Main illustration: Daniel Zender
The traditional SaaS sales team structure is built on outbound sales — an approach that requires salespeople to pursue leads that are unfamiliar or uninterested in your product. We decided to build and scale inbound sales instead.
Why we built our sales team to focus on inbound
We scrapped the idea of starting with outbound sales for many reasons. The biggest one was we didn’t think cold calling leads was the most effective or cost efficient way to leverage the skills of our Sales Development Representatives (SDRs). They’re ambitious, innovative and most importantly, human and if our mission as a company is to make business personal, shouldn’t we prioritize the people who actually want to talk to us?
Our CEO Eoghan explains it this way: “we’re very much now in an inbound world where salespeople are working on a consultative basis…They’re not pulling people in. They’re actually helping people buy the products.” That means our SDRs only connect with people who have interacted with Intercom in a meaningful way, such as chatting with us on our website. And even though their goal is to generate pipeline for our account executives, it’s just as important that they develop relationships with prospects, not just qualify them and move on.
4 lessons learned from building our sales team
We started testing an inbound SaaS sales team structure in 2014 and it’s been so successful from the get-go that we’ve had to quintuple our SDR team. Here are the lessons I learned in my first year scaling our SDR team from three to 17 members.
1. Understand the new SDR profile
In this world of consultative selling, success starts with the people you hire
Finding the right people is the hardest and most important part of scaling any sales team. We’ve continually adjusted what we look for in an SDR as we try to put our finger on what makes an inbound salesperson successful.
We started by looking internally at our own reps and we found that the best ones embody the values of product-led salespeople. They’re people who have a passion for product, exhibit a relentless focus on customer satisfaction and help create the playbook, not just follow it. This moves away from the typical SaaS sales profile which prioritizes things like strong oral communication skills, detailed knowledge of CRMs and experience with outbound prospecting.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: in this new world of consultative selling, success starts with the people you hire.
2. Qualify sales leads for opportunity
I’ve been at organizations where SDRs were bottlenecks slowing down the sales process. Strict lead qualification criteria can make SDRs feel like they have to over-qualify leads to get credit for new opportunities. I’ll be the first to admit that sales is a numbers game but good lead qualification is about quality and finding real opportunities to sell.
My recommendation is if a lead wants to talk to an account executive, then have your SDRs use the tools available to them, like LinkedIn, Salesforce and Clearbit, to do some basic qualification. Write it down as part of your sales team’s process so your reps know when it’s okay to bend the rules. Remember no one likes the sales bouncer who won’t let anyone in the club.
3. Emphasize quality and quantity
Balancing the quality of leads with the total quantity doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. It’s possible to have both and here at Intercom, quality and quantity are equally rewarded. On many sales teams, the SDR that passes ten $100 opportunities is rewarded over the person that sources one $1,000 opportunity. The problem is that can incentivize the wrong behavior. We compensate our SDRs on the total amount of pipeline they source, not the number of opportunities, because we know that good deals come in every shape and size.
4. Evaluate performance beyond cold, hard data
Our sales values are more than just an ideological wishlist
Early on in the team’s development, we created a list of sales values that we use to evaluate our reps’ performance. It’s more than just an ideological wishlist, it’s what we measure SDRs against along with the classic sales metrics. For us it’s important to balance the hard data on quota attainment and deal conversion with an understanding of the whole person.
Sales is by nature more of an individualistic sport than other business functions. Our shared values also help the team to keep an eye on the bigger picture and encourage individuals SDRs to make decisions that are beneficial not just to them but also to the company at large. That’s what accountability in sales means to us.
5. Invest in the future of your SDRs
The SDR team is the first place we look when we open a new account executive role. By promoting top internal talent first, we foster an environment where hard work and exceptional performance are rewarded. We hire smart, driven people and it’s our priority to let them know they have a place to grow at Intercom.
Here’s another way to think about. The cost of sourcing, interviewing and hiring an account executive from outside the organization is going to be far more expensive than nurturing and promoting good talent from within. Put simply, the math favors investing in your SDRs. I’m personally happy to report that three of our initial 17 SDR hires have already been promoted to account executives. ?
Optimizing our SaaS sales team structure for success
Our goal here at Intercom is to invest in a SaaS sales team structure that empowers our customers to succeed with Intercom. For us that means prioritizing inbound sales first. As our business grows, we’ll continue building, scaling and optimizing our SDR team. This is just the beginning.