Flipping the Sales Script: How to break biases and diversify sales teams

Navigate to:

This article was originally published in TechCrunch and is reposted here with permission.

Technology leaders don’t like to admit it, but sales has a perception problem that deters many fabulous candidates – especially women and minorities – from pursuing careers in tech sales. I’ve seen and experienced these biases first-hand as a woman of color in tech sales.

Unfortunately, some of the best salespeople are often deterred from the profession because of the perspective of sales culture. There’s too much of an emphasis on “alpha male” personality traits rather than the soft skills that allow individuals to thrive. Sales leaders need to create a culture of success for all salespeople regardless of background.

The reality is that many Go-To Market (GTM) plans are shifting to product-led growth (PLG). Putting the product itself in the driver’s seat means that they need to be easily accessible, well documented, and usable without requiring ‘gatekeepers.’ In this context, the role of sales changes from pushing products to enabling customers to make informed decisions.

Enablement includes a lot of different things, including access to additional resources, volume discounts, navigating security, vendor management, procurement, understanding product roadmap, and many other topics that have less to do with selling and more to do with giving customers a well-managed buying process. Good tech salespeople enable customers to get the most out of their investment by giving a voice to their needs and concerns.

Substance over charisma

The charismatic alpha-male trope is leftover from the early technology sales days and is often depicted in television and movies. And while it makes for good drama, it leads people who would excel in tech sales to think they don’t have the right personality for the job.

This is a major myth – extroversion, charisma, and alpha personality traits do not drive sales success. The real skill sets that make effective salespeople include:

  • Discipline & Organization

  • Intellectual curiosity

  • Empathy

  • Ability to navigate complexity and create clarity out of ambiguity

  • Creativity and problem solving

These are gender-neutral soft skills that apply to introverts and extroverts equally. But unfortunately, the perception of sales environments deters many talented women from sales roles. Instead, they find comfort in marketing, accounting, finance, and human resource roles, all of which have more defined playbooks with well-understood responsibilities.

My own experience reflects this trend. I began my career in accounting and finance, then moved to sales operations. Sales was a black box to me, and I didn’t think there was a blueprint available for me to follow on how to be successful. I hope that by highlighting these skills, more people will see that they are capable of succeeding in tech sales roles and unlocking a profession that to most seems like a blackbox.

It begins and ends with process

I’ve worked at plenty of tech startups where the idea of sales hiring included setting up a corporate email address with CRM, assigning a so-called ‘territory,’ and wishing you luck. If you’re fortunate, you might also get a company pitch deck before making outbound calls. But that’s an incredibly outdated sales model and nowhere near what successful organizations look like today.

The problem with this approach is companies hire ‘seasoned’ salespeople and essentially wish them luck. Some succeed, some fail, but no one knows why. Leaders think the ones who succeed are rock stars and the ones who don’t have less talent. This is “hero selling” and it does not scale or produce effective sales teams. Leaders artificially attach success and failure to people rather than developing effective sales processes and systems, and go-to market and enablement plans that scale.

Modern tech sales organizations (such as ours at InfluxData) make every attempt to demystify the sales process by doing the following, in order:

  • Understand and document the sales process that generated early success

  • Automate the process with technology and systems wherever possible

  • Create an enablement plan for both the sales process and the product

  • Build a scalable GTM strategy (i.e., where will leads come from, pricing, support, channel and partnerships, etc.)

  • Finally, assuming you have a GTM fit, hire salespeople that care about your product and can execute against the GTM plan (don’t hire people if you lack GTM fit)

You’ll notice that this is the inverse of typical sales hiring. Most companies hire people and hope they can figure out these pieces independently. If people fail, companies can blame the individual salespeople rather than acknowledge the lack of well-defined processes or efficient enablement plans.

Of course, it’s still up to each individual to put in the time and effort to learn the process, be curious about the product, and get familiar with the tools and systems that help them be effective. Work ethic and curiosity play a big role in sales success.

The best salespeople I know train like athletes and execute with a high level of precision with a highly disciplined approach. They show up prepared for meetings, they know how to conduct deep research, they connect the dots between pain points and product solutions, and they create clarity from complexity and ambiguity whenever possible. While tech sales isn’t always an easy job, it’s one where hard work, creativity, and good preparation get you very far. Notice none of what’s required includes natural charisma or ego. As a matter of fact, those traits often lead to less satisfactory customer experiences and do not lead to long-term growth.

The shift to product-led growth

The very nature of buying and selling technology has undergone a profound shift in the past decade thanks to SaaS and cloud offerings.

The old paradigm involved selling big solutions for multi-year commitments at multi-million-dollar prices (think selling ERP or major infrastructure deals). Buyers were senior executives who could dictate technology decisions from the top down, and who required ‘wining and dining’ from people who could keep up with their egos. These were long sales cycles with big payoffs.

As more products turned toward cloud services, the buying process changed dramatically. Customers want to experience the technology first-hand in small doses. They only want to pay for what they consume, they want access to resources to help them unblock technical issues, and they want to easily integrate with their preferred technologies. If they feel your technology is no longer a fit, they stop paying you. This new paradigm forces sellers to constantly earn and deliver value.

At InfluxData, this starts with a GTM strategy that allows our customers to come to our website and get started without the need to engage with anyone. With a few clicks, they can sign up for a free version of the product or add a credit card to start using it. My team’s job is to give customers the freedom to navigate the product, while simultaneously allowing them to opt into a managed process depending on their needs. As a result, we have thousands of developers that sign up every month to use our products. It’s the job of the sales team to ensure those who opt into the managed process have access to the right resources to make the best decision for their business.

In this context, the role of the “sales” person is to help customers buy, not to sell. My team focuses on making customers’ projects successful. If they succeed, we succeed. It’s our job to understand budgets, timelines, and technical requirements, and to then provide the best education so they can make the right decision for their business/needs. We want to optimize the buying process so that buyers get what they need, quicker at the best possible price. That’s how you earn repeat business.

In this climate, we can’t afford to sell something buyers don’t need. Doing so only backfires and creates churn – a metric all tech companies want to avoid. Good sales teams not only help the company create predictable, incremental revenue, but they also help their organizations prevent unnecessary churn by ensuring high-quality incoming revenue.

The days of sell-and-move-on are over – most tech companies now understand their survival depends on expanding usage over time as customers get more value. Because our audience is highly technical, they are leary of ‘sales’ tactics. If we don’t deliver value, customers stop engaging.

Closing thoughts

There is genuine value in having diversity across an organization. As sales leaders, we want to draw upon the broadest possible market of talent. At InfluxData, we talk a lot about meeting developers where they are, and having a diverse sales team allows us to do that more easily.

The perception and reputation of sales haven’t done a lot to inspire women and underrepresented minorities to pursue sales jobs. However, I hope that by acknowledging these misperceptions and using them as context to discuss how InfluxData is moving forward presents a clear, alternative path to getting into sales that appeals to a broad cross-section of people.

I want my sales team to be at a place where anyone can work and thrive. As the market and the profession shift, I am excited that we can expand the target market of people considering tech sales roles.