Death of a salesman


2013 was a pretty crappy year for my professional career, there’s no denying that. As a partner of a web design and development studio I really loved what I did and who I worked with, until about halfway through 2013 when everything changed for the worst.

The majority of our work came via word of mouth, which is awesome, but we wanted to bring in fresh leads so we hired a salesperson to generate leads. Everything was working out great initially. He was bringing in money close to the amount we set as a goal for the first two quarters he worked for us. He seemed to really want to learn about our industry. And then during his third quarter he just stopped working.

We failed to work with him to properly outline his job description.

I could easily throw all of the blame on him but the truth is we failed to manage him. We failed to work with him to properly outline his job description. And we failed to provide him with adequate materials to market our services.

We hired him to be an agent for us, not just to sell websites. Of course we wanted him to sell, we just wanted him to sell our skill set and knowledge. The big problem started occurring when he began defining projects without our consent. The next problem was that hours started to mysteriously vanish from proposals. The final nail in the coffin came in the promise of a six week lead time when our lead time was ten to twelve weeks.

The problems we had could be summed up as a failure to properly convey what we wanted him to sell. We didn’t want him to sell websites, that’s what he did. The traditional notion of a salesman doesn’t work with small shops because the skills and knowledge of the designers and developers are always undervalued and there needs to be empathy for client and team. If you’re selling a product, you can knock off some of the price while getting the same product. We wanted the product itself to be adjusted, not the price. This put a tremendous amount of pressure on our production team because now we had to build the same product in less time, for a discounted price. It should have been, scale the project back, sell it in phases.

The problems we had could be summed up as a failure to properly convey what we wanted him to sell.

All of our work was custom so trying to place a fixed price on what we did didn’t work. Every client and every project is different and has a different solution and different path to that solution. The process and tools we use are the only constant. Of course we develop common patterns that can be reused but most of the time these patterns need updated or changed to fit the project.

It seems that the hardest pill for a traditional sales person to swallow is the idea that they have to sell the skill set and the knowledge of the production team, not the product itself. Part of what they’re selling is the consulting that needs to take place in order for the client and the team to properly define what the product is. This type of discovery is crucial if you want a quality product delivered in an efficient and timely manner.

Part of what they’re selling is the consulting that needs to take place in order for the client and the team to properly define what the product is.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this situation was that we never needed a salesperson. Bringing a third party in between the client and the production team just created problems with scope, communication, and timeline. The salesperson often has enough knowledge to start a conversation but not enough to properly define the project. I will never recommend hiring a traditional salesperson for a small to medium sized design and development studio. Taking a small team comprised of a designer, a developer, and a project manager is the best option and will produce better results because the production team will be involved from the outset. Having direct communication to the team throughout the process just produces better results and let’s the client be a part of the team fostering a more positive relationship overall.

This is just my personal experience and observations from working at several small web shops in conjunction with lead generating salespeople.

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