Driving Growth at Your B2B SaaS Startup
This guide outlines a sales methodology that B2B SaaS startups can use as a starting point to create a robust sales process to support growth.
Driving Growth at Your B2B SaaS Startup
The following represents a simple sales process that can be used as a basis to drive growth at your B2B SaaS startup. Before commencing, however, a word of caution, the phrase ‘startup’ can cover everything from a brand new startup to one that has been operating for several years but has yet to transition to a scale up and thus the following elements will vary depending on factors ranging from team size, to where on the broad startup spectrum a company sits.
1. Familiarise Yourself With Some Basic Sales Methodologies
One rarely encounters entrepreneurs with “sales qualifications” or sees sales training listed on university curricula. In some respects, it is a deeply neglected domain despite its relative importance. Some basic training can ensure that you are equipped to engage with prospects in confidence. Reading up on approaches like SPIN selling and the Sandler sales system will help you structure your process as it will vary based on sales complexity, market maturity and price point.
Top Tip: If you are looking for additional sales resources on selling specifically in the context of SaaS sales Winning By Design is highly recommended.
2. Clarify Your Ideal Customer Profile (Persona)
You need to create some marketing personas to represent the characteristics of the ideal prospect so that you can ensure you understand the needs of who you are looking to sell to.
“A marketing persona is a composite sketch of a key segment of your audience. For content marketing purposes, you need personas to help you deliver content that will be most relevant and useful to your audience.”
When thinking about personas it is useful to think about elements like:
Demographics (Sex / Age Range)
Once you have clarity as to some basic personas it can help ensure that your initial engagements are aligned with those you perceive as being representative buyers rather than the public at large (as shaped by your network). This will help ensure that any face-to-face meetings are focused on those most likely to have a need that your solution addresses. It will also help ensure that any initial marketing budget can be focused on areas where your target personas are likely to be represented.
Ideally, you road test these personas initially via the likes of LinkedIn (crucial for Vertical SaaS startups).
Undertake a search for first-level connections (friendlies) with similar persona titles and industry sectors aligning with your buyer persona.
Contact these “friendlies” and arrange an in-person meet
Pitch them the idea (don’t try and sell to them).
At this stage, you are simply looking to validate some assumptions
Are they representative of the buyer persona you believe exists?
Do they have the pain you believe they have?
Is their interest piqued by your proposed solution? etc
After a couple of initial validation calls it is now time to go deeper with some others. A key phrase to remember at this phase is “pattern recognition” - in the worlds of Eric Ries and Steve Blank (leading startup thinkers) you need to think of this work as academic research where you are seeking to validate your assumptions.
3. Buy Some Lunches
At this early stage, you are essentially seeking to validate the assumptions you’ve made about:
a) how you have defined the problem in the market
b) the size of the perceived problem and
c) the market appetite for your solution as a means to “fix the problem”.
If your SaaS application truly meets the needs of the persona group you are already on the sales path but that should not be the key purpose of these initial meetings.
A Word of Caution
Right at the start, many introductions are warm ones, as entrepreneurs rightly leverage their immediate contacts as a means to get in front of people. These friendlies must represent the target persona market you have outlined above, as otherwise, the feedback loop is likely to be weak, and these contacts are not likely to offer constructive criticism given they may not even relate to the pain you are seeking to address. Worse still, they may be keen not to hurt your feelings so the feedback you get contains inherent biases.
Instead, view them as a back channel to offer you a perspective from the other side of the fence and to help unpack the following:
Can they validate your assumptions?
What flaws do they see with your approach?
How do people like them buy?
What language do they use to describe your offering?
Who can they introduce you to that may be interested in engaging?
4. Iterate Based on the Feedback
It is important to use these initial interactions as a means to gain insights that can be
Fed back to product development to improve your solution.
Fed back to marketing to help support messaging and to influence customer acquisition
Fed back to sales to help overcome objections and to understand priority buying triggers.
While some of these initial conversations may translate into genuine sales prospects, you will be better served in the long run if these are viewed more as non-prospects and collaborators.
Instead, offering free (or heavily discounted) access to some of these early contacts as both an expression of gratitude for their time, and in return for social proof (case studies/ testimonials/ logos) is a useful way to get people using the application so future development decisions can be based on observed data rather than hypotheses (this is especially the case for solutions with long sales cycles).
No matter how pressing the need is to bring cash in, the purpose of these friendly meets is not to sell. Your network is valuable and needs to be based on trust - they will likely have taken the meet request on the back of a helpful chat rather than being sold to. Trying to sell to warm contacts after an outreach that sought advice is very much “bait and switch” territory and will not serve you well in the long run.
5. Map Out a Sales Process
The cost of CRM systems like Teamwork is very competitive and there is now a host of entry-level systems you can use to manage your pipeline.
Choose one, ensuring it can easily connect to any data sources you have (be that lead generation forms on websites, or existing data sets) and also ensuring that it can integrate with any outbound marketing tools you may have like Cognism is important. Once in place, you need to then embark on a lead generation initiative to fill the pipeline. It is also important to define a basic sales process i.e. what the various stages in your pipeline are, and how to move a prospect along the pipeline.
Applications like Zapier can be useful as they can act as the glue that helps bring these disparate solutions together, before you upgrade to enterprise-grade solutions down the road when cash flows permit.
The sales process is likely to lean heavily on outbound, given resource constraints, as well as some content, and entry-level Google Ads for high purchase intent keywords where applicable.
When it comes to outbound tools like Cognism are useful if you want to do it in-house yourself, and have a Sales Development Rep (SDR) you can use to run the campaigns. Cognism offers lists of contacts to prospect to in a GDPR-compliant manner.
6. Start Your Content Generation Journey Early
For many B2B SaaS companies, inbound marketing represents a cornerstone of all marketing activity. Inbound marketing is when you create compelling content that educates and informs your target personas, and they obtain value from it. As your audience engages with the content, it builds both familiarity and trust, ensuring that your solution is ‘front of mind’ when ‘pain’ arises that your application addresses. A common approach is to gate the most valuable content behind a form where prospects provide data about themselves in return for access to the content. The following elements are also important
The goal of the content needs to be educational / informative. Ideally, a senior leader writes it as entry-level content from someone junior will rarely be of value.
SEO needs to be baked in from the start. Understanding basic concepts related to SEO, especially the on-site elements is vitally important to set you on the right path (URL optimisation, Meta title and meta description, and internal linking).
Ensure you are running Google Analytics, Google Search Console and GA4 (ideally wrapped in Google Tag Manager) is also important.
One often overlooked area is the importance of amplifying the content created by promoting it regularly through a mix of channels from email to social media updates. The act of promoting the content needs much more emphasis than its mere creation.
Recommended Reading: Ten Tips to Make Sure You Are Not Wasting Your Time Creating Content
7. Qualify the Prospect and Enrich the CRM
Once you have generated some leads you need to qualify them. The amount of data captured can vary from a simple email address to a detailed assessment of their needs if the form has multiple fields and a comment section.
Again some of this pre-qualification should take place in advance of a face-to-face enriching the data from the likes of LinkedIn profiles and ensuring the data is captured in the CRM.
8. Focus on a Conversation rather than a Broadcast
Once the prospect has been qualified and a face-to-face meeting has been arranged (or increasingly a Zoom call) it is important to set the meeting agenda in advance.
Instead of defaulting to presentation mode where you ‘run through’ a PowerPoint, or better still, you take them through a high-level overview of the application, it is best to focus on a conversation where you seek to understand their needs a little better, as well as to gain an understanding as to how they buy solutions like yours. NB this is in stark contrast to how most entrepreneurs approach these meetings.
This may be scheduled as an initial discovery call rather than a demo. Once you are clear from the discovery call that you understand their unique requirements and can meet their needs, progressing to a demo which can be tailored slightly to meet their needs will help you improve conversion rates.
The following are the sorts of questions you should have the answers to by the end of your conversation.
What is the job that they do (related to your solution) and what business pains do they have?
How significant is the pain?
Is the pain pressing? What if they do nothing?
How do they buy solutions like yours i.e. do they need to go via procurement or can they buy direct? If they buy direct, do they have to have a shortlist of vendors to choose from?
Or are you competing with other applications or are you competing against inertia where they stick to the status quo? What alternatives exist in terms of solving their need? (Inertia — or doing nothing is usually the main competitor enterprise salespeople have)
Has the person you are talking to got decision-making and/or purchase authority?
Have they a budget?
What other stakeholders are likely to be involved in the decision?
What does the internal decision-making process like?
What are their timelines? Do they have a compelling reason to act now? Is this something that needs to be resolved urgently?
Where do they look for solutions like this (can help inform the marketing team as to where they should be concentrating their marketing budgets)
Without a checklist like this, it is all too easy to default to presentation mode when instead you need to view the interaction as an information exchange where you are looking to surface their needs so you can align your solution with these (or not if the case maybe).
Of course with all of this you need to manage your time — 30 min slots are increasingly the norm and this is tight. Hence you may want to structure your process whereby the above takes place separately and in advance of a ‘sales pitch’ as I suggest as part of a discovery call. Only once you are clear on their requirements can you then tailor a presentation that reflects their needs.
9. Manage the Pipeline
Once you have surfaced these answers (to the best of your ability) you are then in a better position to sell on features against these needs. You have followed the advice of Stephen Covey ‘seek first to understand and then to be understood’.
Assuming your solution addresses their needs, it is now time to showcase the power of your application before asking for the business. Only now it is time to demo!
Finally, once the demo has been done you need a process that manages the next phase.
Did the feature set meet their requirements?
Were there any obvious objections?
Were these objections overcome or were they show stoppers?
It is also important to seek an escalation of commitment from the prospective buyer to assess real intent. What action have you tasked them with to assess their levels of commitment?
10. Close the Sale
In most instances, it is possible to ask for the business at the end of the demo but often decision-making may require additional stakeholders or forms to be filled in (relating to everything from data privacy, to where data resides to data security). Regardless, the lead must be managed appropriately in the post-demo stage through to ‘the close’ with clearly defined actions planned depending on activity or inactivity after the demo.
Tracking data across SDRs and opportunities helps sales leads to assess the areas to focus most attention on based on comparisons as well as expected conversion rates.
Finally, it is important to invest in a decent sales tech stack to facilitate all of the above. Tools like Cognism can help build target lists, and depending on funding levels and deal size the sales tech stack can include additional tools like Linkedin Sales Navigator or Gong ( a popular video recording tool that records sales calls to help with training).
In summary, selling B2B software can be challenging, particularly in the early days, when it can be difficult to generate leads as resources are tight, and sales experience is thin on the ground. By following the simple sales methodology outlined above (or a derivative of it) early stage SaaS businesses can ensure that their efforts are rewarded.
The Illusion of Product/Market Fit for SaaS Companies by Brad Feld
How to Negotiate the Long, Slow, SaaS Ramp of Death by Gail Goodman
Five Ways to Build a $100 Million Business by Christoph Janz
The Complete, Actionable Guide to Marketing Personas by Kevan Lee
How to Shorten Your Sales Cycle and Avoid Wasting Time by Mark Suster
An earlier version of this article appeared here.
Co-Founder / CEO