A Lesson in Sales Management From Frank Slootman

A common day for me at BlueArc would include at least two visits a day from members of our sales force. These visits would be accompanied by stories about how we could win the deals they were working on if only we had SnapMirror, or SNMP or support for some third party database. If only we had this one extra feature then sales would pour in and all would be well. From talking with many friends in the industry over the years this is a fairly common pattern. Honestly, it seemed reasonable and at the time I didn’t know there could be another mindset.

When I left BlueArc, I was fortunate enough to be recruited by Frank Slootman the new (and first time) CEO of Data Domain. When I arrived Data Domain was just starting out and had done less than $2M in sales revenue in its first year. The company only had a handful of sales people and the product was at a feature deficit to almost every competitor they had. At the time the product could only accept files via a NAS interface (no VTL) which was a big change for a backup system and didn’t even have a GUI but rather had to be configured via a command line interface (with only 12 hard to remember commands). A diffcult sale for sure.

Almost as soon as I arrived one of the sales guys (who I had actually worked with earlier at BlueArc) came by and told me that things would be a lot easier if only we had some feature or the other (I forget what it was exactly). Later in a meeting with Frank I mentioned this. Here’s my best recollection of what Frank did next which was a shock to me and became the pattern for how I’ve dealt with these kind of situations ever since. Here’s how it went….

FRANK (leaning out of his door) : Hey, sales guy I want to see you in my office right now…

SALES GUY : Erm, yes?

FRANK : Geoff tells me you can’t sell the product without new feature X. Is that true?

SALES GUY : Well things would be much easier if only we had feature X.

FRANK : That’s not what I asked you. Can you sell the product we have or not?

SALES GUY : Erm…

FRANK : Because if you can’t you’re no use to me whatsoever. I don’t have feature X, I only have feature Y so I only need to know if you can sell Y. If you can’t I’ll find somebody else.

SALES GUY : No, no I can sell Y.

FRANK : Thought so. Thanks you can go now.

Simple, brilliant and should be repeated more often than it is.

Here are some related thoughts –

  • Whilst it’s easy to have sympathy for a sale person selling at a disadvantage that’s exactly what the company needs them to do. Either they can do it or you need somebody else. A young company can’t engineer as fast as a larger competitor and even if it could it might be years before feature parity can be reached.
  • Startups are based on feature Y. If it’s not compelling enough to sell the product on it’s own the company is unlikely to survive long enough to be successful and ought to be shut down. Many of the “living dead” companies in Silicon Valley would be closed if more folks accepted this fact.
  • Engineering solutions are slow to create. Sales and Marketing solutions can be invented and rolled out much more quickly. Start there and see if there’s a solution and resort to engineering if there really is no other option.
  • If your engineers are working on “catch up” features they’re not working on your core differentiation. “Catch up” features are the opposite of differentiation and will hurt you efforts to segment to market for your customers.

8 thoughts on “A Lesson in Sales Management From Frank Slootman”

  1. I think there’s a middle ground between what you were doing at BlueArc and what Frank did. When genuine input from the field is met with a stern-faced CEO basically threatening termination, all you’re doing is making sure you’ll never get any input from that salesperson again. The proper response, IMHO, is “Please put that in salesforce.com. We use that to look for trends.” Then when your salesforce.com report says that 60% of lost opps were lost because you don’t have SnapMirror (or something like it).

    1. Totally agree and in fact that’s something that Data Domain did too. The question isn’t about getting customer feedback which I’m sure everybody would agree is valuable but rather about having the ability to make sales with what’s on the wagon. Feedback is valuable but you still have to make day to day sales ahead of product improvement.

  2. Agreed you must sell what you have, but the vision for the future comes partly from clients asking for improvements. Frank should have taken the field reps’ input and tried to get a timeline of when those improvements could be made while simultaneously exhorting the teams to sell what they had. His handling of the situation is quite dated, given that technology today changed at warp speed and companies that cannot keep up will falter.

    1. Odette,

      Frank understood well what his market needed and regularly kept up to date with customer requests so that should be understood. As CEO though it was not his job to manage that process directly nor to provide his sale force with a timeline for improvements. That approach most often tends to stall sales as customers and the sales reps wait for “feature X” to become available and usually isn’t welcomed by sales management.

      I also feel that the thought process in regards to companies needing to keep up with a rapidly changing market isn’t a good idea. Young product companies don’t have the resources to do that and product cycles tend to remain in the 12 -18 month range just as they always have. It’s worth considering the adoption rates of any real changes in the storage marketplace as I think you’ll see that things change a lot less rapidly than one might think. Take iSCSI adoption or SATA adoption both of which are still really breaking ground 6 – 8 years in. Much better to focus on differentiation and not try to ride every trend (cloud storage for example) as it occurs. There is usually time during the later stages of the maturation cycle for new technology to implement it in your product line.

  3. I think some of the comments have missed the really important point – that is the sales team has to be able to sell the product/service with whatever features are there at the time. Yes you can say that perhaps that conversation with the CEO & the sales rep may not have been the right approach, but thats not the point.
    Sometimes businesses get sidetracked by the ‘complex’ things, when really at the end of the day business is quite simple, you only survive if you can sell your product or service with whatever features/functions it has at that point in time.

  4. A related issue: often customers will say they won’t buy because they want feature X, while the real reason is they don’t see the point.

    Either they aren’t the target customer, or they don’t believe the product will deliver the value promised, or they don’t have the political clout to get a new vendor in the door, or ??? Whatever it is, it often isn’t feature X.

    1. Totally agree. A good way to sniff this out is to determine if the customer is happy to devote time to exploring alternative workarounds so they can still use your product. If they are then usually they like your product but genuinely have a problem fitting it in, if not then it’s most likely a “don’t call us….”.

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