What Is Enterprise Sales? Your Definition Could Make or Break Your Success.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the Avenue Talent Partners’ blog here.
Most definitions of enterprise sales sound something like this:
“A long sales process involving multiple stakeholders, large deal sizes, and a high perceived risk by the buyer.”
But let’s be honest… as true as that definition actually is, it doesn’t really tell you much does it?
I mean, how long is a “long sales process?” How big of a deal is “enterprise big?”
There is a lot of confusion out there as to exactly what to expect with each of these things. And unfortunately, getting something as (seemingly) simple as this wrong can have drastic, negative effects on your business.
I’ve seen (and experienced) many businesses with huge potential in the enterprise market tank their efforts because of this!
Here’s everything you need to know to set yourself up for success in enterprise sales.
The true definition of enterprise (or complex) sales.
A big part of the reason most enterprise sales definitions end up being so vague is that it’s really tricky to nail down concretely.
For example – I’ve done 8-figure mega enterprise deals with companies of 50 that took 2 years to implement.
But I also work with clients who do true enterprise sales with F500 brands and whose deal sizes are $60,000 with sales cycles around 6 months.
That’s why I think the best way to define an enterprise deal is actually not by any particular “benchmark” but by its level of complexity and the mindset required to execute it.
“The best way to define enterprise sales is by its level of complexity and by the mindset required to execute a deal.”
To illustrate how complex is “enterprise complex,” and what the mindset of a real enterprise deal is, we need to look at the differences between SMB, Mid-Market, and Enterprise deals.
Because the things that differentiate them are critical to your success in this market.
SMB vs. Enterprise vs. Mid-Market
Each of these deal types has a varying level of complexity and a different mindset associated with executing it.
The SMB Deal
The SMB deal boils down to “you build it, they buy it.”
Or in other words, you develop a product that solves a problem for the greater market and then work to get it into the hands of everyone who is best suited to use it.
This deal structure is very transactional with short sales cycles (think 1-3 call close ratios). It’s typically very cut and dry and the sales process for these deals is usually all about volume and optimization.
Usually, you’re working with a single decision-maker who either sees the value in the product or doesn’t.
And typically, the businesses you’re working with are small (or medium – hence “SMB”).
The Enterprise Deal
Where SMB deals are small, transactional, and quick, enterprise deals are the complete opposite.
They are all about building a custom solution for individual customers, not fitting an existing product to as many buyers as possible.
This added level of complexity impacts every part of the deal:
- The level of discovery required goes way up – since the true solution has yet to be determined.
- The amount of sign-off by your buyer at each step of the process increases – as do the number of people signing off typically.
- Your Product Team has to be ready to support the build of this new custom solution – and often more than one at a time.
- The deal size can be huge – big implementations for the biggest buyers can be in the 8-figure range.
And as you can imagine, the time required to close a deal like this gets very long.
This is usually where things go awry for most startups who are just getting into the enterprise market.
They often jump in too quickly without adopting the “one-size-does-NOT-fit-all” mindset. And as a result, they don’t do the work required (or put in the time) to be successful.
The Mid-Market Deal
Mid-Market deals are a very tough, grey area to define.
They are often similar to SMB in that they can be about finding the buyers who are the best fit for your existing product.
But occasionally they’re like Enterprise deals in the sense that you’ll need to tweak your product for your buyer as well.
From my perspective though, the real differentiator for MM is deal size.
They are typically smaller $$ amounts than enterprise but high enough that a transactional approach won’t work.
As a result, you’ll still have things like:
- More stakeholders that need to sign off
- Higher perceived risk
And the sales cycles will also be on the longer side as a result.
Enterprise Sales Benchmarks to Use for Planning
Ultimately, the approach required to be successful is the most important thing when you’re defining what is enterprise and what is not.
So I hope you understand why I haven’t thrown out numbers around sales cycles, deals sizes, etc. yet (as most people do).
The last thing I want you to do is to take a bunch of numbers as gospel and then get it wrong (very costly)!
That said, here is a brief overview of benchmarks you can use to set your expectations correctly if you’re considering taking the plunge into the enterprise market:
Again, these are just here to help you plan. The truth is, you’ll have to define each of these things for your business (and each individual deal for that matter).
So focus less on these numbers and more on the process required to get a successful deal closed.
Here is the exact process I’ve used for enterprise sales that has generated more than 9-figures over the course of my 20-year career.
My Enterprise Sales Process and Strategy
I’m hoping you have a good grasp on the mindset required to play in the enterprise market (as well as the work that it takes to really do it well).
That’s step one and the most important part! Next, I use the process below.
1. Calculate Your Total Addressable Market
This is exceptionally important and deserves an article all by itself. Read this to learn how to calculate your TAM.
To give you a quick high-level overview, there are three primary ways to calculate your TAM:
- By using industry research and reports that are available to you
- By getting out in the market yourself and seeing how it responds
- By making educated guesses about a buyer’s willingness to pay
Each of these has its merits. To be honest, I prefer to use all three together to get the most accurate picture.
2. Start With the Accounts That Are the Best Fit
The power of a pipeline is fierce in enterprise sales. This is a long game scenario, so it’s important to prioritize your time accordingly with the accounts that are the best fit from the beginning and be prepared to put a lot of irons in the fire all at once.
Personally, I prefer to do this by testing the market and refining over time. Pay attention to where you do your best work and go from there. Then it’s just a matter of scaling from there once you have a good sense of what works best.
3. Get Deep Inside Your Prospects’ World
Once I have my prioritized list of key targets to go after, I set up alerts on company and industry news for each.
You want to be looking for things like acquisitions, announcements, changes, new business, and more.
- What’s happening in the marketplace?
- What challenges are they facing?
- What do Hoovers, DiscoverOrg, Owler, Crunchbase, Pitchbook’s annual reports, etc. say about them?
- What does their roadmap look like?
Nudge is one of my personal favorites for automating the process of staying on top of what’s happening with my contacts and their businesses.
4. Map out the Organization and Engage the Decision Makers
First things first… figure out who you think will be involved in the buying process, who your buyer will be, who your influencer will be, etc.
Once you have a good feel for who those people are, it’s time to start engaging them!
For some creative ways to do this, this article contains the tactics and strategies that have served me best.
5. Consult, Don’t Sell!
“Good salespeople sell lots of product, but great salespeople make lots of customers successful.” – Mark Birch
Enterprise buyers have competing priorities and are getting approached ALL the time.
So once contact is made, you need to find new and different ways to add value to what they’re trying to achieve and stand out from the crowd in the process.
This is where your mindset and approach is SO important. This is about co-creating the best solution together – not selling.
Great questions and thorough discovery are key at this stage so make them count. Then listen, adjust, pivot, and respond in earnest to hit the nail on the head!
Look for the space in between that nobody else would pick up on and use that fill the gaps they have.
The better you do this, the more eager they will be willing to engage!
6. Land and Expand
Many enterprise sales functions will start with smaller, more approachable deals (like a pilot or a proof of concept trial) to reduce upfront risk and barriers to entry.
But while this is effective for getting your foot in the door, it often means that there is a ton of opportunity left out there with each buyer.
In fact, sometimes going from pilot to full-size deal can take 5 years!
That’s why the best enterprise sellers know the hard work isn’t over once a contract is signed. There is often so much more opportunity for further growth that is left untapped through even further expansion of the solution you can provide!
Stay on top of changes in their marketplace and in their trajectory. Be that trusted confidant they can come to when they have questions or the proverbial @#!$ hits the fan.
A quick note for businesses with a Customer Success team…
It’s pretty common to turn the buyer over to your CS team once the deal is done these days.
That’s totally fine! But whether it’s the CS team or the rep, make sure you’re keeping your buyer engaged at all times just like you do in the sales process.
You don’t want it to feel like the only time you reach out to them is for a renewal or upsell discussion. So if there is a CS team, have them join forces with your reps to execute a strategy that delivers meaningful outcomes versus ‘touch points’ (which is often what happens post-sale).
Stay in front of them, stay valuable, and focus on helping them make the most out of their investment at all times.
How to Prepare Your Business for the Enterprise Market
First and foremost, it’s that you as the leader of your business are ready to support your team in execution.
Again, this is why mindset is so important here!
That said, here are the other things you need to make sure are in place before you take the leap into the enterprise market.
Ensure you have enough runway to support an enterprise team
As I mentioned above, it’s unlikely you’ll be seeing a major stream of revenue from your first efforts in this market for the first 12-18+ months. I’ve seen many businesses build an enterprise team only to realize too late that they didn’t have the $$ to support them. This creates a bad market reputation and has led to many companies being shut out of this market!
Hire leaders and salespeople with a true enterprise mindset
Your team has to be aligned with everything here in this article if you want to succeed in this market. More on this in the next section!
Be ready to iterate on your product
Again, enterprise sales is about “custom solution for a single buyer.” Make sure your product team is ready to support custom builds for multiple potential buyers at once. And be prepared to constantly be looking in the rearview mirror to learn and grow.
Prepare to support post-sale
Enterprise clients take a lot of resources to support once the deal is done and the solution is implemented. It’s 10x harder to get a new client than to keep an old one, so make sure your Customer Success team is poised to deliver!
The Critical Qualities to Look for When You’re Ready to Hire
If you’ve made it this far and you’re ready to hire… Congrats! That’s a huge step.
However, the complexity of defining what enterprise sales is and isn’t can still rear its ugly head at this stage.
How do you know which sales leader or sales rep is right for your business?
While it’s nice to have industry experience, connections, etc. to help you get started quickly there are qualities beyond those that you should prioritize.
Special Considerations for Any Enterprise Sales Leaders You Hire
Any sales leader you hire should embody the qualities above as well. But in addition to those, I also think it’s essential that they’ve done the job themselves too. It’s the only way they’re going to know how to break apart deals and help your team think through how to win them on a strategic level.
Without this experience, they could actually do damage because the chances of them thinking transactionally rather than relationally go up.
Ambition co-founder Brian Trautschold shares the ideas he’s used with his own sales team.
Enterprise sales requires an entirely different level of experience and skillset to be successful. As a startup, you can’t afford to dive into the deep end without knowing how to swim.