I spend a fair chunk of my time advising start-ups. My new - though hardly revolutionary - strategy is that any time I find myself giving the same advice for the third time to post it here on the blog so I can more easily share it in the future. This worked well with my post about attracting talent, which I find myself sharing constantly.

In the last week two different companies have asked me how to accelerate implementation (and thus sales) with enterprise customers.

We often faced this at my start-up, where our customers were large media companies. We would meet with and convince the marketing guy to become a customer. We would agree commercial terms. But then, to actually start, we would need the potential customer to send us a data feed. This required some small amount of engineering work. Some customers would get it done in a day. But bigger companies would often stall at this step and then the momentum behind the deal would fade. Things would grind to a halt just as we could imagine the sweet sound of a customers transfer landing in our bank account. It can be a very demoralising situation when your tiny start-up has finally succeeded in convincing the big guy to become a customer, but then stalls at the final hurdle to collecting the cash.

This situation will be familiar to anyone who has sold a product that requires customer implementation or integration. Often the decision maker of the purchase does not control, and has only little influence over, the resources needed to execute the implementation. By coincidence, just as I was reaching for the digital quill to start drafting this post, I listened to this week’s Startups for the rest of us episode (number 463) which covers some approches to this very topic. You should definitely give that a listen.

So what to do when you see your lucrative deal landing on the bottom of the customers’s lengthy todo list? My thoughts:

First up, you need to accept in enterprise sales there is no silver bullet and that no amount of will power and determination will be able to accelerate every deal. While there are things you can try to push things forward, they won’t always work. The only real solution is to have many discussions going at any given time, so that you can then pounce on those that are ready to move forward.

Secondly, it’s critical to make the barrier to implementation as trivial as possible. Provide well documented SDKs for example. But this is obvious stuff, and what we often found is that the marketing guy wouldn’t even pass that stuff on to the engineers. He would go to the CTO, the CTO would be busy and just say “we’re busy, come back next quarter” and our lovingly tended documentation would never even get looked at.

How do we overcome that?

  • Give (in writing) the customer a clear set of next steps. The worse thing that can happen is if the customer start improvising a set of next steps. As soon as they say they want to do the deal layout exactly your list of the next steps, how long each step normally takes, who does what, etc. Not just the implementation but also the announcement and promoton of the deal. Every step should be clear, to include when the first invoice will be issued and by when it should be paid. Also clear should be the post launch PR or promotion of the partnership.

  • Give the customer a strong financial incentive to move quickly. In our experience it was best to make this incentive extreme. Often we would tell them, “The cost of the service is normally €X/month. As a gesture of good will and to give you ammunition to get it going we will charge you only €1 for full use o the service from now until 1 December (some date six weeks in the future). If you implement it today you will get six weeks of free service. If you implement it in two weeks you will get only four weeks of free service.” The key with this strategy though is that it can not actually be free. There needs to be an invoice and a payment, even if only €1 as this shows that your contact got it through the accounting department, etc.

  • Pay for the engineering If the supposed bottleneck is engineering, offer to send your engineers to the customer site for a day to explain (or even implement) things. Offer to fund a freelancer who has experience with the relevant tech.

  • Check in regularly (weekly?) but of course not in an agressive way

  • Use any possible reasonable excuse to justify why they should prioritize your project. For example “Next month is the big industry conference, would be great to feature you and the implementation there …”

  • while waiting on the implementation approach your contact about materials for a testimonial or PR. Basically make the case that you also want to feature him or her, not just the company. This is a way for them to advance in their career

  • Apply social pressure. Send the customer regular updates about your business including when you go live with their competitors or peers. Ideally you have a steady drumbeat of other announcements.

  • Use your small size to your benefit and create competition
  • write to a group of potential customers who are “stuck”, say “We had a project get delayed, as a result there is an unexpected hole in our dev schedule. We can implement one of you in the next month. I like you all and don’t want to chose a favorite. Whoever replies first we will go with. Please ping me if you want it to be you.”

As above, there is no magical solution that will always work, but you should be trying all of these things. Good luck!