Every company needs a solid foundation on which to grow, but even a well-oiled product machine falls short without a clear sales strategy to help reach its long-term goals.
Growth is arguably the most defining and sought-after trait of technology companies. Those line charts showing fast-rising user acquisition or explosive ARR have been synonymous with the industry over the past decade.
However, growth is seldom linear, as is all too clear in the current economic climate. It fluctuates, plateaus, goes up and down with each new round of funding, new competitor, new technological leap – or even a global pandemic or economic downturn. But the unpredictability of the variables doesn’t mean you can’t plan for growth. And for Intercom’s VP of Sales EMEA, Sanj Bhayro, scaling is just what you need to invest in to ensure growth becomes as constant and linear as it can be.
Sanj started working at Salesforce back in 2005, when the company had around 1,000 employees and a few hundred million in revenue, and he was a part of its growth for 14 years, holding several leadership positions in multiple markets in EMEA. By the time he left to join Google Cloud as EMEA VP of Operations and Customer Growth, Salesforce had around 17 billion dollars in revenue and almost 50,000 employees.
Sanj has plenty of experience scaling sales teams at growing businesses, and that’s precisely why, as of November of last year, he‘s overseeing EMEA sales at Intercom. With him, he brings the lessons he learned over the past 20 years in the industry, and as he told us, few things are more important than setting up a solid foundation for growth and developing a sales model that can get you where you want to go.
In today’s episode, we sat down with Sanj to talk about scaling sales teams, what makes a great salesperson, and strategies to deliver the best outcomes for your customers.
Here are some of our favorite takeaways from the conversation:
- A sales organization needs a good foundation to scale. Attract and develop talent and invest in supporting resources like onboarding, sales enablement, and sales engineering.
- Communicate your vision for growth clearly and often, and make sure you’re building a culture where people feel like they’re being set up to suceed.
- By inviting product teams to sales processes and vice-versa, you’re enriching them with insights that help drive a better experience and a more robust roadmap.
- During times of economic uncertainty, you need a flexible sales process that can adapt to the customers’ needs and provide more tangible outcomes, less friction, and a clear ROI.
- Great salespeople aren’t just passionate about the solutions they sell – they care deeply about providing a good experience and finding the right outcome for their customers.
If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
A new chapter
Liam Geraghty: Sanj, welcome. It’s great to have you on the show.
Sanj Bhayro: It’s great to be here. Thanks very much, Liam. I’m a longtime listener.
Liam: That’s great to hear. I mentioned some of your previous roles in the intro, but I’d love to hear you talk about your career journey up until this point.
Sanj: Well, it’s a pretty long one. Since leaving college, I knew I wanted to work in technology, in a sales or go-to-market position. I started in the days when the internet was still fairly new. The boom at the time was around ERP (Enterprise resource planning) and client-server applications for large-scale enterprises, and that’s where I started my career. In 2005, I was very lucky to join a company called Salesforce, which had just IPO’d. They were pushing this new way of utilizing technology – business applications being as easy to use as Amazon. It was the start of the wave of the cloud.
“I was looking at different options and more established companies, thinking about the scale-up of a billion going to five billion as an interesting area for me to work in”
I was lucky to join pretty early on and become a sales rep, and I grew from there. I spent 14 years in Salesforce in various management and leadership positions and, ultimately, became the COO for EMEA before deciding that 14 years was probably too long and I needed to do something different, so I joined Google Cloud, which was a really interesting journey. I did that for about 20 months and then decided I wanted to do something different again. I was looking at different options and more established companies, thinking about the scale-up of a billion going to five billion as an interesting area for me to work in. Then the opportunity with Intercom popped up, I was lucky to meet with Leandra and Des and others, and very quickly, I realized that Intercom was the next best place for me to take on the next chapter in my career.
Liam: How have you been finding it so far?
Sanj: It’s been amazing. I think I’m at month nine now, and it feels like I’ve been here for longer. The interesting thing about Intercom is that everything you see on the outside is like that on the inside. It’s a fast-growing company that creates incredible products that customers love and it has an incredible leadership team focused on building and scaling the company and scaling in the right way. It’s very transparent, very collaborative, and filled with really smart, amazing people.
Liam: In terms of leadership, what did you learn at Salesforce and Google that you’ve brought with you?
Sanj: I hope a lot of experience in terms of scaling companies. When I joined Salesforce, we were a similar size. We were probably around 1,000 employees, and a few hundred million in revenue. Going through that level of scale is certainly something that I hope I can bring that experience to Intercom. I was lucky to work for great leaders both at Salesforce and Google, who invested in me and have given me the mentorship that’s helped me grow. That’s something I want to pay forward and bring into my own leadership style as I take on new roles.
“You want to attract and develop talent that will help you meet the goals of those plans, both short-term and long-term”
Whether the company is large and established or small and scaling, the problems that you see day-to-day are not that different. If you focus on getting your talent strategy right by attracting, developing, and promoting the best talent, you have a really good foundation to be successful. That’s something I hope to bring to Intercom in my role here.
Building a good foundation
Liam: That leads us to talk about how to build and scale a sales organization. I suppose it involves a little more than putting a job advert online, but you also have to put the right information out there to attract people. How would you go about doing that?
Sanj: Part of it is putting a job advert online and attracting the right talent, but any sales organization that you want to scale needs a clear vision and plan, not just for the short-term but also long-term – what you want to achieve within the next three, five years. You want to attract and develop talent that will help you meet the goals of those plans, both short-term and long-term. The people you bring in now, whether it’s an AE or an SDR role, are going to become future managers and leaders. They may leave, but hopefully, they’re still going to say very positive things about your organization, and that’s also going to help you attract more and more talent. As soon as you get that flywheel working well, you have that foundation that allows you to grow and scale.
“Our job as leaders and sales leaders, ultimately, is to have a good vision, attract and develop the best talent, and create an environment that allows that talent to grow and thrive”
You also need a good operating plan. You need to be able to communicate the vision of what great looks like and to be able to measure that on a day-to-day basis. And then, it’s really important to build a culture of success where people feel like they’re set up to be successful in an environment where they can do their best work. Our job as leaders and sales leaders, ultimately, is to have a good vision, attract and develop the best talent, and create an environment that allows that talent to grow and thrive.
Liam: It makes such a difference when you’re in that environment where you do feel that.
Sanj: Absolutely. I don’t remember all the times and years when I achieved my quota, how much I earned, or even the awards or recognition I got. There are two moments in my career that I remember. The first was when I was put on a high-performance leadership program even though I didn’t even think about being a leader, which was a real eye-opener to me because that company saw something in me that I didn’t, and they wanted to invest in that.
The second moment was after I became a leader. It was the last day of the financial year, and, of course, I had to be the last person to leave the office. It was about nine o’clock and there was a commotion in the corner. I remember popping out of my office and wondering what was happening there. The leader of that group told me there was a new rep and they were closing their first order – very small, like three or four K, but the team had agreed they were not going to leave until everybody had finished, including this new rep. I remember walking back into my office thinking that was a moment where we got it right because the team was so invested in winning together that they were there to help that new rep, who was in her first or second month, get that order over the line. That’s a moment she will remember and hopefully pay forward when she becomes a manager or a leader in her future career.
Liam: What advice would you give for fostering a culture of broader company engagement in a sales team?
“I don’t think I’ve worked in an organization where I’ve been so close to product and product has been so open and willing to let me in”
Sanj: First of all, this is something Intercom does incredibly well. Maybe it’s an outcome of our size, but the silos that usually exist between respective functions or go-to-market and product don’t exist that much within Intercom. There’s definitely a culture of togetherness, collaboration, and transparency, and we’re all focused on providing the best outcomes for our customers. That’s awesome. I don’t think I’ve worked in an organization where I’ve been so close to product and product has been so open and willing to let me in and be part of their sessions and their planning, and vice-versa.
We bring product and other cross-functional teams to our customers, and our product people are probably better salespeople than I could ever be. The opportunity to bring a product leader who will not only sit down and listen to the customer but also take their feedback, provide insight into how they could get more value, and share more about the roadmap is hugely powerful.
Intercom does a great job of breaking down those silos, and I would also say it’s a product of our leadership, where the likes of Karen, our CEO, or Des and Paul and Leandra are very accessible. They promote a flat culture or a flat leadership and organizational design. They always want feedback and don’t pretend to have all the answers. We’re more focused on asking the right questions and trying to get to the right outcomes together.
Scaling a sales organization
Liam: A lot of SaaS businesses have the economic uncertainty and how it impacts SaaS selling on their minds. What changes in the sales motion? How do you navigate the changing priorities of prospective customers?
“The customer wants to de-risk their purchases as much as possible. They want tangible outcomes, less risk, clear ROI, and less friction”
Sanj: What’s interesting is that companies are still buying technology. When you look at the performance of technology companies, especially the SaaS companies we all know and love, you’ll see that these companies are still growing at 20, 30, 40%+. The growth is still there; the demand is still there. There’s an opportunity to pivot and focus on providing more value to the customer.
The difference now is that the customer wants to de-risk their purchases as much as possible. They want tangible outcomes, less risk, clear ROI, and less friction. It’s about shifting the narrative to doing more with less, focusing on automation and AI, and helping our customers transform digitally. Customers are still looking to rationalize their legacy applications. They’re looking to become more digital and simplify their technology stacks. Maybe there’s an opportunity to shift the selling motion, where it’s not about the big ticket, complex, risky implementation – maybe it’s about showing the fastest time to value and then going from there. You could switch up a number of things, but ultimately, customers are still looking at technology to solve their problems.
Liam: Many of our listeners are at a point where they’re looking to scale, and you’ve had so much experience in this area. As we said, during the 14 years you were with Salesforce, the company grew from only a few hundred employees to more than 70,000, I think, today. What are some of the key things to know when thinking about scaling? Because scaling is not the same as growth.
“What’s the model that you need to get to five million ARR? Is it ten sales reps, a couple of SDRs, and a solution engineer?”
Sanj: Scaling is absolutely not the same as growth. I think scale is what you invest in to ensure that growth becomes as constant and linear as possible. I’ve never seen an organization where there is just a straight line going up from the left to the right. There are always going to be a few bumps and peaks and troughs within that, but focusing on the long-term plan of what you want to achieve and how you want to get there and building the model that allows you to get there is the most important. What’s the model that you need to get to five million ARR? Is it ten sales reps, a couple of SDRs, and a solution engineer? Then, that needs to scale to get you to 50 million, and maybe that’s 80 or 90 reps and another 10 SDRs. That has to scale again to get you to 500 billion, and maybe that’s 800 reps or 1,000 reps, and you’ve got a different distribution strategy, et cetera.
For the most part, that will follow a linear level of growth and you need to invest in that as much as possible, not just in the sales capacity but in the supporting resources to get there, the recruiting, the onboarding, the enablement, the talent management, sales ops, sales development, and sales programs. A lot of supporting resources need investment as you grow that sales capability, but you have to remember that the machine will not work from day one, and there may be certain things that you have to switch up or switch down. Be prepared to adapt the strategy as much as you can, but not massively – again, it takes a while to get that machine working. You’re constantly optimizing it rather than pivoting in any significant direction.
Once you’ve got that model working, you have a good foundation to start looking at potential productivity and/or efficiency gains. It’s hard to ramp up a sales model whilst also showing efficiency and productivity gains as you grow, but once you’ve got that model working, when you feel you can add more capacity and go even further and faster, you can begin to look at where you can put and find efficiency gains.
“You need a flexible sales process and sales model that can adapt to the customer”
And the final thing: align on the metrics that tell you if you are doing great or not, whether that’s customer logo growth, logo retention, average deal, size average spend by customer, expansion growth, headcount, productivity per head, or pipeline. The more you can condense that into a set of 10 performance indicators that will tell you how that growth or scale model is going, the easier it will be to find out where the gaps are and put the right action in place to tweak that model.
Liam: Something you alluded to there was the importance of having a flexible, scalable sales process, and that is a crucial thing to have.
Sanj: Absolutely. As many of your listeners know, buyer behavior is always shifting, and it’s shifted again. Buyers are more discerning, looking for more tangible ROI, less risk, and less friction in their first purchase, and you need a flexible sales process and sales model that can adapt to the customer. It would be a very boring profession if we had a rigid sales process because that’s just not the world we live in. What buyers and customers expect is changing on a fairly rapid basis, and we need to be prepared to adapt to meet them where they are.
Liam: What makes a successful salesperson? What are the traits?
Sanj: Great salespeople are almost obsessive about finding the right outcomes for their customers. They care deeply about making their customers successful, maybe because their reputation counts on it, or maybe because they know that customers who have a bad experience are probably not going to do business with them again, and they might even share it. Good salespeople care deeply about the outcomes for their customers.
I also feel that great salespeople carry a lot of accountability and set clear expectations on what they want to deliver and how they’re going to get there. Their experience and previous successes help drive that – they have a model for success and want it to evolve, grow and get better.
Good salespeople understand the company. The best at Intercom know the company – they’re aligned with our values, products, and propositions. They’re experts at providing that value and credibility to the customers. They’re passionate about the solutions they provide and the problems they’re solving. But the biggest thing is that they care deeply about their customers’ success. They put the customer first, and that’s really the foundation of what makes them successful.
“It’s not about pretending to have all the answers or the best solution. It’s about being curious and inquisitive about the problems and having this collaborative mindset to solve them”
Liam: Cross-functional collaboration is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. How does the Intercom approach align sales with product, marketing, and support?
Sanj: As I mentioned, I think it’s something Intercom does very well, and a lot of it stems from the leadership. They’re always looking to break down the silos that exist. There’s usually a big silo between product and sales, but I would say it’s the reverse at Intercom. Our product team wants to be connected and close to our customers, so we invite our product teams to the QBRs we have with our customers, we do regular roadmap sessions, and we invite them to customer dinners and customer planning sessions. And vice-versa: they want the opinion of the sales team, so we’re invited to product sessions and planning sessions to provide insight into what’s happening with our customers. We also have more formal processes like customer advisory boards and feedback processes like NPS (Net Promoter Score) that allow us to get a feel for what our customers are thinking.
I think the value is in the informal, collaborative culture built in the company. Going back to a point I made earlier, it’s not about pretending to have all the answers or the best solution. It’s about being curious and inquisitive about the problems and having this collaborative mindset to solve them. There’s no us versus them between product and sales and other functions within Intercom, and as we grow and scale, it’s something we want to continue. We think it’s part of our differentiator, and the feedback we get from our customers is that they really appreciate it.
Raising the bar
Liam: Before we wrap up, what do you see the Intercom sales org prioritizing for the rest of the year?
Sanj: Well, we are growing and evolving a go-to-market strategy, whether that’s to move more into the mid-market enterprise segments, to invest internationally in our capabilities as we go more international, or in our capabilities as we move from a product or a multi-product motion to a platform motion. That’s very much the go-to-market evolution.
“I believe every new hire should be raising the bar and helping us think differently about how we can evolve and become the organization we want to become”
To do that, we want to continue to invest in our sales organization and we’re continuing to hire not only salespeople but relationship managers, CSMs, sales engineers, and supporting resources like SDRs. We’re trying to bring talent that will grow with us and provide lots of experience and insight into how we should grow. I believe every new hire should be raising the bar and helping us think differently about how we can evolve and become the organization we want to become.
Liam: We’ll link to the careers pages in the show notes. Lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work and what you’re up to?
Sanj: Well, first of all, it was great to be invited to this podcast. So, thank you, Liam. I’m speaking at SaaStock in October, and hopefully, we’ll be doing more podcasts like this. If anyone wants to get in touch directly, you can find me on LinkedIn – I’m always happy to talk to salespeople to provide any insights or share a little bit more about what Intercom is doing.
Liam: Sanj, thank you so much for joining me today.
Sanj: My pleasure. Thank you, Liam.