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Getting to No: The Key to Startup Selling

Rick Morrison

Early on, we adopted a sales approach where the goal is moving a deal forward or getting a firm “no” as early in the process as possible. This saved us time, taught us valuable lessons about our company and stopped us from making compromises that weren’t in our long-term interest.

The key to making it work is being persistent. And when I say be persistent, I mean really persistent, even to the point where it’s awkward and uncomfortable. In fact, it can be so cringe-inducing that I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone if it didn’t work.

Here’s what you do: Whenever you meet a prospect, get a business card and tell that person you’ll give her a call. One of our advisors jokes that if you say you’ll call back in two weeks, call back in two days. If you say three weeks, call back in two days.

If she doesn’t pick up, leave a message and follow up with an email. Then call back the next day. Keep at it. Once you’re on day three, start calling and emailing every few hours until you get through.

For engineers especially, this is pretty counter-intuitive advice. And it’s pretty painful to do. I’d have to psyche myself up to make these calls. My co-founder, Jud, would just wince as he listened to me leaving the same voicemail for the fifteenth time.

Now, the obvious question is: Doesn’t this piss people off? Sometimes it does, but if your goal is to get to a “yes” or “no,” it’s also pretty effective. When someone asks what it will take to get you to stop calling, just say you want her to listen for 10 minutes and if she’s not interested after that you won’t call again.

The first person I ever tried this on is someone I met at a conference one June. I must have called him 30 times over the next couple of months until he told me to stop. Then, I was at a different conference in September and I heard someone call out my name. It was that guy. He came over and shook my hand—which at this point was like shaking hands with my personification of awkwardness—and now he’s a friend and advocate of our product.

Part of what makes the persistence approach worthwhile is that when you do get rejected (and you will, often) it's not because someone never got back to you—you're usually hearing a “no” directly from the prospect. This gives you a great opportunity to learn why someone who you think should buy your product doesn’t want to. That’s the most objective and actionable feedback you’re ever going to get—better than anything a friend or advisor can tell you. Is the problem your product’s features? Pricing? Positioning? Business model? Branding? The color of your website? Your fashion sense? Your funny-looking face? Whatever it is, it’s better to know and adjust if/where it makes sense.

Make sure you dig a bit to understand the real reason. It may be that they misunderstand your product, in which case you can correct that misunderstanding. Or it could just be that what you’re selling isn’t appropriate, and you can use that feedback to improve your pitch and product in the future.

The other reason a “no” is valuable is because it allows you to move on from that contact. When I first started selling, I thought that it was better to keep the conversation going with a prospect for as long as possible. It turns out that’s very dangerous because you either waste a lot of time or you make compromises to your product that likely pull it away from the problem you solve.

When you’re first starting out, you’re desperate for a customer. But you don’t actually want to sell to somebody who doesn’t have a strong pain point and doesn’t really need your product. Our first customer was someone who really liked us, but wasn’t really in our sweet spot. We took his money and tried to make it work, but it just wasn’t helpful because he didn’t actually need our product. We ended up returning the money when it became clear that he needed us to work on a problem that wasn’t a core value proposition of Comprehend.

It took us a while to work the kinks out of the process, but once we did, getting to no has been extremely helpful for us.

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