KANSAS CITY – What’s the biggest mistake startups make when hiring their first, all-important salesperson? Paradoxically, it’s hiring that salesperson.
Philip Delves Broughton, bestselling author of The Art of the Sale, shared his study of sales craft with an audience of entrepreneurs and startup enthusiasts. Broughton’s talk at the Kauffman Foundation was part of the kickoff day for “One Week KC,” nine days of events and workshops meant to stir up Kansas City’s entrepreneurial mojo.
Broughton emphasized that a salesperson need not be in the Hannibal Lecter mold—a brilliant reader of personalities but complete sociopath. A number of different personality types can make a sale.
And a startup need not look outside the company to hire a superstar salesperson to help launch its company. In fact, a startup’s most important salesperson is already there, and has been there from the beginning.
It’s the company’s founder.
Broughton used the late Steve Jobs as an example. Your typical sales guru could look at Jobs and endlessly pick him apart—note the nerdy glasses, the black shirts, the high-fastening pants. But Broughton pointed to Jobs’s stellar success—not just as a technologist but also as the single most important salesman in the history of Apple.
To be sure, the author does not downplay the importance of the salesperson in a company. Sales are integral to a startup’s survival and success. But sales are an uphill battle, especially for startup companies. The seller must move an intangible product—an idea. This is the hardest, most expensive thing to sell, and a startup is selling these valuable “intangibles” when it has the least amount of money to do so.
Still, Broughton said salespeople rarely get the media glory that a company’s CEOs and techies do—but they are a fundamental driver of the economy.
To prove his point (and perhaps to win the crowd), Broughton gave a shout out to Kansas City’s own Ewing Kauffman, who lent his namesake to the building where to event took place and who brought the Royals to town in 1969.
Kauffman started out as an insurance salesman before moving on to pharmaceutical sales. He eventually started a pharmaceutical company in the basement of his house. By 1989, Kauffman’s company was worth $1 billion.
Broughton surveyed the academic literature on sales and talked with a wide swath of salespeople— everyone from a rug seller in Morocco to Tony Sullivan, an infomercial producer—to determine what made a salesperson effective.
He found that single most important trait of a salesperson is optimism, and the single most important predictor for success is what is called “role perception.” And the two go hand in hand.
“Successful salespeople kind of know what they’re supposed to be doing and they’re comfortable doing it,” Broughton said. “The good ones have a very clear and positive perception of their work.”