The 7 essential customer conversations according to Steli Efti
No one grows up wanting to sell to customers all day. Steli Efti, the exuberant entrepreneur, sales expert and public speaker is no exception. Growing up in Germany to Greek parents, he had no clue what he wanted to be.
All he knew was that he wanted to be successful.
Success for young Steli equated to being rich. The way one of his brothers saw it, there were two ways to get there. One was to become a lawyer. The other was to become someone who lawyers often find themselves defending: a criminal.
Neither appealed to Steli.
He was, however, fascinated by the character of Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street. The fascination was so strong that 16-year old Steli bought the first book ever in his life as a result: a €4,99 “All you need to know about stocks.”
The fascination was as fleeting as was the advice in the book. Stocks didn’t become the lucrative path to success. They did, however, open the gates to entrepreneurship. Steli began learning everything he could about it.
By age 19, with gel in his hair and earrings on, Steli was advising others how to invest in entrepreneurship. Most of his customers were affluent and conservative Germans in their 50s who had a lot of capital. And they all steadfastly trusted him. He had the innate charisma.
But there was much more to the art of customer conversations to be truly successful. All of which Steli has had to learn himself through trial and error as he moved from offering services to selling SaaS.
In an upcoming e-book, “Talk to your f*cking customers,” Steli offers his thoughts on why it is essential to talk to customers and brings many tactics and ideas how to do it. Following is a distilled version of 7 key conversations borrowed from it, coupled with the more softer topics of building the mental stamina to be able to have them in the first place.
Get over yourself
Before you think that Steli is somehow immune to the dread that every other human being experiences when talking to a prospect or a customer, don’t.
Fear of rejection and hesitation to show up runs as deep in Steli’s veins as it does in everyone else’s. In fact, it runs so deep that early on in his experience, Steli has had not just days but weeks, slumping in front of the TV because of a bad customer conversation. Both in Germany and consequently in Silicon Valley where he moved when he was 24.
Weeks when he would not be able to speak to another human being and certainly not sell anything to anyone. Weeks that his paralyses would have him go around in loops of frustration, anger and deep dissatisfaction with himself. As much as he is the flamboyant speaker at conferences, the regular guest on every entrepreneurial podcast and an outspoken blogger, Steli has an introvert side. It still flares up when he feels down and takes conscious effort to overcome.
For Steli overcoming started relatively easy. He was determined to prove wrong the mountain of people who thought he would never amount to anything. He was not worthless as they may have believed. It wasn’t a consistent and reliable source of overcoming, however. Some days that external force worked, others it didn’t.
For years he looked for a psychological hack that would undo his negative emotions more consistently.
With time, however, he realised he was missing the point. These feelings were not going anywhere, and they would never seize to feel as visceral.
“I remember reading this quote: The difference between the hero and the coward is not that the hero isn’t afraid. They are both afraid. The difference is that the hero acts despite her fear while the coward is letting that fear control them.
He had probably heard it dozens of times. But one day it hit home. He merely had to get in the motion of acting despite those emotions.
The grumpiness in the morning wasn’t going anywhere. Nor was the reluctance to pick up the phone on bad days. But neither of them had to mean cancelling meetings left, right and centre. The solution laid in accepting the amalgamation of emotions.
“The added value of getting over yourself is that not only will you do your job, but there will be an extra element of pride for achieving something against the odds.”
The epiphany hit around the same time he founded Elastic Sales, a sales-as-a-service business, which would turn into the 7-figure CRM solution Close.io two years later.
Customers are like your kids
Aside from building his disposition, Steli has had to create a disposition towards his customers to not allow their reactions affect him.
“I love them, I want to do the best I can for them, but I don’t look at them as adults.”
The reason Steli puts himself at a higher level of authority is that he is the one who understands the product best and whether it is a good fit for them or not. Steli also assumes that in most cases he is better at communicating than they are because he has spent most of his life perfecting that.
In the 15 years of selling Steli has heard it all. If a customer accuses him of being unfair, Steli does not take that any more personally than when his kids tell him he is a bad father because he is making them eat their dinner.
“I get that you feel this way right now,” he would say to both. “Here is how the situation looks right now, here is how we are going to solve it and move forward.”
That comes from the point of authority, not aggressiveness.
It’s vital to get the tone of voice right:
“Speak friendly but with authority, even in times of crisis. At those times, take the abuse because they need to take it out of their system but then move on. Understand that they do not mean what they are saying.”
Should we be talking
If all these are in place, the most important thing to remember is that there is a finite pool of people you should talk with. That pool only has room for your ideal customer persona. Creating it in the first place, keeping it in mind and conversing only with customers who fit it, will make everything much easier. The way Steli qualifies customers is by trying to figure the answer to two vital questions:
- Can I help you and can I help you better than others? To get to that answer, you have to ask a lot of background questions. When you get enough information the level of detail as to who is the right customer for you can be incredible. Steli knows the countries of his best customers, the industries, their size, the internal priorities, what they care most about, as well as how many sales calls and emails it takes to convert them.
- Can you help me, is the other important question. This was one is as necessary. It needs to fulfil prerequisites like having the ability to afford the solution and having the decision making power. It also offers a glimpse into more subtle aspects such as do you have the influence, can you get me more clients, are you someone who is going to have a long-lasting career so we can have a long-lasting relationship.
Both require asking many questions about the company itself, their people and the way decisons are made. What you are looking to find is how self-aware they are and how they make decisons to understand if your solution is a good fit.
Many prospects, however, would object to answering questions, expecting they are the ones who ask questions as they are evaluating you.
Steli’s response in this case: “I understand this is how you usually buy but we are not interested in a typical vendor relationship. We want a strong partnership and need to understand if we have that.”
At this point, most prospects will gladly answer the questions. Those who don’t, are probably not a good fit anyway.
Based on all this, determine who your non-ideal customer is and don’t be tempted to sell to them because it may kill your company. It almost did one of Steli’s when he accepted a fat check from Google. Once the demands came rolling in their ill-preparedness became very apparent.
And in the end there’s a beautiful dynamic that happens when you tell a prospect, “Based on what you have just told me, this is not the right solution for you.” They will respect you much more.
The first call
Once people sign up for a free trial, you have to make the first call. According to Steli, the sooner, the better. And when he says soon, he means in the first 5 minutes.
“That’s your best chance of getting people on the phone. The longer you wait, the greater the likelihood that you will be wasting time on voicemail or waiting in vain for someone to pick up.”
The reason why many startups don’t want to call people is that it can seem like a huge time waster. But it’s not.
What should you say?
“Hi, my name is ___. I wanted to personally reach out and say hi. I saw that you just signed up, so I know you didn’t have a chance to play around with it, but I wanted to see if you have any questions that I can answer or give you any guidance. What can I do to make sure that you get the maximum out of your trial experience?”
“People love that!”
What if they don’t pick up?
When Steli doesn’t get a chance to connect with a new user within the first day of their 14-day trial, he makes a follow-up call on day 7. If he still can’t reach them, he leaves them a voicemail.
Ask how to sell better
No one will teach you more about how to write good emails or improve your marketing than your customers and prospects. Because they are the actual consumers of it. Most companies never think to involve their customers and prospects to help them improve their sales process.
Call recent signups, as well as long-time customers, and ask them, “How did you find out about us? What made you buy?”
You have to resist the temptation to start pitching and selling immediately and instead avail of a massive opportunity to understand what got them on the call in the first place.
Slow down. Take a breath. Thank them for their time. And then before you jump into your pitch, ask this simple question:
“When you received the email from me, what made it stand out to you? Why did you decide to open it and respond?”
Listen. Take note. And learn.
From what your prospects say, you’ll start to understand:
- The best time to send emails.
- The right language to use to get a response.
- What was it that got their attention.
If you approach people as experts and ask them for help and advice, they know you’re not trying to sell to them right now and will let down their guard. This is when you get the most unfiltered answers.
What about those who didn’t open the email?
You: “Hey! I sent you a few emails over the past week. You’re probably not interested; otherwise, you would have responded, right?”
You: “I understand and don’t want to waste your time. But we’re a small startup. We’re trying to make it happen. You’re an industry expert, and I was hoping to get some quick advice from you. What was it about my email that made you decide this wasn’t for you? If you were my mentor, what would you tell me to improve in the way I reached out to you?”
A negative response to a cold email isn’t a closed door. By asking for help you are reopening a door that many others would have considered closed forever.
Show your value
The reality is that very few customers are aware of the value you bring to them. And that is an important conversation to have with them. You need to be proactive in helping them see it very clearly. Many founders underestimate how much this matters.
If you are saving them time, money or any other important commodity, say so.
This is where the big difference between happy customers and successful customers happens. Most founders confuse the two. The fact that someone likes you doesn’t mean anything until they understand just how valuable you are to them.
A successful customer receives a lot more value than what they are paying, and they realise that.
How to communicate value:
- Send a monthly email with stats
- Send a message to customers they have gotten the money the way Gusto does.
- Communicate it in the product
- Do a presentation on premise
Whichever way you decide to do it, keep reminding yourself how vital it is so you don’t fall out of practice. It is not something that will magically happen by itself; it’s something that needs to be engineered and directed. That is especially true in large organizations, where there will always be individuals and departments eager to claim credit for achievements.
Ask for a referral
Referrals are an incredible way of winning more business, and even though it’s uncomfortable, you should do it. When is the best time to ask for a referral, though?
Steli believes it is right after somebody makes a purchase. Your inclination may be to wait for awhile until customers have been around for months. That, however, is a waste of time.
“Once someone decides to buy, they are likely to be convinced enough to tell others about it. You should take advantage of this moment to grow your business faster.”
How to do it?
- Ask for a referral.
- Anticipate the no (or “I’ll think about it.”). Ask one more time right, then and there.
- Make sure to give them an email template and make it easy and frictionless to make the introduction.
- After you’ve closed a referral, make sure that your new customer thanks to the person who introduced you, so you’re positively closing the feedback loop.
Referral sales script
You: “Are you happy that you chose our product?”
You: “Great. Who else do you know who could benefit from a solution like ours?”
Customer: “Hmm … I’m going to think about this later and get back to you.”
You: “I appreciate that, and I’m sure that over the months and years as you benefit more and more, we’re going to get lots of referrals from you, which is going to be awesome. Today, let’s take a minute and think about just one friend who is in a similar position and would benefit from this.”
In Steli’s experience, 40% of people will give referrals after the second ask.
When you get the names, write them down and say: “Great, thank you. I want to make it as easy as possible for you to make that introduction, so you’ll get an intro email from me. Just copy and paste it, and send it to Bob and Steve. Feel free to make edits or write something yourself, if you like. Let’s make this happen today!”
Referral intro email template
However, there will be those people who will still say no and get agitated. Don’t push it and instead say: “Okay, I respect that, I will follow up wih an email, I appreciate that you are offering your help.” And leave it at that.
It takes conviction and patience to keep asking for referrals even if people say no at first. This is where the time you have spent working on your emotional stability and self-awareness will be vital in carrying on. It’s worth it.
Can I upsell you
“Upselling, when done right, is not just not nefarious, but the right thing to do for both you and your customers.”
Remember, selling isn’t selfish or annoying if you are talking to the right people and bringing them value. In that sense, upselling means increasing the value they get. You are not upsetting anyone.
You may be harbouring suspicions that your current customers aren’t satisfied with your product, and therefore reaching out to them can seem risky. They tolerate you but asking them for more money may be the last straw that breaks the relationship, and they cancel.
According to Steli, this is all the more reason you should pick up the phone and try to upsell so that dissatisfaction can surface. It’s an opportunity to improve your product, your service, your sales process, your training, or onboarding.
A few ideas how to upsell
1. Qualify for upsells from the beginning
Even when they’re still just an opportunity in your sales pipeline, you can figure out the future likelihood. Ask them:
• How do you intend to grow the business?
• How do you intend to grow the usage of our service?
• What is your vision for the next twelve months?
• If everything went right, would you use the service or our product at the current capacity, or would it grow? And to what degree?
2. Set expectations for an upsell
When you’re closing the initial deal, let them know you’ll upsell them in the future. Ask them:
- “If we deliver on all our promises, I will come back to sell you more, so you can get more value from us.”
- “If we deliver all this value to you, is it fair that I approach you in 3/6/9 months once you’ve accomplished x, y and z to take our relationship to the next level?”
3. Determine future opportunity value
Try to figure out what the value of this opportunity could be in the future. You want to focus on opportunities that will grow with you over the next 12 months and prioritise your sales efforts on opportunities with strong expansion potential.
4. Quarterly check-ins
Reach out to your customers at least every quarter and have a real conversation to gauge how satisfied they are, how effective they’re using your product, and how you can deliver more value. Sometimes this can even mean things like introducing them to a potential customer, sharing valuable insights with them, or helping to make them successful in any way you can think of. Every interaction with your customer should be an extension of the value they get from your product or service.
The ultimate upselling tip: Don’t overthink and do it. Think about ten customers and send them an email or call them today. Tell them you are trying to figure out if there are ways you could serve them better. Ask them to get on a quick 15-minute call and have a conversation about this.
The churn conversation
One of the most dreadful conversations Steli has had to do is those with churning customers. Even before he picks up the phone, he knows he will be criticised.
The very reason why it’s so hard to talk to a cancelled customer is the reason why you absolutely must do it. “You need to learn the truth about your service, and you need to know now.”
Fundamentally, there’s one single, harsh reality behind your customer cancellations: you are not providing value. Whether that is literal or perceived.
How to have the conversation?
Get your churned customer on the phone. Only do email as a last resort. Having a real deep conversation with your departing customer is integral to learning something meaningful.
Potential opening lines:
• “Hey, I wanted to personally take the time to reach out. I saw that you just cancelled the service, which I’m really sad about, and wanted to find out what happened. What we can do better, and what we can do for you today?”
• “Is there anything I can do for you so that what happens next creates the maximum value for your business?”
Continue asking open-ended questions to find out what the problem is and drill down into the specifics of their issues.
You must show them that you want to find out what happened and take responsibility for what didn’t go right. The point of the call isn’t to win them back, and any attempts in that direction will be in vain. It will lead you astray and misplace your focus on closing deals and extracting short-term value. You are calling them to understand how you can offer value to others like them who will stick around.
When you hear, “Your product doesn’t do X, Y, and Z,” and you know that it does, don’t immediately shout, “But we do have X, Y and Z!”
Take a deep breath, and ask, “Tell me more about X, Y and Z. What do you need X, Y and Z for? How does it need to work? What does it need to accomplish?”
At this point, you may find out that you do have the feature or you have it coming very soon. Gently you can try to win them back by saying you do but assuming it was your fault for not showing it clearly enough:
“Sorry we missed the opportunity to do this for you, but maybe we still can. Let me guide you through it, here’s what the product does . . .”
“We’re actually about to release this. Let me understand a bit better how exactly you need that feature to work, and we can see if it matches what we’re developing.”
The reason why, in this case, it is alright to try to win them back is that it’s in their best interest to stay.
“You are helping them avoid the “grass is greener” trap that tempts them to switch to your competitor.”
Even with these reasons onboard, it probably still doesn’t feel right to call up people who are unhappy and who are going to tell you what you’ve been doing is wrong. That’s understandable.
However, gaining and maintaining customer intimacy is a prerequisite to success. That intimacy can be reached only when you are willing to have the tough conversations. And another reason to work on your emotional stability constantly.
Final thoughts on emotional stability
Many things affect your emotional stability — many of which take place before you have even picked up the phone.
When Steli feels agitated, he sits quietly with the mood for 5 minutes and checks the fundamentals: “Have I eaten, have I slept, have I been for a walk, have I taken a break or have I been working non stop for 18 hours.”
When the agitation is directed towards someone else, especially a customer the self-awareness will help him figure out what’s going on.
“A yogi once told me that it’s tough to be critical and angry with someone all the while being at peace with yourself.”
So he asks, “Am I angry with this person or am I angry with myself which I transfer to this person. ” What he has learned by following that advice and observing is that 10 out of 10 times he is not okay with himself.
After 15 years of selling and figuring all these things out, there are still the times when all the talking with customers gets the better of Steli. Bad days haven’t disappeared altogether, but they never turn into a bad week. Push through the bad days, follow the above tactics for some of the most important conversations you are going to have in SaaS and grow together with your customers.
*Many of the ideas shared in this article appear in a forthcoming book that Steli is releasing — “Talk with your f*cking customers”