What role does sales development play in product-led growth?

September 15, 2022
What role does sales development play in product-led growth?
Justin Dignelli

Lead qualification has long been the domain of sales development teams.

However, as companies adopt product-led approaches and lead qualification processes evolve, should the team responsible for them change too?

What exactly is the role of sales development in a company with a product-led motion?

The efforts of sales development are typically grouped into either inbound or outbound. The distinction between inbound and outbound is still valuable for a product-led motion, but the techniques look a little different.

Let's take a look.

Responsibilities of sales development teams

<p><span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0);">Sales development responsibilities look similar in both sales-led and hybrid GTM models, but the tactics and goals differ.</span></p>
Sales development responsibilities look similar in both sales-led and hybrid GTM models, but the tactics and goals differ.


PQL follow up

For PLG Transformers, sales development is often the most obvious team to triage product-qualified leads as, at first glance, the motion parallels an inbound MQL workflow.

Follow up workflows for both marketing (MQLs) and product-qualified leads (PQLs)
At first glance, following up with PQLs motion parallels an inbound MQL workflow.

‎‎That said, treating PQLs as just another "flavor" of MQL can have serious drawbacks. While we aren't going to deep dive into product-qualified leads in this post, there are a few important considerations for SDR teams we'd like to highlight.

SDR leaders who take on the responsibility of receiving product-qualified leads should:

Sales assist

What do you get when you cross an SDR, a customer success manager, and a support engineer? If you ask companies like Zapier and Slack, the answer is "sales assist."

This newer model of sales development often eschews KPI-based variable compensation and instead prioritizes a combination of:

  • Encouraging activation, conversion, and expansion via light-touch engagements (for example, via in-app chat)
  • Removing basic technical friction by answering product questions and curating resources like documentation and help center articles
  • Pulling in additional customer-facing teams (like account executives, support, sales engineering, etc.) when needed

Sales assist teams may kick off their efforts following the creation of a product-qualified lead. However, the main difference is sales assist teams are tasked with increasing product usage broadly, whereas inbound SDRs are likely still prioritizing the creation of new sales opportunities.

Both types of inbound sales development emphasize product expertise more than traditional sales-led organizations.

For example, in a job description for an Inbound Sales Development Representative at customer communications platform Front, the very first bullet reads:

Become a product expert on Front and its value prop. Hold yourself accountable to become a Front power user and technical expert

That being said, even at companies with a product-led motion, sales development teams will continue to need the fundamental qualification and follow-up skills seen in non-PLG organizations.


Traditional prospecting

In an ideal world, we'd always have enough newly-interested prospects that we could hit our revenue targets through inbound alone.

It goes without saying: we don't live in an ideal world, and traditional outbound prospecting isn't going anywhere in a hurry, even at product-led companies.

At first glance, outbound prospecting at companies with a PLG motion looks similar to outbound at sales-led companies:

  • In collaboration with their account executives, SDRs define their criteria. That is, what types of companies do they want to target? What roles within that company are a good fit?
  • From there, SDRs build lists of prospects using tools like LinkedIn Sales Navigator or data providers like ZoomInfo or Clearbit.
  • Using sales automation tools like Outreach, Salesloft, or Groove, sales development teams build (or modify existing) sequences of messages designed to capture the prospect's attention and compel them to take action.

However, what does change at a product-led company is the content of the outbound messaging. When prospecting at a PLG company, outbound reps likely drive to a product-focused outcome (for example, encouraging prospects to sign up for the product) versus focusing on setting a face-to-face meeting.*

*Sidebar: Be aware that, as you realign sales development teams to driving product sign-ups, this may introduce new changes in ownership. For example, if an "outbound" SDR prompts a prospect to sign up and that same prospect later becomes product-qualified (a PQL), who is responsible for following up? Does the lead change hands when it becomes a PQL, or should the SDR who initiated the relationship retain ownership? Each approach has pros and cons, so consider these scenarios and align incentives before changing prospecting behavior.

When changing the call-to-action to a product sign-up, sales development teams must also ensure they target practitioners—the actual end users of the product.

Once the SDR has successfully driven product adoption within a company, they might then layer in account development techniques (described below).

Account development

For companies with a "land and expand" model, it's common practice for sales development teams to try to get in touch with additional contacts when they see inbound activity from a target company.

For example, if a practitioner-level contact signs up for a free trial, an SDR may additionally target leadership roles within the same organization. This technique is particularly effective when the decision-marker for larger deals is not an end-user of the product, as is common in enterprise software.

Product-led account development

<p>In product-led businesses, outbound sales development efforts combine PQL follow-up at the practitioner level with proactive outreach to decision-maker roles.</p>
In product-led businesses, outbound sales development efforts combine PQL follow-up at the practitioner level with proactive outreach to decision-maker roles.

‎Additionally, teams might prospect into new business units of existing enterprise customers.

In any scenario, the most effective outreach includes product usage insights that clearly show how people within the target account are already getting value from the product.

Wrapping up

As more and more companies embrace product-led growth, we expect that sales development teams will play a large part in their transformation. In some cases, the day-to-day looks a little different than in traditional sales organizations. Companies have long relied on the SDR function for its ability to deliver semi-personalized customer interactions across a large volume of prospects and customers.

This scaleable yet 1:1 approach is exactly why SDRs have an important role to play at product-led companies.

If you're thinking through how to surface product-qualified leads to your sales development team, we'd love to speak with you! Connect with us on LinkedIn or send us a note.

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