Selling in a Product Led Growth Company: It’s Not About You

January 2, 2020

As business go-to-market models continue to evolve, so do sales organizations. Sales is a little unique at a product led growth (PLG) organization. Rather than being singularly focused on making the sale, the true goal is to deliver an effective customer experience.

In a sales-led organization, the selling is usually done by sheer will and determination. Regardless of whether the product is an ideal market fit or a nice-to-have versus a need-to-have, the job of the sales team is to create the relationships and prove the value that will ultimately close the deal. In a PLG company, on the other hand, the customer experience is paramount and usually comes first. In many cases, a customer is often already using the product even before an account executive has built any relationships. If the product doesn’t deliver a great experience that clearly solves the prospect’s pain point upfront, there won’t be a sale. End of story.

This is why PLG companies thrive best when they take a coordinated, collaborative sales approach that blends the perspective of all the different functions in order to focus everyone on a single, function-agnostic goal: always do what’s best for the customer.
In order to achieve success in this new model, sales needs to develop a more service-based mentality. Instead of taking the “shoehorn” approach, PLG sales teams need to take the time to really understand the buyer persona and value that the solution provides to the market. Understanding how each audience segment wants to buy—what kind of experience they want; and then—to ensure a sustainable, scalable business model—they will need to make sure they establish the most effective cost of sale as well. It’s a balancing act between enhancing the customer experience and managing the company resources required to enable that experience in a fiscally responsible way. A $100 annual revenue transaction should be sold much differently than a $50,000 annual revenue transaction.

It’s also about balancing the roles and responsibilities of the different functional areas as well. My role at SendGrid (prior to the merge with Twilio) was managing the sales, customer success, professional services and revenue operations teams all under a single umbrella. This structure gave us a unique opportunity to maximize the collaboration between these groups in service to the customer experience.

PLG Sales–One for All and All for the Customer

When I originally joined the SendGrid team, sales had a split role that included both pre-sales and post-sales activities. It didn’t take me long to realize where their strengths actually lay. The sales team was excellent at connecting with customers, understanding pain and solving problems. But they were not quite as comfortable or effective in the post-sale part of the implementation: onboarding, account management, etc.

Based on these observations, we evolved the model to allow sales to focus on what sales does best, and then handoff to customer success and the professional services team for implementation and ongoing management. We made sure that the handoffs were seamless for the customer to ensure no one fell through the cracks. That’s just one example of the ways in which we made decisions about internal structures based on customer needs and our shared mission to deliver a stellar customer experience.

There are definitely challenges to getting all these different teams working together, whether you have them all under one umbrella or not. It takes skill to balance all the different roles because each team is very passionate about their purpose, and sometimes those missions can come into conflict.

True collaboration requires that team members give up a certain amount of control. Salespeople who come from outside the PLG world, for instance, are used to being the kings and queens of the organization. They are the ones calling the shots and making things happen. When someone who is used to that type of environment steps and then into a PLG organization, it can be a bit of a culture shock. Sales isn’t always first, it’s sometimes last.

The solution to these kinds of conflicts is to have absolute clarity about roles and responsibilities. At SendGrid, for instance, sales’ role wasn’t to sell to all customers–we split out the buying process in essence to a “self-serve and full-serve” approach under different circumstances. This was usually triggered when a customer experienced an increase in volume or complexity and required hands-on guidance to help them figure out the best solution. When a customer raised their hand or reached such a milestone, sales was there to offer advice and help them solve problems, whether that meant configuring plans or setting up architecture or addressing deliverability issues.

Most internal friction occurs when one team thinks another team is either overstepping bounds or doing something wrong. For example, the sales team might think the customer success team is overserving, while the customer success team might think sales is going too far to get every nickel and dime out of the customer.

Again, the resolution to these disputes always lies in looking at what’s best for the customer. That is the final arbiter of all conflicts. It’s also important to help each side of a conflict appreciate the other’s role and value, but ultimately the most critical factor is looking at the situation through the lens of customer satisfaction. After all, if the customer isn’t satisfied, no one is going to be happy.

The Keys to Better Collaboration: Shared Goals and Clear Roles

Building great cross-functional relationships starts at the top. In my multi-department role at SendGrid, I collaborated closely with our Chief Product Officer and CMO. Because we had all adopted a customer-first mentality, it was easy to align ourselves around the common cause without getting caught up in the usual interdepartmental battles. We understood that everyone needed to work together. Siloes weren’t going to help anyone. Each of us and our teams have a part to play in the company’s success.

The aim was to have everyone in each department focus on really understanding what was happening to the customer throughout the entire customer journey, from the initial purchase through their continued growth. Along that journey, each team had valuable contributions that only they could make.

Sales, for instance, is on the front lines, so they are perfectly situated to gather and disseminate crucial customer and market intel. They see what’s happening in the environment and the competitive landscape. This is especially critical in a product-led organization with a self-serve model because in that scenario you don’t get to hear why customers aren’t buying. We can see online behavior, but can’t necessarily see what’s driving that behavior.

A Sales team can help the rest of the organization understand the dynamics behind the activity—competitive situations, pricing dynamics, feature functionality gaps, etc. At SendGrid, we had a product feedback form the sales and the customer success team both used to collect as much information as possible to share with product and marketing. We had quarterly reviews with the product team to collaboratively identify themes and opportunities to improve the product and/or the buying experience.

While a traditional salesperson might not initially be as focused on doing this kind of reconnaissance work as they would be in a standard sales capacity, it’s a really important role. An important point made to the SendGrid sales team was taking pride in their ownership of this responsibility and their ability to bring value to the rest of the organization. Sales isn’t only the voice to the customer, it’s the voice from the customer as well.

The same goes for each functional area. Marketing, for instance, plays a pivotal role in any organization, but especially in a product-led one where you’re leading with the customer experience. Their insights into the customer not only help you build better products, but they also help you communicate with customers more effectively.

The bottom line is that it really is a team effort, so approaching it in a holistic way just makes sense. When things get disconnected or siloed, you need to bring everything back to the center—the customer—and look at things through multiple perspectives to make sure that the customer experience is the best it can be. It takes a lot of orchestration and commitment, but it’s worth it. Not only does it improve things for the customer, but it also allows you to move faster and pivot with more ease because everyone is working together.

Tips for Building the Right Kind of Sales Team

For companies that haven’t quite formalized their sales or customer support functions, it can be tricky to know how to begin building a collaborative organization. There are plenty of ways to get off on the wrong foot.

The first thing to avoid is trying to build your sales organization too quickly without proper due diligence. Rather than running out and hiring a lot of salespeople, take the time to first focus on understanding the ideal customer experience. This will uncover the clues needed to figure out what type of sales organization needs to be built. Sales Development Reps? Inside Sales Reps? Field Sales Reps? If someone just hires salespeople and throws them into the wild, you’ll get what I call “random acts of selling violence,” meaning they will desperately try to sell anything to anyone which makes it hard to build a repeatable process that allows one to identify market or purchasing patterns and scale the team.

In order to ensure the best chance at revenue success, a good partnership between sales and marketing are paramount. Often, marketing is the glue that holds things together between customers, product and sales. Without a strong marketing team, sales is left on their own to “figure it out,” which is never an ideal situation. It’s critical that Marketing provides the groundwork by clearly defining company content, product collateral and competitive messaging about who you are and what you do. If they don’t, sales reps will be forced to develop those selling points on their own. It’s no easy task, and often the value proposition takes the hit by getting fractured and diluted.

Lead generation is an important responsibility of both teams using different strategies. Here’s an easy visual; net fishing and spearfishing. Marketing often uses net fishing—going out and casting a wide net using SEO, SEM, events, downloads, etc. and brings everything back to figure out the best sources of the highest quality of leads. Sales, on the other hand, is typically spearfishing—targeting a specific set of customers with a tailored conversation. To create a positive impact on your business, you need both of these strategies working in harmony.

The Collaborative Sales Approach–The Way of the Future

In the future, we will see more organizations finding creative and strategic ways to combine traditionally siloed roles into a more collaborative and coordinated structure. Bringing different roles together under one umbrella gives companies the ability to get a 360-degree view of what’s happening with their customers. And this insight helps these companies build better products and create better customer experiences.

This approach is especially advantageous for early-stage companies who can benefit greatly from such insights as their products go through the initial stages of evolution. As a company gets larger, it may need to separate certain tasks simply because of increases in volume and complexity which require additional resources and special expertise. When a company reaches this stage, it needs to be even more vigilant about ensuring that such separations don’t lead to any disconnect in the collaboration.

It all comes back to establishing and maintaining that customer-first focus that is the hallmark of all PLG companies. Making sure that no one gets caught up in looking only at their individual responsibilities, as though they exist in a vacuum. Each team needs to operate within the greater context of the whole customer journey and experience. That might mean that sales takes on some tasks that are outside of the traditional sales role or it might mean that you require creating additional points of communication between several teams. Be open to structuring the teams in a completely different way. In the end, be prepared and committed to do whatever it takes to deliver the ultimate experience your customers deserve!