“Ok, we tested the product out with a few potential customers. There was some interest! Let’s start hiring a whole sales team!”
Welcome to Part Three, focused on scaling sales. This post is part of a series that covers the core product marketing work needed in the four critical phases of an early-stage startup.
As a reminder, the four key phases of an earlier stage startup that I am focusing on in this series include:
- Product Development
- Customer Acquisition
- Scaling Sales
- Kicking in GTM Programs
Let’s go right into the third one.
Typically, for an earlier stage company, after you have your product ready to go and some initial customers who have validated some early hypotheses, it is time to hire your first sales member (or two). That is not to say that sales efforts haven’t been happening. Most likely, they have been by the CEO or other C-level team members but now we need to ramp up the sales team. However, “not so fast” is the best way for me to describe what I am about to say. There are some core pieces around the proper sales training, alignment with product and feedback mechanisms that need to be in place either before or very early as your team grows.
At what stage in your startup do you need to start to hire a sales team?
First, when I say “sales team” this could be one person or ten. That number depends on many factors and is an internal decision and dependent on both budget and goals. Also, important to clarify, that an actual sales team is typically most needed for a B2B company selling to enterprise-level companies. Which brings me to the next point.
What type of startup typically needs a sales team?
The easiest answer is a B2B startup selling into enterprise-level companies. It doesn’t mean every other startup doesn’t need one, but this is the one you see it most in. Despite having other sales strategies and marketing channels, you are typically selling to higher level buyers and C-level executives so it usually calls for a somewhat higher level of professionalism.
Also, selling into enterprise-level companies typically means longer sales cycles due to the need to build a credible and trusted relationship as well as really show your target customer why they should buy from you and not someone else given they are very likely vetting other products/services and usually at high price points.
Sales and product marketing
The arm of product marketing that works closely with a sales team is usually called sales enablement. This is personally one of my favorite parts of product marketing. The main goal of sales enablement is to ensure your sales team has the tools they need to sell more effectively to their target buyers. My main KPI for success in sales enablement is hearing two things from sales:
- I have what I need
- I feel confident in who I need to speak to and what I need to say to them
My key tip in this phase: Grow slowly, validate tools and processes, then expand the team.
There are three critical pieces of product marketing work that needs to happen in this phase.
- Train the team on your positioning and messaging
- Create your most critical sales enablement tools
- Ensure feedback loops are in place
Train the team on your positioning and messaging
What is the point of your sales team speaking to potential customers if they don’t know who to speak to, what their pain points are and how to ultimately position the product to their needs? There is no point. As we have talked about in previous phases, it is so critical to nail down who your target buyers are, their pain points and how your product solves their pain points.
That is only half the battle though. The next critical piece is to share this with your sales team to ensure both awareness and buy-in. Without buy-in, there is no adoption. Set aside some time with the team to walk them through your positioning document. Answer their questions and ensure there is clarity and a process around how they will incorporate this information into their own sales processes and systems.
Create your most critical sales enablement tools
“Critical” is the key word here. As mentioned above, sales enablement means ensuring your sales team has the tools they need to sell more effectively. These tools can come in many different forms such as decks, one pagers, competitive battle cards, pricing documentation and more.
Discuss with both your sales team and marketing team what the most critical items are that are needed so there can be some prioritizing. I am including marketing in here because sales and marketing work very closely together in both messaging as well as the channels that the messaging is used. Both have the ultimate goal of reaching prospective customers.
Once you have outlined some of the key materials, prioritize them and plan for how they will get created. I do recommend someone in-house on the team driving this project forward but the design and/or writing can definitely be outsourced. The most important piece is that everything you create continues to always align with your positioning and messaging you have already set in place.
Ensure feedback loops are in place
The third piece to keep in mind during this phase is to establish some feedback mechanisms. Now of course, when you have a small team and especially if everyone is in the same office, it is much easier to communicate and share information with each other. Very quickly, however, your team will be too big for this and the more you can put these systems into place earlier, the better.
A couple of ideas around how to create feedback loops:
- Slack: Likely, your company is already using Slack. Create a channel specifically for “sales feedback.” You can even call it that. Include a couple of members of product, sales and of course product marketing in this channel. It is also important to set the mission around this channel and what the expectations are, i.e. product won’t be able to immediately change something simply because one customer told sales it doesn’t work for them. However, it is a great way to track patterns, requests and also answer questions fast.
- Monthly sales feedback meeting: Set a monthly recurring meeting on the calendar specifically for hearing from your sales team. The topics can range from how the sales tools are working, is the target persona continuing to be validated, what are some recurring product feedback they are hearing and more. As obvious as it may sound, the key to success here is being consistent with these meetings. The meeting itself isn’t the hard part but actually holding them and holding your team accountable to attending is the harder part. Get it on their calendar and include attending them as part of the team’s own measurements of success.
These three areas of focus are key during your scaling sales phase. Next, we will cover phase four focused on kicking in your GTM programs and which product marketing initiatives are most relevant in this phase.