain points. The buck may stop with the CEO, but he or she is probably not the one closest to the problem.
With TalentBin, our direct audience was the recruiters responsible for filling open positions and their managers.
For, say, ZenDesk, this would be the head of support or customer success, and the individual customer service people who handle calls and tickets.
For a CRM solution focused on rep efficiency and managerial insight, this would be a Sales Operations Manager, Director, or VP, or, absent that, the sales leader who is most concerned with sales efficiency as it supports revenue growth.
A good rule of thumb to make sure you're targeting the right person is to determine who has budgetary control of the resources allocated to solve the pain points your product fixes. Be sensitive to people's titles — it's your best tip-off that you're speaking to someone who can pull the trigger on a purchase. It can also help you qualify accounts. (Sometimes if a company doesn't have certain titles in house, they aren't actually a prospective customer after all.)
What is the problem costing?
To sell anything, you have to convince your audience that they should pay for it. The easiest way to do this is to shed light on all the money they're losing because of the problem you'd solve. Basically, if they invest in you, they'll see a return.
Sometimes these costs are very concrete: A company is paying for a ton of data storage, let's say, and your solution is storage virtualization that will be much less expensive. With a little research, you can estimate dollars saved.
It can also be opportunity cost: Your solution may allow a company to do something much more effectively and capture more revenue. For example, maybe you build software that lets sales reps get more done in the same amount of time. Now, instead of closing eight deals at an average value of $8K a month, they can close 10 deals a month — a 25% bump and $16K more revenue per rep per month. These types of boosts can be harder to prove but are very compelling to customers.
Lastly, there can be qualitative costs: Depending on who you're talking to, perks like“increased agility” may be very convincing. But these are even harder to prove. You're basically handing them a hypothesis about what your product can do based on experience. It's what you might call“soft ROI” in a pitch.
Once you have a sense of what the problem is costing your customers, you can scale it up or down to match their size. Going through this exercise will give you a much better idea of the scale of the opportunity you have with each customer. Some will represent much more revenue for you than others, and having this info will help you prioritize.
Setting Up Your Solution
Knowing what existing solutions to your problem look like is vital. You have to be able to demonstrate thorough market knowledge, and show a delta between what people have now and what you can do for them. For TalentBin, existing solutions included LinkedIn. Knowing this and what the experience was like gave us an opening to show how TalentBin would surface 5x as many solid candidates as LinkedIn Recruiter.
You may also encounter clients that have no tool to solve your pain points. The challenge there will be persuading them that they are indeed worth solving. This may be a tall order if they have no precedent for it — whichis where calculating or estimating the cost of not having a fix can help close a deal.
Others will solve the problem with several tools or a process they devised themselves. Our team at TalentBin found that a lot of recruiters were able to find and engage with candidates that weren't on LinkedIn or Monster, but only by manually Googling their way through Twitter, Github and Stack Overflow and debriefing in a series of time-consuming meetings. To make your solution a contender, you have to identify where this process is weak and where it breaks.
A winning argument for TalentBin was that recruiters have no time to waste. Hot candidates come on the market and are snapped up in a heartbeat. Slow processes mean lost revenue. There's also a lot of logistics when it comes to staying in touch with people and matchmaking them with companies. Manual work means people can get lost in the shuffle, damaging valuable relationships in a relationship-driven business. Seeing these consequences spelled out so clearly moved a lot of customers into the 'Yes' column.
Your more advanced customers are likely to be paying for a solution already. It's helpful not to think of these other tool providers as competition. It's actually a good sign and can work in your favor. When it comes to qualifying clients, the best sign that you can and should go after someone is if they are already spending budget to bridge the gap.
I'm a fan of sales professionals being 'students of the game' and knowing everything they can about other solutions in the market.
Deep knowledge is the best way to build your credibility and authority with clients. Your narrative needs these traits to get attention and make an impact. Customers want a resource, not just an answer. If they can ask you questions about the broader market or issue— not specific to your product — and you can come back with smart, well-researched responses, they're more likely to see you as an asset and trust your opinion.
If you're selling someone technology that will make their lives easier, you're going to have to explain why they aren't already using it. It can't just be that they haven't heard of you yet. Your narrative needs to show that you have pushed things forward, progress has been made, and new capabilities have been introduced to the market.
For instance, LinkedIn represented a massive leap for recruiters. Today, it allows them to tap into a huge database of potential employees far bigger than any collection of resumes they could build organically. The change was clear.
Similarly, when flash storage burst on the scene as a cost effective way to create data centers, it changed all the businesses that depended on that type of functionality. These types of innovations were new and better and very obviously increased people's capacity.
Being able to explain what has changed in the technology or marketplace will not only strengthen your narrative's realism, it will also make you appear more informed and forward-looking than your competition.
How does your new solution work?
Once you've explained what's changed to clear a path for your product, you need to explain how you're harnessing this change to do something no one else is doing better. The most critical thing is knowing how to easily explain this in an understandable way to your prospect. I recommend using contrast and comparison with solutions you know they already understand.
With this in mind, we could explain that TalentBin is a resume database, or even like LinkedIn search, but that it takes advantage of all professional activity that candiates engage in online to help recruiters discover them, even if they aren't actively looking for new jobs. Salesforce might say that its offering is like a traditional CRM, but since its web-based, customers can access the most up-to-date information from anywhere. Make an analogy the springboard to highlight your best features.
Getting into Specifics
When you start to turn your narrative into marketing collateral — whether you're compiling a pitch deck or writing copy for your website — you'll see how all of these questions stack on top of each other to lead prospects through an argument. In particular, focusing on what has changed and how you're taking advantage of that change naturally leads into why your solution is the top choice in the market.
This is where you'll need to pick and choose which details strengthen your argument the most. Ideally, you will have already gathered the material you need — particularly the costs associated with the pain points your solving and how you address them. You should know the general metrics by which existing solutions are measured and the qualitative comparisons you can use to help people understand what you're doing quickly and easily. The language you use has to be familiar, simple, and speak directly to what your audience values.
You should be able to say something as simple as, 'Our offering does more X' or 'Our offering requires less Y,' where X and Y are known and important.
This is all well and good in most conversations, but you also need to break key metrics down into their components. Some people will ask, and you don't want to be left looking clueless about your own claims. As an example, TalentBin's key metrics are all about cost per hire, quality of hire and time to fill a role. But these numbers aren't as simple or as targeted as they seem.
To really strengthen your narrative, you should look at the many metrics that exist closer to the actual work, not just people's goals. For TalentBin, this includes metrics like average number of search results for a given skill profile, title or geography. What challenges are people confronting again and again in their jobs? What numbers will best show how you meet those challenges? They probably have more to do with the day-to-day than quarterly results.
Numbers are your sales narrative's best friend. Qualitative information — client testimonials, etc. — can be very compelling, but you want to back them up with metrics whenever possible.
For instance, if you're selling mobile CRM software, you would want to say that it has better usability. But you wouldn't want to do this without having the number of logins per day, data quality metrics, and more in your pocket to back up this claim. You can say that customers love you, but the natural next question from many clients will be about how many customers you have. Do yourself a favor and already have answers to these questions. Get customer testimonials that highlight numbers, not just adjectives.
Put it all together.
Remember that your narrative exists separately from whatever medium you end up using to get your point across. The idea is to create a central document that has all of the numbers, details, arguments and counter-arguments you need to get the job done. Then you can simply borrow what you need to build your case.
Everyone on your sales team should be able to tell this whole story end-to-end regardless, but have a good sense of what they want to share with a particular audience. This will give your sales effort more agility and ensure that no one is caught off-guard (or at least that they're quick on their feet when it happens).
A good test for your sales narrative is an elevator pitch. This is how you might explain your story to someone you meet by chance at a cocktail party. They have no assumed knowledge, connections or biases. What do you tell them and in what order? What level of complexity do you start with so that they understand you? What questions does your story raise for them?
It's highly recommended that you practice your elevator pitch in front of real people who have no more context than a stranger. This should begin when you're first staking out your narrative and should continue throughout the process. That way, its development will depend on your real interactions with listeners and their organic curiosity. Wherever they want to double-click, consider expanding accordingly until you have a fully detailed story that can stand on its own.
As an example, to help you assemble your own narrative, here's what Salesforce's might look like:
What is the problem? Who has it?
Selling to businesses as a B2B sales rep is tough! You have to manage dozens of concurrent conversations, follow up at the right time, and not drop any balls. So too with being a sales manager. You have to make sure that your team is engaging in high activity, but also the right activity, and keeping track of potential issues, while forecasting how your revenue achievement will end up for the quarter.
What is the cost of the issue?
This is serious business. If a rep drops a ball, forgetting to follow up with a prospect at the right time, or neglecting to send a proposal, as promised, it can mean tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost revenue. Moreover, from an efficiency standpoint, if reps don't use their time wisely, they’re missing out on potential deals and conversations they could be having. And for sales managers, not being able to manage the activity levels of your staff, identify weaknesses, and forecast accurately could mean leaving problems unaddressed, which can turn into hundreds of thousands of dollars of short-fallen targets, which could mean missed stock impacts. It’s no joke.
How is this currently solved?
For how important customer relationship tracking and management is, it’s amazing how poorly it’s generally done. Either you have reps living out of their email and calendars, or using ancient, clunky contact managers like ACT or Goldmine, or last-generation CRMs made by Siebel that look like something out of Tron.
What is the problem with these?
The problem with these approaches is that email and calendars are not designed for tracking customer relationships, and make it more likely for very costly balls to be dropped. Last-generation CRM systems also require reps to be in front of their computers, dialed into a VPN that are usually extremely clunky and hard to use. This adds more time and bookkeeping overhead to reps rather than actually enabling them to sell more, faster.
What has changed?
However, with the rise of the Web, now the power of modern, usable, always-accessible CRM can be available to reps wherever they are, whenever.
How does it work?
Salesforce provides a modern, next-generation CRM that is accessed through the browser, letting reps access their important deal information wherever they are, whenever, quickly and easily. And because it’s software delivered as a service, the latest and greatest innovations in rep efficiency features are available to all users all at once rather than relying on IT to upgrade the on-premise CRM system. And because web technologies make for easy interoperability, Salesforce has a massive partner ecosystem of amazing add-on tools that offer all manner of efficiency benefits.
How do you know it’s better?
Because the software is available to reps wherever and whenever via a browser, and is much more usable, you get reps who are logging in and updating opportunities and pipelines as much as 3x to 10x as often as on traditional systems. This not only reduces their potential for dropped balls, as you can see by the 20% to 50% increase in win rates for reps who adopt Salesforce, but also makes for more accurate forecasts on a rep and sales manager basis, as seen by a 30% to 50% reduction in missed forecasts for managers whose teams use Salesforce. All of this has resulted in Salesforce being the most lauded CRM solution on the market, consistently in Gartner’s Leader’s Quadrant in their CRM Magic Quadrant, with tens of thousands of customers.