For a project I was working on, some of the research involved listening to thousands of sales calls from well known high-growth B2B SaaS companies. Being a product manager, I’d been involved in many sales calls before that involved *my* product. But when it’s not your product being pitched, demoed and sold, it’s way more enlightening. The products in question ranged from dev tools, to RevOps, to AdTech and more.
This was a rare learning opportunity and further deepens my respect for the craft of sales. I saw all sorts of successful and unsuccessful calls. I’ve documented some of my findings for no reason other than to share and offer some opinions.
It's men. Almost all men.
It's been studied and reported that gender diversity leads to improved business outcomes, yet sales teams remain largely a boys club. Stats say that nearly 1/3 of B2B sales reps are women, but I didn’t see it. On the calls I studied, around 10% of the reps I saw were female. On the buyers side it was much more balanced, but on the sales side it was largely men. My skewed insight is likely tech industry specific, however the stats indicate that female representation is apparently trending up.
Health information everywhere
In most sales orgs, calls are being recorded by Zoom, Gong or Chorus. To my surprise these calls are littered with countless discussions of health. Who has Covid? Who had covid? Who is vaccinated? Who is pregnant? Who is having surgery? It was all there. Most of this discussion happens during the small talk portion of calls, or even when the internal team is on the call before the prospect arrives. I have no real recommendation here, but it’s important to take extra care with this call info. When I think about my health information being compromised, typically I’m thinking about EHR systems, but it’s safe to say your exposure is much broader if you include call recorders.
Shut the fuck up and listen
Most sales reps talk too much. This is especially apparent when you have the text transcription in front of you and with a glance you can tell this call isn’t going to go very well. When you see walls of text in the transcript, that means sales monologues. This is especially common when someone is demoing software to a prospect…rambling about feature after feature and never checking in and never really digging into the prospects pain and letting them share.
Ask for the sale
Maybe this is my outsider, non-sales opinion, but not enough people are asking for the deals when the opportunity is right there. I know there’s dozens of sales frameworks and reps are instructed to follow the process, but holy shit you have to recognize when someone is ready to buy. There were times I’m listening to the call and yelling into the void ‘close the deal!’ but instead the rep books the next in a series of zoom meetings and the sales cycle stretches on. I think this is directly related to most reps not knowing when to shut the fuck up and listen.
The winning sales teams were paying attention to signals and willing to throw the plan out the window and dive into the logistics of buying. One team would regularly guide the willing prospect to the signup and purchase form to ensure the sale happened on that call. I never saw anything shady or misleading, it was just a sales rep that saw an opportunity to cut a month off the sales cycle.
Need to resell the dream over and over
In this project, I often would follow the sales journey all the way through the handoff to customer success, onboarding and into quarterly business reviews. During the sales phase, it’s exciting, and aspirational. People buy into this better life. They buy the dream. But then reality hits and you realize change is hard. You can achieve that future state but only with the most diligent of management and some serious work.
Sales teams that were most successful managed these expectations early on and were clear about phased adoption and milestones for success. They were constantly reselling post-sale and guiding the user to value driving activities. The best of the best had in-product dashboards that showed that value and ROI metrics so everyone had visibility. For example, if you were selling a prospecting tool that helped RevOps teams, that tool should have a dashboard showing leads created all the way down to ARR impacted.
Your champion will leave
Speaking of reselling, each year 20% of your customer champions will change their jobs. This ramped up since Covid and 2020 saw 37% leave their job. This means that your champion that helped usher your product into their company will have a good chance of moving on. When a champion leaves this puts ARR at risk. Unless you’re being proactive and inserting yourself into the conversation with the replacement, it’s likely that come renewal time that your product will be at a high risk of churn.
The more successful teams were using tooling that let them monitor job changes on LinkedIn and to allow them to be proactive in finding their new champion, and reselling their old champion at their new job.
Don’t pay list
Many teams are enabled for discounting. Being involved as a product leader in B2B SaaS deals for years, I’ve known the extent to which my sales counterparts can discount. Depending on the deal size, the discounts I saw ranged from 10% - 60%. Sometimes the discount was positioned as ‘free months’ and in some cases it was a ‘lifetime’ deal. As a prospect you didn’t even need to put up much of a fight, you just had to exhale loudly at the right time and suddenly discounts are coming your way. It’s hyper competitive out there, especially at end of quarter.
Salesforce hygiene is pretty bad
One of they keys for a sales process to be successful is reliable data in Salesforce. It’s always amazing to me when a universally loathed tool like salesforce continues to dominate. 90% of the calls I studied came from teams using Salesforce.
A sales journey can have a prospect talking to 3-4 job titles within your org from BDRs, to SDRs, to AEs and more. The handoff of that prospect between sales roles is normally completely powered by data in Salesforce. If this data is lacking, your prospect is having to repeat a lot of their background over and over putting the sale a risk.
When I saw teams with great Salesforce hygiene they were almost always NOT actually using the Salesforce UI. They leveraged tools like Scratchpad or Dooly to make the data entry part less cumbersome. These tools add a user friendly layer on top of Salesforce. This paid off with shorter and more meaningful calls and in the end higher close rates and shorter sales cycles.
It's awkward where PLG meets sales
Product led growth is all the rage. Everyone wants to be the next Dropbox. When your free tier users work at large enterprises, sales wants to get involved to turn that handful of free users into a large enterprise account deal.
Sales teams really sucked at this, and I saw them waste their shot over and over. If you have free users at a marquee logo, do your homework before getting them on a call. So many times I saw reps just see ‘bigcorp.com’ in a free tier email address, and somehow managed to get them on the phone and had no plan after that.
You should have all the product analytics you need to determine where they find value — they’re your users after all. Be prepared with a slide deck outlining the success you’re seeing in their usage analytics. Get them on record articulating how this has led to success at work and how they’ve impacted their OKRs by using your software. Find out how purchases are made and be prepared to put in the work to create the sales presentation using their own data and testimonials that they might use internally to pitch stakeholders. Ask if you can be involved in those meetings and be prepared with discount incentives. Don’t waste your shot.
Some good news for product and engineering teams. Very rarely did I see sales teams misrepresent their products. They were not making promises about future development or direction. Sometimes things were left unsaid, in order to not open a can of worms, but I see that as fair game. The only people who were in a gray area around promising product functionality that didn’t exist were founders.
The other big finding for teams building products is that these calls are FULL of insights for product direction. There’s a good chance almost none of these insights will reach product and engineering without intervention and building a purposeful communication process. I’d recommend getting access to these recordings and making reviews part of a routine.