Because I’ve built sales departments at multiple SaaS companies, I often get asked by other founders how they’ll know when it’s time to start a sales team.
Here’s the bottom line, founders shouldn’t be doing sales.
So if you’re a founder reading this, and you don’t have a sales team in place, know that there isn’t some magical signal you should be waiting for, or some metric that’ll tell you it’s time. The time to build a SaaS sales team is as soon as you can feasibly do so.
The Problem with New SaaS Sales Teams
Now, just because you have the all-clear to build a sales team doesn’t mean that doing so is going to be easy. If you haven’t hired a sales function before, you’ll need to start with a thorough understanding of the performance of your existing marketing channels. Here’s why…
Imagine you’ve got a decent marketing funnel set up that’s sending you inbound leads through SEO and content marketing. If you add a salesperson who focuses on cold calling prospects, there’s a good chance their efforts are going to connect with some of the same people who would’ve found your company through your inbound funnel. In effect, adding sales has actually decreased the effectiveness of your SEO and content campaigns by duplicating work unnecessarily.
When you build out a sales team, you want to increase MRR and get the most out of what you’ve already built, but you don’t want to mess up the existing funnel that you’ve already mastered by inserting salespeople into the wrong places. Even if your current funnel isn’t perfect, it’s still likely getting you some results – and you don’t want to jeopardize them.
How to Add Sales Without Cannibalizing Your Existing Marketing Funnel
So where can you add a place where your sales team can get leads without damaging the flow? Here are a few ideas to test:
Chatbots are one of my favorite places to add sales without interfering with my existing marketing initiatives because they make it easy for people to start a conversation. It also trains your salespeople to know the ins and outs of your products, which kills two birds with one stone.
You may already have demo buttons on your website – if not, try placing them in a few key places, such as your home page or pricing page.
Demo buttons won’t result in the most qualified leads, but they’ll definitely generate volume. Remember, new salespeople need to get their reps in. Their first few months won’t be perfect – and they don’t need to be. Think of this time as an opportunity for your new salesperson to learn about the product and to adjust to their new role. Once they’re feeling more confident, they can shift their focus to continually improving their demos and their conversion rates.
Calendar Booking Links
Another place where you can integrate salespeople is with a calendar booking link on key pages in your marketing funnel, as an extra step in your sign-up process, or even just as a button on the top-left or top-right of your site. You can set this up really easily with a tool like Calendly or Pick, and they’re great for catching the people I call “hand raisers.”
“Hand raisers” are people who are looking for some extra help as they’re going through your sign-up process. In that way, you aren’t really pulling people out of your established marketing funnel flow. You’re catching the people who wouldn’t have completed the sign-up process by giving them another avenue for engaging directly with your salespeople.
A final place to put either a calendar booking link or a direct appeal to connect with a salesperson is in the onboarding emails for your free trial. Again, this is all about reaching out proactively.
I’ll give you an example. At Mailshake, we always received around 1,000 new users each month, just from people engaging with our marketing and signing up on their own. When we added sales, we got a couple hundred additional leads through live chat, demo buttons, and booking links – that’s a 25% increase, and it didn’t touch the leads that were coming in organically on their own.
How to Optimize Your Sign Up Flow and Onboarding Funnel
The next step is to take a really good look at your sign-up flow and your onboarding funnel – though, to be fair, this really only applies to companies that offer a self-service free trial. If you’re selling to enterprise clients, you’re probably handling a lot of the set up work manually for your leads.
But if you do have an automated process, you’ve got a couple of opportunities here. First, you can reduce friction by asking for less information upfront, but making sure you’re getting the most important information that’ll allow you to follow up later. If you get a prospect’s phone number, for example, your sales team can reach out to them. These people aren’t really “hand raisers,” but following up with them is just savvy sales.
Think about how it feels if you’ve ever tried to apply for a mortgage or refinance a home loan. Those guys have some of the most aggressive sales sequences I’ve ever seen – I’ve had as many as 50 follow-up calls over a two-year period. But if they keep doing it, there has to be a reason it works.
That’s not to say that you want to annoy your prospects by calling them dozens of times, but the reality is that calling leads is a great way to close more sales. I’ve seen it result in a 10-15% bump in conversion rates, since it lets you catch all the people who needed a little bit of help, but who didn’t raise their hands through the channels you provided.
You do have to keep an eye on whether asking for a phone number upfront lowers your free trial sign-up rate. If that happens, you can always go back to asking for just a name and an email, and then ask for more details in another step. Then, your trial volume goes back up and gives you another opportunity to capture data points like phone number or company.
Adding Sales When You Have Too Many Leads
Sounds like a good problem to have, right? But don’t let it be an excuse.
SaaS teams should be calling every single person who signs up for a free trial. If you don’t have the internal capacity or you haven’t hired a salesperson yet, there are call centers and contractors to help with this. These don’t have to be people who can give demos. They’re more like sales development reps (SDRs) who can get prospects on the phone and make sure there’s nothing they’re stuck on (or connect them to someone with more expertise if needed).
You also don’t have to use the same process for all of your prospects. Use a tool like Amplitude or some other source of usage data to trigger a sales call from someone internal whenever prospects perform certain actions – all other routine sales calls can be handled by your internal or external SDRs.
For example, at Voila Norbert, we know that anybody who does five email lookup searches has about a 50% chance of converting into a paid customer. Using a service that alerts us whenever someone crosses that threshold means that we can use the right person to call at a time we know is likely to be high-impact.
So, knowing that, I have two goals at Norbert: to use the marketing funnel to get people to sign up and to use our onboarding flow to get people to do five searches. And then, anyone who’s done three searches – who’s halfway to their five searches – I consider those leads to try to close.
Now, let’s say – as a sample number for the purposes of this example – that Norbert received over 20,000 new sign-ups a month. We wouldn’t have the budget to go call 20,000 people – and even if we did, some of those would be duplicates, some wouldn’t be qualified, and so on. But even if we had 15,000 legit leads, that’s still a huge number. It’d take me probably six sales reps to call 15,000 new users, since I’d want to call them all quickly (only 7% of companies respond to leads within five minutes) – and during business hours in their time zone, which could be anywhere in the world.
But if I can use activity data to surface only those prospects who have completed three searches, that takes the number of people I need to call down to maybe 1,500 (again, these are just sample numbers). That’s about 75 per day, which is totally reasonable for one person. I’d still want to call the others, but I could do so with an outsourced solution while reserving my internal sales reps for leads I know are more likely to convert.
Hubspot does this really well, because they know what the activity triggers are in their funnels. Better.com is another great example. Even if you don’t need a mortgage right now, fill out their initial lead capture forms just to get a feel for the kinds of messages they send.
Go After Abandoned Sign-Ups
Another huge sales opportunity at SaaS companies is the abandoned sign-up form. Ecommerce does this really well with abandoned shopping carts, but it’s not something I see SaaS companies doing consistently.
Basically, you’re targeting people who begin the sign-up process, but don’t complete it. These are prime people to call – they may not be the best quality leads, but reaching out to them will definitely increase sales (and maybe even provide valuable insight into information that’s missing or confusing in your marketing funnel).
The key here is that, if you want to be able to reach out to these people, you’ve got to capture their contact information early on in a multistep sign-up funnel. You can see this process in action if you go over to Mailshake’s website – whatever sign-up flow version you see there is the one that’s performing best for us at any given time.
Because Mailshake doesn’t offer a free trial, we get a lot of people who begin the sign-up process, but then abandon it when they hit the paywall. But since we’ve already captured their contact information, we can enrich it through Norbert to figure out who they are and whether it makes sense to follow up with them. We’ll get around 10-15 abandoned sign-ups each day, and by reaching out when that happens, we can usually get a couple more sales.
Criteria for Your First Salesperson
All of the examples above should have you pretty excited for what your SaaS company could achieve with a sales team. But how do you do it? How do you choose your first hire?
First of all, although most founders think they need to start with a sales VP, you need someone who’s going to be your hands – not your brains. That doesn’t mean you should hire someone dumb or unqualified. You need someone who’s hungry, who can accept input and be trainable, and who ideally has past SaaS experience.
HubSpot and Wistia are two great places I’ve found to hire from – they have great training programs for their salespeople. Generally, you’re looking for someone who’s on their second or third job out of school and who’s got 1-3 years of experience, max. They need to understand software, and they need to be capable of doing a demo.
The reason that’s critical is that your first sales hire should fill a role that’s a hybrid between being an account executive and a sales development rep. The way I like to structure the role is to have them spend the first half of their days focused on calling and emailing, and the second half giving demos.
Once that person has 5-7 demos scheduled per day, on average, it’s time to bring on another person. You might decide to split the role and have your existing hire become either a full-time account executive or a full-time SDR. You might bring on another person with a split schedule, or you might need to hire a salesperson in another country if you’re seeing demand for demos in a specific area.
At some point, as your team grows, you’ll need to hire a sales manager – maybe even a sales director. Keep an eye on your salespeoples’ schedules to figure out when that should be. Generally speaking, if a salesperson has 4-5 demos a day on their calendar, it means that – if you had more availability – you’d get more demos and you’d have more productivity by growing the team.
Coaching and Leveling Up Your Team
Finally, commit to ongoing training to level up your new team. Even the best salespeople need constant coaching and investment – it’s not a sign of weakness to benefit from support or teaching. I use JBarrows for sales training, and highly recommend his programs for SaaS salespeople.
Next, establish a regular sales meeting routine – even if it’s only you and one or two other people. Hold a sales meeting every week, and use that time occasionally for sales objection training, where you brainstorm together how to handle difficult conversations. Discuss opportunities for improvement across the team, and leave with ideas of things to do better. Eventually, you’ll want to connect sales and marketing so that the two teams can work together to produce stronger results.
I also highly recommend attending at least one conference every year. Sales Hacker has a great list of these – they’re great not just for improving your team’s skills, but for bonding as a group as well.
Over time, the goal of all of these activities is to build a sharp, quick-learning sales team. It isn’t going to happen overnight – and you’ll probably make some mistakes along the way. Growing a sales team isn’t easy, but it’s a necessary part of freeing up your time to focus on the areas where you can provide the greatest value as a founder.
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