I did not realise at first that I was a lousy sales manager. As founder of Moreover Technologies, I was a concept salesman myself. I persuaded analysts, press, investors and early customers that Moreover was a clever and useful idea. Sales is all about persuasion, sales people are persuaders just like me, I told myself.
Nonsense. Hardcore sales people are a breed apart, and I cannot easily relate to them. The only consolation has been in learning that I am not alone.
In many technology firms, there is a class war. On the one hand, highly educated engineers and marketers, from whose ranks emerge the management of most new ventures; on the other, the sales team, the poor bloody infantry of the business: brave, dim and ultimately expendable. At Moreover in San Francisco, our sales group retreated off the main floor into a side office, which they dubbed the Boiler Room. They complained about cold calling in front of colleagues, but also said the atmosphere in the office was uncomfortable.There was little social mixing after work.
There has always been a divide, of course. In Europe, sales is grubby, too close to the money. Even on the US West Coast, where business is less apologetic, few sales people become chief executives. Larry Ellison, chairman and CEO of Oracle, was the company's chief salesman in its early years; but Bill Gates, an engineer by background, is more typical of technology industry leaders.
The gap is wide in the latest generation of technology ventures. The boom attracted not just engineers, but recent business school graduates, former investment bankers, journalists and others. Few had any experience of technology sales.
And they have had only a few months to learn. So many of the late 1990s companies were neat ideas and sought markets only when venture capital flows had dried up. It wasn't until later that they appointed sales people.
That is where the problems start. Most executives, unless they come up through sales themselves, are uncertain judges of sales talent. And sales people are usually proficient enough at presentation to make it hard to judge their calibre. Says a San Francisco friend: 'The ones I liked most at interview are the ones I now dislike the most.'
Once the sales team is in, it's no easier. Of the sales neophytes that I know among the executive class of '98, most swing from overindulgence to brutality in managing their sales teams. I certainly accepted a degree of expense account padding from sales people. Some executives go to the other extreme. 'Sales people are like a pack of dogs,' says one UK CEO. 'You have to take out a couple and shoot them every now and then as an example to the others.'
None of this tension mattered much when revenues were flowing in the technology sector. But since IT departments at big corporations slowed down their spending, vendors have been missing their revenue targets.
Since both executives and salespeople are rewarded according to their ability to meet these numbers, disappointment often turns to mutual blame.
A friend works at a company that has been the subject of criticism on online discussion boards. 'It was just a bunch of immature sales people,' she says.
So what's to be done? One can hire a VP of sales who acts as a bridge between the sales force and management, one who can relate to back-slapping sales people and hold their own in a discussion over strategy.
Second, a board can appoint sales people to more senior positions. At Moreover, we have just hired a senior sales executive previously at Oracle and DoubleClick as our new CEO.
There's a trend here. We ruled out executives who had come up through product or engineering - in fact, pretty much anyone who had not delivered on dollars 10 million-plus of annual sales at some point in their career. Of course, there is the danger that engineering under a sales executive is as alienated as sales under an engineering executive. One sales executive, taking over a geek-dominated search-engine business deliberately shocked his engineers by saying: 'I don't care whether this is a technologically interesting problem or not. As far as I'm concerned, it's interesting if a customer finds it interesting.'
Ultimately, the problem may solve itself. Most technology companies are changing the way they sell. Gone is the schmoozy sale, in which the buyer is wined and dined, and charmed into signing a cheque. In its place, an obsession with demonstrating ROI - return on investment - to prospective customers. A sales process decided by analysis rather than lap-dancing tours. Now that is something I think I can manage.