The ‘Art of the Deal’ is dead. Enterprise Selling in the Era of Product-Led Growth
Take what you know about enterprise sales in software and get prepared to throw it out the window.
Take what you know about enterprise sales in software and get prepared to throw it out the window. In the era of product-led growth, enterprise sales will entirely change. I had to think about it, but I started my career in sales, and I have had the chance to work closely with 11 different sales teams. I’ve been through training with them is TAS and Spin Selling. I’ve been in the middle of the coursework and deliverables with them for elite selling Corporate Visions training twice. I’ve written numerous sales guides, sales playbooks, and enough pitch decks to wallpaper a mansion. These are my people, and I know how they think, what they need to be successful, and how they approach the work. I’ve been on umpteen enterprise sales calls and served as an executive sponsor on many sales pursuits. I came to understand early that what they do is truly difficult. Those best at it are either savants at reading people or work really, really hard.
It is easy to get what is known in selling circles as “happy eyes” for a deal.
However, not to speak ill of my brethren, but what I’ve never really believed in is sales judgement. Much like any human judgement it is easy to get what is known in selling circles as “happy eyes” for a deal and it is far too easy to pick the wrong horse, a would-be sponsor who takes you nowhere. I find the sales execs who say “I only talk to VPs” or “the accounts I am working are better than these leads,” tend to struggle.
The issue is that organizations are confounding things. Titles are generally all over the place. A VP at one company can be someone who commands a huge organization and at another, like a bank, they may wash the aluminum rims on their boss’ sportscar as even the head of the mailroom is a VP. The real centers of power at any given moment are very hard to judge from the outside. As a result, you never quite know how interest will bubble up in an organization. Someone who thinks they are talking to a very senior resource may find overtime that they are talking to a corner office guy who has no actual power and little influence. Even if they have landed in the seat of power, often times the executive has no target organization they’ve aligned with to test a cure for their unrequited anxiety, and they have no time to find one or convince them to take on the extra work of some supposed “super cure.” Often times a seemingly lower-level champion has the power to push a deal much more effectively than one might think and drive it all the way to the top floor. All of this is to say that judging where you have a real chance at a deal is like picking stocks or timing the market. Almost no one can do it, and it is why ~ 90% of day traders fail, some ending up drinking bad coffee at Gambler’s Anonymous meetings.
Welcome to the era of product-led growth. With a product-led growth strategy, companies no longer have to crystal ball their way to success. It is a far simpler world where truly interested parties qualify themselves and take your solution for a meaningful test drive before they buy. To find the buyers, you just have to look for those companies that are getting meaningful value from your solution and are using it often. You then don’t have to convince them to take career risk by selling them something. You just need to take the friction out of them buying the solution they already know works for them. A relatively smaller number of gifted enterprise sellers monitor the trials in coordination with marketing and lend a hand to prospects to take the fear, uncertainty, and doubt out of committing to something new.
So, if this is such a great way to buy software without “selling it” why didn’t we do this before? The answer is shockingly simple. We didn’t know how to bring such rich trial experiences to life. Installed B2B software was essentially always a beta product with half-baked solutions and toolkits that helped close the gaps. Much was solved onsite during implementation making the solutions brittle and costly with services running as high as 7 times the price of the licenses. SaaS was a little better. At least the solutions worked, but often times it still required tons of configuration, if no coding. Services ratios dropped to 2x and in the best cases 1x or less. Still, opening up a SaaS product with scant & unrealistic seed data that still took a fair bit of time to get to value from, was a very ungratifying experience. If you’ve ever started with a generic Salesforce license, you surely know what I mean. You are miles away, including numerous consultants, add-on apps, and lots of money, from achieving value and predictable revenue.
With Product-Led Growth (PLG) companies are finally cracking the code of how their solutions can be far more useful far earlier. The best of the best train you in the app itself. The seed data is something you can use like a pre-configured report or a pre-built workflow. You are natively walked through how to use these assets and there is a clear path to show you meaningful value that helps you perform better or make better decisions DURING your trial. Best of all, companies who do it right can see where users lose interest, drop out, or struggle. Data patterns over time reveal the tire kickers from the truly interested. Once those willing to go the distance are revealed, a relatively smaller group of elite sellers can insert themselves into the conversation to take any remaining uncertainty or friction out of buying process. This includes helping a champion solution tester navigate their own organization armed with the right facts & materials to make a compelling argument, ideally, using their own data from their trial.
There is none of the cajoling, convincing, favor bartering, or brow beating that has been part of a traditional sales cycle. No one has to feel guilty or out on a career limb for proposing something that is proven to deliver tangible value. Probably the most memorable sales cycle I even participated in, was a global sales pursuit where the goal was to convince an existing customer who already had 10’s of millions of dollars of our software on the shelf to buy another $35 Million. The executive seller is assuredly one of the most masterful, brilliant, strategic, and successful enterprise sellers the world has ever seen. Part pop-phycologist, part executive strategist, and part Super Bowl winning quarterback combined with a fount of charisma, this gentleman has the power to sell walk-in freezers in Antarctica, an uncanny gift that few will ever have. Of course, he got it done and was the hero of the year. He is a unicorn’s unicorn, a seller’s seller. In the era of Product-Led Growth, however, his services are no longer required. Once software companies can bring to life richer, more valuable trial experiences, you no longer need highly paid unicorns to make a sale.
In all areas of software, judgement & intuition is now being replaced by data. To use that stock market analogy again, it is like insider trading on every stock. We know who wants us and who doesn’t. There is zero arm-twisting and far less “art of the deal.” We can now see interest, growth, success, drop-off, struggle, and confusion right in the software. The companies that win big going forward, wire for these signals and act on them faster than anyone else.
Unfortunately, some of my favorite colleagues now face a shrinking profession, but fortunately it is well-timed for many of their careers. Most of the great enterprise sellers have banked fat commissions and built vacation homes as I write this. They took incredibly high risk in their careers, in many cases putting everything on the line, and won. As their profession now shrinks, many are also retiring early due to their successes. If you ask anyone trying to recruit a true enterprise seller today, they’ll tell you just how hard it is. Going forward software sales looks far more prescriptive and routinized than the art of the past. Modern solutions tell you where to work, who to talk to, and how to help. It is likely going to be “a younger person’s game,” as they say, with the ratio of programmatic work to selling art being entirely reversed.
While I will mourn the loss of working with some of the most intuitive and smartest people I have ever known, people that saw and took on opportunities few of us had the courage to risk everything for, I also know that deep down they would agree with where we are going. Every great seller really wanted to deliver value to the companies they were selling to. It was always hard to prove value in a buying cycle, and I know this plagued most of them. It’s now a requirement and this requirement has turned the world on its head replacing judgement (read skilled gambling) with data….in a very good way.
Ken Pulverman is a five time marketing & product leader whose work has driven two acquisitions, one IPO, and a promising D series work in progress. Ken consults on the topics of strategy, marketing, and product to primarily tech companies under his brand SageCMO.