Sales Learning Curve and the Renaissance Rep

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"Sara, have sales do that thing where profits go up." [cartoon]I had a really good conversation with a candidate Exinda is considering for a sales position. The role Exinda is looking to fill is one of a channel engagement manager responsible for identifying and managing a type of services partners that the company has not pursued previously in an emerging market segment.

Talking about building 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 looking to build or ramp up a sales team. Mark and Charles primarily focus on the launch of new products, and the organizational learning curve required to support their success. I would say that the learning curve also applies to pushing an existing product through a new distribution model or channel.

Key Points of the Sales Learning Curve for New Channels or Markets

  • It requires the attention of the entire senior executive team, as the effort will impact each function in one way or another
  • It should be tackled by a “tiger” cross-functional team that can adequately pursue the initiative with an open and learning mind frame
  • Dive deep into the success requirements from the standpoint of the prospect/channel partner to understand the true pain points of each, the company’s value proposition for each, and how each wants to engage the company
  • Adapt as learning is accumulated, adapt again, and again…
  • Once the learning is near complete (it never ends), drive to a clearly mapped out engagement model and the specific associated touch points through the whole distribution channel (company to partner to prospect to customer)
  • Once the core model is baked, only then hire the “steady state” team that will carry it forward

The Renaissance Sales Rep

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

Hence the concept 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
  • Willing to roll with the punches without pointing fingers at marketing or development or finance
  • Has the instinct to walk away from deals that will never close
  • Has the strength to push back on prospects that try to get something for nothing from an emerging company
  • Willing to forgo some compensation in return for company 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 several renaissance sales executives and reps over the years. Typically I find them right after we invest in a new company. Successful founding-team sales executives are almost always renaissance sales people. One has to be in the startup phase.

After we invest (we only invest in companies that have grown past the start-up phase) and the company 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 challenge is in their ability to adapt to a more prescribed and structured sales process (they miss the days when they used to make fast decisions and “wing it.”) The second is expectations. Founding renaissance sales people feel a sense of entitlement, and have a hard time recognizing that they can be easily replaced with persons that have lower expectations, and are possibly better at selling in the execution phase.

I am very sensitive to this transition and have mentored more than one person through it. My advice to the CEO is to try as hard as he can to retain the renaissance rep. They are invaluable to the company as it looks to enter new markets or release new products. My advice to the renaissance rep is to go with the flow 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 big ways.