Thursday, September 5, 2013

Marc Benioff: Win Customers by Treating Them Like Partners


For all of you sales leaders out there, here is an excerpt from CEO Marc Benioff's book "Behind the Cloud." This time, Marc delves into The Sales Playbook and offers us a look at winning over your first customers by treating them like partners. 
Thanks to our developers’ talent and our earliest test users’ guidance, we developed a quality beta application. Finally, it was time to go out and win actual customers. Suddenly, we stumbled upon our newest and biggest test: making people comfortable putting their most sensitive data (proprietary customer lists) on our servers. Everyone was concerned about security breaches. It was challenging to convince prospects to try our service, and it was especially challenging to convince the first one. Most people don’t want to be the first to take a giant risk. Realizing that truism was pivotal. We finessed our strategy to target pioneers who saw an opportunity to participate in something new and exciting.

That first pioneer came in the form of Blue Martini Software, one of the small software companies in which I had previously invested. I knew I was asking for a favor when I called the founder, Monte Zweben, but I also knew I was offering something that he really needed. Monte’s sales team was using spreadsheets and wanted a CRM system, but it couldn’t afford traditional enterprise software. Blue Martini also needed a service without the complexities of enterprise software, because Monte wanted his sales team to be focused on selling, not getting a system up and running.

Monte floated the idea of using our new service by his sales force (the end users), and they immediately embraced it. Blue Martini (which has since been acquired and is now known as Escalate Retail) became our first customer in August 1999. The service was up and running within two weeks—not the months or years by which other software implementations were measured. Even better, Blue Martini did not have to make a million-dollar investment.

We did not have a formal sales organization at this time so in our quest for early customers, everyone on the team was encouraged to contact anyone he or she knew in any industry, or at any start-up. Diane Mark, our product manager, won our second client while she was standing in line at the local market, Mollie Stone’s. She ran into a former colleague who was working as a sales manager at iSyndicate, a company that sold syndicated content over the Web. She asked him what the company used to manage its sales process.

“ACT! And Excel,” he replied. “It’s a mess.”
After a short meeting with the iSyndicate executives, they signed on as our second customer. By September, we had five pilot customers using for free. They were more like beta customers, but I called them design partners to recognize their real contributions.

Our design partners’ insights were essential to the development of our application. We contacted them frequently to discuss their experience using the service, and they became the eyes and ears of the engineering team. They discovered features and tools and functionalities that they needed. We added a button that allowed any user to immediately send us an idea, and we could react very quickly. We created “bugforce,” a scaled-down database to track bugs and new ideas, which helped us rate the frequency of the problems or requests. The development team built all additional functionality in a very short time—a matter of weeks, which was unheard of in the industry. Being small, nimble, and in constant communication with our earliest customers is what enabled us to produce a terrific service.

In fall 1999, once we had honed the service into something of measurable value to customers, we hired our first dedicated salesperson (and fifteenth employee) to help acquire additional free users and to convert our free users into paying customers. The plan worked exactly as intended. Blue Martini soon started paying for the service. Before long,, a datacenter provider, was paying for twenty-five sales reps to use and touting our service in the press, explaining that it cost a fraction of a traditional enterprise product.

Our conversion strategy was successful for several reasons. First, through the free trial, prospects had already experienced the service, and they knew it worked. Second, it was a very low risk proposition because the service was billed monthly and there was freedom to change the plan or quit without any penalties. Third, it was such a good product that users became addicted. They needed it.

Go from Adoption to Addiction with a Feedback Loop

Be open to including all customers, and treat them as partners. To do so, utilize a fast and prioritized “feedback loop.”
  1. Stay in touch with customers.
  2. Develop a way to track their requests.
  3. Respond to their requests quickly.
  4. Ask if their needs have been satisfactorily met.
  5. Pay attention to how they are using the product.
This is an excerpt from Marc Benioff's book "Behind the Cloud."