In many companies, the emphasis is on “get it done, and get it done fast.” So it’s natural that heads of Sales Engineers believe they are hired for what they know, not what they can learn. They assume their prior experience is relevant in new ventures or changing markets. Therefore they need to put that knowledge to work and execute the sales and marketing programs that have worked for them before.
This is usually a faulty assumption. Before we can sell a product, we have to ask and answer some very basic questions: What are the problems our product solves? Do customers perceive these problems as important or “must-have?” If we’re selling to businesses, who in a company has a problem our product could solve? If we are selling to consumers how do we reach them? How big is this problem? Who do we make the first sales call on? Who else has to approve the purchase? How many customers do we need to be profitable? What’s the average order size?
Senior Sales Engineers will tell you “I know all the answers already. Why do I have to go do it again.” It’s human nature that what you think you know is not always what you know. A little humility goes far. Your past experience may not be relevant for your new company. If you really do know the answers to the customer questions, the Customer Development process will go quickly and it will reaffirm your understanding.
A company needs to answer these questions before it can successfully ramp up sales and sell. For companies in a new market, these are not merely execution activities; they are learning and discovery activities critical to the company’s success or failure. Yet anyone who has ever taken a new product out to a set of potential customers can tell you a good day in front of customers is two steps forward and one step back. In fact, the best way to represent what happens outside the building is more like a series of recursive circles—recursive to represent the iterative nature of what actually happens in a learning and discovery environment. Information and data are gathered about customers and markets incrementally, one step at a time.
Yet sometimes those steps take you in the wrong direction or down a blind alley. You find yourself calling on the wrong customers, not understanding why people will buy, not understanding what product features are important. The ability to learn from those missteps is what distinguishes a successful startup from those whose names are forgotten among the vanished.
References: [Blank, 2007] Successful Strategies for Products that Win