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Selling for a Startup? Make Yourself Essential. Become a 'Pipeline' for Consumer Feedback. Consult with customers, don't cajole them.

By Alex Rappaport Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Certain things about a sales job will never change. Salespeople need to be confident and persuasive, good listeners and experts in their products and markets; and they must skillfully align these abilities.

Related: 3 Best Practices of All-Star Sales Forces (Infographic)

But these days new skills are needed in the sales world, prompted by the recent shift in how startups develop and release products. Now, the best salespeople not only know how to close deals, but how to solicit, organize and articulate feedback to help shape the product they're selling.

Product and engineering teams -- inspired by popular frameworks like The Lean Startup and the Manifesto for Agile Software Development -- have learned that a transparent and collaborative relationship with users and customers can ultimately yield more usable and more popular products.

"Vacuum" and "silo" have become dirty words. Today, features are being released in unfinished states of flux. Feedback is being collected and analyzed. And what's being learned is being extracted and changes made, accordingly.

The problem is, this feedback is hard to capture. The tools product teams rely on, like surveys and feedback boxes, are plagued with low-response rates and selection bias. And the people responding to these surveys generally "love" or "hate" something, whereas the most meaningful feedback comes from the middle.

Analytics tools like Kissmetrics and Heap are another good lens into user behavior, but they provide only a raw snapshot, leaving out any meaningful context about the choices being made. Time and time again, the most useful and reliable feedback is gathered the old-fashioned way: talking to human beings. Unfortunately, those same human beings have become more and more conversation-averse, especially when the topic is a product they've interacted with on the web.

In this scenario, scheduling calls, meetings and focus groups can be incredibly time consuming.

Related: Why 'Smarketing,' or Integrated Sales-and-Marketing Strategy, Is the Future for Small Business

Enter the salesperson. The salesperson is a natural conduit between user and product. Salespeople spend all day interacting with customers and have ample opportunities for gaining valuable feedback. Some might say that collecting feedback distracts the salesperson from achieving his or her primary goal.

But this couldn't be further from the truth. Involving customers in the evolution of a product is empowering. It makes them feel like they're playing an active role as opposed to being passively pitched.

Another reason salespeople are now in such a good position to collect feedback is that the dynamics of sales interactions have changed in the last few years. Marketing has taken a huge leap forward in terms of educating consumers before they arrive at the point of sale. Savvy consumers can learn most of what they need to know on a company's website and, in some cases, test drive the full product in a free trial.

The result is that prospects with this level of background knowledge don't need a scripted rundown of features and benefits, and they don't want a hard sell. They want to be guided through the process by a salesperson addressing questions relating to their specific needs. It's a softer sell. It's a more respectful sell. When a salesperson is acting as a consultant rather than a cajoler, feedback flows organically.

The flip side of collecting feedback is organizing and articulating it in a way that is useful and actionable for product and engineering teams. This part of the process also requires certain skills, but skills that can be learned.

Customer feedback will come in the form of casual and random data points. The trick is to filter these data points into themes and trends. A comment from one customer, even if it's extreme, shouldn't cause a course correction. Feedback should achieve a sort of critical mass before it's organized into a trend. From there, themes about the product need to be communicated in a language that reflects a common issue consumers have reported.

So, often, the most effective and resonant way to express feedback is in the form of a problem rather than a solution: "A whole bunch of customers have mentioned that they can't find the FAQs page" is better than "We should make the FAQ button bigger."

User feedback, then, is fuel for startups. A salesperson can become an essential part of the pipeline by collecting and communicating meaningful, actionable data on the way to closing sales. If you're a salesperson, does this "pipeline" persona describe you?

Related: Never Say These 7 Things in Sales

Alex Rappaport

Co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary

Alex Rappaport is the co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary, an online learning program for students in grades K to 12. He is also the creator of Big Idea Week, a community program that teaches low-income students about entrepreneurship and 21st-century careers. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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