When we launched Varsity News Network (VNN) in 2011, we didn’t plan on building a national sales team. We intended to bring schools onto the nation’s largest high school sports network using landing pages, conversion funnels, email and phone calls.
That strategy didn’t work for us. We got a few bites, but generally, we weren’t making sales quickly enough. So we got out of the office, into our cars and off to meet our prospects in person.
At the time, we weren’t looking to build a new business model. However, after seeing sale after sale close on that first road trip, we knew we were on to something. Our target market — high school athletic directors — were just warming up to improving communication with digital tools; the in-person meeting was just the handoff they needed to feel comfortable trying something new.
What we learned in the early days can be applied to other industries too. If you’re in a market where potential clients are late adopters (or they’re not quite convinced your innovative new product will help them), a field sales approach might work for you. Here’s how to do it:
Know Your Customer
Initially, the status quo was our enemy. Many athletic directors used phone trees, for example, to communicate with coaches, players, and parents — it’s horribly inefficient. However, streamlining the process with websites, mass texts, and emails sounded risky to those who adhered to the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Their systems weren’t broken. Thus, in order to scale, we had to change their mindsets from “it works to stay put” to “new technologies can make our jobs easier.”
When our national email campaigns and growth-hacking tricks didn’t show great results, we called the top 25 schools in Lansing, Michigan. When none called back, we drove there and stopped at each school’s athletic office. Ironically, as my partner walked in the door, he’d often hear, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to call you!”
After just two weeks, we signed five schools. We tried the same thing in Detroit with similar results and again in Grand Rapids and northern Indiana. It kept working. The in-person presentations allowed us to personalize our pitch, demonstrate our product’s value in the actual environment in which it’d be used, and empathize with clients’ pain points in real time. We showed them how VNN could help and created a surprisingly efficient growth engine.
After multiple months’ worth of data, we were confident field sales would be our key to success if it could scale beyond the founding team. We set out to find a sales rep to replicate our early success.
Initially, we worked with influencers who could leverage relationships — in our case, retired athletic directors who would sell to their associates. It was a valid model, but I was surprised when people with athletic backgrounds couldn’t seal the deal. We learned having the right relationships is only one piece of the puzzle.
Next, we looked at a network of independent reps selling a variety of supplies to schools. They also had the relationships we knew were important, but because our product was new and didn’t fit neatly into the pre-established categories they were used to selling, that didn’t work, either.
What were we missing? Turns out, the most important characteristic in a sales rep is the experience of actually closing big product deals. We turned to hiring salespeople who had previous experience closing education clients. That’s when everything started to click.
Grow Your Team Correctly
Once we figured out how the pieces fit, it was time to scale our new model. We kept the following in mind:
- Find a sales leader who can replicate the founders’ efforts. An experienced leader will save you mountains of time and cash by helping you avoid common mistakes in hiring and training a sales team.
- Put a thoughtful compensation plan in place. Be conscious of the incentives you create. If those bonuses compel reps to sell product B when you’re asking them to focus on product A, your words will be trumped by their incentives every time.
- Hire multiple salespeople at a time. If a rep has trouble selling, it’s easy to blame the product, especially if it’s new to the marketplace. By hiring multiple reps, you learn quickly whether sales trouble is due to the product or the rep.
- Stimulate competition. Many salespeople are motivated by two things: money and winning. Use contests to play to that. Make everyone aware of the stakes, and make their progress public. Financial competitions cause the cream to rise to the top.
We’ve learned our industry is built on relationships, so we built an engine that created relationships at scale. Our company has grown by 1,500 percent since we adopted the approach; our biggest competitor has only grown by 50 percent.
Online or phone sales can be great catalysts for growth and are ideal in many industries. But if your phone calls, emails and digital marketing aren’t producing the results you need, it may be worth testing a field sales approach.