Finding Your Internal Champion (Startup Founder Sales Series, Part 9)

December 7, 2020 Mark Birch

Most people do not know that I started my career as a developer. I quite enjoyed the role, which sent me traveling all across the US to help customers implement our development environment. Then one day, all the sales people resigned and the VP of Sales told me I was now in sales.

I mention this because early on, I was flat out terrible. The only positive thing I had going for me was that I had deep knowledge of the product. It was during this time of sales ineptitude that one senior IT manager in a key account helped me. This IT manager was like a mentor to me. He was leading all the meetings, doing way more of the selling than I was. We were in constant communication to coordinate next steps. When I put the order through, there was no negotiation. He just rewrote the order form to match their procurement and approval levels. As embarrassed as I felt, I was equally grateful for this stranger in making the deal happen. It also happened to be one of the largest of the quarter. I was so amazed by his generosity and guidance that I pulled him aside several weeks later after a status meeting to ask him why he helped. With no hesitation, he replied, ”I need this project to succeed if I am to take over the CIO role next year. I just needed to make sure the other idiots in the room didn’t mess things up by building the whole thing from scratch.”

The IT manager that proved to be so helpful was what I later learned is called an internal champion. This is a person that loves what you do and wants to help. While you are focused on the outside sale, they are working behind the scenes to secure the internal sale with the people that matter. They are not casual fans, they are “doers” and the X-factor in helping to bring your deals over the finish line.

As a founder, this is great news. Because of your status as a founder, you are more likely to find champions than sales reps who do not have the benefit of your founder’s passion. But how do you find an internal champion and how does one work with them? First you need to understand something about motivation.

Your champion has internal motivations like anyone else. Motivations are simply the things that nudge us to make certain decisions. For example, what we do when we wake up, how we organize our work day, and where we decide to go for dinner are all driven by motivation.

There are many reasons why someone would want to support your solution. Most boil down to recognition, personal gain, intellectual satisfaction, and consistency of decision making. There is a great book called Influence by Robert Cialdini that I highly recommend that goes more into the psychological aspects of motivation.

There are also risks however to being overly supportive of a particular vendor or solution. There is risk of failure, being politically outmaneuvered, running afoul of other team’s initiatives or executive pet projects. An internal champion is putting his or her reputation and political capital on the line, so it is important to earn trust and build credibility with your champion.

Where do you find such champions willing to go above and beyond to support you? Usually they gravitate to you. Even when your demo is broken or pitch is a mess, a champion looks past the flaws to see a vision of the future. They often had the inkling of the idea already, but could not make happen. Then you arrive at the right time to help bring that idea to fruition. When the vision connects with motivations, it drives people to want to help.

“If you are working on something that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.” – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was right. When people are led by vision, you do not have to push or cajole into action. Even when reality of the difficulties ahead and work involved set in, your champion does not shirk from the overwhelming odds. They act more like entrepreneurs, but from inside the organization, hustling to get others to buy into the vision, navigating processes, and overcoming objections and naysayers.

While exciting to get such willing support, be cautious! You might think, “Great, someone wants to help us out! We’ll just rely on this person to bring the deal home.” This would be a grave mistake.

Sales is a relational activity. You are dealing with people after all and motivation can rise as well as wane. Think about your own startup journey and how many people were initially excited to get involved, only to disappear soon after.

Therefore, it is important to avoid “happy ears” when someone reaches out from a prospect to help. Before you declare someone your champion and go “all-in”, take time to set proper expectations. Here are four things to ask:

  • Understand what’s in it for them. A safe way to probe without offending is to ask how they will be involved near-term and long-term as the solution is implemented and deployed.
  • Probe them on their understanding of the solution. Have them replay how they hear your pitch to see if they understand your value proposition, the impact to their organization, and how they would address objections.
  • Walk them through your typical buying process. Describe your experience with other customers buying your solution. Ask if this mirrors their process and to share about similar solutions brought into the organization.
  • Have them map out their organization. Get started by mapping out your understanding of their organization and then have them fill-in the gaps in terms of the org chart structure, internal politics, and key systems.

Asking these questions upfront with your champion will minimize surprises and establish both trust and credibility. If you are aligned, then it is time to work together on building the internal coalition, understanding the buying process, and bringing the solution into the organization.

What if you do not have a champion? It is important to clarify that if you have no champion, you most likely have no deal in your future. Someone needs to be interested and personally motivated enough to want your solution. It is important to recognize that not every champion will be fully transparent or committed. There may even be times when your champion will be antagonistic and difficult to work with. What is important is that a real champion will continue to engage and communicate with you on a regular basis.

The next question then is once you have a champion, how do you navigate the internal buying process? That is the next topic in this startup founder series where I introduce ways to position your solution as the inevitable choice.

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