During our 2.5 years in stealth mode at Highfive we built a customer base of more than 100 customers with no website, no product, and no advertising. One of our most effective customer acquisition tactics was sales dinners. We hosted several of these dinners for heads of IT from the top companies in Silicon Valley including Dropbox, Uber, Evernote, Square, Pandora, and many more. Many of the companies became customers after the dinners. However, we didn’t invite our sales people and we didn’t do any selling. In fact, we had two rules for Highfive team members who attended these dinners: 1) never talk about us or our products and 2) don’t answer any questions unless explicitly asked. Sounds strange right? Not really. The secret to a great sales dinner is to stop selling. It's not about closing a sale, it's about cultivating a community. In this post, I’ll share the mechanics of how our dinners worked and why I believe similar events should be a regular part of any b2b company’s marketing mix.
The Sales Dinner
My old manager and the original CMO of salesforce.com claims to have invented the sales dinner. While his claim may inspire as much confidence as Al Gore's claim to inventing the Internet, he does appear to be one of the first people to bring customers and prospects together for sales dinners. His idea was that customers would help sell prospects if they broke bread together at the same table. The plan worked. These sales dinners have been a key part of the salesforce.com sales playbook for nearly 15 years.
Stop Selling, Start Connecting
Every attendee at a sales dinner knows that at some point in the evening there will be a pitch where the sales person hawks the company's wares. The pitch usually includes a list of features and benefits. The only problem is, people don’t buy products for their features. They hire products to do a job. And part of that job is making sure that they continue to advance in their careers and add value to their employers. People don’t want to be pitched, they want to be connected. That’s why we decided to convert all of our sales dinners into roundtables.
We regularly invite customers and prospects to roundtable discussions around particular themes. Our goal is to connect each attendee to his/her peers and to big ideas which may have nothing to do with our product. Here's how it works:
We invite 12-15 attendees with similar profiles (e.g. VP of IT at fast growing companies). I find that to be the optimal size for a diverse yet intimate conversation. We schedule 30-60 minutes for cocktails and 90-120 minutes for the dinner and discussion. After cocktails we seat everyone at a roundtable and kick off the discussion by having each person answer two questions:
- What is the biggest challenge you are facing right now?
- What is one thing you’d like to learn from someone else at the table?
Then the facilitator guides the discussion towards the hottest topics.
My friend (and former World Economic Forum executive), Simon Mulcahy, deserves the credit for coming up with this format. He modeled it after the WEF councils in Davos. Simon demonstrated how important the role of the facilitator is to the success of the roundtable. While I could never facilitate a roundtable as well as Simon does, I have discovered what works and what doesn’t when it comes to facilitation:
- Sit in the center or head of the table
- Learn the attendees interests during cocktails so you can integrate them into the discussion
- Take note of key themes and specific interests during the introductions
- Get the discussion rolling with more vocal attendees
- Ask specific (often quieter) people for their experience or thoughts on the subject
- Answer questions yourself
- Take a firm point of view
- Give a product pitch
The facilitator’s goal is to create an environment where each attendee self-discovers new perspectives and insights on the topic.
This roundtable format worked well for us at Highfive. Word of mouth spread and we received numerous emails from IT leaders asking for invitations to future events. We also closed 80% of prospects who attended our dinners despite never giving a sales pitch.
I believe the key to a great sales dinner is to stop selling. Simply listen, connect, and facilitate, and your customer community (and sales) will thrive.
I hope that helps. What’s working for you with your sales dinners or field events?