This week Rob talks with Steli Efti about selling during a pandemic. They also talk about how to set yourself up for success as a founder during a possible recession and how to adjust your sales process. You don’t want to shy away from sales, but you also don’t want to be tone-deaf to the current state of the world. Steli is one of the world’s experts in startup sales and B2B sales. He runs a successful app called Close.com. He has written a number of ebooks on the topic of sales, and he has been a recognized expert for over a decade.
The finer points of the episode:
- 4:15 – Two big sales trends that Steli has noticed during the COVID-19 crisis
- 9:09 – The main thing you can do for your business right now
- 13:55 – How to approach a sales conversation while being sensitive to the current circumstances
- 16:33 – How Close.com managed to increase their revenue and grow through 2020
- 25:00 – How Steli sees his sales process looking after COVID-19
- 30:25 – Best practices for sending cold emails during the pandemic
Items mentioned in this episode:
This week, I talk with Steli Efti of close.com. This is his third appearance on Startups for the Rest of Us. We dive deep into his knowledge and his advice on selling during a pandemic and what that looks like.
Frankly, we just don’t talk about selling during a pandemic. We talk about how you set yourself up for success as a founder, as we potentially enter a world-wide recession, and he talks about how you should adjust your sales approach in cold emailing during this time, whether it’s a pandemic, a recession, or however you want to define it. It’s just how to think about sales and how not to shy away from it but also how not to be tone-deaf during this time.
Before we dive in, I want to once again thank Basecamp for their partnership with MicroConf and Startups for the Rest of Us. We’re pleased to have them as a headline sponsor for MicroConf in 2020. Here’s a 60-second message from Basecamp.
Basecamp: We asked founders and entrepreneurs why they switched to Basecamp when their company started to grow. Christina Hedges hired some more people. When it came to internal communication, everything was all over the place. There was more work and more people than before and no way to keep track of it all.
Sometimes, information was in an email, sometimes in the chatroom. They spent too much time on conference calls to figure out what was going on. One day, they almost missed a deadline for an important customer because the information was in the wrong place. She knew they needed to get organized, but all the software she looked at seemed complicated and it would take too long to train everybody.
Then she found Basecamp. Basecamp puts all of your internal communication in one place so nothing slips through the cracks. Unlike other tools, Basecamp has an incredibly simple structure, organized around your teams and projects. Your team will immediately understand and start using it when they see the two-minute introduction video on our site. Go to basecamp.com to learn more and start a free trial.
Rob: If you haven’t heard of Steli before, he is one of the world’s experts in startup sales. Frankly, I would say just business-to-business sales. He speaks all over the world, he has a podcast, runs a company called close.com, which is a quite successful SaaS app that is CRM, software for salespeople.
Steli has been a many-time MicroConf speaker and he’s written a number of books and ebooks on the topic of sales. He’s been a salesperson for more than a decade. I always enjoy my conversations with him and I hope you enjoy the conversation we have today.
Steli Efti, thanks so much for joining me on Startups for the Rest of Us for your third appearance.
Steli: Thank you so much for having me back.
Rob: It’s always good to chat with you. I think we talked maybe seven or eight months ago and obviously, folks have heard your intro. They know you’ve just been steep in startup sales for what? Eight, nine, ten years?
Steli: Ten years.
Rob: Ten years. We’re getting older, aren’t we? I think today, I want to dig into some stuff that is related to the current crisis. Sales is one thing, but sales during a pandemic and quarantine, and just all the […] and uncertainty, I’m imagining that it has to have changed during this time. Just to kick it off, I would love to hear your thoughts on how you’ve seen that change, how you can help people adjust to this mindset. And then, I think we’ll dive into a little bit about how can companies position themselves. We will have a post-coronavirus world and how do we position ourselves to really be in a good position there.
Steli: Everything is part of the global pandemic as it turns out, finding toilet paper, hanging out with your family. Sales is indifferent in that sense. What’s funny is that the biggest thing that I’ve noticed is that the good and the bad just get amplified during a time like this. When you ramp up the anxiety level to 10, the weaknesses are just amplified so much. I think the sensibilities and sensitivities of people are just massively increased.
I see two big high-level trends. I’m sure we’re going to dig deeper and go to the nitty-gritty, the details, and the technical stuff for people. There are two big things that I’ve seen so far. One is counter-steering to even more selfishness and aggressiveness. Salespeople, entrepreneurs, business people, because their anxiety went up so much, kind of the worst side came out and they’re like, I don’t care. I need money right now. I need to hustle. I need to push. I need to be more aggressive than usual. I need to be more selfish than usual.
You’d get these emails that are so weird. I’ll give you an example. A business person I’ve known for 10 years, we’ve helped each other out. He has a couple of businesses, he does a lot of content, and we’ve always been friendly. I’ve always supported him with his stuff and he’s supported us with our stuff.
Then, we had an email exchange recently about me being on the podcast. First, it was a personal exchange and he was all about don’t worry about me, Steli. Life is good. Business is good. I’m doing fine. But then he was communicating with somebody on my marketing team and saying if Steli wants on the podcast, we have to charge $10,000–$15,000 for that because we have to survive. That was forwarded to me.
It was such a weird thing to do, like tell me directly everything is fine but then tell somebody on my marketing team I’m going to charge $15,000 so he can be on my podcast. No word about what’s in it for us, what is the benefit, what is the value I’m going to get. It’s such a selfish come on. I’m going to charge $10,000 because I need to survive.
I mean, I get it. We all need to survive, but that’s not a really good, compelling selling proposition for me. It was also weird because to me, the statement was the world is perfect, and to another person on my team the statement was I need to charge $10,000 or the world is ending.
Even worse, when I said let’s politely decline, let’s say thanks but no thanks, when the marketing person responded hey, that’s going to be outside our budget, but we wish you best of luck. Hopefully, everything’s going to be fine. He responded okay, just for you guys, $9000, but you have to take it this week or something like that. The weirdest thing ever. What is this? A special offer if I get this week or…?
Rob: It feels really tone-deaf.
Steli: It feels so selfish, so tone-deaf, so sleazy, and it only takes a moment to ruin your reputation. It really changes how I think and feel about this individual. I never want to deal with this person again. This is so weird.
To me, this is desperation and fear manifesting itself in the ugliest form possible. I don’t think that’s a way to succeed. I don’t think that that’s the way for you to make your business succeed. That’s not compelling. I don’t think he booked tons and tons of guests who will pay $10,000 because I paid attention and there’s no guest on his podcast recently. It’s just him.
To me, that’s one way to go, people being super selfish. Those are rare, to be honest. Most entrepreneurs and most salespeople have become uber-aggressive, but there’s a lot of tone-deafness in the world. These emails, you’ve gotten them, I’ve gotten them. People that listen to us right now gotten them where it’s like, don’t you know what’s going on in the world? Why did you send me this email? It seems so disconnected from what is happening in the world. That’s one thing.
The other trend that I see more often, though, and I think this going to be the problem the people that are listening to us now, which is the over-reaction, the difference in the opposite direction, which is people, salespeople, and founders having such high anxiety and fear to upset anybody, that they just stop communicating, stop selling, stop operating, because the thought was how could I ever try to do business during a time like this? People are going to get upset with me if I send them an email, if I give them a call, or if I try to close a deal. I can do that right now. People are hurting.
I think that that’s a really bad idea as well. I’ve told this to more people than ever before. I’ve had so many one-on-one conversations and my pleas are always the same. Lesson number one, the world is not going to become a better place by all of us stopping work. If I stop selling, my future is less secure, my family’s future is less secure, my employees’ future is less secure. Nobody benefits from me stopping to work because things are tough out there. I’m not helping anybody really.
So, it’s not the time to dig a hole and be, I’m going to just lay in here, lay low, and wait until all of this is over. The truth is that this might take a really long time to be “over,” whatever the hell that means—we all don’t know—and every day where you don’t do business, you are making the problem big and possible. You make the economy slow, the economy less secure, you’re making your family less secure, your business less secure. Nobody’s being helped by this.
My big ask to people has been—especially during a crisis—you have to keep selling, but you don’t do it in a tone-deaf way and I’m sure we’re going to go into more detail. My basic philosophy is I’m going to send a sales email. I’m going to make a sales call. I’m going to try to close a deal. I have done them. We’ll talk about this. We shifted a close.
We had one record month after the other this year from January up until May of prepays. Every month, we’ve had more prepays than ever before in the company’s history because we made that a focus. When we started, I didn’t know if this would work. Who wants to prepay for a year or two during a time like this. Probably nobody.
It turned out quite a lot of our customers wanted to and we can talk about how we did it and why it worked. You’d be surprised. People were still buying and selling, and you have to keep selling, but the way to do it in a (I think) respectful way is not to be overly aggressive and selfish. We need to increase our pricing because we have to survive. Here is the contract. You have two hours to sign it. That’s […].
But also not in an overly-apologetic way. I know everything is bad. Are you okay? Are you hurting? Are you afraid? I’m afraid. Did you read the bad news this morning? Nobody wants to hear that. People already have enough anxiety in their life. They don’t need you to email them with 10 links about world politics that are terrible. How is that helping them? That isn’t helping them. That isn’t making you look like a good person, either.
My approach has always been, during this crisis, you want to be honest. Not fake positive, not fake optimistic honest. Hey, is everything all right? Are you good? All right, how are things going right now? Are you continuing to do business? Are you stopping everything? Tell me about your world. Tell me about your forecast of the world. Do you think that things are going to pick up again in a month? In two months? Are there any signs that you’re looking for before you put the pedal to the metal and do more things or purchase more things, to invest in more things? How are you going to decide how to move forward?
I’ll ask someone these questions, but I always will ask them with what I would call high-energy. I want to talk to people not with fake enthusiasm, not with fake positivity but with energy because there’s a funny thing. During these times when everybody we’re talking to is excited, […], depressed, fearful, pissed, and all the news we’re reading are full of overwhelming facts, the last thing we need is one more person that talks to us, that makes us feel even worse about the world, that seems low energy, apologetic, or fearful.
That’s not the kind of energy we want to surround ourselves with. But if you can talk to somebody today, that even during these crazy times is honest, frank, and straightforward with you but seems to have energy, seems to have the ability to make decisions to do things, it makes people feel better. It makes people feel like I can have a conversation, I can make a decision, I can take action even during these times.
There’s this old quote from whatever her name is, Angelou or something. People can google her and find it. It’s like, “People won’t remember your name, people won’t remember the place, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think that, especially during times where we’re also anxious, afraid, and overwhelmed, when we interact with people that make us feel calm and confident, make us feel a little bit more energized than before, those are the type of people that we will want to gravitate towards and talk more to, and we will remember that these people stand out.
That’s how we’ve been selling it close and how I approached reaching out to people. Be honest, be frank, don’t be fake, but don’t be meek. Don’t whisper and don’t be apologetic. I know the time is so hard. Sorry that I’m talking to you right now. Nobody needs that. Nobody’s being helped by that attitude and energy that you bring to the table.
That’s the biggest thing. Don’t be afraid to sell. Selling is good for you. Selling is good for your family. Selling is good for your prospects if you’re selling them something that could provide value. We can talk a lot more about it, but that’s my big spiel around this. Don’t be so afraid because there is a way (I think) to do it, that won’t piss off all the people, that won’t make you a bad person, but it will make the world turn, the economy’s going to move forward, and your business still operates even during times where it’s harder to talk to prospects and close deals.
Rob: It sounds like what you’re saying is there is an elephant in the room. Address it upfront. Be honest, don’t be fake, have empathy, and ask questions with high energy (I think) is what you said. It’s like what is your forecast? What do you think you’re moving for? These are to get honest appraisals from people so that it’s not, again, this elephant in the room of COVID’s happening and we’re not talking about it. We’re ignoring it and I’m not bringing it up. You’re just basically saying bring it up, discuss it, and then move on with the conversation.
Steli: Yeah. Talk about it, but talk about it with curiosity and energy. Hey, what’s happening in your industry? I’m talking to lots of other people. I’m curious about you. What’s your outlook? How did you operate over the last couple of weeks? What are the signals you are waiting for moving forward? How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future? Ask those questions with curiosity and energy versus being apologetic. I know. You know? What do you think about the future? How do you operate right now? It’s the same question, but I almost feel obligated to feel bad when you ask it that way. I almost feel obligated to tell you that things are worse than they are because you make it sound like that’s what I should do.
That’s really it. People will talk to you and they will give you answers. Those answers will be very good guideposts on how to proceed. Some people you’ll be surprised. You talk to them and they’re very optimistic. They’re like, oh, this is […], I think the world is going to be better out of this. I’m very optimistic. I’m not slowing down. I’ve been making money. I’ve been driving revenue. I’ve had some creative ideas. We’re doing well.
Now that’s a very different starting point for now talking about maybe the solution that we have or the things we could do together. For somebody to talk that tells you, my father and mother are in the hospital. I’m a mess. I haven’t made money for the last two months. I don’t know. I think I’m going to close shop next month. That’s kind of important. That’s a very different foundation to continue the conversation.
Maybe when things are so bad, all you can do is just be like, okay, is there something I can do to help? Can I refer any business to you? Can I just get out of your way and maybe touch base again in a month and see how things are going? Maybe the best thing you can do is to leave the person alone, maybe send an email a month from now and ask, hey, are you all right? Is your family fine? How about your business? And then that alone might make somebody remember you and appreciate you because you were there, you seem to care, you showed some humanity which we all appreciate during tough times.
The other person who was gung-ho, My business is running, I’m making money, I’m positive, with that person you’re like, let’s get in business. Let’s […] more good […] right now, and you might go and close a deal. But don’t try to avoid talking about these subjects, but also when you talk about them, don’t think they do need to come across as if you’re discussing some horrific thing because it might not be for your prospects. You should just check before you proceed in that direction.
Rob: That makes sense. I googled that quote while you were talking. It was from Maya Angelou. The one about how people remember the way you make them feel. I am curious. You mentioned that at close your team has pulled off an interesting feat of getting people to do annual prepays. Can you talk us through how that’s happened and how you’ve handled that?
Steli: We had an ‘oh, […]’ moment in February where I was convinced that a big crisis was ahead of us, that we needed to act really fast and decisively to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario, and we should do it ahead of time. Not wait, though it’s inevitable, but act really quickly. When it came to the way we were selling, up until that point the big focus of ours was to sign, sell, and close long-term contracts with some of our bigger new customers. We would sign one- to three-year contracts that were paid monthly (subscription revenue).
In fact, we met up with our sales team and we decided that if there’s a big crisis ahead of us and if there’s a big economic downturn ahead of us, a contract is not going to be worth much. A contract is only worth something in a stable world. If our customers are going out of business, that contract is useless. If they would go out of business unless they break the contract (they decide to break it) that contract is useless. We’re not going to start suing our customers during a global pandemic.
The first decision that we made was let’s pull away from contracts. They’re going to be useless during very turbulent times, so let’s not care about them. Let’s not focus on them anymore. What is going to be important during a crisis, cash is king. Now, fortunately (or unfortunately), we’re running a subscription business. Most of our customers are paying month-to-month and they have the option to stop at any time. That’s not good during a crisis or a global economic downturn because lots and lots of your customers could just decide to stop.
So let’s try to incentivize our customers to prepay. How do we do this during these uncertain times, in a very honest and direct way? Not sleazy, not trickster, just an honest offer. It’s quite simple. If you want to prepay during highly uncertain times where the risk of prepaying is much higher for you as a buyer, you should be getting a great deal. We’re going to give you an exceptional deal because these are exceptional times. If you feel like your cash situation is really strong, if you feel like your financial future is really stable, and you want to use this crisis to get amazing deals for you—fill that position as a customer—we’re going to make that an option for you. We’re going to offer you that.
Now, if you don’t want that, we totally get it. If you want to wait until the world is stable and safe again, that’s totally fine, but then you’re paying the stable and safe price, the price that everybody’s going to pay. You take more risk, you get a better deal. You take less risk, you get the worst deal. It’s a very simple, very honest proposition.
That’s what we did. We approached a lot of our customers, we offered them that, and for the self-service customers, we can […] up the offer if you prepay. Again, when we started I didn’t know if this would work. There were some voices when we were talking about this internally. They were saying aren’t people going to get really upset if we offer them this? I thought why should they get upset? There’s no lie. If I offer you an apartment for half the price because it’s a crisis, why would you scream at me? How dare you sell an apartment during a crisis! That’s a crazy thought process.
This is another thing that I would want to highlight here. Don’t assume what your prospect or customers could get upset about. Don’t assume it. Test it. Just test it to see. Maybe they’ll surprise you. So we did. We tried it and the first month that we really rolled this out was March and a lot of customers—to our surprise, honestly—were excited about it. Although at that point, everybody started knowing about what’s going on. They were like, this is just too good of a deal. We don’t care. We’ll do it.
March was an amazing cash for month for us. We said, well let’s continue doing this and see how it works. And April the same, and May the same. There have only been two cases out of a lot where people got upset. I’m telling you, Rob, it’s like hurt people hurt others, and upset people are getting upset. These two people got upset in very unreasonable ways.
They’re literally, hey, I saw your offer. I want an even steeper offer. Let’s say this is just an example. Your offer costs $100. I want it for $5 and I want to pay it monthly. It’s a global crisis, we’re hurting, and it’s your responsibility to give it to us. We said, hey, a lot of our customers are hurting. We’re hurting too. We’re a small business, we just can’t do $5. We’re really sorry but we can’t. We hope that you’re going to be fine. Then the person would be like, this is outrageous. I’m going to tweet about this. The world is ending and you can’t even give us your software for $5.
This person is unreasonable and I’m not going to bend my entire business for the few that are very loud and just going to get upset about anything anyway. I’m not […] me coming to your apartment going, Rob, I’m hurting. I need a place to stay. I want to buy your house for 10% because it’s a crisis. You’re like, Well, I want to still live here and it’s not for sale. I can give it to you for 10%. They’re like, outrageous. I’m going to write about this. People are dying and you can’t even give me your house!
People are crazy sometimes. There were two cases where I felt these people were just very unreasonable and I just assume these people were hurting so much that they’re kind of slightly out of their minds. We try to be empathetic, but we also keep it moving. We didn’t try to make them feel better because people are out of control. You just have to let them be. Nothing really happened. They then moved along and hopefully, they found some other solution that worked for them.
Most of our customers and most people either say, no, we can’t make that. We would want to take that deal, or, you know what? That’s a really good deal. We’ll think about it. Yes or no. It was a very simple thing.
Surprisingly, and just now, just in the last two weeks, our sales team has started seeing less prospect bite on the prepays. Maybe it’s because now, it finally is clicking for many of them. Maybe it’s just two weeks, so we decided that it’s too early to shift our strategy. Maybe it’s just the kind of deals that we got through the pipeline is too small of a sample size.
We’ll have to keep an eye on it. Maybe we’ll have to change the strategy at some point, but for the last couple of months, our cash position is drastically improved—almost doubled—which made our business a lot more stable, the job for people that work at Kohl’s a lot more secure, and also for our customers made it more secure that we’re going to be able to service them, offer them increased innovation and great support, and everything they need to be able to use our platform. Just a win-win-win for everybody.
There was no rocket science. There was no trickery, it was not some kind of a hack that we used. Just a very strong offer. We just approached our customers with it to see what the response would be and in our case—this might not be true for everybody—the response was really, really good.
Rob: That’s fascinating. You only approached existing customers, right? This wasn’t for new folks coming in?
Steli: Both, existing customers as well as new folks.
Rob: Got it. I feel like folks who are in a strong cash position, the stuff is on sale. Warren Buffett often says, “In a recession, stocks are on sale.” If I were a customer of clothes, I would view it as a wow. I’m getting clothes on sale right now because of this. And if I was in a strong cash position I would jump at it. I think big companies in that position have a real advantage, mostly coming out of a recession but going into it as well.
I’m curious. You’ve talked about how to sell during a pandemic, how to think about it in this way whether it’s getting cash, prepays, or whether it’s just being empathetic, being honest, and calling out the elephant the room. Let’s say three months, six months down the line, we are coming out of a recession. Maybe it’s nine months, whatever it is. Does the approach change?
At that point, let’s just make assumptions. I realize everything’s up in the air so I don’t want to make predictions, but let’s assume that we get through coronavirus and then it just becomes much much less of an issue over the next 3–6 months. Let’s assume that in 6–9 months, we’re in a recession and stuff is coming out. Is there a dramatic shift to how you would be doing sales now versus normal times versus coming out of a recession? Or is it basically the same?
Steli: It’s not the same. The fundamentals of selling are always going to be the same. At least I’m convinced of that said. That sense that never changes or shouldn’t change. I think the strategy needs to be more one where what I’m convinced of. Right or wrong, I don’t know what’s going to happen, obviously, but I’m convinced that the next 24 months are going to be hard to predict. It might play out like 15 months of quiet time, seems like we’re past and everything’s fine, then 3 insane months. It might be that every three months is big news. I just think it’s going to be hard to predict.
My sense is that there are a couple of really significant dominoes in the world that have fallen and we have not yet felt the impact of that. I think it’s going to come out later. My philosophy is very much one where it is a crisis until at least for three quarters in a row. No bad news or no new news has popped in terms of what’s going on. During a crisis time, I feel like it’s not the strongest or the biggest that will survive. It’s the most adaptable that do. I think the goal needs to be much more on being much more agile and quicker to respond to changing circumstances.
I think over the next 24 months, long-term planning, long term goals and strategies that you have to play out over a whole year, are going to be much riskier. Putting plans together that take a year to play out and assume that whatever is happening in the world today is just going to stay that way for the next 12 months, I just think it’s riskier. It might be good but it’s just higher risk.
I think from a sales perspective for the next 24 months, cash is king is going to stay true. I think that time to close the total deal value is going to stay true. What that means is that today, I would always prioritize closing deals a little faster and giving up a little bit of money for that speed versus trying to optimize for maximum money and taking more time to negotiate and close the deal.
Again as I said, today maybe you have a very large customer, maybe you were just days away from closing out of a $100,000 deal, but you think if you push a bit further you could get $130,000. But it might take you a month longer to do that. Today, I would advise you to take the $100,000 today, that will be wired tomorrow into your bank account, versus waiting for weeks and trying to get $130,000. Now, that might be bad advice because if the world isn’t changing, $30,000 extra would have been nice. But just as a general philosophy, whatever tactical philosophy you have during this time, you can’t win every single time.
My point of view is you want to close deals as quickly as possible during this time, not being rushed, not being uncareful, but not taking your sweet time as a negotiation tactic. If we let these people wait for another two weeks they are going to get more desperate and give us even more money. If you like Warren Buffett, you’re like, I have unlimited money in the bank and this is the time to really squeeze people and get great deals. Cool, that’s fine. But if you’re just operating a small business and you’re trying to get some big deals through, I would rather close the deal today than wait to make it slightly better and close it in a week from now.
I think having shorter cycles of planning, optimizing for cash flow and speed are strategies that I (at least) assume we at close are going to keep as our operating principle and guideposts for the next 12–24 months. That’s what I would advise people. What happens when we’re all convinced that we’re through this and the world is back to “normal” or the new normal, whatever that means? It’s very hard to say. I can’t really forecast. I assume fewer meetings in person, I assume that this time is going to accelerate the adoption of software and technology.
In many ways, this is going to benefit us, the people that are listening to this podcast, but in some ways it’s not going to be good for society. It’s a mixed bag. But travel, meetings in person, offices, offline, and any commerce, any selling that happens person-to-person, that happens in meetings, that happen to travel, I suspect is not going to rebound super quickly. More part of the funnel is going to be happening through technology, remotely through asynchronous communication. Again, I think that benefits startups and software funnels more so than many others in other industries.
Rob: Sure, because so many of us, especially in our community, are already remote. We’ve been doing it for years and people are finally catching up. I’ve heard some podcasters that I listen to, like the tech news space and the kind of cord-cutting space, that they have studios at their house with two fiber lines coming in. They’re hobbyists or one level above hobbyists, but they look really good on camera. They have nice HD cameras and really good microphones.
They’re laughing because the newscasters and the people who are used to doing this in a television studio who are now doing it from their home are using their iPhones with the crappy AirPods because they don’t have the studio set up. I think it’s funny that the rest of the space is catching up with those of us who have been doing it from home for years and being remote.
I think as we transition and start to get into wrap up, I’ve had several questions about cold email lately. I actually got a question a couple of months ago before the pandemic and someone said it would be great to hear a whole episode on cold email. Once the pandemic has started, I thought, is that worth doing now or should we maybe wait until things settle down a bit?
I’m curious to hear from you. I started getting cold emails (I’ll say) in 2011–2012, and early on I’ve hired a person to do cold email. I have bought software through it, but less and less these days just because you get so much. I feel like it’s such a shotgun approach that a lot of people are trying.
I’m curious right now. Given this space, you’ve already talked about the shift in selling during a pandemic, but is it still worth cold emailing right now? If so, what’s the adjustment to the approach?
Steli: I do think there is still power in cold emailing people. I think it still works in many areas. The question is always the approach. In a world where there is so much more cold email, spam email and whatever, you can’t just be average because average really equals noise. If you send me a really great email, it’s going to stand out more so than ever before because all the other emails I get are so terrible. But you really have to write great emails.
Great emails will never be out of fashion, but it’s just much harder work. It’s harder work. You need to be more thoughtful. You need to spend a lot more time and energy. People don’t like that. People just want to go and do a copy-paste email, send it to 10,000 people in one blast, and then assume that business is going to come in. Then, when that doesn’t happen they’re like, see? Cold email is that. It doesn’t work. We tried it. No. You just did it really, really badly.
I’ve always taught a principle when it comes to cold email that I think is timeless and just works now better than ever before, which is to actually think about it in UI/UX terms. A lot of times when we write cold emails, we think very selfishly. What do I want from Rob? Rob is an important business figure. He has money. He invests in startups, let’s say. I want him to use my tool to do investments, whatever the hell it is; let’s say I have a tool.
I’m going to send Rob an email telling him, Rob, I know you and I know you should buy my software because my software’s great. Here’s the link. Please give me money. That email is very selfish if you think about it. It’s just all about me, what I want from you right now. That’s not going to work well most of the time.
Now, what if I flip the script and I ask myself who is Rob? How does Rob’s email inbox look like? How many emails does he get every day? Why is what I have to offer could potentially be valuable to Rob? How can I first convince him to give me a little bit of his attention so we can start building a relationship, so eventually, I have a shot of showing him truly what I have to offer and he can honestly tell me if this is useful or not useful for him. How can I approach this email as a starting point into a long-term relationship I’m trying to nurture with Rob?
Then I’m asking myself how do I write a subject line so that Rob will pay attention to it? It will raise his curiosity, but it’s going to deliver what it promises. I can’t just send an email where the subject line is, ‘I […] children in my basement with a gun at their head.’ That’s going to get your attention. That’s going to get you to open the email, but that’s not a great start to a relationship. Some people try to be funny about these things and then they write, ‘Hahaha! Got you. It was just a joke. Now, let me pitch you my product.’
If you lie to me at the beginning of our relationship, I’m not going to want you in my life. Sorry for the terrible example here, horrific example, but the subject line can’t also be ‘Software that you’re going to need. Please click the link and pay me money.’ Anything like that you will know. Or ‘The 10 reasons why you should be in business with me.’ You’re not going to open that email. You know what’s coming. You know that this isn’t a good email for you.
I have to ask myself what can I do to start this relationship? Then, how do I think through the emails and step-by-step terms? What’s the very first question that you have when somebody emails you? When you open an email, Rob, from somebody that you don’t know, what’s the first thing you’re trying to answer?
Rob: First, I try to answer, do I know this person? If I don’t know this person, I’m always thinking about what they want from me? Are they asking for my time or are they giving me something? That’s what I’m figuring out. What do they want?
Steli: Who is this and what does this person want from me, right? That’s your focus. It makes sense to start with that. I can go on and on; we don’t have unlimited time. We’ll give people a resource later on like cold emails now to think about this. Let’s say I send you an email, Rob, and the starting point of my email list, hey, Rob. My name is Steli Efti. My company recently had a very big news on TechCrunch that we released a new feature. I think that you’re really going to enjoy the article. The other thing that I wanted to tell you is that there is a video attached that I think you’ll really enjoy. It’s a five-minute demo of our product.
At this point—at least I am this way; I don’t know how you are—I’m like, what the […] is this? Who are you and what do you want from me? Why are you starting off as if I already know? I don’t know what we’re talking about here and you’re already pointing me to links, homework, and videos to watch.
The reverse is somebody that talks too much about themselves. The first five paragraphs are like, hey, Rob. I recently listened to a podcast of you and you know? It reminded me of when I was 12 years old. I was 12, also like entrepreneurship. I never thought that I would move to Bulgaria one day and then make my way to Greece. You’re like, all right, it’s nice to hear all these things but who are you? And why are you assuming that I will read something that will take 10 minutes of my life about all these random things about you without me understanding what you want from me and what’s in it for me?
I could go on forever but these are just some examples of you writing this and you’re not getting to the point of, here’s who I am, here’s why I am reaching out to you right now, and here’s what I want from you. That doesn’t mean that if you do these things, that people are all going to respond, yes here’s all my money. But at least, people will quickly understand. Hey Rob, I’m Steli. I’m somebody that’s a micropreneur, that’s maybe the kind of audience that you have, the kind of people you’re talking to. I’m telling you why I’m reaching out right now. The reason I’m reaching out right now to you is I just finished my prototype. There are only a few people I think could give me feedback. You’re one of them. You’re one of the people that I respect the most, so I didn’t have a choice than to email you.
That’s kind of like, I get that. I don’t know about you, but if somebody sends me an email like that, I’m going to go, okay, I want to help this person. And then, here’s what I want from you. Please give me this amount of time. Maybe five minutes is already too long. Maybe watch a video is maybe too long already. But at least, it’s crystal clear. I know who you are, why you are getting in touch with me right now, and what you want me to do.
This is such a simple rule and 99% of the time, cold sales emails don’t get to these three questions quickly enough. They lose the listener or the reader before they ever had a chance because they ramble on over things. Either they assume you already know all these things, they jump the gun, and go too quickly into details. I’m like, wait a second. Who is this? What is this about? What are all these links? What are all these things?
Or they go too slow and I’m like, wait a sec. I haven’t said yes I want to read 20 pages about your life history before you tell me what you want from me. Just thinking through empathetically who is it that I’m reaching out, what does the inbox look like, what are the basic questions this person is going to have when they receive my email, and then designing an email in a way that answers the appropriate questions at the right time can make a world of a difference.
We put together a resource, Rob. It’s called actually good and bad emails during crisis. We collected really great sales emails during this pandemic that companies have been sending out, and really terrible ones, just as a resource for people. That’s just one thing we released.
A couple of other resources, how to lead sales teams through crisis, how to close deals through crisis. People want these resources and want to take a look. I have more questions. You can always get in touch with me, firstname.lastname@example.org. In the subject line, just type in ‘Crisis toolkit’ and I will respond with a link for you and you can get all the stuff for free, but these are just some high-level pointers of how to think about this.
I think if you think through what the world looks like or the person you want to reach out to, and if you answer those questions quickly, who am I, why am I reaching out to you today, and what do I want from you, you’re already way ahead of the curve. Again, not everybody will respond ‘I want to give you that money,’ but your chance is going to be much higher to see some success with this.
Rob: Awesome. Thanks so much, Steli. You always bring the resources and I definitely appreciate that. I’ve gotten feedback about past episodes of people emailing you and getting the ebooks and such, the giveaway. I definitely appreciate that. I bet some people will take you up on it and I think there’s a lot of value.
Steli, if folks want to keep up with what you’re doing, you have a podcast with Hiten Shah called The Startup Chat they can check out. You’re @steli on Twitter and they can drop you an email email@example.com. If they want to hear the crisis, what was the thing called?
Steli: Crisis toolkit.
Rob: Awesome. Thanks against, Steli.
Steli: Thank you so much for having me, Rob.