266: Steli Efti’s Inside Sales Tips for Startups
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This week’s episode of The Startup Chat is a special one. We feature Steli’s interview for the Inside Sales Summit, which was a virtual sales summit where we interviewed over 50 sales experts, leaders and founders, who teach their sales secrets during the summit.
This episode is a follow-up to episode 256, where we published Hiten’s interview for the virtual sales summit.
In this episode, Steli talks about how to diagnose your sales funnel and identify any problems that it might have, benchmarks for your sales funnel, how to do outbound and inbound sales the right way, how to improve your cold calling strategy and much more.
Tune-in for tips and advice that can help you create a scalable and effective sales process for your startup.
Time Stamped Show Notes:
00:24 About today’s episode.
02:32 The introduction of the interview.
03:53 How to diagnose a sales funnel that is leaking leads and identify where things are going wrong.
10:05 Steli talks about whether there’s been a shift in how SAAS companies are approaching sales today and why that may be the case.
16:33 Steli reveals his best practices and principles for people that want to get started with outbound calling or are looking to revamp their process.
29:44 How to decide which is more effective for your startup – calling or emailing the prospect first.
32:56 Steli cites some interesting cold outreach campaigns he’s received in the past and shares some tips that can help you improve your messages.
37:59 Steli talks about vulnerability and why it can be important for salespeople.
45:55 The best investment Steli has made in the context of building his selling skills.
47:25 Where to learn more about about Steli and get in touch with him.
- Being vulnerable with confidence is the ultimate sign of strength
- The trick to sounding good on a sales call is feeling good first.
- The first step to fixing your sales funnel is to have a simple funnel, so that you can attribute the leakage to a certain step in the funnel.
Steli Efti: Hi everybody, this is Steli Efti and in today’s episode of the Startup Chat, we have a special episode. This is actually my interview for the Inside Sales Summit, where I teach how to create a scalable sales process for your startup. So here’s the deal, we’ve done this a few episodes ago, I think it was episode 256, 256. Hiten Shah’s inside sales tips for startups, where we published on the Startup Chat Hiten’s interview for the Inside Sales Summit, which was a virtually summit where we interviewed over 50 experts, founders, sales leaders, teaching their inside sales secrets. And that episode got a ton of positive responses, and a bunch of people asked us “why don’t you publish Steli’s interview as well?” So this is what we do today people, you’re going to listen to my interview, it’s 46 minutes long, so it’s a much longer episode than the typical Startup Chat, but I got into a lot of details. I’ll talk about how to look at your sales funnel and how to identify problems there. I’ll talk about benchmarks for your sales funnel, how to do outbound sales, how to do inbound sales. I’ll talk about cold calling and cold emailing, so there’s going to be a ton of stuff around my sales philosophy and sales tactics that I’ve seen used successful at startups. So I hope that for people out there that are interested in that, this is going to be a super insightful episode. And for those of you that didn’t catch Hiten’s episode on the Inside Sales Summit, and want to listen to that after listening to mine, just go to episode 256 and take a listen. Hiten typically doesn’t talk a lot about sales, and he’s known as a marketing expert and product expert, but he’s very dangerous when it comes to sales. And that interview in particularly is very, very, good, so I highly recommend it. Alright, that’s enough from me, hope that you like the interview. And if you want to hear more interviews around inside sales, you can just go to insidesalessummit.com, put in your email address, and you’ll get instant access to all the recorded interviews, over 50 of them. I hope you’re going to like it, that’s it from me, now enjoy the interview.
Ryan: Welcome to the Inside Sales Summit. This is our interview with Steli Efti. Steli is the CEO of Close.io, the inside sales CRM of choice for startups and SMBs. Steli is a sales hustler in every sense of the word. He’s a Y Combinator alumni, advisor to several startups, is the author of “The Ultimate Startup Guide To Outbound Sales!” amongst many other sales related books. Steli co hosts The Startup Chat podcast with Hiten Shah, where they share twice weekly episodes featuring unfiltered insights and actionable advice for anyone in the world of startups. Somehow, somewhere, Steli also finds the time to speak about sales at events around the world, release daily videos and write for the Close.io blog. Steli, welcome to the summit.
Steli Efti: Thank you so much. Don’t forget, I’m your partner in crime in putting together this summit.
Ryan: Right you are.
Steli Efti: There you go.
Ryan: How could I?
Steli Efti: There you go. All right. That was a high energy intro, my God. Ryan, I’m pumped, let’s do this.
Ryan: We’re bringing it today, all right. So, Steli, one thing you’ve written and spoken a lot about over the past few years is curating and perfecting your sales process, with an inside sales team in particular. If you’ve got a product that you know your existing customers are getting value from, but your sales funnel is leaking leads for some reason now, how do you go about trying to diagnose where things are falling off the rails?
Steli Efti: That’s a great question. I think that first step is to have a simple funnel so that you can attribute the leakage to a certain step in the funnel, right? Too often, we all like to be lazy with this, and if we’re not converting as many prospects into customers as we’d like to, we’ll just think maybe our pitch sucks, maybe our salespeople suck, maybe we need to train them, give them more material. We’ll come up with some kind of a story, usually zeroed in on the end of the funnel, right? The final piece of the funnel. But, often times, the most leakage that I’ve found in most startups that I talk to are more in the top or the middle of the funnel. So, my first thought would be make sure you have the right data, and you look at each step of the funnel. A framework that I offer is the AQC framework: activity, quality and conversion. I’ll give you an example really quickly. Let’s say we do a lot of calls and we say every rep has 100 sales calls every day, and we only close one deal a day, whatever, right? We want to close a lot more deals, how do we fix this? I always tell people, “I don’t fucking know,” right? This is not enough information for us to know where the problem is. Here’s what I would want you to do when you do calling. I would want you to track the number of dials, that’s the activity part, right? So, 100 dials a day. Then I want you to track the quality of that activity, and when we talk about calling I would want you to know what is your reach rate. If you dial 100 numbers, how many times do you actually reach the person you wanted to talk to, right? So, now that we know how many people we’ve reached, I want to know how many of these people that we’ve reached are truly qualified prospects, people that once we ask some question we learn a few things, we realize, yes, they should buy our solution. Then how many of those qualified leads and prospects ultimately close? That’s the funnel you need to have, right? We have the activity level that’s 100 dials, we know the quality of the activity, how many did we reach and how many of those that we reach did qualify, and then we know the conversion, how many of those that qualified closed. If I know this, the way of fixing your funnel could be very different, right? Let’s say we dial 100 numbers and we only reach two people. If we reach two people out of 100, there’s no fucking sales coaching that will get you to go from one close to two closes. You’re never going to close every person you talk to. Never, right? That’s not going to be like … The way to fix this is not to coach you on the closing side of things at the end of the funnel, the way to fix this is to realize our reach rate sucks, right? It’s terrible, and that’s the first thing we need to fix. This is actually, when it comes to calling, a lot of times the biggest problem is that people have way too low reach rates, and their campaigns are kind of dead in the water that way. Now, let’s say that we reach not two people, let’s say we reach out of 100, 50, right? We have a great reach rate, half the people that we dial we reach, but out of those 50 we only qualify two and then we close one. Again, closing is not the problem. The problem here is that we’re dialing numbers and trying to reach and get in touch with people we should have never called. People that after we talk, we discover they are not our target customer, they should not purchase our product. Then we know it’s a data and a lead quality problem. Then that’s the way to fix it, right? Let’s say we call 100 people, we reach 50, out of the 50, 40 people qualify. We’ve a really good quality of leads. Then out of the 40 that qualify, we only close one. Yes, bingo, boom. Now, we know we have a closing issue, right? We don’t know how to close. I would say, just to wrap this up, in a funnel like this, you want to … If we dialed 100 numbers, we would want to have a reach rate that’s at least in the 30% range, right? If you’re less than 15% you’re fucked, this is never going to work out. You want to be above 15%, ideally in the 30%. The higher, the better. Out of the people that we reach, we really want to qualify more than half of them, right? The higher the percentage again, the better, but if it’s less than 50% of the people that we reached ultimately qualify to purchase our product, we’re calling the wrong numbers, right? That’s the benchmark there. Then out of the people we qualify, you want to have a really high closing rate, right? You want to be way above 50%. 50 at the lowest level, 60/70% ideally because they’re the people that we’ve reached, we’ve talked to and we’ve qualified. Out of those, we should close a really high percentage if possible. So, that’s how you approach a leaking funnel, is you look at the basic numbers, you make it simple, you realize, you know, you look at the activity, at the quality of your activity and the conversion, and then you go top to bottom and try to fix these numbers if they look bad. You always start at the top because if you fix something at the top of a funnel, the jumps at the end are going to be significant. That’s the way to go. It’s not that complicated, but 9 out of 10 times a company will not go through this exercise. They will just go, “We’re calling 100 people, we’re only closing one. Let’s coach our salespeople so they double their closing numbers,” right? And then when they don’t accomplish that, they don’t know why, everybody’s frustrated and unhappy. The easy way to fix it is to look at the numbers in your funnel to identify where the problem is and fix that problem.
Ryan: I love that. I mean, this is the most comprehensive answer I think I’ve gotten to this question, and I think it’s really simple. It sounds intuitive, right? Like it’s something that you make sound easy. So, you know, with that mind, moving onto the next question because you knocked that completely out of the park. You’ve been in SAS for nearly a decade, talking about sales the entire, entire time. I’m sure you’ve seen trends come and go as far as how SAS sales function. You know, the predictable model rather being one of them, for sure. Do you feel that there have been any other large shifts in how SAS leaders are approaching sales today?
Steli Efti: Yeah, absolutely. 10 years ago, when I moved to Silicone Valley from Europe, sales was a dirty word in the valley. Like, tech companies were like, “We don’t want to have to do anything with sales. Here’s how every business is going to grow, it’s just going to be viral,” right? Virality was the big … Well, first it was user generated content, then it was virality, then it was mobile, then it was social, then it was, you know, whatever. There’s all these fads and fashionable things that are happening, but for the longest period of time, founders that were doing SAS companies, they didn’t want to really have to build a sales team or think about a sales process. They really were thinking how can we just do marketing and how can we just kind of find a way that our customers bring more customers on their own and we don’t have to work that hard on it. And I get it, it’s a very sexy idea. I’d love that too, right? Just set something up, lean back, and boom, your thing is exploding and just getting more and more customers. It’s just, you know, in the last five years really, people started going, “Huh. Maybe this whole viral, bottom up, user generated thing isn’t working in B2B, and maybe we do have to do some sales.” And, really, in the last three years, it’s switched the other way around. Now, every B2B, startup and founder is like, “Sales, sales is so important. Let’s hire salespeople, let’s read sales books, let’s go to sales events, let’s become really experts in sales.” It’s gotten from something that was really neglected to something that now is at the center of many B2B companies, it’s something that’s really kind of highly in demand and desire. I do claim, you know, Close.io and I personally, we’ve played a little part in that shift. We’ve championed sales as an important part in business, and we’ve written a lot of content, and hopefully influenced a lot of people to think differently about it. So, sales has gotten hot, right? It’s a hot topic, which is good and bad the way I see it, right? Good because a lot of founders have, I think, a higher chance for success because they have realistic expectations of what it will take to succeed, right? And I am always in the corner of the founders and entrepreneurs out there. But bad because now you have better competition, right? Now, when you’re in B2B and you compete with somebody, they also often think about building a sales team and they are not as naïve about it as they used to be. So, that kind of sucks at times. I think there’s really approaches that have gotten hot. There’s things that get like a rebranding, right? I’ll give you an example. It used to be that people that would do prospecting and lead gen, they would be called prospectors, right? That’s not a really sexy name. And then, boom, you know … Was a good friend and a good part of the summit, he came along and he called these people sales development representatives, SDRs. And like developing sales as a rep … Like just sounded better. And, boom, all of a sudden, all these people wanted to be SDRs, all these companies started hiring for it. It’s functionally a job that has existed forever, it just has a cooler name now, right? So, I think there’s some rebranding in sales that’s going on, that makes some certain functions better. I think there’s a lot of technology enablement going on in sales right now that’s very, I think, very exciting. You know, Close as well, we’ve tried to play a role in this and really empowering salespeople to do their job better by taking away all the manual data entry shit that they have to do and empower them to communicate better. One of my favorite things, maybe, that has changed and has gotten a lot better is just the basic philosophy of talking to customers and prospects. Again, we all in SAS wanted to build self serve funnels, right? So, companies would come, they’d sign up for a free trial, they’d play around with the product, they’d fall in love, they’d put in their credit card, they’d pay, they started using it more and more, they’d pay us more and more and more and more, and we all lived happily ever after forever. The idea was the less we need to talk to people, the better, because talking to people isn’t scalable, right, and everything needs to be scalable for it to be a great venture backed company and a great SAS company. I think that that trend, again, has shifted, and we claim some credit for that. Where, today, I think more and more B2B companies, more SAS companies than ever before are ready and willing and focused to talking to prospects and talking to their customers. I think still a tool that’s undervalued, but it will hopefully make a big difference in that regard, is talking to them like auditorily, so talking to them on the phone or via some kind of a voice app, and not just talking to them in chat or in email or in some forms that they fill out. ‘Cause when you talk to people in person and you hear their voice, you have so much more context, it’s a much more context rich environment. You can influence them better, but you can also understand them more. You can hear when they say yes, but they really mean no. You can hear when they say they understand what you told them, but their voice is giving away that they’re confused. It gives you all this rich data to dig deeper, to ask follow up questions and to ultimately get to a point of true understanding, and whoever understands their customer best will ultimately own them and their relationship with them. So, I think the phone is getting reintroduced, and at the center of the relationship, and talking to customers, talking to prospects, calling your trial signups, all that is becoming more and more important in the inside sales world and in the SAS world. I’m super excited about that, I think that’s super crucial.
Ryan: Yeah. This is definitely one of the recurring themes with essentially all of these interviews, is how no matter how many tools and different pieces of technology roll out, it’s never going to replace the actual salesperson, in the B2B world specifically at least, right? So, you’ve got things like outbound calling, outbound emailing, so do you have any best practices or principles in mind that you would give to people watching today who want to either get started with outbound calling or to revamp their process?
Steli Efti: Yeah. So, I think that when it comes to calling, there’s a lot of waste that typically happens at the top of the funnel, what we talked about earlier with like reach rates being very low, for instance, that can be addressed with some best practices, but also with technology. For people that are interested in that, Close.io has the best calling, integrated calling, in the CRM world, hands down. I’m willing to challenge anybody personally who disagrees with me. I want to hear from people if they do – firstname.lastname@example.org. So, there’s technology that can help it, and we can talk about that a little bit, but, overall, the fundamental way that people get calling wrong, and outbound calling wrong, is they don’t think about it like a product. I think about calling like a product, and what I’m concerned about is the user experience. When I call you, you’re my user, and I’m thinking about the journey you’re taking as the phone rings and as you pick up, from the hello to the end of the conversation. Most people, when they let’s say design an outbound calling campaign, they just go, “Let’s buy as many phone numbers as possible and then let’s just smile and dial all day long and just brute force our way into success.” Then they are encountering a lot of emotional pain and rejection. The sales reps’ morale tanks, and now they don’t have to just brute force it to the customer, now they have to brute force their sales team and push them to be motivated and do their job. It’s kind of a, you know, it’s a campaign that’s doomed to death. So, here’s how I want you to think about a calling campaign, right? Step one is you need to reach people, right? That’s your number one problem, is do we reach enough people. How can we make sure that we will reach the right people at the right time? If you cannot get a good answer to that, your calling campaign is dead. That’s step one, but that’s the step most companies will spend the least amount of time thinking about, right? So, how do we get good phone numbers, how do we … Are we sure that the type of buyer we have is somebody that communicates over the phone, that picks up the phone, right? There’s certain people, like if you sell software to doctors or lawyers or teachers, these are professionals, these are people where it’s fairly easy to find their phone number and they do pick up their phone when an unknown number is calling, right? They’re in the habit of doing that. There are people out there, let’s say the chief technology officers of Fortune 500 companies, these people do not tend to just pick up randomly the phone if an unknown number calls. So, understanding who I’m trying to reach, understanding if the phone is a channel that they respond to is step one. Having good data, good phone numbers and all that is step two. Thinking about and being considerate about when we call them, right? Good example is Monday mornings usually, on average, bad time to call people, right? Friday evenings might also not be the greatest time in the universe to call people in their office. But, often times, I’ve seen startups find amazing success calling at unusual times, especially when you call executives. Sunday evenings at the office might be a really fucking good time to call, because the CEOs, they are in the office on Sunday evenings. You know why? Because nobody else is in the office, and they like have peace of mind and they can plan the week. Sometimes super early or super late might be a lucky time to call. So, you have to experiment with the day and the time, and be a little bit curious, and not just assume let’s just call everybody from nine to five, right? So, now, once we reach people, we need to sound good. This sounds trivial. This is one of those fundamental truths that’s so obvious that it’s easy to neglect and ignore. Sound good. But, sounding good is fundamental to phone sales. At the hello, as I pick up the phone and I say, “Hello,” your voice, your tonality, will paint a picture in my mind of who you are. That picture is not as solid as reality, right, otherwise we’d be schizophrenics, but there is … I have to imagine somebody, otherwise I cannot compute what words you’re telling me. It’s the way we actually language, is that we have to create some kind of imagery of who that person is. Depending on your voice, I’m going to imagine widely different people, and who I imagine you to be will influence dramatically how much I want to talk to you, right? If you sound depressed, if you sound angry, if you sound nervous, I don’t want to talk to you, right? I will paint a picture of somebody that is failing, that’s a failure in life. I will paint a picture of somebody that is suicidal. I will paint a picture of somebody selling something nobody wants. I will paint a picture that’s very unattractive, a picture that I want to run away from, right, versus if you sound energetic, if you sound enthusiastic, if you sound confident, if you sound like you’re smiling even as I’m telling you I’m not interested, if you sound authentic and like an expert, eventually, I don’t even know why, I’m going to keep listening. The why of why I keep listening is because you sound good, right? Then I’ll go, “Huh, I don’t know why, but I feel like I might want to keep listening to you.” So, calling people and having some level of enthusiasm on the phone, not whispering, not talking very slowly, right … The three simplest hacks and … The easiest hack to sounding good is feeling good. So, whatever you need to do to feel good before you call people, do that. But if you want some theory behind it, it’s very simple. Three basic things. You don’t need to book seminars or read lots of books about tonality, all you need to know is most ears will interpret talking slowly with being slow up here, and talking a little faster than average with being fast, fast meaning smart. So, talk a little faster than average. Most ears will interpret low volume with lack of confidence, nervousness. Most people will interpret a really loud voice as aggressive. If you want to be above average, a little louder than average, that most ears will interpret as confidence, right? If you put a smile on your face, funny enough, they’ve done many experiments on this, we can hear if somebody’s smiling or not even if they say the same words in the same volume. If you smile, if you’re slightly above average in terms of your volume and your speed, you’re 90% ahead of the curve, right? So, you’re calling me, if you’re not excited to talk to me, why the fuck should I be excited about talking to you? Make sure you sound good. Now that you reach me, you sound good, you need to basically just, at the beginning, explain to me what the fuck it is you do or why you’re calling me. Think about it again, user experience. I pick up the phone, it’s a phone number I don’t recognize, it’s a voice I don’t recognize, what is going on through my mind? Who is this, who is this, who is this, who is this, and then oh shit, is this person trying to sell me something, are they selling me something, are they selling me something, right? That’s it, that’s the thought process that’s going on in my mind. You need to address these two questions really early on, and you cannot talk and tell me anything else, because as long as you don’t address these two things I’m not listening, because I’m in my head going oh shit, who is this, who is this, who is this, who is this. So, don’t lose me at the hello. How many times have people done cold calling campaigns and they say, “Hey. My name is Steli, I’m calling from Close.io. What we do is duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh,” and I haven’t heard anything of this. I was in my head thinking who is this, who is this, who is this, and then I have to go and say, “Sorry, who is this again?” When somebody tells you to repeat what you just said, you’ve fucked up, right? You’ve messed up right there and then. So, you don’t want to lose me at the hello. You want to say, “Hello. My name is Steli Efti. Here’s the reason why I’m calling in a sentence. I’m calling people in the area to find out they might be a good fit for a beta program that we’re running.” Now I’ve addressed who I am and why I’m calling. The person now is thinking, okay, some dude in the area, beta program, trying to see if it’s a good fit, and now they’re thinking but what the fuck is it. So, now you go, “What we do, in a sentence, we offer sales teams a tool that will enable them to do more calls, send more emails, close more deals.” Now, once you’ve given me the elevator pitch, the … So, I went who is this and why are they calling me, and then I went, okay, but what the fuck is it. Ah, okay, I get what it is, now I’m making a judgment call, right? Now I’m going to decide not interesting for me most of the time, or I don’t fully get it, I need to know more. You need to empower me to say it, so instead of just going, “What we do, in a sentence, is we offer sales teams an inside sales tool that allows them to do a better job,” and then keep talking, I go, “Does that in general sound interesting to you?” I empower you to give me feedback at this point. I realize and expect that 9 out of 10 times people will go, “No, it doesn’t. This is not for me. I’m not interested.” That’s totally fine. At that point, I will then move over to now trying to qualify you, ask a few questions to uncover if this could be a good fit. I realize that at this point, you and I, we don’t have enough information to really make a good decision if this is going to work out or not, but I know that you made a judgment call anyways. So, I want you to say it. I want to go, “Hey, does that in general sound interesting to you?” If people go, “No,” I’ll say, “Interesting. Tell me about your sales process.” If they go, “Maybe,” I’ll say, “Interesting. Tell me about your sales process.” If they say, “Yes,” I’ll go, “Interesting. Tell me about your sales process.” I don’t really care at this point because we don’t have enough data, but I still want you to get it out of your system. I realize that the listener at this point, when I told them what I do, will decide in their mind this is not for me, and I want them to be able to say it so it’s not in their head anymore. So like, “No, this is not for me,” and I go, “Cool. Tell me about your sales team right now.” So, you just go step by step and you think about the journey. In the first few minutes, the I don’t know who you are, I don’t know why you’re calling me, I don’t know what it is you do and I have decided this is not for me. These four steps in cold calling are like universal. You have to assume that every person you’re calling, they’ll go through these four steps. You need to address these four steps in this sequence, right? You can’t start with like, “Close.io is doing a sales software tool,” and I’m like, well, who the fuck if this person? Why are they calling me? You can’t start at step four, right? You go sequential, one step at a time, so I, as the listener, can follow along. If you do that, this is just basic math. If you have a good reach rate, if you have a sales team that knows how to be high energy, high passion, high confidence when they’re on the phone, so they sound good, they literally sound good, they have a voice that the listener likes to listen to, and then you take those first four steps and you address them in sequence and you address them with logic, then you’re like ahead of the curve. You should be in really good shape. At this point, if they’re a qualified lead, you ask them a bunch of questions, you discover if they’re qualified or not, if they’re qualified you go to your conversion, whatever that is, maybe a demo call, maybe whatever the next step is, you’ll do really well. You will do really well. You teach them how to manage certain objections. Everybody will have like, “I don’t have time. I don’t have money,” like some basic, fundamental things everybody says, you need to have some kind of a framework on how to address these things, and then calling is not that complicated, right? This is basic stuff. But, I’ll tell you, I’ve listened to a million sales calls in my life, and 99% of the time they do an outbound campaign and they reach almost nobody, and the people they reach, they sound terrible, they jump around on these four points or they don’t address any of these four points, and then they’re like whining and crying about why there’s a disconnect with the person they’re trying to reach and why they’re not succeeding with their cold calling campaign. So, they’re some basic, fundamental things. You get those right, you’re going to be in really good shape and your chance of success is going to be pretty good.
Ryan: I love that. You sound like you’ve made a few cold calls in your day.
Steli Efti: One or two. Not too many, but just enough.
Ryan: Okay. So for people out there watching today, maybe they’re trying to make a decision between going all in on having a sales team that’s about calling, or about emailing first and then booking appointments. Do you have any way to help people sort of decide which one is right for their organization, the stage they’re in, or just personal feelings on which one you feel is most effective?
Steli Efti: Yeah. No, not really. I would just try both things and see what gets us better results. But better results is really holistically, so I would have a funnel that just calls people directly and then a funnel that sends emails before you call those people, and then see, in a given framework, maybe a month, maybe two months, what’s the activity, what’s the quality and what’s the conversion of these two funnels. That in theory sounds simple. The reason why most people will fail doing this is the humans involved in this. If you have the same person doing one as the other, that person’s preference will dictate what will work better, right? A lot of times, I find that a lot of salespeople, a lot of people in sales shouldn’t be in sales and are not really sales people. One good indicator is a person that just doesn’t feel comfortable just calling somebody and talking to them, and wants that something to hold on to. That type of person often times will appreciate and like the idea os sending an email, not because the person opened that email or because they looked at it, or because they remember it or it made any difference, just because it made the salesperson feel good about calling. It made them hold onto something, feel safe. “Oh, I sent you an email,” they have a good reason to call. So, often times, the reason why these sales teams do a bunch of stuff is more psychological and emotional for themselves than really making a difference with the prospect, but sometimes it can make a difference. We talked about CTOs, CTOs at Fortune 500 companies. You might have a lot more success communicating to them via email prior to a call than trying to brute force your way to a call, and calling the receptionist at the headquarters and trying to get your way to their desk phone. It’s probably going to be a pretty brutal journey that’s not going to really be successful. So, I would just test both things, but I would also be aware of the bias there. Sending emails to schedule a call can be a really good tactic, sending emails with material to then call and say, “Did you look at it?” is basically just bullshitting. You could just say you’ve done it even if you haven’t, because you’ll see that, you know, you’ll have like a 10% open rate, and even the people that open don’t really open the brochure and read it. So, it’s almost irrelevant if you send it or not, people will not remember it, it won’t make a difference, so you can just pretend you sent an email. But, if you want to send emails, especially with the predictable revenue model where you send an email a few levels above the person that you really want to reach, asking for referral down, if you do that, that can work, and that can sometimes be more effective than calling directly. I would just experiment with both things, but I would be aware of human bias. I would be looking at the people that are executing on these experiments and just ask myself do they want one experiment to work, do they have a strong bias towards one or the other, because if they do, you don’t even have to do the experiment. What the thinker thinks, the proof will prove. They’ll just do the thing and make the thing work that they believe in, or not make the thing work that they don’t like. So, be aware of that.
Ryan: Have you ever been the recipient of any particularly interesting, effective outreach campaigns where there was a phone call, email or something else entirely?
Steli Efti: Well, I’m the recipient of a shit ton of sales emails and calls. It’s funny because half of them use templates that I’ve published and taught. It’s kind of weird to see people emailing me with the stuff that I posted on our blog. I’ll give you a bad example, but I think there’s an important lesson in there. People always ask me, “What was the most effective subject line?” I always rant about subject lines in emails because I think that 80% of the … Most of the sales team, they’ll spend all their time with the body of the email and almost no time on the subject line. I spend more time on the subject line than on the body, because if you don’t open the email, it didn’t exist. So, that’s the most important piece, is that first step. So, often times, people send me their emails to give them feedback, and I’ll always send them an email back going, “I cannot give you feedback because you didn’t include the fucking subject line,” right? I don’t know if I would ever open this, so I cannot tell you anything about your email. So, people always ask me, “What’s the most effective subject line, what’s the best subject line ever that made you open?” I’ll tell them this story. I was on vacation once for two weeks. I come back, my email inbox was a fucking mess, and there was like hundreds and hundreds of emails. Intuitively, I zoom in on one email, like , where I read the subject line “Really disappointed …” It’s funny, right, out of like hundreds of emails, I instantly zoomed in on that one. Why? Because I’m like, “Oh, shit. What did I, or we, fuck up?” What did I mess up? I’ve disappointed somebody, right? Instantly, like this was a kick in the nuts or a punch in the face. I’m like, “Oh, shit.” So, I open that email. So, subject line was “Really disappointed …” and then it continued “… That I was not able to connect with you. I’ve left you two voicemails and what we do,” duh duh duh duh duh … It was like a pitch. I laughed out loud, I was like, “Motherfucker, you got me,” right? As I’m thinking that, I go delete. Because, here’s the deal. If you trick me into opening your email, our relationship started off the wrong way, right? I don’t want to be in business with people that trick me into things. So, if you use a subject line that tricks me into opening, that’s a win for you, but it’s also a loss because this is a relationship … Again, thinking about the journey, you need to think about my user experience reading your email. If my experience is you tricked me, you lied to me, you created an expectation that didn’t match reality, I’m going to be pissed. I tell people all the time, “You know what the most effective subject line on earth would be? I already know it, I don’t need any tests on it. The subject line would read “I have your parents in my basement.”” Even if your parents are dead, I guarantee you open that email, right? But that’s not a great way to start parents in my basement. Ha ha, lol, was just joking, wanted you to open my email. Let me tell you about my SAS tool. That’s never going to fucking work. It’s a horrible human being doing that. So, my lesson here is that the subject line is making a promise that your email needs to deliver on. Now, sometimes it’s fine to be ambiguous, right? Your subject line could … I’ve taught this. Please don’t send me emails with this subject line. “Quick question” is a really effective one, it’s been taught a lot. If you actually have a question, like who’s the right person in the team to talk to, that was a subject line that’s fair. You didn’t lie to me, you didn’t trick me. You delivered on that promise. But don’t say things in the subject line to get people to open, when then what you really want to tell them had nothing to do with it. When you write a subject line that says “Really disappointed” you know you’re creating a sense of panic in the recipient, because they think they’ve messed something up, and that sense of panic and attention is false. You being disappointed you didn’t reach me on my fucking phone is not my problem. You know, there’s always a balance to strike. Sometimes you can do things, again, looking at your funnel, you can do something and then you can be like high fiving each other. Wow, our open rate in our email campaign went up 90%, we’re amazing. But, you need to think about the entire journey, the entire experience. It’s not just getting certain percentages up. Ultimately, these percentages are all part of a relationship that you’re building with somebody, hopefully from someone that doesn’t know you, to somebody that gets to know you, to somebody that trusts you, to somebody that does business with you and receives value from the relationship. So, don’t trick or lie just to get the numbers up in any piece of the funnel. That’s my lesson learnt.
Ryan: I love that. It always comes back to the user experience. Awesome. So, Steli, I want to shift gears. We’re winding down the interview now, I want to shift gears over to … One topic that you wrote about recently on the Close.io blog was vulnerability, and why that’s important for salespeople in particular. So, can you elaborate on that?
Steli Efti: Yeah. This is a fascinating topic for me. I think that most of us intuitively, we think that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness, so we all … We’re all programmed in one way or another to try to hide our weaknesses and to hide moments of vulnerability in order to protect ourselves. The funny thing is that I’ve found that if you show weakness, but you do it from a place of strength, right, you don’t show vulnerability and then you run away, or you show it while you’re shivering, while you’re afraid about the response, but you’re just radically transparent about it, you go, “You know what?” … This is an example in sales. Saying the words, “I don’t know the answer to this question,” is something salespeople hate to do. They’re so insecure about this, they don’t want to be perceived as lacking knowledge or being junior, and so instead of saying, “You know what? I don’t know the answer to that question,” they bullshit. They just make up an answer, they just try to guess the answer, and they’re creating a lot of harm along the way. Why? Because they’re afraid to just say, “I don’t know,” because they think if they say, “I don’t know,” they’ll not be taken seriously, they will be put into some kind of a super junior bucket. But, it’s not really so much about saying, “I don’t know,” it’s about how you say, “I don’t know.” So, if you say it and you’re like super apologetic, and you’re like super in turmoil over it, again, that’s going to influence the person that’s listening to you and make them feel like, oh God, this person’s really insecure, they don’t really know much, they’re really junior. If you can say, “I don’t know,” while keeping eye contact, you can say it with confidence and you say … You don’t just say, “I don’t know,” obviously, that’s a dead end, but you go, “You know what? It’s a good question, I don’t know the right answer. I don’t want to give you false information, so let me do this. I’m going to talk to an expert on the team and get you the right information. Now, let me ask you, why is this important to you? What would you like the answer to be? In a perfect world, what would you want me to say, and why?” Then you write down these things, and you go, “All right, good. I’ve got you. I’ll come back to you later today and I’ll give you the correct information on this topic.” That has never made somebody go, “Oh my God, this person’s so junior. I never want to deal with them.” And then on top of it, because 99.99% of all salespeople are never vulnerable, would never say, “I don’t know,” it makes you stand out. It makes you stand out from the crowd and they will translate what you said into, holy shit, this person I can trust. Holy shit, this is finally a salesperson that’s not bullshitting me. Finally a salesperson that’s not lying, right? Somebody I can trust. “I don’t know,” is one thing, but saying to people, “No,” is another thing, right? Salespeople, they hate when a customer or prospect says, “Hey, I really like your solution, we’re thinking about buying it. Here’s some features we’d like you to have that you don’t have yet. Are you thinking about building these features?” Salespeople love to say, “Yes,” and they hate to say, “No.” They’re so afraid to say, “No.” Why? Because they think if I say no, I’m going to lose this deal. They go, “You know what? That’s a really great idea. Yeah, that’s definitely something on the roadmap, definitely something we’re planning to do.” It’s kind of cheap. It doesn’t cost anything to say, “We’re thinking about this,” and I’ll get the money from the customer right now, and I have this false assumption that if I tell you no, you’re not going to buy. You know what’s beautiful? It’s beautiful to be honest, right, and it’s possible to be honest. When a prospect tells us, “Hey, are you going to do whatever, some … Are you going to heavily involve social media? Can we integrate Instagram into Close.io so we know peoples’ Instagram feed?” My answer is, “No.” I would ask people again, “Hey, why is this important to you? Is this a must have or a nice to have?” But, ultimately, if it’s completely misaligned with our roadmap, I’ll tell the customer, “Listen, I don’t know of another tool that does this, otherwise I would recommend you to that, but I can tell you we are not going to work on this. This is absolutely not on the roadmap. Never say never, but it’s definitely not going to happen in the next two or three years, I’m pretty sure of that. Is that a deal breaker for you?” You’d be surprised, again, you know how many times I’ve told people no, and then they go, “No, it’s not a deal breaker. I was just curious.” They’ll buy anyways, right? But it’s that insecurity and vulnerability of not wanting to reject any of the ideas of the prospect that makes salespeople lie, to pretend they’re strong, to pretend, yes, we can do everything, we will do everything, I know everything, and that … Again, that’s the beginning of the end. User experience, user journey, relationship, right, it starts off with lies and will end with heartbreak, right? And with a divorce, it’s going to be costly and painful, versus just saying, “This is not something I enjoy,” or, “This is not something we’re going to be able to provide to you, and if this is a must have, we’re not right for you. If it’s a nice to have, then you know not to expect this.” It’s these things where if you’re honest and authentic, and if you do it and you deliver it with confidence, you’re not apologetic, you’re not fearful, you’re just saying, “You know what? I don’t know this,” or, “We don’t do this,” well, yeah, you’re right, you know, a customer might go, “Well, you guys are doing a really poor job on how you handle XYZ.” You can say, “You know what? In fact, I agree with you on this. We do do a poor job.” “Well, are you going to not fix this today?” “No. We’d love to fix it today, but based on priorities and resources, there’s other things we’re going to do first, so you’re going to have to live with this for at least another three to six months. I just want you to know that. If you can live with it, let’s work together. If you can’t, I’d rather have you not be disappointed.” If you communicate with people, if you tell these types of things to prospects, you’d be surprised they will want to buy from you, even if … They will not know why. I tell people all the time, “You should not buy my software,” and then they start arguing with me why they should buy my software. There’s something incredibly attractive and powerful about vulnerability because offering honest … Being vulnerable with confidence is the ultimate sign of strength. It’s an incredibly attractive thing because it’s so rare. It’s honest, authentic, but it’s also strong. They’re somebody that goes, “Here, I’ll put down my armor. If you want, here’s a knife, you can push me and I’m not afraid of that. You can do something if you want to,” that’s the ultimate sign of strength. Not like being in a bunker with 10 machine guns and being afraid to see sunlight because somebody might hurt you. That’s not really strength, that’s weakness. So, I think that especially in SAS, where the relationship has to be reconfirmed every fucking month … Every month they are paying you money, and if they’re not receiving value, they’re not feeling they’re treated well, they’re going to leave. It’s very easy for them to go somewhere else. In a business model that depends on longterm, happy relationships, you need to be vulnerable, you need to be honest and authentic, but do all that with strength and strength. I think it’s those simple things … This is not complicated to do, but it’s emotionally challenging for many people. But if you can overcome that, it’ll make a massive difference.
Ryan: Yeah. I would agree with you. I think the radical honesty component of that is particularly powerful to me. It also helps people self select out of being a target customer too, when they’re not the right fit.
Steli Efti: Yeah.
Ryan: So, Steli, this is going to be my last question for you. What’s been the best investment you feel you’ve ever made in the context of building your selling skills?
Steli Efti: The best investment I’ve ever made … I think investing, focusing on consistency over charisma or over any kind of hack. I’ve spent my whole life studying sales, studying communication, studying the mind. All these books, all these workshops, all these seminars, every little bit of it was all worth it. But the thing that made the biggest difference were not like learning certain language patterns or learning certain flashy pitches or learning how to negotiate. What really made the biggest difference is learning how to be consistent in sales, how to have discipline in sales and how to perform every single day, forever, no matter how I feel, no matter if I feel like it or not. That was what was slowing me down and holding me back for the first part of my career as an entrepreneur and salesperson, was like being very inconsistent, having moments of brilliance and moments of like total disaster, and relying only on my charisma and not on my character to succeed. The biggest shift that happened is me realizing that consistency is key and it’s king, it is the most important thing, and character is really longterm how you win the game, not charisma. Investing in that, making that my priority has made the biggest difference in sales and in any other area of my life, to be honest.
Ryan: I love that. Beautiful. All right. Well, Steli, for everyone watching today, where can they go to learn more about you and everything you guys are up to?
Steli Efti: Yeah, so just shoot me an email. You can always get in touch with me directly just as email@example.com, ask me a question. If you want, I have a bundle with like seven books that were written about inside sales, how to do the calls, how to do the emails, how to negotiate, how to do a product demo, all that good stuff. If you want to have all the books and all of my email templates and sales scripts, there’s a bundle link, for free, waiting for you. All you have to do is shoot me an email, say, “Bundle motherfucker,” or anything equivalent, and I’ll shoot you back a free link. You click on that and you’ll get a nice little folder with all my best content, ready for you. But if you want to get in touch, just to ask a question or talk about a challenge or problem you have, always happy to hear from you. Besides that, make sure to go to blog.close.io, subscribe to our blog. Twice a week we publish tactical content around sales and startups, so if you haven’t done that, make sure to check out the blog as well.
Ryan: Beautiful. Right, thank you again for joining us.
Steli Efti: Thanks for having me.