8 key sales behaviours that apply to EVERYONE in your startup

It’s all hands on deck in the startup world. If, according to Peter Drucker, “the purpose of a company is to create a customer,” then maintaining that purpose and creating those customers is getting harder. This means that everyone in your startup — from sales and marketing to dev, admin and finance — should be focused on sales and how to drive more of them.

So, why is it getting harder? “For the first time, our customers know more about us than we know about them,” which means they are much further along in the buying process before they’ve even contacted us, and the traditional approach to selling and marketing is having less effect. It’s essential to get disruptive earlier in the process to grab their attention, and you need your whole team on board to achieve that.

Even the lines between B2C and B2B are blurring, with companies like Huddle and Slack acquiring consumers online and then converting whole teams into site licences.

So how do you set your startup apart from the laggards in these changing times? How do you drive sales in every corner of your business? In this article, I’ll describe the eight behaviours that I see in all successful sales startups. Follow them, and train your team to do so as well, and your business will reap the benefits.

1. The CEO runs sales

As the head of a company, sales starts with you. You know your product/service and where it’s heading better than anyone else, which means you’re in the best place to communicate this. So, at least in the early stages, you need to be doing the selling.

There is a clear link between running sales yourself and the learning you can bake into the business. This learning is made up of five essential pieces:

  1. What makes your company unique and how to hone your pitch.
  2. Why customers buy from you (and why they don’t…)
  3. How to adjust product make-up and pricing to react to this feedback accordingly.
  4. How to build sticky long-term relationships with your customers.
  5. And importantly — how to save a customer (and when to sack one).
  6. Everything flows from sales. If you have revenue, it’s easier to get financing — and you will find that Angels and VC’s will be obsessed by your customer acquisition/sales process. If you have a sales background, then picking up the phone and pitching should come as second nature to you. So what are you waiting for?

If you don’t come from sales (and many founders tell me they don’t) then you might have an advantage; you’re less likely to be stuck in your ways and arguably more likely to experiment. Just don’t let this become an excuse not to get stuck in; sales is your number one priority.

The second customer is easier than the first and each successive customer becomes a little easier to acquire. Realise that you need to sell, regardless of whether you “like” it or not.

And if you really don’t know where to begin, then start pitching to your existing connections, whether professional or even personal. Who do you know who could get you 15 minutes with an influencer? Shortcut your first sales by leveraging your network.

2. They have a clear Challenger sale pitch

What do startups do well that big companies don’t? They win customers, but they win them fast. Great startups don’t have any time to waste, so they win customers most efficiently by delivering a “disruptive insight” to the client. Only when the client’s accepted viewpoint is sufficiently disrupted can they consider an alternative — which the great startups already have waiting.

This is what is called a Challenger sale: according to Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon’s book The Challenger Sale, 40% of high-performance sellers are Challengers, rather than just relationship-builders or problem-solvers. This personality type combines their love of debating with their strong understanding of their customer’s business; they know that it’s not what you sell, but how you sell. They are assertive and informed enough to challenge their customer’s modus operandi in an authentic way; to get unrivalled commercial insight in order to offer a realistic and genuinely attractive solution. They do all of this unconsciously; they are born sellers.

In order to turn the dial on your sales, hire or develop Challengers within your sales team.

3. The whole team (including senior members) do customer service

If you are using great products like Zendesk, it seems to make sense to appoint someone dedicated to customer service. But no — implement a rota across the team for periods looking after customer service queries. And yes, this includes senior members!

This way, everyone gets a feel for the customer: who they are, what makes them tick, what turns them off, and what you can offer to them to keep them happy next time.

This unusual tactic also means you leverage your staff’s array of knowledge and experience, potentially weeding out solutions that a fire-fighting customer service rep wouldn’t notice (or have the background to know what to do with). For example, head of digital might be inspired to rethink the welcome journey from the number of questions along the lines of ‘what do I do with [key part of your offering]?’ Or finance might want to streamline the payment process from the volume of payment queries.

And remember the old adage — turning round a grumpy customer will win you 10 more.

4. Everyone talks sales (without even realising it)

You can tell within minutes of walking into a business if they have sales “in their DNA” or if they don’t. Just listen. Businesses with sales in their DNA will sound like this:

  • “Hmm, ok — we can automate that part of the customer acquisition journey for you.”
  • “We seem to be stuck at £1.20 pence per sign up; I thought if we try this we might get it cheaper.”
  • “What are the dev requirements of the next marketing campaign? I’d like to get ahead…”
  • “I was at an event last night and got this business card. How should I follow up?”
  • “Have you seen this article in the paper — we should get in contact with them.”
  • “My cousin/friend works for Uberlolly — I think I can get you an intro.”

These proactive reactions to day-to-day business situations help push a startup over the hill of the first five, 10 or 100 sales. They speak volumes about individual employees’ ownership of the sales process and their part in making the business a success.

5. The elevator pitch and narrative is clear (to everyone)

Not just clear to the sales team, but to the whole company. This should be a simple statement that everyone is proud to repeat and that everyone understands (so no jargon please!). But most people stop at the elevator pitch —but you need the narrative too — the compelling story.

You would be surprised how many companies I mentor that don’t have an elevator pitch or a narrative — or have one that is over-complicated. Or have one that no employee would be seen dead repeating!

An elevator pitch is so baked into business common sense that Tim David of The Harvard Business Review called it “a rite of passage” in Why Your Elevator Pitch Needs an Elevator Pitch. Read Tim’s excellent article to learn how to hone yours. And to understand and develop your narrative here is a story about Zuora — who many are saying is one of the best sales decks they have ever seen. Why? Because it creates a feeling of an undeniable shift in the world that creates both (a) big stakes and (b) huge urgency for your prospect.

6. They focus on lead generation from an early stage

Will you choose email prospecting, or do you already have the means to hit the ground running with inbound marketing? There’s no time like the present to define your lead generation process.

Like your elevator pitch, your lead generation plan should be clear, easy to follow and communicated with your team in relevant ways. Your admin team doesn’t need to know every step of the sales team’s lead generation strategy, for example, but if their priority is sales then they do need to know what’s being done. They can help fill in the gaps, offer objective feedback and use their own network for similar opportunities.

Lead generation could fill a few posts in itself so I won’t go into it in detail, but here are a few useful resources if you have no idea where to start. Feel free to add your own lead generation ideas and break the mould:

7. The team chase profitable sales

Yes, you can overdo it on the sales! Being a sales-driven organisation will help you breathe and survive as a startup. Plus, getting your first 10 customers is a major milestone for any company (and rightly so).

But make sure that your customers don’t end up suffocating you — customers are there to be profitable, after all. Bad customers can come in many guises, including:

  • The complainers: time is money but, for an entrepreneur, so is energy. The company’s energy flows from you, so if all of it is taken up trying to keep an uncooperative, negative and unconstructive client happy, then you’re spending valuable resources. Whether spending those resources is justified is up to you.
  • The profit suckers: otherwise known as time wasters or productivity zappers. These customers often aren’t clear on what they want or need internally, so their priorities can shift after work has been done. Their indecisiveness can needlessly squander your team’s time and disrupt workflows — in turn, costing you money.
  • The exclusivity-hunters: whether it’s an exclusive deal or a bespoke offering outside of what you normally provide, if a client is looking to stretch your resources then it’s worth considering whether the return on your investment in them will be worth it.
  • The consistent late payers: need I say more?

Be as vigilant in choosing the right customers (and sacking the bad ones) as you are with your employees.

8. The sales process is iterated just like a product would be

There won’t be many entrepreneurs who aren’t aware of product development methods that allow for incremental, iterative learning from both success and failure. But are you using them to drive your startup, too?

This is where the lean startup methodology comes in as part developing your sales process as well as your product. Used as part of your sales strategy, the lean process teaches you ‘how to steer, when to turn, and when to persevere’. The three parts of the product method can easily be transferred to your sales process:

  • Build: compile a sales funnel based on current resources, learnings from previous iterations and available lead generation ideas.
  • Measure and analyse everything from number of sales to customer satisfaction, overheads and team efficiency. Analyse current method based on industry advances (eg. new communication technology, audience shifts) and resources.
  • Learn: adapt what isn’t working and expand what is working. Communicate learnings to the team.

After all, everyone makes mistakes, but it’s learning from them that makes an entrepreneur.


The main learning from all of these behaviours is that as a CEO you need to lead by example. Sales is a dirty word in some circles but, in order to survive, it’s up to you to create a culture where customer acquisition and sales is cool.

If the product isn’t driving sales, then get dev to fix it so that it will. If your social media channels don’t impact on your customer acquisition in a measurable way (short-term or long-term) then position your digital team to start thinking like sales people.

The trick, of course, is to take all this learning and find a way to make the sales process repeatable so you can hire a VP of marketing and sales to scale the business — but that comes later…

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Thankyou for reading… I would hugely appreciate some claps 👏 and shares 🙌 so that others can find it!


Nic Newman