Building a blueprint for your sales organization to follow is one of the toughest challenges in scaling a SaaS business.
This is especially true when, as is often the case with disruptive tech, you’re selling into a market who has no awareness of the problem you solve (and definitely no budget for your solution).
To complicate matters further, even once a sales process starts to take shape and you begin to see results, how do you make sure that process is ready to scale?
Building a scalable SaaS sales process is difficult, but it is doable. One look at companies like Salesforce, Pipedrive, or HubSpot drives home the fact that when these processes work, they work really, really well.
In the early days of a startup, achieving the holy grail of product-market fit isn’t enough; to really grow as a company, you need to lock down a predictable, repeatable process that gives your sales reps the best chance at success.
No matter how complex the product, or the state of the market into which you are entering, there are some fundamental principles that must be addressed.
Understanding your prospects, solidifying a lead qualification procedure, and deciding whether to segment your sales team all need to be carefully considered, and making the right call can be the difference between building a sales process that works at scale and one that plateaus early.
This is a big topic, one that goes well beyond the scope of this article. Join me for a peek behind the curtain at Proposify’s sales process, and the big steps on our journey on the way to $10M+ ARR.
Let’s start by clearing up what a sales process actually is.
What is a sales process?
A sales process is a repeatable set of actions a salesperson follows as they move a prospective buyer from lead to customer. It is a blueprint of the most effective procedure in securing new business.
For established sales reps within a company, a good sales process—like the recipe for grandma’s spaghetti bolognese—is a tried and true methodology which becomes second nature in no time. Likewise, for new hires joining a sales team, the sales process acts as the modus operandi, and, if it’s solid, is the surest path to success in a new role.
On the buyer’s end, the sales process is reflective of the journey they undertake as they engage with your company. The sales process follows the buyer’s path from total ignorance of your company; to becoming aware of your solution and why it’s the best alleviation of their problem; to closed customer and happy user of your product or service.
Sales processes sometimes gets confused with sales cycles, but they’re not the same thing. While the former is a framework for what to do in sales, the latter is the time it takes to get a lead from interested to close and what you did to get them there.
Shortening the sales cycle is always in the back of every good salesperson’s minds. A shorter sales cycle is often achieved through the ongoing optimization of the sales process; for instance, by introducing new sales tools or updating sales content.
Building a sales process is an iterative exercise of trial and error. Building one in the early days of a company is extremely difficult, and even established sales cycles require constant refining. Each sales process differs between company; the intricacies of the process depend on the idiosyncracies of the business and the product or service on offer.
But, complex as they are, there are some features of a sales process that remain constant across industries. If you nail down these fundamentals, you’re well on your way to establishing a process that optimizes success and consistency among your sales team.
Understanding your prospects
Selling without a buyer in mind is just shouting into an abyss hoping someone out there is picking up what you’re putting down. Before you can expect any repeatable success in your sales model, you need to know exactly who you’re trying to reach.
Understanding your ideal buyer and generating detailed persona profiles is the first and arguably the most important step in creating a scalable sales process.
This is the backbone of your process, if you don’t understand your prospective customers, the rest of the sales funnel will be irrelevant.
Pro tip: when figuring out who to market or sell to, the answer is never ‘everyone’.
Great marketers and salespeople are extremely empathetic: they can put themselves in their prospects shoes, understand their frustrations, and target the solution in a way that will motivate them to buy.
But this empathy does not happen in a vacuum—like anything absolute, it is informed by a detailed, quantified breakdown of their ideal buyer.
The complexity and depth of modern buyer persona profiles approach that of Freudian psychoanalysis. Entire companies are dedicated to compiling lead intelligence reports that enable you to generate frighteningly personalized communications directed at your ideal buyer.
There are countless resources out there that help you better understand your prospects (at Proposify, we use Price Intelligently). No matter what you use to learn more about your audience, make use of them, because it’s a crucial component of building a scalable SaaS sales process.
Nailing down a lead qualification procedure
Generating a pipeline full of relevant leads is a good start, but it’s still just that—a start. Next up in the scalable sales process playbook is a repeatable methodology for qualifying leads.
There are A LOT of lead qualification frameworks out there. Whether you use CHAMP or BANT to convert your MQLs to SQLs, the idea is pretty simple: you need to separate the window shoppers from the ready-to-buys.
If your top-of-funnel tactics are solid, many of the leads that come down to the qualification phase of the process should already be of fairly high quality. As such, lead qualification doesn’t need to be an onerous task.
There are some phenomenal tools out there to inform complex business decisions like lead qualification. But while a well placed form or an automated chatbot can go a long way to helping you make those calls, when it comes to qualifying leads the best method is as old as time—call your lead and talk to them.
If you can’t get your lead on the phone, that’s a huge red flag right there. If they’re not interested in setting aside a quarter-hour to chat to you, it’s going to be hard to determine them anything but disqualified.
When you do get them on the horn, some carefully considered qualification questions are all it takes to decide whether pursuing this lead is worth your time and energy.
If the lead is cold, and no amount of charming persuasion from your rep is changing that fact, they need to be prepared to walk away. Not every lead will turn into a buyer, and your product or service is almost certainly not made for everyone.
What’s more, your lead is sure to appreciate a candid approach. Who knows? Maybe you’ll run into them again down the track.
The pros and cons of specializing sales roles early on
Deciding whether or not to segment your sales team into specialist roles is a topic of contention among sales leaders.
While there are good arguments for both sides, it’s ultimately a decision based the nuances of your industry, the size of your company, and the market in which you operate.
In mid-size and large companies, specializing sales roles is generally the norm, with each rep, or group of reps, owning a certain portion of the sales funnel.
A specialized sales team can take many forms, but it typically consists of business development representatives (BDRs) handling outbound, a separate team handling inbound and lead qualification, account executives (AEs) closing deals, and a sales leader, usually a VP or director of sales, overseeing the team.
Yet there are certain industries where the full-cycle sales rep system—the opposite of a specialized team—works really well. In these situations, one rep handles the entire deal from prospecting to converting and eventually closing.
For SaaS businesses, this single-seller approach (whether it’s one salesperson or a small team of sellers who each handle their prospects full-cycle) can work well early on. Your sales process will almost always start small; make the most of this time by scrutinizing each step of the process and deciding if rep specialization is right for your company.
Sometimes specialization is incremental, and ultimately part of scaling a sales process. In the early days, those first few salespeople can isolate different parts of the sales cycle and try different approaches to see what works and what doesn’t.
For instance, some SaaS companies start with one or two BDRs prospecting and getting leads into the pipeline. There may not be a need for an AE in those early days simply because there aren’t enough deals in the pipeline for them to close.
Once the BDRs are up and running with a repeatable, scalable outbound process, then it’s time to bring in an AE to close the leads the BDRs brought in. As they do so, isolate that segment of the process and figure it out.
Deciding whether to divide your sales team into specialized roles is a critical part of building a sales process that works for your company and keeps the pipeline full. As your annual recurring revenue (ARR) starts to climb, and your sales process matures and grows more complex, this decision will have a direct effect on whether revenue will continue to scale, or stall.
Figure out your revenue quota and commission structure
Revenue quota and sales commissions are two things that need to be set in stone before you can start to scale your sales operation.
In the early days of a startup, when you’re either still vying for or just hit product-market fit, these two figures can be some of the most difficult aspects of a sales process to figure out.
For some sales reps, commission can make up a sizeable chunk of their total income. Naturally, it’s fairly top-of-mind when considering a new role.
In the early days of a startup, you need to play around with leverage. Leverage, in a sales sense, refers to the balance of risk and advantage between the company and the salesperson. This plays out in the ratio between salary and commission.
Established sales process — leverage on the sales rep
In a business with an established sales process with cut-and-dry revenue quotas for each rep to hit, you can afford to put more leverage (risk) on the sales rep.
In this situation, the reps are paid less as a base salary but much higher commissions to the point where their total compensation, or their OTE (on-target earnings), may be based mostly on commission.
It’s up to each sales rep to make sure they’re hitting their targets and securing a good commission. If the sales process is solid, this shouldn’t be a problem for a competent salesperson.
Early-stage or no sales process — leverage on the company
On the other hand, in a business’ first few years, where there’s no defined sales process, the reverse is true. The leverage needs to be placed on the company.
It’s not fair to a new sales rep—perhaps your first sales rep—to assume all of the risk as they strike out into unknown territory to see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to closing deals.
When that first rep comes on board and is charged with selling your product or service for the first time with no resources and no defined procedure, a commission-heavy compensation won’t cut it because sales are almost inevitably going to be slow as the kinks are hammered out.
After all, these first few sales reps are the ones defining the sales process. The company needs to have their backs with a decent base salary as they refine a functional, scalable process.
Which metrics should you be tracking?
"If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it" — Lord Kelvin.
Alright, I’m paraphrasing. But this tired old business aphorism still holds water: what was true for thermodynamics turns out to be true for building a sales process and keeping track of the success of a sales team.
Who woulda thunk it?
Here’s the kicker: choosing the right metrics by which to track the success of the sales organization is the make-or-break factor. Getting it wrong is a sure way to keep your pipeline volume stuck at absolute zero.
It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with data these days; at times it can feel like we are up to our earlobes in information.
Relevant metrics will vary by industry, but there are some staples in the world of SaaS that paint a comprehensive picture of whether your process is working and what needs a leg up.
Here are a few of the main high-level sales metrics we keep an eye on at Proposify:
1. Customer acquisition cost (CAC)
This is how much it costs, on average, to bring in a new customer. We also track the month-to-month change.
2. Average Revenue Per Account (ARPA)
A more SaaS-focused metric, the ARPA, which is typically generated on a monthly or yearly basis, tracks growth at a per-unit level.
3. Lifetime Value (LTV)
A prediction of the value of a customer over the lifetime of their relationship with your business. By comparing LTV with CAC you can determine the approximate time it takes to recoup the costs involved in acquiring a customer and forecast at what point that relationship becomes profitable.
4. Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR)
The amount of revenue coming in from all accounts over the course of the month. Times it by twelve to get your annual recurring revenue (ARR). This one’s pretty self-explanatory: a straight-up valuation of your company.
5. Customer Churn
The number of people cancelling their accounts, or churning out. We look at both overall churn and net MRR churn, which shows revenue churn minus expansion. Sales has little control over this metric, it’s more in the realm of customer success (CS), but they should be interested in the fate of the customers they brought in.
Always be learning: don’t be afraid to refine the process
Notice the five or six things your reps do every time as they close more and more deals: that’s the beginning of a sales process.
Once a process starts to emerge, and the first few reps start having success, keep testing it. Building a sales process is an iterative process, and you always need to ask yourself:
- Is the process repeatable: Are our reps sticking with the program and getting results?
- Is it teachable: How long will it take to get new reps up to speed?
- Is it scalable: Can we plug new salespeople into this process without breaking it?
Plenty of companies run with what they think is a successful sales process, because it’s worked so far, and then they hit a plateau. Every sale (or lost deal) is an opportunity to learn about your sales process.
If you close a deal, ask the prospect why they chose you over the competition. If a deal slips through the cracks, as them what went wrong. Appeal to them on a human level and get some solid intel on what’s working and how to do even better next time.