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How to prepare for the sales bottleneck you’ll hit when you become successful

There is an imbalance between the state of digital marketing and digital sales. Proportionally, the marketing stack is bigger and better, and marketing teams are more savvy. Digital marketing got a head start, but sales is catching up. For sales leaders, this presents an opportunity to introduce the same sort of digital innovations we have seen develop in marketing over the past 5 years. It also means many sales organisations are being left behind as they cling to traditional ways of selling, just as marketers stuck to traditional forms of marketing until they were forced to move. Digital selling involves the use of data, sales automation, an inbound sales process and inside (a.k.a. remote selling) as part of the mix.

The taboo in startups

You can’t admit it to your investors, but I can say it. Sometimes you’re not even focused on sales. Often, bottlenecks in sales are not an issue in startups or early stage businesses as they receive buoyancy from investors, incubators and funding. This creates a runway that precludes actual sales on the basis of potential sales for a certain period of time. Put another way, a startup can operate at a loss for a while before they hit that ‘hockey stick’ part of the graph where they’ve got to prove they can get way more customers than before in order to survive.

The hidden bottleneck in startups

The digital lag between marketing and sales is invisible to most companies in their first couple of years in business. Usually, a business starting out has a defined objective to establish momentum - they’re looking to demonstrate the commercial potential of the business in order to secure funding - usually what’s called Seed or Series A funding,` until the business provides an adequate return for itself and its investors. For better or worse, this is especially true in Europe where state supports and incubation of startups are exemplary. Determining your business model and finding product-market fit is first, increasing and ramping up sales is next.

Dual purpose in startups

Let’s face it - the stated objectives for early stage businesses are often secondary to the actual objectives. As an example, someone recently came to us looking for consultancy on how to optimise, or increase, sales. The company was in its first year, had a few customers and was showing growth and getting lots of interest from investors. After looking at the business and what would be required to create an optimised sales system for their organisation, what we realised was that this company, while healthy and full of potential from an investor’s point of view, had not yet encountered the problems we are talking about - too many leads and an imperative to qualify and move those leads through the funnel as fast as possible to closed won or closed lost. Startups in their first year or two often have an unstated objective: to demonstrate plans, systems and indicators of potential future sales in order to secure funding. Once funding is secured, it could be a year or more before that company is under pressure to match and exceed the growth demands of those investments. Often at this point the objectives switch from demonstration of growth or potential growth to revenue, sales or some related metric.

Digital sales is not digital marketing

Digital sales and digital marketing have evolved differently. Marketing blazed ahead and today digital marketing is a well-established discipline that means even the term ‘digital’ is redundant. Marketing is digital, full stop. The issue with marketing being so advanced is that it is inevitable that innovative companies who master digital marketing techniques will face a bottleneck in sales, which is lagging as a discipline in terms of digital transformation. Sales are still operating largely in an analogue way. Marketing can now scientifically and predictably generate leads for a sales team to follow up and close - but they can’t always guarantee they’re a good fit, nor can they stem the tide if the number of leads becomes too much for the sales team to handle. Even the most sophisticated sales organisation using conversational selling and inbound methodologies, including those ramping up sales using Inside Sales i.e. remote selling teams, are finding that there is a chasm between what can be designed, implemented and measured in marketing vs. what can be done in sales. When more sales become the priority for a business, focus changes to more sales led metrics. As I said, sales related metrics are traditionally analogue. That makes it harder to measure and improve sales systems. Even if you’re using a CRM to track sales, chances are your sales system is not optimised. While they’re improving, the state of sales development technologies and systems are far from standardised from a digital perspective. There are thousands of technologies available to help you create your own sales system, but this is actually holding sales organisations back as it creates confusion, leading many businesses under pressure to generate sales to forego digital transformation and replace digital with tried and trusted sales - good, old-fashioned sales. Except it’s not working as well as it used to...

Inside Sales and Sales Automation

Inside Sales is still one of the fastest growing areas in sales since 2013 when it was growing at a rate of 300%. Today the Inside Sales model, based on high value, active buyers having conversations with knowledgeable salespeople who cater solutions specifically to what’s valuable to them, is growing 15 times faster than a traditional sales model. What’s trending in 2018 are more advanced forms of sales - optimising the balance between your sales automation technologies and the high value human interactions that can help a business development representative (BDR) move a lead to the qualified stage (SQL/Opportunity) faster, while still offering the maximum amount of value to the customer along the way. It’s about data and managing that data so you can access and use it in an optimised way. Having said this, Inside Sales are a just a piece of the puzzle. Marketing are bringing nurtured leads up to 57% of the way through the sales journey. 44% of the pipeline is usually sourced by marketing for sales.

Bring sales and marketing together

Take a holistic look at your business from the new perspective of ‘sales optimisation’. Sales systems are as unique per organisation as the many marketing systems we see in innovative companies who over the past number of years have developed awesome combinations of SaaS technologies with inventive processes designed to improve the user experience and attract more customers. Sales technologies have also improved over the last ten years. The systems to use them just haven’t been as clearly described - it’s early days for this sort of thing. Sales is still kind of a black box when it comes to the following:

  • frameworks
  • methodologies
  • tech stacks
  • optimisation
  • staffing and resources
  • business models


Processing leads in an optimised way

In this article, when I talk about leads, I’m speaking primarily about B2B customers who take a while to purchase and require a few conversations before they close. If you’re involved in B2C transactional type sales, they tend to fall into another world of sales more closely related to digital marketing and this probably won’t be as relevant to your business, but if you think of sales involving multiple stakeholders or decision makers within an organisation, and perhaps more than one salesperson speaking with the prospect before they buy, then we’re on the same page.

What about Bob?

Before we get into the complications and complexities of all this, the easiest way to look at your sales system, in general, is to think of just one lead, one person that’s got the potential to be a customer. Let’s call him Bob. So think of that one lead, Bob - he has been attracted enough to your company that he wants to talk to you. He’s a warm enough lead, otherwise known as an active lead, and your job is to make sure he's a good match for what you offer. After that you’ve got to basically close the deal as quickly as you can... right? Well, there are a few things along the way that modern buyers expect in addition to a demo and a fast close that changes the game a little. Nowadays, sales are focused more on relationships and mutual value at every step of the process. It’s different from the old way of ‘spray and pray’ selling where it used to be ‘close at all costs’ and ‘Always Be Closing’. Thought of another way, the chances are that Bob has been carefully groomed by your marketing team to expect a higher level of engagement than a simple demo, proposal and a price negotiation. He’s looking for something more.

One lead moving through the funnel:

What we are trying to do is make sure that Bob moves through your sales process as smoothly as possible. But typically, Bob might hit a couple of small snags along the way. Maybe the demo you’ve scheduled keeps changing dates, and your technical guys have to rearrange their calendars every time to participate. Maybe you’re trying to coordinate with the head of sales so they can sit in and lend authority and expertise to the proceedings. Maybe Bob is having trouble gathering his team, including a couple of key decision makers who will be instrumental in getting sign off for the deal … These are human delays and human problems affecting a sales system you’re trying to automate as much as possible.

Don’t be afraid to say NO to Bob.

Maybe Bob is actually a bad fit - you might spend 3 months talking to this person to find that at the end of all that, they’re looking for something different to what you offer now. In cases like that, a common reaction is to try to get the sale anyway - particularly if you’re a software or SaaS company. "Can you do this?”, Bob asks. “Of course we can!”, says the seller, only to drive the development team crazy with yet another bespoke application for one customer that may or may not add value to the company, but will definitely pull the development team away from what they should be doing for the majority of their customers. Incidentally, the future of the company often rests on how many of these types of requests unnecessarily get into the pipeline of a growing company - all because sellers are not equipped or inclined to say no to Bob.

More snags

So let’s say Bob’s a fit. Next you’ve got to make sure he’s onboard as soon as you can - get him to sign up for something so he’s committed - right? Many SaaS companies, in particular, have streamlined their sales processes to eliminate as much friction as possible - by introducing free trials at early stages in the sales process for example. But this is not always possible to do. If you have a larger Platform as a Service (PaaS) model, for example, that requires specific configuration based on feedback from the customer. Each customer is sold a different setup, and so they need to be onboard individually, either by the sales team or later in the process by the Customer Success team. Sales often pressure the product team for a ‘self-serve’ version of a complex platform. Again, depending on the complexity of the product, this can either streamline sales or introduce tailbacks in the roadmap as the product team scramble to simplify the product, while sales wait and promise Bob that self serve is on the way - making promises they can’t keep. This kind of thing happens in every business - there’s an art to balancing the needs of the customer between sales, marketing, customer success and the product team. Product Marketing/Product Management as a key role in the business is now commonplace - these are the Product People tasked specifically with being the voice and head of the customer.  Product Managers allow a business to build for the customer that which is is most valuable for the company, while at the same time making sure the customer is served. That’s a separate, fascinating topic - but that’s not what I want to get into here. When all is said and done, sales want well qualified leads to buy their product.

Bring it back to Bob

What I’d like you to think about is that one lead we’re talking about, Bob, and what he experiences from his perspective as he goes through the process of buying from you. If there are blocks, delays, confusion, inefficiencies, hold-ups or mismatches as he goes through his ‘buyer journey’, that reduces the probability of him buying from you. Maybe by a lot, maybe by a little - but every time there’s a snag, Bob is that bit less likely to buy.

A smooth sales engine purrs

Now think of your sales organisation as an engine that’s been designed to move that lead (Bob) as smoothly and as quickly as possible through the different parts of his 'buyer journey’, so that he becomes a customer. What’s more, if you’re really good, you’ll be checking along the way to see if you and Bob are going to get along in the future. If you’re looking for success, it’s best to think of this as a long term relationship before committing. A great sales organisation makes sure that the customer is a great fit for your business and its values. This is a way to ensure that Bob's more likely to stick around for a long time, rather than get buyer’s remorse and leave post-sales. You’re not only looking for a successful sale but a good fit. You’re trying to get Bob to tell his friends to buy from you too, based on his own experience, and to keep buying from you as you grow together.

Turn it up

Let’s recap: So far, you’ve invested in marketing to go out and find Bob, the most likely guy out there to buy your product or service. Next you’ve had a series of conversations and you’ve come to know Bob and his team intimately. You know his challenges, his goals, his favourite pastimes… you’re right in there, in the middle of his life, and you know what makes him tick. You also know who he reports to, what he’s measured on in his job and who’s butt is on the line when he finally decides to purchase. Now think about scaling that to 1000 marketing qualified leads (MQLs). Do you believe that your sales organisation could handle 1000 MQLs today? Do you believe you could do this without any falling through the cracks or experiencing anything less than the best you gave Bob?  That’s a lot of Bobs to take care of… When you’re facing a large increase in leads passing through your sales system, suddenly the small snags that Bob experienced become much, much bigger. Not only that, more snags appear - for example, if you were relying on your one great sales guy, the guy that’s been there the longest, who knows the product better than anyone, to attend all your sales meetings so the prospect could understand what it could do for them, suddenly it becomes very difficult to pin him down - there are only so many hours in the week and pulling him into every sales meeting is impossible and doesn’t make the best use of their time. The only response to scaling your sales efficiently is to automate as much as possible. You’ve got to develop your own sales system so that it uniquely suits your business. Inside Sales being the case in point - the advantage of Inside Sales to increase your proficiency, particularly in B2B sales, has been well documented, particularly in SaaS companies for example. But you’ve still got to figure out the best system for your business - compensation, who to hire and where the handover occurs between marketing and sales are just the tip of the iceberg as you work out what will work best for your customers. Organising your Inside Sales team to use your company’s information so that it delivers the most value and maximises return has become a dominant factor in the success of businesses today*.

Sales Systems are the new killer app!

Doesn’t marketing do all that?

Let’s talk about marketing for a second. In a way Marketing, simply put, is a commercial way to buy leads. Spend money on marketing, leads are the output (ideally). The MQL (Marketing Qualified Lead) is the ultimate goal for the marketing team - supply as many as those MQLs as possible, then hand them to the sales team to close the deal.

Beyond the MQL

Buying leads through marketing and throwing them at an inefficient sales system is like burning money - you’re throwing fuel into an inefficient engine and it’s just burning up those MQLs. The problem with throwing leads at volume, let’s say 1000, on an inefficient sales system is that the engine that isn’t optimised to process those leads efficiently so it burns that fuel at a rate that can sink a business.

That’s the bottleneck in sales that you hit when you become successful.

The bottleneck is right there at the intersection between MQL (marketing qualified lead) and the eventual sale. This is where things get stuck and leads pile up, waiting for someone to talk to them. The way to prepare, before it’s a problem, is to design a sales system that optimises the mutual value presented at each point in the buyer’s journey. In simple language, you’ve got to develop your sales organisation in anticipation of the hoard of Bobs that’ll come knocking on your door very soon, each of them looking for individual, personalised attention. If you’d like to learn more about how we help businesses create their sales system and optimise sales, feel free to reach out for a no-strings-attached assessment of your business where we’ll give you a roadmap to improve your sales - before you hit the bottleneck. You can book a time in our calendar or use the contact us me at andrew(at) *Recommended reading: Blueprints for a SaaS Sales Organization: How to Design, Build and Scale a Customer-Centric Sales Organization (Sales Blueprints) (Volume 2)by Jacco Van Der Kooij , Fernando Pizarro , Winning by Design.