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Applying The Sales Learning Curve To A Renaissance Rep

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Posted by steve on September 4, 2011 at 12:57 am

I had an interesting chat with an applicant Exinda is possibly considering for a sales position. The position Exinda intends to fill is one of a channel engagement manager whose duties and responsibilities include pinpointing and managing a the type of services partners that the organization has not pursued previously in an emerging market segment.

Discussing building brand new distribution channels reminded me of The Sales Learning Curve, a classic paper by Mark Leslie and Charles Holloway. It is a must read for any founder/CEO who intends to create or spice up a sales team. Mark and Charles primarily focus on the introduction of new products, and the organizational learning curve required to support their success. I’d say that the learning curve likewise applies to marketing a current product via a brand new distribution model or channel.

The key points for pursuing a new distribution technique or distribution channel include:

  • It calls for the concentration of the whole senior executive team, since this effort will have an impact on each function in one way or another
  • It should be tackled by a “tiger” cross-functional team with the ability to appropriately pursue the project with an open and learning mind frame
  • Delve deeply into the requirements for success from the viewpoint of the potential/channel partner to comprehend the various issues of each, the company’s value proposition for each, and how each would like to interact with the organization
  • Adapt as learning is accumulated, adapt again, and again…
  • Once the learning is near completion (it never ends), refer to a clearly mapped out engagement model and the specific associated touch points through the entire distribution channel (company to partner to prospect to customer)
  • Once the core model is baked, only then hire the “steady state” team that will bring it to completion.

And this is where the renaissance sales rep comes in… As Mark and Charles indicate, in a new market or channel, the learning curve of the organization is unique from that of the sales rep. The sales executive on the tiger team is quite different from the executive that would carry the process forward as soon as it is baked.

Therefore the notion of the renaissance rep (again, I refer to Mark/Charles’ paper). The renaissance rep must have the following characteristics:

  • Entrepreneurial (as much as a sales executive can be)
  • Has experienced an early stage company and wants to do it again
  • Willing to learn and adapt, learn and adapt
  • Eager to roll with the punches without blaming marketing or development or finance
  • Possesses the instinct to walk away from deals that aren’t likely to close
  • Possesses the strength to restrain prospects that attempt to get something for nothing from an emerging company
  • Willing to forgo some compensation in exchange for the company’s success and equity
  • Has faith that the money will come eventually, and the company will do well by him if it doesn’t.

I have worked with and mentored a number of renaissance sales executives and reps over the years. Usually I find them right upon investing in a new company. Profitable founding-team sales executives are almost always renaissance sales people. One has to be in the start-up phase. I know, I was at eEye.

Upon investing (we only invest in businesses that have developed past the start-up phase) and the business enters the expansion stage, I find that the renaissance sales executive invariably begins to struggle with his evolving role. I see this especially with VPs of Sales, but just as much in rank and file sales reps. The first issue is in their capacity to adapt to a more prescribed and organized sales process (they miss the days when they used to make fast decisions and “wing it.”)  The second is expectations. Founding renaissance sales reps have a sense of entitlement, and have a difficult time understanding that they can be very easily replaced with persons that have lower expectations, and are probably better at selling in the execution phase.

I am very sensitive to this transition and have mentored more than one person through it. My suggestion to the CEO is to try as hard as possible to keep the renaissance rep. They are invaluable to the organization as it looks to enter new markets or release new products. My suggestion to the renaissance sales rep is to go go along with change and to happily take on a new role. There is nothing more fulfilling than going from challenge to challenge. Career advancement and wealth will eventually make it to the renaissance rep, and it will in major ways.

Oh and here’s the Compendium keyword plug… we are a global venture capital firm with a consulting arm that provides strategic consulting services to its portfolio.

Firas Raouf is a Venture Partner at OpenView.

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