Designing a Sales Org for a Technical Product

Navid Zolflaghari is the VP of Sales at Branch, and has previously been a sales leader for technical products at Boomerang Commerce and Google. In this guide, he lays out how to hire, train, and resource a sales team that needs a deep understanding of a complex product.

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Questions covered in this guide

What’s important/different when it comes to selling a technical product?

The complexity of the product you’re selling and the problem you’re solving – when you look at a product like Branch, we sell to product, engineering, marketing, and BI analytics – there are a lot of different routes to the company and there are a lot of different problems we solve.

You need sellers who understand the product deeply to identify creative solutions – we want sellers who come up with solutions we might not have even thought of to meet a customer’s needs. What resonates for engineering will be different than what resonates for marketing. It’s important to fit the message to your audience, and it requires a good understanding of the product to relate back to their specific problems and uncover new pain points. 

What are the roles that make up the go-to-market org?

Marketing and sales development – generate leads and demand for the product. Some organizations are more outbound heavy (sales development) and some are more inbound heavy (marketing). If you have sales development, they’re on the front lines and are taking a marketing qualified lead and turn it into a sales qualified lead. 

AEs – responsible for closing business and quarterbacking pre-sale. A handoff to CS happens after the contract is signed, but I’m big into having the AE’s own upsell and cross-sell in addition to new business. If you have a very technical product, I think the land and expand sales process is what generally works the best. That way, you get through the legal process and get ingrained in a customer’s tech stack; this allows subsequent sales to move much faster. If you only comp for new business you will most likely find AEs will try to squeeze as much as they can upfront (sacrificing long-term revenue growth). This also leads to longer sales cycles. 

Sales engineer – they’ll be really technical because I already have AE’s who are technical and now I have someone who is part engineer to help them. I think this gives them a different sort of voice and allows them to talk from different perspectives. I wouldn’t advise only having your sales engineer run a demo while your AE’s do everything else. Use your sales engineer to work in conjunction with your AE to tackle deep customer problems. 

Onboarding/implementation – their job as a specialist is to decrease the time to value. I want to expand within the accounts, but if I sold a one or two year deal and it takes six months to get them up and running, then I’m going to lose that customer. That’s the most costly thing you can do. 

Customer success – they’re the quarterback post-sale and are responsible for renewals. The AE and the CS have to work hand-in-hand, and this is what so many organizations get wrong. We make it so both the CS person and the AE are going to benefit from increasing the ACV of a given account.

Revenue operations – help bring everything together from a data, process, and tooling perspective.

Sales enablement/value engineering – help sellers quantify the impact your solution will have, show how much money you can help your customer make, and tell the story of why your product matters to C-Suite buyers.

At what stage should you start to add each (AEs, sales leaders, SDRs, sales ops etc.)?

There is no “right formula” as there are multiple variables at play including momentum, growth targets, and talent available. There are also different types of VP’s of Sales for different stages of companies (e.g. $1M-20M, $20M-$100M, $100M-$500M).

Up to $1-2M, the founder(s) lead sales – in the early days, founders need to sell to prove product-market fit.

Bring in AEs at $1-2M – aim for one to three AE’s and hire player-coaches (such as someone who was a director or a line manager at another company). These people have upside potential to grow into an early sales leader and will be motivated to think past the close. Look for business athletes – hungry, smart, with technical aptitude.

Bring in a sales ops all-around-athlete as early as $2-3M – if you find someone good, get them sooner rather than later. If they set up the foundation right, you can run a lot faster. They need to be an all-arounder, someone who’s familiar with being a Salesforce admin as well as using tools like Marketo. This person needs to be the backbone and make things run until we can hire more people.

Bring in SDRs around $3M to accelerate AEs – some companies do want an AE to do everything, but if you’re paying an AE $200-300K and they’re prospecting 50% of the time, you could have hired an SDR for $50-100K and made more money.

Bring in sales engineers and CS around $3-5M – if you have technical AE’s, then you might hire a “hybrid sales engineer/customer success person/solutions engineer” all-in-one. This is easier said than done, but I don’t want too much specialization too early. I want people to go get the business and then service the business. 

Invest in value engineering around $20M – they help uplevel your entire organization and you can think of them as a sales enablement function as well. 

Hire a sales leader by $5M ARR – timing for hiring a leader depends upon when the right talent is available to you. Once you’re past $5M you’ll definitely want a VP of Sales, and if your company is less than $1M, it’s too early.

What are the key responsibilities of the sales leader (or founder pre-sales leader)?

Recruiting – the first VP of Sales will definitely have to spend at least 20% of their time recruiting top tier talent for their growing team. The early hires really set the tone for the rest of the organization. 

Helping to close deals – spot issues before they happen, work with your team to train them on best practices and help push deals forward. Included in this is also closing deals yourself. The VP of Sales should be willing to roll up their sleeves and do the tough things because that will permeate throughout the entire organization. 

Setup frameworks for success – pitch story/decks, competitive positioning, sales methodology, objection handling, sales stages, comp plans, reporting, etc. 

Connect departments – how will marketing/demand gen, business development, product, finance and others connect into sales to get the most aggregate value? 

Set the culture – what are your values? What do you want to celebrate? How do you handle underperformance? 

What sales stages are most involved for a product?

Validation is meaty – it’s the middle of the funnel, you’re incorporating sales engineers and other folks at this point so they can prove out the value of our product to the customer. It’s a key step for potential customers to scope out the solution set.  

What should you consider when assigning territories or market segments (e.g. enterprise/mid-market/SMB) to different reps or teams?

In the beginning, time is your enemy, just go for it – if you have three employees, don’t worry about territories. Each should go and get 200 accounts and just figure it out. 

Refine over time, think about how you can set up each employee for success – use structure to make that happen. Create bands (e.g. commercial, enterprise, strategic) based on the goal expectations that you’ve set, then use those bands to determine the accounts that each rep is going to get. This will allow you to hire talented new people and give them good books to start with. 

When you hire AEs to sell a technical product, what should you look for (and where)?

General intangibles – hunger, work ethic, curiosity, coachability, and a good attitude. 

SaaS background – moving an AE from a transactional industry (like ads) to a more strategic industry like SaaS can make for a tough(er) transition, but I think the reverse can be simpler. Ideally hire people coming from your industry, even within SaaS, because they already know the ecosystem.

Capability – look for markers of dedication (e.g. competitive athlete). When people show that they have those peaks and are competitive, they operate at a high level, and they’re involved in a bunch of other things, it showcases that they know how to balance their time with a very rigorous schedule while being successful. 

Background selling big deals – if you’re hiring an enterprise AE, look at big deals that the AE has closed and listen to the details of how they closed it.

What should ramp and onboarding look like for AEs selling a technical product?

Longer for technical products, there’s a lot to learn – it varies by company, but 6 months on the strategic side (our higher ACV deals), 3 months on the commercial side (our lower ACV deals) for AE’s. 

What should comp look like (e.g. what’s a reasonable quota: OTE ratio), and how do you design comp to align AE incentives with business goals?

Quota of 3-8x OTE – there are multiple schools of thought. One is to set goals at a low multiple early on so everyone is making a lot of money, then they’ll tell their friends, and we’ll easily be able to get more people. Another one is to set aggressive goals, with really aggressive accelerators on the back end, so people are shooting really hard. I try to aim for 70% of AE’s hitting their number. Early on, get aggressive and people will rise to the challenge. As you get more data, continue to iterate.

 Align comp with the behaviors you want to promote – don’t over-complicate it.

Beyond bookings, what metrics do you measure on a monthly/quarterly/annual basis?

You should consistently be looking at data to understand the health of your business and make more informed decisions. A few metrics I often look at include marketing/BD sourced opportunities and conversion rates of leads. In between sales stages, I look at metrics that include rep by region, ACV, average deal length, pipeline, etc. 

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Hire the right people – don’t get too hung up on their roles. There’s no replacement for good people. 

What are the common pitfalls?

Not focusing on the outcome – if a rep’s activities aren’t resulting in revenue, then it doesn’t matter how many meetings or discovery calls they’ve booked. Peel back the onion to the root causes.

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