Mainstream-market buyers, as suggested above, prefer to follow rather than lead. In adopting that attitude, of course, they’re simply being human. Mainstream humans crave predictability. We want to know what we’re getting into. How often do you go to see a play, try a new restaurant, or read a book that you know absolutely nothing about? An enthusiastic recommendation from a personal acquaintance, or a trusted reviewer in a newspaper, dramatically increases the probability that you’ll sample this new offering.
In fact, there are whole industries devoted to providing these kinds of recommendations and assurances. Think of all the movie critics, travel guides, consumer magazines, and so on that are alive and prospering.
We’ve already alluded to the need for a prepared sales force, able to align with and enable this more plodding and cautious buyer. A danger at this stage in a company’s development is that success in selling early-market buyers often has been achieved by evangelizing a leading-edge offering, and by metaphorically challenging buyers to “be the first one on the block” to have it. But as they say of generals, the great temptation is always to fight the last war. Early-market buyers can make traditional sellers seem brilliant—that is, look customer-focused—because they buy. But in many cases, they buy despite the product pitches. For the mainstream-market buyer, the leading edge sounds too much like the bleeding edge—in other words, a thing to stay away from.
What of the sellers? In many cases, a good percentage of the initial salespeople hired were naturally customer-focused. They may have been recruited by the founders themselves, and incentivized (through the use of lucrative stock options) to take a high-risk, high-reward gamble. But as revenues grow and some of these top performers accept promotions into sales management, a shift begins to take place within the organization.
As the company begins to migrate from start-up to going concern, stock options for new salespeople become less generous. An initial public offering (IPO) can be great for those salespeople with founding stock; it does little for those who join the company after the IPO. Compensation similarly tends to become more bureaucratized and less lucrative. Senior executives, meanwhile, are preoccupied with building and running the business, and perhaps with keeping Wall Street happy. They are less likely to be recruiting salespeople personally and making sales calls.
The net result of all these changes? The sales talent that the company was able to initially attract and hire begins a downward spiral.
Newly promoted managers—that is, those who were responsible for early sales results—now are responsible for hiring new salespeople. In many cases, this is a task for which they are ill prepared and temperamentally unsuited. Even if they were customer-focused salespeople in their former incarnations, how do they evaluate the skill sets and chances of success of candidates they interview? Will insecurity in their new positions tempt them to hire less talented people who won’t be a threat? In our experience, the answer is often yes. Many 10s (highly talented people) hire 9s, who hire 8s, and so on.