Main illustration: Ryan Garcia
In the early stages of most SaaS startups’ lives, the CEO or founder often acts as the initial head of sales.
This makes sense given the likely resource constraints and the value to be gained from getting in front of customers from day one. As Jason Lemkin puts it, “The CEO/founder should close at least the first 10 (or 20 or whatever) customers. That way, she knows. She knows the process, what works, what doesn’t. It’s okay if you are ‘terrible’ at it. What matters is that somehow, someway, you still get those 10 paying customers closed.”
Despite that value, however, there’s a drawback – a lack of formal sales training and sales process can seriously undermine those initial efforts. Without this awareness, there are too many blindspots, which will ultimately hinder growth. In this post, I outline how SaaS founders should modify their approach and implement a simple sales methodology to increase their odds of success. The sooner you adopt these steps, the faster you’ll see growth.
1. Define your marketing personas
It is important to start with some clarity as to who you are targeting. To do this it is necessary to create marketing personas that represent your ideal prospect or match your ideal customer profile.
When thinking about personas it is useful to think about elements like:
- Job title
- Industry sector
- Demographics (gender/age range)
- Seniority (are they likely to have decision making authority and budgetary sign-off?)
- Other characteristics of relevance to a purchase decision e.g. post funding, VC backed etc.
Once you have clarity as to some basic personas you can then search your network for representatives of the different persona cohorts you are looking to engage with. This will help ensure that any face to face meetings are focused on those most likely to have a need that the solution addresses.
“Search your network for representatives of the different persona cohorts you are looking to engage with”
Right at the start, many introductions are warm ones, as entrepreneurs rightly leverage their immediate contacts as a means to get in front of people. It is important that these friendly connections represent the target persona market you have outlined, as otherwise, the feedback loop is likely to be weak. If they don’t match the persona market, these contacts are not likely to offer constructive criticism given they may not even relate to the pain you are seeking to address. Worse still, they may be keen not to hurt your feelings so the feedback you get could contain inherent biases.
2. Meet your target users and get feedback
At the very start, you are essentially seeking to validate assumptions you’ve made about the market appetite for your solution. If your product truly meets the needs of the persona group, you are already on the right path, but validating assumptions should not be the key purpose of your initial meetings.
A simple way to access these is to do a LinkedIn search on the job title of the persona, say for example “marketing manager”, where connections = 1st, location = the city you reside in.
If looking to senior HR decision makers you may want to target head of HR contacts in Dublin (if based there). The purpose of these meetings is to gain a deep understanding of the problem you believe you can solve for them. Listen to how they describe how they currently undertake the tasks that your solution is designed to help. What words do they use? Do they indicate any issues with their current approach? The “Jobs to be Done” framework is a useful resource to help frame the context from their side of the fence.
3. Iterate the product based on feedback
It is important to use these initial interactions as a means to gain insights that can be fed back to product development to improve your solution and to ensure that your product helps deal with a pain that your target market has.
While some of these initial conversations may translate into genuine sales prospects, you will be better served in the long run if these are viewed more as product collaborators. Offering free access to some of these early contacts in return for social proof (case studies/ testimonials/ logos) is a useful way to get people using the product so future development decisions can be based on observed data rather than hypotheses.
“You will be better served in the long run if these are viewed more as product collaborators”
It can also help shape marketing messaging. How do they describe the category? What features are most appealing? What do they perceive as the primary benefits?
Again the goal here is to treat this stage of the process as primary market research. Nonetheless, you can also use it to gauge appetite for your offering. Is their interest piqued when you describe your solution? Are they keen to test it out?
4. Identify a market specific methodology
Now that you have some early feedback, and some initial users it is time to switch into sales mode. Historically sales training has been a pretty low priority for most entrepreneurs. One rarely encounters entrepreneurs with sales qualifications or sees sales training listed on university curricula.
Nonetheless, some basic training can ensure that you are equipped to engage with prospects in confidence. At the very least, it is worth reading up on SPIN selling and the Sandler sales system, as these are popular sales methodologies among software companies and will help you think about how you structure your approach.
Your approach will need to be modified depending on the complexity of the sale, the cost of your product and the market appetite for your solution. Is it addressing a real pressing pain that substitute offerings fail to resolve or is it a “nice to have” solution with a modest improvement on existing solutions? Remember inertia and not competition is often the biggest threat. Unless your offering generates significant value in the guise of revenue uplift or cost savings (two common drivers) you may struggle. Awareness of sales methodologies does ensure your approach is both scientific and rigorous.
5. Put a well-defined sales process in place
The cost of CRM systems have fallen sharply and there is now a host of entry-level systems you can use to manage your pipeline. Choose one, ensuring it can easily connect to any data sources you have (be that lead generation forms, or existing data sets) and also ensure that it can integrate with any outbound marketing tools you may have like MailChimp.
Once in place, you need to embark on a lead generation initiative to fill the pipeline. It is also important to define a basic sales process, i.e. what the various stages in your pipeline are, and how to move a prospect along the pipeline.
“You need to embark on a lead generation initiative to fill the pipeline”
Again, decisions here will vary considerably depending on the complexity of the sale, the cost of your product and the market you are targeting. These factors will also impact the primary call to action on your website. Do you lead with “Get Started,” “Request Demo” or “Sign Up”?
At one end of the spectrum, you’ll have a zero touch “buy now” self-service option for SaaS solutions in the sub $100-a-year range. At the other end, you’ll have six-figure solutions that will rely on a longer sales cycle that could include everything from a discovery call to a number of in-person meetings. Having clarity around the process is a key element to ensure sales and marketing are aligned and that you are applying rigor to every stage, measuring progress through the funnel and taking action on areas with the greatest dropoff rates.
6. Create compelling content to help generate leads
For many B2B SaaS companies, inbound marketing represents a cornerstone of all marketing activity. Inbound marketing is when you create compelling content that educates and informs your target personas. As your audience engages with the content, it builds both familiarity and trust, ensuring that your solution is “front of mind” when a pain arises that your product addresses.
A common approach is to gate the most valuable content behind a form where prospects provide information about themselves in return for access to the content. You can then drip feed valuable content over a period, ideally coinciding with their progression through the funnel, from research phase to purchase consideration.
An often overlooked area is the importance of amplifying the content by promoting it on a regular basis through a mix of channels from email to social media to sponsored content – indeed, promoting the content needs more emphasis than actually creating it.
It’s worth thinking about a mix of content, including:
- Case studies – serve as a useful source of social proof that others have benefited from the product.
- White papers – these serve as a useful way to demonstrate expertise by writing about the problems your target personas have and offering insights to help them improve their situation.
- Blog posts – these can generate leads as more accessible forms of content that help from a Search Engine Optimization perspective as well as serving to educate your audience.
- Guest posts – traffic on startup sites will be low at first, so it is better to create content on sites your target persona is likely to read so you are generating awareness as well as obtaining a valuable backlink.
7. Qualify your prospects
Once you have generated some leads (primarily in the guise of email addresses), you need to qualify them. The amount of data captured can vary from a simple email address to a detailed assessment of their needs (for example, Intercom’s Custom Bot can do this automatically).
Custom Bots can automatically qualify a website visitor
At the most basic level, you may get a marketing qualified lead (MQL) – someone from your target persona group who has downloaded a content asset. Of course, many of these will be in research mode, with any purchase decision some way off into the future. Marketing automation software can be used to send drip emails to them over a period of a few weeks/ months with the goal of frequently offering value and ensuring you stay front of mind by appearing in their inbox on a regular basis.
A more advanced marketing qualified lead may result from a response where the visitor has supplied additional information which signals purchase intent e.g. perhaps they have requested pricing information or they are looking to arrange a demo. At this point, the lead can be qualified further via a phone call.
In recent years there has been an increase in the use of chatbots (such as Intercom’s) as an alternative to forms. They are growing in popularity due in part to the increased functionality of these bots e.g. an ability to offer playbooks or to book a meeting on the spot as well as due to an increase in usage from visitors keen to short circuit the sales cycle.
8. Managing the first sales meeting
Once the prospect has been qualified and a meeting has been arranged it is important to set the meeting agenda. For some solutions, remote selling will suffice; for others, face-to-face will be important.
Instead of defaulting to presentation mode where you run through a PowerPoint, it is better to take them through a high-level overview of the product, or best of all to focus on a conversation where you seek to understand their needs a little better. This will help you gain an understanding as to how they buy solutions like yours.
“Seek first to understand and then to be understood”
Often you may just get a 30-minute slot – the last thing you want to do is spend the whole time with you in broadcast mode, ending the meeting after a rushed presentation with no clue as to their intent or the urgency of their requirements. In the words of Stephen Covey, “seek first to understand and then to be understood”.
The following are the sorts of questions you should have the answers to by the end of your conversation.
- What is the job that they do (related to your solution) and what business pains do they have?
- How significant is the pain?
- Is the pain pressing? What if they do nothing?
- How do they buy solutions like yours, i.e. do they need to go via procurement or can they buy direct? If they buy direct do they have to have a shortlist of vendors to choose from?
- Has the person you are talking to got decision-making and/or purchase authority?
- Have they budget?
- What other stakeholders are likely to be involved in the decision?
- What does the internal decision-making process look like?
- What are their timelines? Do they have a compelling reason to act now? Is this something that needs to be resolved urgently?
- What alternatives exist in terms of solving their need? (Inertia, or doing nothing, is usually the main competitor faced by enterprise sales-people.)
- Where do they look for solutions like yours (this can help inform your marketing team as to where they should be concentrating their marketing budgets.)
Without a checklist like this, it is all too easy to default to presentation mode when instead you need to view the interaction as an information exchange where you are looking to surface their needs. What you are really trying to do is to help them navigate their internal processes, and thus encouraging them to buy your solution once they are satisfied it meets their requirements.
9. Close the deal
Once you have surfaced these answers (to the best of your ability), you are then in a better position to sell on features against these needs. Assuming your solution addresses their needs, it is now time to showcase the power of your product before asking for the business. Only now is it time to demo!
Unique sales approach
In summary, selling B2B software can be challenging, particularly in the early days, when it can be difficult to generate leads as resources are tight, and sales experience is thin on the ground.
By following a derivative of the simple sales methodology outlined above, early stage SaaS businesses can ensure that their efforts are rewarded. It is important to recognize, though, that you need to ensure your own unique circumstances are reflected in any sales approach – SaaS is exceedingly complex and replicating other approaches without modification will never work.