"What would you say you do here?" The (still) critical role of enterprise sales

April 12, 2022
"What would you say you do here?" The (still) critical role of enterprise sales
Justin Dignelli


“Nobody wants to talk to sales.”

While this statement is heard by nearly every enterprise software company, for a function that apparently nobody wants to speak to, there are a whole lot of sellers around. Moreover, demand for more isn’t slowing down

So what gives? Is it simply that we cannot imagine anything other than dragging our buyers through lengthy, carefully designed, and obsessively measured sales cycles? Our buyers, desperate to just get access to our products, willingly submit to our discovery and qualification?

Well, no. Probably not. Even in “product-led” companies (where self-service access to the product is the golden rule), sellers make up well over 15% of total employees.

This shows that sellers remain a core component of modern go-to-market motions—even those motions that seem at odds with traditional sales cycles. Nonetheless, the perception remains that buying processes that include sales are less efficient and more onerous for the buyer.

In this post, we’ll explore where that perception comes from and examine whether any elements of it are valid. We’ll also look at why, in light of strong opinions to the contrary, sellers remain key to the rapid growth of the most successful enterprise software companies.

The old way: Sales as gatekeepers

At the heart of this anti-sales sentiment are a few assumptions buyers make about the person on the other end of the Zoom call: sellers don’t listen, they don’t understand my unique needs, and they don’t have my best interests in mind. 

What these buyers are describing has even earned itself the moniker “Seller Deficit Disorder,” coined by sales strategy consultants, Force Management.

The fact is, there is some truth in these negative associations. With only so many days in a quarter, sub-30% win rates, and ever-increasing new logo quotas, reps are bound to take shortcuts.

There’s some truth, too, to the fact that prospects tolerate these bad behaviors if the seller is standing between them and something they want: access to the product, a discount, or maybe a new feature. Unfortunately, many sellers learned that dangling these carrots in front of buyers was all they needed to get a deal signed.

In today’s world, where more companies are adopting a product-led approach, sellers are no longer the gatekeepers for using and buying products.

So with none of the old carrots left to dangle, sellers may be left wondering, "What is it I do here?"

Since the first salesperson was hired, the answer to that question has been framed in terms of the revenue they brought in. This simple fact is what makes the mathematics of sales so compelling. As long as you sell more than you’re paid, you’re a revenue-generating machine.

As enterprise software companies have started to tap into the efficiencies of e-commerce, there’s a new way of generating revenue that doesn’t cash a commission check. Even businesses that historically drove all of their deals from salespeople are generating increasing potions of revenue from “self-service” transactions.

In a perfect world, these self-service deals would exist (and be dissected by finance) entirely separately from deals closed by sellers. More often than not, though, accounts and prospects sellers spend time nurturing and enabling end up purchasing on their own. Needless to say, this complicates the ROI equation mentioned above.

The double headwinds of a bad reputation earned from the “old way” of selling paired with the shifting of power towards the buyer mean it’s a challenging time to be a seller.

More than ever, sellers are expected to not only justify their value to disinterested buyers but also to internal stakeholders. What can sellers say to those stakeholders who see product-led growth strategies as a means to generate revenue without the complications of hiring and retaining expensive sales teams?

To overcome the headwinds facing enterprise sellers, companies must align compensation with customer outcomes while giving sellers access to customer insights.

The double headwinds of a bad reputation earned from the “old way” of selling paired with the shifting of power towards the buyer mean it’s a challenging time to be a seller. Click to view larger.

The true value of enterprise salespeople isn’t often discussed, let alone codified or widely agreed upon. Now that sellers can’t simply point to revenue and claim victory, it’s time to dig a little deeper into how sales teams contribute to the business.

Considering the activities and responsibilities that are unique to revenue-generating teams, two distinct categories emerge.

The new way: Sales as mediators

Sellers connect customer pain with product functionality to generate value for the customer.

Almost universally, people feel pain that impacts them personally in a more acute way than things that might hinder the larger organization they’re a part of. It’s no surprise that we see the same pattern in modern enterprises. That’s not to say that employees of large companies are intentionally self-interested. They simply are incentivized to solve the problems that directly affect their goals and desired outcomes. When evaluating and buying products, we consider how the product will improve our work and the work of our team. 

If a product only costs a few hundred dollars a year, this is generally not a major issue. However, if the problem the potential customer is trying to solve requires a product that is significantly more expensive, a huge benefit for enterprise sellers is to identity additional pain points the solution can address or tie what the prospect is seeing locally to a broader set of business challenges.

Additionally, when multiple parts of an organization are solving seemingly disconnected challenges in parallel, it’s a recipe for overlapping tooling, an impossible-to-manage web of integrations, and wasted budget.

When all new software purchases were routed through central procurement departments, some degree of coordination was mandated. However, what was gained in standardization was sacrificed in long evaluation periods, arbitrary evaluation criteria, and in-fighting between budget holders. 

In general, decentralization of software buying is a good thing. It allows teams to move more swiftly and select the right tool for the job more efficiently. It also allows finance teams to more closely tie software spend to the departments actually getting value from them.

Enterprise sellers have the opportunity to strike a healthy balance between enabling customers to self-serve while keeping an eye out for scenarios where more company-wide coordination and standardization would benefit the customer. Because of their 10,000 foot view of the organization, they can then facilitate the sharing of effective tactics across otherwise disjointed teams, elevate practitioner-level challenges to more senior leaders, and articulate how they might impact business goals. 

Even in a product-led world, this is a role sellers are uniquely positioned to play.

The new way: Sales as orchestrators

Connecting the dots across a large organization certainly helps up-level pain points on a practitioner level to a more strategic one. However, that doesn’t guarantee any one person within the organization is empowered or motivated to address them. So, the second area that modern enterprise sellers deliver significant value is to manage the complexity of a large enterprise to coordinate and deploy resources to solve business pain. This absolutely cannot be done by the seller alone, they can absolutely focus on building consensus among stakeholders in a way that internal champions may not be able to.

Based on patterns observed across accounts, sellers can apply strategies and techniques that they know to be effective from other customers. Even the most senior buyers will only have worked at a handful companies across their careers. Meanwhile, sellers have first-hand experience with the buying procedures of dozens of different accounts. The most successful reps use their experience to coach buyers through their own complex procurement processes.


Click to view larger.

Enabling sellers to perform the roles of mediators, distilling the challenges of disjointed teams into cohesive business pain points, and of orchestrators, thoughtfully deploying the right tactics and resources to build consensus, dramatically refocuses sales teams on delivering value to customers rather than extracting value by manufacturing leverage. 

To be successful in these roles, sellers need a greater breadth of information and signals about the customer environment. They can’t “connect the dots” if the dots are locked away in a data warehouse and guarded by a data team. 

Additionally, conventional compensation plans heavily emphasize customer acquisition, placing a bounty on committed revenues. Layering in incentives that reward sellers for positively impacting retention and growth starts to close the gap between what sellers want and what buyers need.

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