To the joy of most tech and IoT entrepreneurs, the “Death of the Salesman” has been predicted for some time now. We were promised that the Digital Market is simply gaining permission to sell, and then customers simply buy. Why? Because our product is so damn fine. AI is already making inroads, replacing some customer dialogue in the buying cycle. Will it replace the “rep”? In some places, this happens already. One of the memorable stories I heard was about whole wine sales teams, who used to advise on and sell wine to the discerning connoisseur, being fired and replaced by AI.

But can this happen in the complex tech domain? I’d say it might be a question of time. A lot of time. When it comes to GTM (Go-To-Market) strategy formulation, this is without a doubt, my pet topic.

In some ways, it reminds me of the psychological insights about our grieving cycle when we need to process loss, in this case, the loss of the fantasy to run a complex tech company in early growth markets without a sales team, a journey of grief and a very considerable waste of money and energy:

Denial: My product is great, benefits obvious, and it will sell itself. I just need a reseller channel – bingo and a shopping cart on the website.  Anger: Customers just don’t get it. What is wrong with them?   Sadness: I thought my business would be twice the size it is now…  Acceptance: Maybe I need to look at hiring salespeople. OMG, the recruiter fees.Integration: Okay, I just hired sales guys. They have a great track record from big shops, and I just empower them and let them do their thing.

And then… a lot of pain, no pipeline or no conversion, a huge cost of sale, hiring and firing, burning every time something like $300K sunk cost, a lost opportunity, and disturbed customers, maybe even a bit of reputational damage (word travels fast), and unhappy investors. We get the picture. The Sales Channel is the most pivotal decision in the whole GTM strategy. Getting the hiring of a Sales Manager/Director right is the most pivotal decision to make. Sorry, no shortcuts here.Before even thinking about the Sales Channel, we need to have the input of four GTM strategy parts: Positioning, Product/Market Fit, Strategic Marketing. This presents the necessary groundwork to contemplate the question of the Sales Channel.

Here are the seven key points to work through and be “sales ready” before even writing a job ad or hiring a recruiter:

  1. Sales Process Type: The skill matrix between sales types demands fundamentally different people. Here are a few examples: product versus solution, direct versus indirect, complex high-value enterprise versus more frequent small business sales, buyer groups versus single buying authority, new or existing markets, educated versus uneducated buyers, demand fulfillment versus demand generation. All these questions demand answers before recruitment starts.
  2. Direct or Indirect Channel – or both: The biggest illusion I encounter is the idea that an indirect channel will simply do the demand generation and selling for you, with next to no cost of sales. In simple terms, if an indirect sales channel strategy is the right way to go, you still need a partnering business proposition, salespeople to define, pitch to, convert, onboard, enable, and support channel partners – forever. Selling doesn’t stop; your competitors will knock at the same doors, so a continued effort to stay attractive and top of mind to be a preferred partner is needed. Take a look at existing successful channel organizations and you will discover what it takes. The choice of channel partnering will determine what you need to support them. Will you “sell through” or “sell with”? Who will generate demand and be accountable for sales activity, a qualified sales pipeline, and predictable conversion? Your lead gen marketing execution will be shaped by these decisions. For all these reasons, many businesses pivot towards a direct sales approach that promises more control, predictability, and the ability to respond faster to market dynamics. This means that growth is dependent on how the sales and marketing engine can be built and scaled.
  3. Scalable Sales Channel: A sales channel can be scaled if it is built on repeatable processes and resourced by the available pool of skills in the market. This means you can’t rely on rare skill sets or super performers. The painful part for many tech leaders is that this means “dumbing” things down so they can become more repeatable, trainable, and manageable. If you are in a space where this is not possible, it will be essential to create a sales environment that will not only attract but can retain the sales-unicorns you need. The number one aspect of this is amazingly strong sales management.
  4. Sales Territory and Portfolio alignment: The territories and sales portfolio need to be crystal clear before salespeople start and be part of your job ad and recruitment process so that you can establish a fit. Territories should be informed by product-market fit. Are they by geography, industry, size of customers? Is the portfolio simple or complex demanding special skills or experience? Don’t hesitate to start with a small portfolio in a smaller territory at first; ensure solid onboarding, then grow the salesperson over time. Too much too early can cause confusion, endless onboarding, demand too much support, or simply make it “all too hard” and lose them.
  5. Organizational Structure, Support & Cultural Fit: Salespeople in complex tech typically don’t work in isolation. They may require technical or subject matter specific pre-sales support. The Sales Management function is the single most influential factor in successful onboarding and ongoing management. It is my opinion also the most underestimated role. In start-ups and scale-ups, it often falls back on the founder/CEO and presents a significant challenge not only in the time investment needed but a whole new skill portfolio. This reaches across topics such as territory planning, demand generation activities, pipeline reviews, deal planning, participating in sales calls, a meeting cadence, and, our favorite – forecasting. When it comes to organizational alignment, it is important to ensure good collaboration between sales and marketing, especially around topics such as lead generation and creation of sales assets (think sales presentations, information packs, brochures, social media activities, etc). Cultural fit is a very interesting aspect and often ill or too superficially defined. It is typically more helpful to translate “culture” into attributes and behaviors of people (what we do and how we do it).
  6. Remuneration & Performance Management: This is a very hot topic. What is the “right package”? There is not one size fits all. Go back to basics. Most importantly: whatever it is, it has to be achievable. If it is not – you will experience attrition and bad morale. The mix between fixed and variable earnings must be aligned with market conditions. If a salesperson starts with nothing, looks at 6-12 months sales cycles and has a low fixed income with high upside on overperformance, means they won’t be able to pay their bills and leave. Simple mathematics. Equally, if the fixed base is too high and they earn by “turning up” – the motivation to meet targets may not be as pressing. However, it all depends on their personality profile and “what you are hiring for”. Performance management is something to be discussed and agreed upon at the interview stage. Too often I have heard complaints such as “I am micromanaged” or “I am not trusted”, when sales managers rightfully expect transparency and reporting. The performance review cadence discussion is an essential part of the hiring process.

In summary – don’t hire until your business is sales ready. If the business does not have these core competencies, which is often true for tech-centric organizations – it really pays to get external, unbiased advice or guidance. Happy selling!