In India, a customer does not buy a product, they buy a phone number

There are over 800 products listed in the database (out of 2149) that cater to the SMB market in India. Many of them sell only to the Indian market, and a few also try to target International markets.

The amazing part of selling in India is the ease of access to founders (promoters, they are called here) and Managing directors (CEO). Most have their cell phones listed on their website and many may have it listed on their ads.

Throughout the last few years when I ran relatively small (<20) person sales team, targeting companies with less than $2 Million revenue we found that getting appointments with CEO’s at small companies was extremely easy. A conversion rate of 50% from cold call to face-to-face appointment was not unheard of.

At a price-point which was less than a full-time resource to manage marketing, they found our solution relatively easy to adopt, but they were focused on quick ROI – meaning if they put $1 now, they expected $5 within the first month and an increase every month.

During the first few months, we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to simplify our product. We realized most decision makers & users at these companies were the CEO’s so we wanted to make sure they found our product easy to use. We did 4 sets of focus groups and removed a lot of features from the product, making it so that just one of two options were provided on each page. Navigation was made simple as well, with large buttons and primary colors.

After 2 months, we had an interesting problem. None of the CEO’s actually used the product. Every time they wanted data from our system, they’d just call the sales rep and ask him for information. We showed them how easy it was for them to look up the information on their cell phone, but they’d still call and “chat up” the rep, share more information about their business, their issues, etc.

We then provided a customer service team who would answer these questions so our sales person would be more productive. The sales person still got calls. One sales person left to join an MBA program. Even a year after he’d left, the CEO’s he sold to would call him to ask him for information.

That’s when we realized that Indian customers dont buy a product or a service. They just buy a phone number – a person’s mobile phone which is their user interface to the product.

Then I got to know about a central number system. Basically its a number that you can give and you can change it to any set of numbers by “routing” the call based on the number. We did not implement it fully, but the first few weeks of using it were a lifesaver for our sales productivity.

15 thoughts on “In India, a customer does not buy a product, they buy a phone number”

    1. Its changing slowly, but yes that’s what I am saying. Feel free to ask any of the many SaaS companies selling to SMB in India. If you dont have a web UI but you send them an email, with key data that will work for them. They dont like to log on to a system, remember passwords, learn a new UI, etc.

  1. Mukund’s right. We’ve experienced this same problem at my earlier startup ( where we had developed a SaaS form builder platform for private educational institutions. Of the 50+ colleges that signed up, fewer than 5 actually ever logged in. Our sales folks’ cell phone numbers were on their speed dial. We eventually pulled down the self-serve model because it was pointless – we were the only ones using it on behalf of our clients!

    Lessons learned: It’s incredibly hard for SaaS companies targeting Indian SMBs to find a scalable business model even if there is product / market fit. The economics simply don’t line up.

  2. In my experience with selling to marketing managers/CMOs in larger organizations (read blue chip), the mentality is not that different. You can send the most simple or detailed email/proposal/product link/whatever else – but when it comes down to decision time, they want you waiting in the reception area of their office πŸ™‚ Selling to B2B in India is high-touch.

  3. Very true, Mukund, hence selling in India is very expensive, Cost of hand holding a customer with a personal touch is way way more than the selling price of SaaS. And this brings the question. Can one survive with SaaS way of pricing in India ?

      1. Mukund, any insights of selling to US/European customers, completely from India ? Any success stories of Indian companies selling to US customers without having any physical presence in the US/Europe. Should one even think of it, or there are huge challenges to it

  4. Mukund, awesome post and relevant insight as usual. How is the Central Number System playing out now? Are the bosses having issues when they talk to 2 different people over the same problem? I have encountered several instances with Trippy where they have expected the Senior Management to be directly involved and refrain from moving forward without that.

    1. They get the first available person to talk to. If they try to call the sales rep, they might find he’s in a meeting or another call. So they prefer getting answers immediately. Its working well so far.

  5. Reassuring to find that we are on the right track with our product ComSkool where we HAVE to be present on a call to tend to their technical issues. On the contrary, I am forced to think now whether we should be moving up to the Saas model, which we were planning for the advanced version!

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