Most of us in the startup world find ourselves playing many roles, some of which do not play to our strengths.  Maybe you are like me and dread salespeople.  A common pain point is when a founder must play the role of salesperson.  I would contend that the success of a startup rises and falls on the ability of a founder to sell, not only to sign clients but to get people to believe in her/his authenticity.  I am launching my practice, Fearbox Solutions, a consultancy aimed at providing CFO/COO services to small to midsize clients during a transformation (startups would fall into the scope) and sales is probably the hardest part of this journey.  However, I think I happened upon a tool you might want to try – forming a sales and marketing accountability group.

My Accountability Group

We all need straight talk – people who will tell us like it is.  We need a group of advisers who can look at us objectively in a safe, confidential environment and provide feedback on what we are doing right and where we are off course.  The best advisers are people with whom you share a common purpose or bond and people who are not your closest friends, spouses/partners or business partners.  One of the best things I did recently was to join an accountability group whose primary focus was on implementing individual sales and marketing action plans to increase clients.

Recently, I got involved in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement, specifically, the B Corp certification process.  B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk. B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.  I took an online class called “The Secrets of B Corp Consulting”, lead by Ryan Honeyman, the author of The B Corp Handbook and Matt Mayer.  Out of this group, several of us including Matt decided to organize a book club of sorts, oriented around C.J. Hayden’s book, Get Clients Now! which teaches a 28-day sales and marketing program.  Our diverse group included 6 members, located across the world in Hong Kong, Germany, Canada and the US.  Each of us had launched consulting practices and all of us shared the common bond of a commitment to the CSR movement and helping for-profit businesses to be forces for good.  Like almost every business on the planet, we all are faced with the constant challenge of getting and retaining clients.

Get Clients Now! is essentially a “how to” guide to building an effective sales and marketing strategy and involves building and executing a highly personalized 28-day sales and marketing program.  While the target audience is consultants, the sales fundamentals could be applied across any industry.  All of us in the group committed to implementing the program.  The 28-day program involved:

1.) Choosing a stage in the sales process to focus on (filling the pipeline, following up, having sales conversations and closing sales)

2.) Building “success ingredients” or tools to enable the sales and marketing program (marketing kits, contact management systems or blogs)

3.) Selecting 10 sales and marketing actions to focus on throughout the 28 days.  Actions could include things such as sending emails to 3 prospects per day, attending one live event per week or spending 2 hours per week researching target markets.

Our group decided to meet via video call once a week to discuss the progress on our action plans.  Scheduling across time zones was a challenge, but several people graciously sacrificed sleep time as the person in Hong Kong got up in the middle of the night to talk to us (on a video call no less – and did not wear pajamas!) and the people on Pacific time woke up early in the morning.

The Value of a Group

One of the things that C.J. Hayden emphasizes is the importance of getting outside help as you set up your sales and marketing program.  We all need someone who will hold us accountable to sticking to programs and goals.  The fact that we all had to attend a video call and provide a status on our action plans was reason enough for me to stay caught up.

The accountability group provided perspective, as predicted by C.J. Hayden.  One member of our group had been through the program once and was extremely helpful in setting realistic expectations.  We all set aggressive goals and designed challenging programs.  It was not uncommon for many of us to only accomplish half of what we sought out to do during the week. On more than one occasion, the person who had been through the program talked us off the ledge, explaining that achieving 60-70% of what we intended most likely translates into success.  Life happens, and we must adjust.  During the middle of our program, my father-in-law passed away, which caused me to lose momentary focus.  I received many valuable words of encouragement from members of our group.  There were also several offline calls that I had with individuals in the group.  I tend to take an interest in the financial impact of CSR programs and one of my friends in the group shared his perspective that successful CSR programs can’t be divorced from profitability, as well as his experiences working in sustainability.

An accountability group can also provide support.  During one of the weekly calls, I must have sounded particularly depressed or uncertain about my business.  After the call, one of my friends in the group took the time to send me a note that provided a tremendous amount of encouragement and pointed out that the group was there to help.

Prioritize Direct Contact with Potential Clients

The degree of success in sales can be greatly influenced by habits – repeating the same behaviors and actions every day and adhering to priorities.  Entrepreneurs have the intimidating task of trying to balance business development and service delivery.  They need to make time to “fill the pipeline” with clients.  One of the most important actions to repeat every day must be “outreach”, as C.J. Hayden calls it – direct contact with potential clients.  This is by far the most effective sales strategy and perhaps the one that scares us the most.  It might be obvious, but the more direct the contact, the better.   Emails can be effective, but in-person visits or phone calls – and maybe even video calls assuming a good internet connection on both ends – are the best.  I am an extrovert and enjoy meeting with people, but I am uncomfortable selling myself.  I take great joy in making people happy.  Sales means putting my product on the line and taking a risk that things may not go as planned and that there may be dissatisfied people.  I discovered that my discomfort with sales was translating into how I was attacking my action plan.  My friends in the group noticed that I was completing the softer, indirect contact tasks such as developing marketing materials and blogging first and avoiding the hard task of outreach.

Don’t Forget About Developing Brand

It might sound like I am contradicting the previous statement about prioritizing direct contact with potential clients, but an entrepreneur can’t forget about doing things that support building their brand.  As most of you are aware, brand continues to increase in value in the eyes of consumers. Consumers care about authenticity and credibility.  The high value place on brand is one reason I believe in the fundamentals of the B Corp corporate social responsibility framework, as the movement is rooted on the idea that consumer will be drawn to companies that are perceived as authentic in their purposes.

In Cohn & Wolfe’s Authentic Brands 2014 Study , a study on the mindset of the global consumer, they found that more than 63% of consumers would rather buy from a company they find to be more authentic than the competition.  In that same Cohn & Wolfe study, three of the top behaviors people expect of brands were the fact that they communicate openly and honestly about their products and services (91% of respondents), don’t let their customers down (91%), and that they act with integrity at all times (87%). Because people want to relate to you, they want to trust you and know you’re going to do what you say.  This study is often quoted in B Corp circles, where a high importance is place on brand and authenticity.

So how do you build brand, especially in a market or area where you have no previous experience?  You need to put yourself out in public physically and virtually to create opportunities for potential customers to see you in action. Several of the individuals in our group actively pursued speaking engagements.  One person suggested that speaking at graduate program classes and events at universities were opportunities to get in front of people who have decision making power in their respective companies or at least can influence decision makers.  Several of us had action plans to not only attend live events once a week where potential customers might be in attendance but also to look for opportunities to speak at the events.  Some of us built in daily and weekly actions to work on blogs or comment on other blogs.  Actions as easy as making it a point to post an article on social media or commenting on a blog can help to establish yourself as an expert.

Network, Network, Network

A good sales person never underestimates the value of networking.  All of us built specific networking actions into our plans.  One great tip I picked up from the group included having a game plan for types of individuals you might want to meet at a live event.  The book encourages a broad view of networking, not limited to circulating a room handing out business cards.  Especially nowadays with all sorts of social media options, the book emphasizes focusing on using multiple means (attending live events, emailing, posting on social media to create “a pool of contacts from which you can draw clients, referrals, resources, ideas and information” and that “networking is interactive”.

You Can’t Do It Alone

We can’t do this thing called “life” or starting a business alone.  One thing I have always emphasized with my son Sam (some of you may have met him at Startup Iceland) is that you need to hang with people who raise you up, not pull you down.  Our accountability group did not disappoint.  One of our group members, Matt Mayer, habitually signs his emails with a wish of “high vibes” to the recipient.  The Urban Dictionary defines this term as “…the state of joy one achieves when a person’s actions and beliefs are aligned, and all the pieces of their life have integrity and love at its core.”  I would encourage you to form a sales and marketing accountability group so that you might be lifted up and receive the same benefits of high vibes that I received from our group.