Embracing Sales at a PLG Company

Transitioning smoothly from pure PLG to a hybrid approach
Chris De Vylder
May 3, 2022
Embracing Sales at a PLG Company

This piece originally appeared in Pocus’ Product-Led Sales playbook , download your copy here.

Transforming the sales model that is so fundamental to the identity and success of a business is no small task.

However, it’s often necessary for even life-long product-led growth (PLG) organizations to introduce some kind of sales function to unlock new growth.

I helped lead one such transformation during my time as Head of Global Sales Strategy and Operations at Atlassian, as well as in my current role as Chief Revenue Officer at Sentry

Worried about changing the culture, the language, and the workflows at your own PLG company to fully integrate sales? I’ll share with you how I led the process of embracing sales in primarily PLG settings. 

Defining Complementary Roles: How to Start the Sales Conversation

In pure-play PLG companies, which I think of as companies who have achieved an annual recurring revenue (ARR) level of $5M+ without the involvement of traditional sales teams, there’s often an initial aversion to bringing on sales teams — which typically starts all the way up at executive leadership.

The key is to define very clearly and very early where sales has a role to play and how it will complement the PLG motions. While this may sound a bit prescriptive in an organization that’s already hesitant about a new sales motion, it’s actually in the best interest of the company to figure this out and define those boundaries.

At Atlassian, we consciously decided that sales would not be driving new logos. We communicated that we’d keep relying on word-of-mouth to drive sign-ups and the product to drive activations, without sales intervention. Of course this is not possible in every company — we don’t intend to do this at Sentry, for example — but it’s an example of something we clearly agreed to upfront.

We also carved out specific sales playbooks for high-potential accounts. These PLG customers expected a different kind of engagement model when upgrading to higher dollar value plans. But even there, we would not prevent customers from buying self-serve by putting up artificial barriers that forced them to engage with sales.

We reached success by constantly experimenting to find the best possible engagement model, with a bias towards self-serve where possible — and by being fully transparent about it. This approach required sales leadership that was flexible and understood the power of PLG and its impact on go-to-market effectiveness. It also required constant education and communication across the rest of the organization. This is especially important when you consider that most employees, especially where there’s already an org-wide resistance to sales, only equate salespeople with the ones they’ve met at the car dealership. Fortunately for all of us, software sales has evolved quite a bit from there. 

4 Steps to Thoughtfully Building Your New Sales Motion

There are four main steps I’ve observed when it comes to implementing sales at PLG companies while maintaining a robust culture:

  1. Develop clear definitions of accountability, including what product owns versus sales/marketing. These boundaries should be decided on together with product, growth, marketing, and sales organizations, while maintaining a strong bias towards self-serve where it is deemed appropriate. 
  2. Clearly outline the playbooks. Let the larger, upmarket customers who demand more support be the blueprint for sales playbooks. Focus on upselling and cross-selling based on the attributes of the customer.
  3. Roll out the sales motion to one customer segment that would most benefit from a sales approach. Perfect the motion and then expand from there. 
  4. Layer new sales metrics on top of the core PLG metrics that you already track like pipeline targets, PQL conversion, and MQL conversion.

The bottom line is not to inject any gimmicks to force customers into engaging with sales. If customers want to purchase higher ASP products via self-serve, let them do so without friction. For example at Sentry, we recently made BAAs (data protection agreements required for HIPAA compliance) available via self-serve instead of requiring a human touchpoint. 

Let Key Teams Work Together to Outline New Responsibilities and Boundaries  

From a cultural perspective, it’s important to make sure sales feels like an extension of the PLG culture. After you have established where sales plays and outlined clear joint definitions of accountability, you are ready to dig into the rest of the process. 

All of these newly-defined responsibilities and boundaries should be communicated across the company, with special emphasis placed on the fact that some customers demand this kind of support.

Create Clear Playbooks and Compensation to Prevent Confusion

Why do I keep harping on clear roles and responsibilities, accountability, and playbooks? Because they are pivotal in preventing confusion and fighting over leads between self-serve and sales. 

These agreements also need to be baked into compensation plans so that sales teams know where to play. This may require some level of flexibility, such as compensating a salesperson when a customer purchases self-serve after many months of engagement with a salesperson. Once a lead is handed over, sales becomes accountable. One can revisit what gets handed over on a six-month or yearly basis to ensure that sales makes a difference. But in the in-between periods, you want there to be no second-guessing.

I recommend only compensating salespeople for certain products/features to ensure you don’t cannibalize a healthy self-serve motion. When I was at Atlassian, compensation was tied to user limits. At Sentry, it’s tied to the need to negotiate agreements, minimum usage-based commitments, and more. As mentioned above, at Atlassian we also compensated sales for self-serve purchases of the products within their scope. The implicit assumption is that engagement was necessary to drive the transaction.

Want to learn more about sales compensation in a product-led business? Learn more from Sara Archer and Marie Gassée.

Roll Out Sales Motion to Critical Customer Segments First 

Just like everything else, launching a sales function should be done slowly and methodically. 

Start with a customer segment that would benefit from a sales approach and run that playbook first. At Atlassian, we began with an upsell to more enterprise-grade versions of the product, which were required by our larger customers. And at Sentry, we focus on customers who want to expand their utilization of the product and need a deeper level of technical assistance. In addition, we target those migrating from competitive products or our own open-source product. 

Once you prove successful in your initial rollout, you can expand your motions. Just be sure to maintain a conscious focus on value-add by sales.

Layer New and Existing Success Metrics

Embracing sales should not totally replace but instead evolve the metrics you measure. That means all your existing core PLG metrics that track sign-ups, activation, adoption, etc. can remain in place. On top of these, you can layer more sales-related metrics. 

At Sentry, we overlaid our PLG metrics with a set of more traditional sales metrics around leads handed over to sales. Leads include product-qualified leads (PQLs), marketing-qualified leads (MQLs), and leads identified by other parts of the organization such as customer success, support, business development, etc. We also use a fairly traditional pipeline attribution exercise to define targets for pipeline contribution that we hold product, marketing, and sales accountable to.

For sales, once an opportunity is created, we track it like any traditional sales organization. We’re fairly traditional when it comes to pipeline tracking and bookings goals for sales. 

What Should You Call Your New Hybrid Team? 

There is some uncertainty and even resistance around what PLG companies should call these new teams they’ve built. Sometimes they’re pure sales, sometimes they’re acting more like product experts, and sometimes they slip into customer success tasks. In my opinion, what you choose to call your new salespeople really only matters if they give different levels of assistance to the customer.

For example, at both Atlassian and Sentry, we have teams that provide product assistance to our self-serve customers. They’re called Product Advocates at Atlassian and Solution Engineers at Sentry. They’re not called salespeople because they are not actively selling.

However, for actual sales teams, I believe in ripping off the bandage and calling it sales because selling is what they do day in and day out. 

Once you’ve chosen the most appropriate names for new teams, clearly communicating what each team does and how it complements PLG is essential. The earlier you start using accurate names and communicating clearly, the faster new motions will be absorbed in the fabric of your company.

Integrate Sales Into Your PLG Company Successfully 

Embracing sales in PLG environments is one part taking tactical steps and one part encouraging eventual cultural incorporation.

Have thoughtful yet clear conversations around roles, responsibilities, playbooks, metrics, and even compensation to bring both of these parts together to build a successful sales motion. 

Want more advice on building your Product-Led Sales motion from top PLG leaders? Download your copy of the Product-Led Sales Playbook Volume 1 for 140 pages of expert advice, best practices and frameworks.

Embracing Sales at a PLG Company
Chris De Vylder
Chief Revenue Officer, Sentry
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