How do you find your first buyer?

July 31, 2009 at 1:07 am Leave a comment

The first sale first (FSF) sales process is extreme selling.  Just like any extreme sport, the conditions are tough, the risk is higher, and few are willing to try.  As an entrepreneur trying to build your company with customer capital, you will play among the elite.  If you succeed, you will be a star.

Why are the conditions tougher than regular selling?  Three reasons:

  • lack of a reference customer
  • lack of product
  • rarity of customers willing to take risk

Reference Customer – in almost any sales process it is *really* helpful to have a customer who has bought and enjoyed the benefits of your product explain their experience to your prospect. People tend to believe another customer, in a similar situation, far more readily than the salesperson.  Usually the request to talk to a reference customer comes up in the later part of the sales process.

One key to overcoming this problem is to develop an exceptionally deep understanding of the customer’s situation and needs and to propose a solution that is perceived as completely unique.  If the customer feels that no one else has exactly their set of circumstances and that no one other than you understands them quite as well, they will feel confident about their decision, despite the lack of an external reference.

Remember, from the customer’s point of view, they are making a bet on *you* despite the fact that no one else has made the same bet – they will only do this if they feel they have a *very* rare opportunity to win big.  Your job is to make the customer almost taste this big win.

Product?  What product? – Rookie sales people start pitching their product from the get go.  They must hope that the product will sell itself!  Experienced salespeople find out what the customer needs, why they might buy, whether they have money, and how they will decide before they show their product. As a FSF professional, you of course don’t have a “product”.  That’s what makes this an extreme sport.

In many B2B sales, the “product” is only one element of the solution to the customer’s problem.  From the customer point of view, the benefits of buying a product vs. a purely custom solution is that the development and maintenance cost of the product is shared with other customers and the risk of product development is eliminated.  In a FSF situation, you don’t have a product but clearly intend to have one.  You can and should promise the economic benefits to your first customer.  The risk of product development failure remains but if the customer has a problem they cannot tolerate, you can help them put that risk in perspective.  In addition, you can mitigate that risk by committing to additional custom work at rates that are far below industry norms.

While I don’t claim to have hard data to support this, when the price of the product is less than a third of the overall solution, you have a good shot at a successful first sale, before you have a product.  Remember, we want to sell products, customers want to buy solutions.

Risk tolerant customers – are not the norm.  Finding a customer who will buy a solution from a startup company before they have a finished product and reference customers is not easy.  It is decidedly hard work!  You have to talk to a lot of potential customers to find the one that will give you your first sale.  One key to the first sale is to make a *lot* of phone calls.  Persistently.  Week after week, after week.  Hey, if this was easy everyone could do it.  It wouldn’t be an extreme sport then, would it?

To guide your efforts every week, you need a systematic approach and a tool to capture your learning.  I use a document I call the “Ideal Customer Profile”.  This document includes the rank/title, job function, industry of the person who might have the problem you can solve.  It will have a list of symptoms that should exist at their company if they really have the problem, and it should describe the implications of the problem.  These characteristics will be the basis for the questions you will ask as you make your phone calls and try to find that first customer.  As you call, you will learn more about the symptoms, the implications and who has responsibility for solving the problem.  The ideal customer profile should be updated with what you learn each week.

Looking for early adopters is another common approach – the trade press loves to cover such people and highlight their successes.  Scouring the trade press has to be part of your prospecting plan, obviously.  These early adopters are often quite willing to give you advice and direction even if they don’t need what you have to offer.  Their insights can be invaluable, their introductions golden.

Getting your first customer is not easy.  Getting them to give you cash to build your company when you don’t yet have a product is downright hard, but it has been done.  It can be done.  The people who stand the best chance of doing this are people who really passionately believe that they have an inventive solution to offer their customers, who have world-class expertise, a brilliant insight into the customers’ problems and a willingness to persistently search for those that need their help.  Hey!  That’s you – isn’t it?

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Entry filed under: new venture, raising capital, startup.

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