Main illustration: Julia Barnes
Your sales team is integral to your business’s success: not only do your salespeople bring in the big deals, but they also represent your company and culture to every new and potential prospect.
So why is sales team culture still an afterthought for so many organizations? Whether they’re stuck in outdated ideas about what sales teams look like and how they work, or they simply aren’t investing in their reps’ growth the way they should be, many companies have yet to unlock the full potential of their sales teams.
We spoke to some of Intercom’s sales leaders across three continents to learn more about what a great sales team culture actually looks like – and how you can put their lessons into practice.
1. Be collaborative, not cutthroat
Sales is a challenging, fast-paced, and competitive industry – but that doesn’t mean that it has to be aggressive, cutthroat, and siloed. Here’s how you can focus on collaboration without stifling ambition.
Foster a team mindset
While a good salesperson generally thrives on a bit of friendly competition, all of the sales leaders we spoke to were clear that, ultimately, there needs to be a collaborative and supportive team atmosphere in order for people to do their best work.
“One thing I like about the team here is that they’re very collaborative,” says Sam Hoare, a Senior Manager on the Sales team in Sydney. “You might have a peer who’s potentially your competition, but they’re very happy to share knowledge, sit down and speak about their experiences, or help onboard new joiners and give them a lot of their time.”
Create a shared purpose
While individual quotas and targets are important, they’re not the only goal to focus on. “It’s important to recognize the small wins and achievements that we have along the way, because sometimes in sales it can always be about the quota,” Sam says. “It’s nice to celebrate hitting quota, but it’s nice to celebrate people’s progress and becoming better professionals each and every day, too.”
“People all across the company are so proud of our sales team. I’ve never worked anywhere with that much cohesive support”
Similarly, team targets help to create a sense of shared purpose, as does focusing on the bigger picture business goals you’re helping to achieve, such as building out new regions or forming new teams.
Build relationships with other orgs
This sense of collaboration and teamwork is something that’s built in to the whole company, not just the sales teams. “As a company, Intercom is so supportive of its sales team,” says Lauren Kiefer, RM Manager in San Francisco. “I’ve worked at a lot of places where they knew that sales kept the lights on, but they didn’t really support their sales team. They weren’t excited about the deals we closed or the customers who were singing our praises. Here, when we talk about a big deal we’ve closed, Slack is blowing up with people all across the company that are so proud of our sales team. I’ve never worked anywhere with that much cohesive support.”
This level of cross-functional cohesion isn’t just a nice-to-have for the people on your sales teams; it’s also a strategic differentiator for your business as a whole. Your salespeople are on the frontlines, discussing customer pain points and handling objections, and when they work closely with the other teams in your business, from product development to marketing, they can provide unique product insights and ensure that customer conversations and feedback are being leveraged in the most impactful way.
“It becomes this virtuous cycle over time,” says Catherine Brodigan, Associate Manager of Business Development Partnerships, based in Dublin. “Our customers are getting more value out of Intercom, and our product team is getting more value out of those customer conversations, so they know exactly what to prioritize and what to build next.”
2. Focus on the customer
A good salesperson can sell anything to anyone. An even better salesperson can, but won’t.
Creating a customer-first sales culture helps to ensure your salespeople are making more impactful, longer-lasting deals, while also staying challenged and getting a greater insight into how their work contributes to the bigger picture. Here’s how you can encourage a customer-centric approach to sales.
Solve pain points and problems
It’s no surprise that Intercom’s sales team’s values align closely with Intercom’s overall mission: to make internet business personal. That means that it’s not about selling for the sake of selling and hitting numbers; it’s about truly connecting with prospects to solve their problems and help their businesses, and their end users, to thrive.
“Being a sales-led company doesn’t mean that our sales team will go out and sell our support solution to businesses who are looking for something else,” says Catherine. “You need to care very, very deeply about your customer’s success, but then be able to connect the dots back to Intercom to do that.”
“I think one of our biggest competitive advantages is the way that we consult with our customers, the friendly approach that we have, trying to understand the business impact that their customers are going to see by using Intercom”
For Sam, this is a major differentiator. “I think one of our biggest competitive advantages is the way that we consult with our customers, the friendly approach that we have, trying to understand the business impact that their customers are going to see by using Intercom,” he says.
Understand your impact
From a cultural perspective, this creates a more nuanced, varied, and ultimately fulfilling sales cycle for your sales team, who aren’t stuck churning out the same spiel day after day. Instead, this customer-first culture means that salespeople are encouraged to maintain what Catherine calls a “continuous curiosity,” always learning more about the product, its roadmap, and how this might impact customers.
What’s more, it helps salespeople to see first-hand the positive and tangible impact that they can have on other businesses around the world, leading to a greater sense of purpose in the role. “I’ve always felt that the work we do here actually does meaningfully change businesses’ trajectories,” says Catherine, “and it’s especially meaningful when you get the end customer feedback, when we hear back from our customers’ customers that they’ve had a fantastic experience through Intercom.”
Think long-term solutions, not short-term quotas
To do this effectively, you need to make sure you’re fostering the right mindset and sourcing the right type of people. “I think you really have to look at people who are kind, who are going to represent Intercom the best way to our customers,” says Lauren. “You need people who are genuine and have a really authentic voice, who aren’t just trying to sell the proverbial used car that they know is going to break down the second you drive off the lot. Instead, they are really analyzing customers’ pain and looking for where Intercom can fit to help really ease their burden and drive up sales, or make their support funnel flow much more efficiently. They’re looking at the customer first and aren’t constantly thinking about their quota and their attainment and pushing for the sake of pushing.”
Once again, the wider business impact of this goes beyond just happier sales teams (though that’s a business goal worth striving for in itself). “Sales-led motions are way stickier,” Lauren explains. “The retention’s much greater if it’s led by sales and there’s a relationship there. The deals are typically bigger and more complex, and they might move slightly slower in the beginning, but usually the sizes are worth that extra wait.”
3. Seek out diverse perspectives
To create any great culture – in sales or otherwise – you need to ensure that your teams are comprised of people with a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds. Here are three things you can do to ensure a more inclusive, equitable sales culture, at the hiring stage and beyond.
Broaden your recruitment pipeline
“You can’t just think about diversity as one thing,” Lauren says. “You should definitely focus on different areas, especially as you look at your organization and see where you’re lacking, but you also have to think about diversity of background, diversity of experience.”
For Catherine, who did a liberal arts degree before starting her career in the media management space, different educational and experiential backgrounds are one effective way of bringing fresh perspectives to the team. “I think the worst thing we could do is hire a whole cabal of business graduates who have a very, very siloed view of how commercial relationships work, but don’t necessarily have product aptitude or don’t necessarily have great communication skills or aren’t really great at building cross-functional relationships,” she says.
Hire for mindset, not just experience
In addition to company-wide DEI initiatives, another key way for hiring managers and sales leaders to find outstanding talent from a wider range of backgrounds and experiences is to hire for the things you can’t teach: that is, focusing on the transferable skills and core traits that make a great salesperson rather than pre-existing technical knowledge (which can easily be taught) or even similar industry experience (at Intercom, you’re more likely to create a new playbook than replicate or borrow wholesale from another SaaS company).
“If we’re hiring people with the right growth mindset and the right kind of core skills, and then bringing them through our comprehensive sales onboarding as well, then we’ll see transformative results”
So what are the skills and traits you should be prioritizing? “Obviously you want to hire for intelligence and EQ and all those things in terms of actually being able to do the job from a competency level, but I think above and beyond that, you need people who are going to relish the challenge of taking on a little bit more than their job description,” says Sam.
That growth mindset is key for Catherine, too: “If we’re hiring people with the right growth mindset and the right kind of core skills, and then bringing them through our comprehensive sales onboarding as well, then we’ll see transformative results.”
Be deliberate about diversity every day
Obviously, these are things to be considered at the hiring stages, but diversity and inclusion is never a one-and-done thing; it needs to be constantly considered and reiterated at every level. This includes your day-to-day culture, as well as team-building and social events. “The way that teams are made up now, they look different,” Lauren says. “You can’t have every social activity revolve around alcohol or go golfing for a meeting if not everyone in that group really aligns with that culture.”
Ultimately, a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and allyship is an ongoing process, but one that needs to be at the forefront of your mind as you build and maintain a successful team. “We need to be really careful that if we look around the table at our sales teams, we need to make sure they don’t look like us, that they don’t talk like us, that they come from different cities and states and colleges and companies, because that’s the only way for companies to really thrive,” Lauren says.
The key takeaways
The days of pushy, aggressive “Always Be Closing” sales cultures are long gone; instead, great sales teams need to work collaboratively towards big-picture goals, build strong relationships with customers and other teams, and create an inclusive environment that empowers talented people to thrive and grow.
Above all, recognizing the power and potential of your people is key. As Lauren says: “I think if you hire people who are kind, who care, and who come from different backgrounds and places, you will be unstoppable.”