Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a two-part series featuring Help Scout co-founder and CEO, Nick Francis. The first post talked about the company’s resolve to create value before asking for anything in return.
It’s hard to admit you were wrong. It’s particularly difficult for CEOs. What will everyone think? Will my team start questioning my ability to lead? Will the board start looking for my replacement? Do I even know what the hell I’m doing?
It’s easier to just stick to your guns. But at what cost?
“One of the most important things I’ve learned is to be open to changing your mind on basically everything,” says Nick Francis, co-founder and CEO of Help Scout. “Lots of people read the Steve Jobs biography the wrong way and began thinking that visionaries are gifted with a special intuition to make decisions others are incapable of. And I completely disagree.”
Francis learned this lesson first-hand. For the first five years of Help Scout, he was adamantly opposed to having a sales team. But Help Scout now has a sales team, and he wishes he had started earlier.
Why was he opposed to sales? What made him change his mind?
Your Biggest Strength Can Become Your Stumbling Block
Help Scout is a product-led organization. And that’s not a surprise because Francis is a product guy. And this naturally informed how Help Scout approached customer acquisition, user onboarding and customer support.
This product-first philosophy has become the company’s litmus test for success. “As a product person, I wanted to build a self-serve product where users can sign up, get onboarded and get value out of the product, all without talking to anyone at Help Scout,” Francis explains. “The true measure of a well-designed product is whether people can become experts without assistance.”
Striving for this gold standard in self-service is influenced by his values and beliefs. As Francis says, “I feel like a lot of companies use sales and customer success as a crutch to cover up weaknesses in a poorly designed product.” Help Scout was embracing constraint in order to yield a better end result.
But purist values can burn brighter as compensation for a lack of experience in certain areas. “Honestly, part of my reluctance to do sales was intimidation. I had no idea how to build a sales team,” explains Francis. “Plus I’m an introvert, so I don’t like to talk to people. Self-service was perfect for me,” he laughs.
Overcoming a Negative Bias
Help Scout lives and dies by customer feedback, and Francis famously called every customer personally in the early days, not to sell anything, but attempting to understand their business challenges more deeply. “We talk to hundreds of customers every day because only they can determine whether or not the product is great,” he says.
What do salespeople do? They talk to prospects who are evaluating your product. It’s totally up to you how your salespeople approach those conversations. Are they trying to understand the prospect’s pain and help alleviate it? Or is the salesperson focused on solving their own problem (i.e., hitting quota)? It’s a blank canvas and you can decide.
“My negative bias against sales totally shifted once I realized that salespeople get feedback that you won’t ever get otherwise,” Francis says. “The sales team talks to people in the buying process who are evaluating your product alongside a bunch of other products.” Francis realized that without salespeople, there is a lot of extremely valuable feedback you’re not getting.
“Once I understood this dynamic, I was all-in on sales. Because I want all sorts of feedback to make the product better.”
Doing Sales in a Help Scout Way
One of Help Scout’s goals is to create value before asking for anything in return. What does that look like in the context of sales? It looks a lot like collaborative problem solving with the prospect.
“Doing sales in a Help Scout way means focusing on the prospect’s pain and trying to help them solve that pain through whatever means necessary. And sometimes that means recommending a different product,” Francis explains. “We want our people to feel free to recommend another product if another product is actually a better fit. We just try to help them solve the challenges they are having as quickly as possible, whether or not the solution is Help Scout.”
When the customer wins, Help Scout wins.
This is simply a more helpful and human way to approach sales qualification. Typically the goal is to spend as little time as possible with unqualified leads. But that would be inconsistent with Help Scout’s values. This is a rare approach that expects the sales person to truly be on the customer’s side as their champion.
The Thin Line Between Principle and Stubbornness
“I feel like it took me way too long to come around on the sales thing because I was somewhat stubborn,” Francis says. “I had a negative connotation of sales, and I felt like it conflicted with our values.” Help Scout is helpful. Sales is pushy. Those two things don’t mix well, right?
But there’s a very thin line between principle and stubbornness. You can only know which side you’re on by openly questioning your assumptions. “Once I actually decided to understand what sales is at a fundamental level, I realized that we can totally do it in our own way,” Francis says. “I can’t believe it took me five years to figure this out. I felt really stupid.”
Humility is a Virtue
It takes a tremendous amount of humility to question your assumptions and admit that you were wrong. It’s really uncomfortable, so most people just avoid it. “CEOs need to be much more coachable and open to other ideas or else stubbornness becomes a real issue,” Francis explains. “If you start to rely solely on your gut or your intuition as a founder, that’s really going to harm a lot more than it’s going to help in the long run.”
Francis says it’s important to ask yourself the question, “Am I just being stubborn under some thin veil of principle, or is this a core assumption that we should reconsider as a company?”
Humility is rare, but we should all channel our inner philosopher to realize that there’s a lot we still don’t know. Or as Nick Francis puts it, “Five plus years into building Help Scout, I’m more aware of all the things that I don’t know, as opposed to the few things that I do know.”
It’s ok to be wrong. And good things happen when you embrace that.