Why SaaS sales people should think like consultants

Main illustration: Michelle Kondrich

There are few interactions more cringeworthy than a SaaS sales rep hard-selling a prospect. They can be awkward, uncomfortable and, at worst, confrontational.

However, with the rise of SaaS those interactions should be a thing of the past.

What makes SaaS sales different

Free trials, self-serve purchasing and monthly subscriptions mean SaaS customers can cancel if they discover they were sold erroneously. Given the multitude of ways customers can fact check what they’re buying, the impetus is on salespeople to be straight-forward.

3 best practices for SaaS sales reps

As an Account Executive at Intercom, we’ve adopted a sales strategy of consultative selling that’s transparent and informative, allowing our sales team to exemplify our customer-first values. Here are some ways we’ve done this:

1. Truly understand your prospect’s business

Clients view consultants as partners who improve their businesses. In that vein, consultative selling requires a sales rep to understand the prospect’s business before providing an assessment of product-fit. It’s not enough to simply understand the Job-to-be-Done, we also assess the broader scope of how a prospect’s business works. Simply stated, what you’re trying to find are uses of your product that your prospect may be unaware of.

A few factors to consider in gaining this deeper understanding are:

  • Business model – how do their customers procure their product or service?
  • Pricing structure – how does their pricing structure work?
    Freemium, tiered, subscription-based, etc.?
  • Customer base – who are their customers? Is there a commonality among them? (i.e. B2B SaaS, e-commerce, etc.)

At Intercom, our account executives practice this regularly because there are many ways to use our platform. Prospects will come to us for one job, unaware of others we can do too. Perhaps they are launching a new product in three months, or their support team is tripling in size within the year. The point is that certain functionality may become more relevant in the future, and getting in front of that bolsters our case as their long-term solution. This assures our prospects that Intercom isn’t just a tool for the here and now, but a long-term investment that has the flexibility to match their needs as they evolve.

Taking the extra time to understand your prospect’s business will raise your credibility from that of a sales rep to one of a consultant, which means your prospect will feel that both parties’ interests are in complete alignment. Moreover, their business is likely to see better results due to the relevance of your recommendations.

2. Don’t oversell

Your suggestions shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all. Aligning customer need to product fit means they are tailored to the specific job your prospect has explained, likely in a discovery call.

For example, I’m a big fan of Bose headphones. Incorporating this principle as a Bose sales rep might render an interaction like this:

Prospect: …and what about Bluetooth? My friend said you have Bluetooth headphones. What is that exactly?
Bose: Bluetooth allows your headphones to connect to devices wirelessly. How were you planning on using the headphones?
Prospect: Mainly to take calls. I work in sales so I speak on the phone often.
Bose: Ok, is it important to be taking those calls wirelessly?
Prospect: Not really.
Bose: Gotcha. In that case, our Bluetooth capabilities won’t be necessary. Based on what I’ve heard so far, Bose will provide the most value through our SoundTrue headphones…

A real-life example with Intercom happens when we speak to customers who want to support their users more effectively. Our support solution is unique in that customers can both proactively and reactively support their end-users, and that’s usually what we’ll recommend to see maximum value. In some cases, it’s not in the prospect’s best interest to proactively support their users based on the nature of their business. Rather than impose a solution on the prospect, it’s important to adjust the recommendation to what fits best. The prospect will have deemed it a fact-gathering conversation, and will implicitly increase their belief in your expertise from that point forward.

The nature of SaaS doesn’t lend itself to overselling. Unless you moonlight as a product engineer, you’re not changing the extent of what your solution can provide. Furthermore, your prospect will eventually expose your blemishes when they trial the product, and it’s a terrible customer experience to invest time in a solution only to find out the crucial limitation could have been uncovered well ahead of time. By selling SaaS straight-up, you’re avoiding customer churn and word spreading to future buyers about the sales team’s deceptive tactics.

3. Use product weaknesses to underscore product strengths

Pointing out your product’s weakness may seem counterintuitive, but if you do, one of two things will happen:

  1. The prospect will determine that the weakness you point out is a necessity for them, and therefore, not buy your product. In which case, they were not a good fit anyway so you just saved yourself potentially hours of time.
  2. The prospect determines that the weakness is not a deal-breaker, but they appreciate how candid you were, and will heed your advice to a larger extent from that point forward.

Be as eager to disqualify a prospect as you are to qualify. If someone is a bad fit for your product, not only are you wasting your time, but you’re wasting your prospect’s time, too. Consultative salespeople give prospects the good, the bad and the ugly when speaking about their offering because they have their prospect’s best interest in mind:

Prospect: What about color options? I want my headphones to look really cool!
Bose: Is there a particular color you had in mind?
Prospect: Baby blue!
Bose: Nice! If color options is a high priority, Bose would not be a good fit. We’re limited with black being the only color we provide for the headphones you’re looking for. Is that a deal-breaker?

Prospects buy based on your product’s strengths, but those strengths will fall on deaf ears if that’s all they hear about. Even if you know you’re a perfect fit for what they’re looking for, it actually helps your case to highlight what you don’t do well, just to reassure the prospect that they’ve come to the right place. Here are some ways you could reframe the conversation:

PhrasesReframe weaknesses as strengths.

Highlighting weaknesses eliminates the skeptical wonder of ‘well, what can’t your product do?’ Not every prospect is going to be open-minded when speaking with a sales-person, especially if they’ve had a bad experience with sales before. Your best friend in establishing trust is transparency, and nothing is more transparent than vulnerability.

SaaS sales takeaway: aim for value and the 💰 will follow

Your customer facing teams have such a profound impact on your brand. One negative, dishonest experience with a sales rep can lead to a Twitter tirade, and derail your company’s reputation. In the social media age we live in, the margins are fragile. However, if you perpetuate a culture of customer-centric SaaS salespeople that view themselves as “sales consultants”, you’ll cultivate strong relationships with your prospects, who will then advocate for your service due to the value your sales team is providing. The downstream effect is more prospects interested in your product, and increased sales for the company.