My startup needs someone with a sexy voice

I had an inspiring coffee meeting with an early stage startup today.  They have a clever and differentiated product, revenue traction, and great headway on their seed round.

It’s a B2B business and the CEO’s an experienced salesperson.  He knows exactly which businesses need his product and the title of the person who makes the buying decision.  He’s come up with a great sales approach – if he gets 30 minutes with the buyer, he’s very likely to close a 5-digit sale.

His challenge these days is scheduling sales meetings.  He’s got a fantastic leads list, but someone’s got to call them and convince them to commit to a face-to-face sales call.  We were just wrapping up when he remarked, “I just need someone with a sexy voice to get these guys on the phone.”

I froze.

I’d been here before.  And when the moment came, I didn’t say anything.

Not this time.

I stepped back and… agreed with him.  I told him he was right that outsourcing the first step of coldcalling – just trying to schedule a meeting – was probably a good idea.  I encouraged him to line up a few more calls himself before outsourcing, to make sure he could give good direction to the person he hired, and we discussed the pros and cons of having the person local versus remote.

Then I took a deep breath and told him that he was making a big mistake*.  While the explicit message he told me was about sales strategy, there was a very strong implicit message: “I’m judging my staff by something other than how effective they are”.

There are a few problems here.

  1. The language will both alienate some people he interacts with (let’s call them “thoughtful people“) and encourage others (for the sake of argument, we’ll call them “jerks“).  He’s a nice guy.  I suspect he’d rather spend his long workdays in the company of thoughtful people than hanging around jerks.  But with language like this, that’s not what he’s going to get.
  2. This is more or less a case study from the “job descriptions that get you a quick trip to court” file.
  3. It’s totally counterproductive.  A sultry-sounding idiot will get him nowhere. What he really wants is someone persuasive.  Whether that’s Tony Robbins, Oprah Winfrey, or Jessica Rabbit – he just needs someone who gets the job done.

He started to argue, then stood quietly for a minute, and told me he appreciated the feedback.

I got an email from him just now.  He told me that it never occurred to him that his language might be off-putting.  He told me he’s in the middle of recruiting right now, and thanked me for helping him make sure he doesn’t alienate great candidates.

He’s a promising entrepreneur and I have high expectations for his company.  Sometimes we all misspeak; I’m glad I could give him a friendly nudge.

Addendum: a few people have rightly pointed out that his language was not gender specific.  He might have meant that he needed a sexy guy to get the guys on the phone.  Of course regardless of what he meant, my concern is the same.  He doesn’t need a sexy creature, he needs an effective creature.  And thoughtful people don’t want to work in places where the CEO is evaluating how sexy they are in the course of conducting business.

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