Rule #1 in sales, make your product easy to buy.

I was having a conversation with one of our product managers yesterday where we thought it would be interesting to add the ability for someone to send a text message to our platform and lookup that person’s location. With this geographic data, we could help someone find the closest retailer and do all sorts of other nifty things. We already do this for a few customers like Redbox, except we ask for a zip code and perform a location lookup using the central point of the zip code area. Looking up someone’s actual location could help make this process more effective.

There are a couple of companies that provide this type of data: Location Labs and BLA-BLA (both in the bay area). Note that BLA-BLA is not an actual name of a company, I’m using that since I’m under NDA. I had received a capabilities overview and pricing from both companies in the past and thought it’d make sense to check back in with BLA-BLA to see if I could get access to their API to prototype the enhancement I described above. Here’s a quick look at that email conversation with the sales director of BLA-BLA:

Checking back in, any chance you offer an API that we could play with for a bit?

His response:

Thanks for checking in. If you have customer demand and a project pending a successful evaluation of location services, I can probably get authorization to issue a week-long evaluation, but as a practice we do not issue free trials. And our pricing increased as of January 1st, so the set-up is now $299 plus $199 per month. The demand has been high on our side, that's why we do not issue free trials. Let us know if you have an active project, and we'll do our best to craft attractive pricing.

I wasn’t asking for a free trial, just wanted the opportunity to play with their product to see if was a good fit to integrate with ours.

I replied:

Wasn't asking for a freebie, only to try your product. I'd like to test out what you offer and see how it could fit into our product and product roadmap. Is there an amount of money I could pay to play with the API myself?

To which he replied:

Thanks for your response. The price for our Developer Program is $299 set-up, plus $199 for 500 monthly lookups. This would give you access to the API and documentation to see if it would make a difference in your business. Then if it does, then we can craft special pricing for you. Please advise and we'll get the paperwork over.

This reply really irked me. In order to try their product (which again I wanted to check out because I was excited about the possibility of incorporating their service within our product), he was asking me to commit $498 just to try it out. By try out, I mean send a handful of requests against their API as a proof of concept.

I replied:

As the co-founder and CEO of a product company that services companies big and small, it's tough for to get excited about a company's product when I can't try it out to see if there's a good fit. $498 is too much to spend to try out an API and see if it's a good fit. If you look at the technology service marketplace, it's nearly universal to offer either a free trial or more limited version of the product. You see this with companies like Twilio (free to try, $30 to get started) and Salesforce (free to try, $15/mo), who've made their products super easy to try out and done well by this strategy. Perhaps your product team could add this ability to your product so that these conversations don't have to route through a sales director initially, and then when a prospective customer has tried out your product are happy with their initial tests they'll follow-up with you and you can drop them into your sales funnel.

To his credit, he replied and said they tried this in the past and it didn’t work, but frankly I just can’t fathom why giving someone instant access to your product (free or otherwise) wouldn’t work as a method of evaluation. This got me thinking about how utterly annoying the sales process can be for software companies. I don’t understand why I’d even have to talk to the sales person here…I should just be able to sign up for a developer account, try their API (I’m fine with paying a nominal fee to try it) and see if it works. This is exactly how I signed up for Salesforce and pretty much every other product we use to run our business.

So I took a scan back at the previous conversations with this person to get a context of how we crossed paths. Here’s a recap:

  • Cold email from a contract sales person (I could tell by looking at this person’s profile on LinkedIn) asking to talk about working together
  • I replied asking for written overview of capabilities, specific ways we could work together and pricing
  • I received a reply asking for conversation via phone
  • I replied that I was pretty busy but familiar with segment and their primary competitor, and was curious to obtain pricing and try out their API
  • Received reply to sign NDA (come on, seriously?)
  • I replied sure as they’re easy to do, at which point I was handed off to the real sales guy at the company
  • Quick call in which I asked for pricing and API access
  • Received pricing via email ($99 setup, $99/mo) and asked to sign 12-month contract
  • Replied that I wasn’t interested given the commitment level

This whole buying process was inefficient. This company could have saved tons of time by sending me a well written email introducing their product and giving me a chance to try it out. At that point I would have signed up for an account, played with their API, built a quick prototype and tested with a few people on the team. If we liked it, we would have shared it with some of our customers as a way to brainstorm ideas and incorporated into our product roadmap accordingly. Instead I had to waste my time, they wasted theirs and I still can’t try their product unless I spend $498. No thank you.

In contrast, my company Signal offers a free trial that never expires and if you’re happy with the product all you need to do is pay $29 per month to get started. You can try us out for as long as you’d like and if makes sense to pull the trigger it only takes a few seconds. We have large companies on large contracts, but these companies also require high throughput/scale messaging, along with hands on integration support and account management. There’s simply a different level of service required and we give it to them for the corresponding price. This is not to say that any of these companies can’t (and haven’t) started with us online and moved up to that higher level of service.

Food for thought…deliver value in your product and make it easy to get started and you’ll find that the customers will come.