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Making the Switch from Sales-Led to Product-Led Sales

Culture, process, and hiring - everything you need to know to make the transition from sales-led to product-led.
Rob Falcone
April 21, 2022
Making the Switch from Sales-Led to Product-Led Sales

In the sales world, it’s all about evolution.

Evolving your sales skills to keep up with the latest best practices. Evolving your sales team to ensure your roster is always full of top-performers. And sometimes even evolving your entire sales motion to prioritize assisting engaged people who are already using and loving your product.

That’s Product-Led Sales (PLS) — a bottom-up GTM model that leverages existing product users as a critical funnel for the sales team. This approach is powerful in accelerating revenue, cutting CAC, increasing ACV, and creating more pleasant experiences for both customers and reps

As the Senior Director of Product-Led Sales at Guru, I’ve been lucky to help the team evolve its traditional sales model into a PLS approach. To help you pursue your own shift, I’ll share critical insight into how we made the shift, the teams we built, the processes we developed, the challenges we ran into, and more.

Recognizing When (Or If) You’re Ready for Product-Led Sales 

There were two things that we saw at Guru that told us it was time to transition from sales-led to a PLS motion. 

First, it was obvious that our customers wanted a “try before you buy” experience. Product-Led Sales mirrors how people shop and buy in their personal lives. Your buyers are human. They make B2B purchasing decisions the same way they make personal ones. They want to get their hands on things quickly. Try them out. Make a low commitment while receiving instant gratification. That’s what PLS delivers. 

There are two ways to validate if your customers are pulling your company toward product-led:

  1. If you have a free offering: Look at the data to see how often people are (or are trying to) get into the product by talking to sales.
  2. If you don’t have a free offering: Review call recordings to see how often customers ask for a trial or proof of concept during sales conversations.

The second reason we began our shift toward product-led was simply that the strategy was a match for our product and our company goals. 

Our particular solution (Guru is a company wiki that brings the information people need to them, wherever they’re working) has serious network effects. The more people contributing, the more valuable it is for everyone. It’s also inherently viral, you share information with someone, they realize they could save time by doing the same thing, they create information of their own and share it.

Because of these inherent traits, we knew we could grow faster and more efficiently by leaning into product-led. We could give the people who wanted to start using the product the assistance they’d need while also complementing those adoption efforts with a traditional sales-led approach for the people who preferred that experience.

I’ll say now that PLS isn’t always right for all companies, and that’s fine. There are plenty of legitimate reasons a product might not lend itself to a Product-Led Sales approach: 

  • Your product is extremely complex, negating the self-serve and automation channels that are key to a product-led approach
  • Your product almost always requires executive sign-off before a trial 
  • Your product has very little virality, so it doesn’t generate the internal sharing and collaboration that helps so many bottom-up products grow
  • Your product serves highly regulated industries that often go to RFP

But for companies that it is right for, it’s time to dive in. Right now there is still a decently low barrier to get started, and PLS has a way of creating virality around a product. But the most important reason to make the shift to PLS now is because of something I’ve already mentioned and probably will again, because it’s that important — it’s what your buyers want.  

Want to hear more advice from Rob?  Join us on April 27 at 11 am for our next instalment of 'Real GTM Advice' on moving from Sales-Led to Product-Led, featuring Rob Falcone (Guru), Karishma Rajaratnam (Vidyard) and Madhukar Kumar (DevRev). Register for the panel 👉 here.

How to Take a Measured Approach to Your Sales Evolution 

Once you’re clear why a product-led shift is right for your company (or at the very least, why it’s worth experimenting with) you’ll want to take an iterative approach.

Here are a few strategies that will help you and your team maintain momentum and morale as you work through your evolution to a PLS motion. 

Get Real About the Cultural Element First

The first thing to do when transitioning from sales-led to a PLS motion is to get comfortable with the fact that this is going to be hard, you’re going to make mistakes, and it’s going to take what feels like forever as you iterate over and over again. 

Why’s it so hard? Let me count the ways:

  • Marketing teams will need to expand the top of the funnel to account for product-led’s long-tail approach. Messaging and tactics will need to change.
  • Product teams will need to shift some amount of focus from innovation to self-service blocking and tackling. As customers enter with an expectation of doing things on their own, tech resource allocations will need to change.
  • Sales reps will likely need to engage at new points in the buyer journey (often later) in product-led vs. sales led. Their sales motion and skill sets will likely need to change.
  • Sales leaders in traditional sales-led motions often teach reps to control the process and use friction to advance that process. In many ways, product-led flips the script and sales reps need to balance removing friction with advancing the sales process. The “give-gets” change.
  • Executives and finance leaders will need to get comfortable with how the economics of the business might change. In product-led, people will likely make smaller initial commitments to minimize risk, and then expand over time. Forecasting, compensation plans, and associated strategies will need to change.

The second thing to consider from a cultural standpoint is that product-led is a company shift, not just a sales shift. For proof, just look at all of the different bolded functions above that will need to change in some way or another.

Without agreement and alignment across the highest levels of the company, impact will suffer. 

There are certainly small wins an individual function (marketing, sales, product) can achieve on their own, but in this game, 1+1 really does equal 3.

The last thing to consider from a cultural standpoint is how you communicate with the team as you start making the incremental changes that we’ll talk about in the next few sections. When working through this transition with your team, it’s important to: 

  1. Be really clear on the “why” behind each change you make 🔍 
  2. Highlight even the smallest wins frequently 👏 

Map Your Customer Journey

As mentioned earlier, a big reason companies are shifting to product-led is to match how their customers buy in their personal life.

So for your company, you’ll want to map your customer journey as it stands today: 

  • What problems are they looking to solve?
  • How do they find your company as a potential solution? 
  • Once they do, how easy is it for them to do what they want to, whether that’s talk to sales or get into the product? 
  • Once in the product, how easy is onboarding? 
  • How easy is it to become a paying customer?  
  • How easy is it to roll the solution out to other users?

Pro tip: map it out with a flow chart, and highlight friction points at each stop in the journey. There will likely be a lot, and that’s OK! 

Assemble Your New PLS Transition Squad 

It probably doesn’t make sense to spin up any net new teams at the outset of your journey, until you’ve de-risked some assumptions and gotten clarity on who and what’s needed.

My suggestion would be to get a cross functional tiger team together with one purpose  — addressing the friction points across your customer journey. The functions will likely look something like this:

  • Top-of-funnel marketing: Who at your company can help increase reach to find more people with the problem you solve? Given that product-led is more of a “long tail” approach than sales-led, it requires more top of funnel demand.

  • Lifecycle marketing: Who can craft and deploy helpful 1:many communications that help users overcome some of those friction points you identified in your customer journey?

  • Sales-assist: Which humans can step in to help users with best practices around setup and adoption? And then guide them down the right path to conversion? This is a critical role, since your product was likely not originally designed for self-serve onboarding. This team could be staffed initially by folks from customer experience or support functions.
  • Customer support: Who is going to hold down the fort helping your existing customers and more advanced users with bugs, technical issues, and other miscellaneous issues that don’t fall under the guidance of sales-assist?

  • Sales: Who can weigh in on what the handoff from sales-assist to sales looks like, from designing process to feedback loops?

  • Product: Who can take the learnings from everyone above, and start to build more systemic changes needed within the product itself?

Create Feedback Loops

Although it’s implied in the name “product-led,” it can be super uncomfortable for humans to accept that in this new world, the customer is going to be doing a lot without you. For every customer you speak with, there may be five, five hundred, or five thousand more that are evaluating the product on their own.

The key, then, is to use every human-to-human conversation as a learning experience that can be used to build resources to help all of those customers that are choosing not to engage with a human just yet.

Here are a few easy items to help you create your early feedback loops. 

First, determine the type of insights you’d like to glean from your human-to-human interactions that might tell you what similar folks might be thinking or struggling with. These are things like:

  • Role or persona
  • Use case and pain that’s being solved
  • Friction points within the product
  • Additional stakeholders who would be involved in the purchase or expansion decisions 

Next, work with the folks on your PLS transition squad to determine what sorts of self-serve resources you could potentially build using these insights, to help grease the wheels of your product-led motion. A few examples:

  • Understanding role and personas Target similar people with relevant ads / content 
  • Use case examples and clear paint points ➡️Update website messaging
  • Uncovering friction points within the product (especially onboarding) ➡️Build product enhancements, tool tips, and help center articles
  • Speaking to additional stakeholders who would be involved in purchase decisions ➡️Create triggers for human intervention

Lastly, determine how you’ll gather the insights and disseminate them to the squad. This could be as simple as a human codifying responses into a form, or as advanced as a data analyst reviewing user clicks and usage.

Regardless of how you start — it’s crucial to simply get started, measure effectiveness, and share even small learnings.

Realize Sales May Always be Hybrid — And That’s OK 

At Guru, we now have our traditional sales-led motions built on top of our product-led foundation. My prediction is that more companies will settle into a similar hybrid solution.

To find the right balance between PLS and traditional sales-led, you need a keen understanding of how customers of different segments and sizes prefer to buy and a plan for how you’ll guide folks down the appropriate paths based on this understanding — plus what’s economically viable. For those gray areas, make it clear that whoever is in contact with the customer will do what’s needed to remove friction. 

The natural tendency for sales reps in the sales-led to product-led shift is to push anyone who needs help straight into a sales flow. But the last thing you want to do is pull people who want to, can, or should self-serve into a sales process. So what's a rep to do?

You can help your reps make the best decisions by defining basic if-this-then-that paths they can send users down when they engage, for example: 

  • If they’re an end-user type at a small company struggling with onboarding (i.e. you see them not getting to value), offer guidance supported by resources like documentation, how-to guides, and more (see: your feedback loop above!) to continue their self-serve journey.

  • If they’re an end-user type at a large company experimenting with features that might require an upgraded plan or buy-in from additional stakeholders, offer assistance pitching to additional teams and building a business case for the upgraded plan.

In this way, everything you do is rooted in helping the customer eliminate friction standing in the way of adoption, with the right rool (product guidance or sales process) deployed for the right job.

Hiring and Deploying PLS Reps

Here are the hiring and training tactics we used to build out our team of PLS reps at Guru. 

Capabilities to Hire On

These are the main capabilities we look for when adding new reps to Guru’s Product-Led Sales motion:

  • Comfort with data. Your PLS reps need to be able to look at consumer data and come up with a point of view on the next best steps, rather than just rely on what they learn in direct 1:1 interactions.
  • Product savvy. To sell a product in a PLS environment, reps need to be consummate experts in the product. In my experience, years ago, great sales reps won based on relationships, charisma, the ability to uncover pain, and an aptitude for conveying value. It’s not that these traits and skills aren’t important anymore, it’s just that customers are now accessing the product before sales conversations even start. They want accurate and fast product information, which charism can’t provide. 
  • Flexibility, for two reasons. One, at an execution level, customers are engaged at various points in their adoption curve, from “I know nothing at all and I need a demo” to “I’ve been using this for a month and need to know how to accomplish this specific thing.” This requires reps to be able to customize their communication to the adoption level. And two, in the bigger picture, this whole PLS landscape is so new and changing so rapidly — reps have to be flexible just to keep up. 
To learn more about hiring for the new sales-assist role specifically, read 5 Characteristics to Look For When Hiring the Sales-Assist Role.

Train and Ramp Quickly

It’s important to get PLS reps out in the field quickly, but not without making sure they have education and access to the right resources. For me, onboarding has two phases: training and ramping.

Training

In the training stage, you want to cover three core areas:

  1. Product training: PLS reps need to be super strong on product capabilities. 
  2. Customer training: Then comes customer training, which is even more important than product training. Because it’s not about what your product does, it’s about the cool shit customers do with it!
  3. Role-specific training: Finally, niche down into everything the PLS rep needs to know for their precise role.

Ramping

When ramping up PLS reps, I think about two things: progression and safety nets.

Progression 

Similar to an agile product development process, rather than wait until a person is ready to execute ALL things, I prefer to roll them out in stages, starting with the least risky / complex work and then working up. For example, imagine a customer facing person starting in a lower risk environment like live chat, then progressing to training new users in a group setting, to consulting high value customers in a 1:1 setting. 

In this way, the rep is able to provide value sooner (by increasing the team’s capacity and reducing wait times for customers), but also learn about frequently asked and edge case questions in lower stress environments where they can take a few extra seconds to look up verified information to send back to customers. 

Safety Nets

On the last point — a smart guy named Hermann Ebbinghaus did research that showed humans forget up to 70% of what they’re taught within 24 hours. So all that training you put together? You need to have a safety net for your new reps to access that information when and where they’re working. 

Be sure you have the information you taught in training clearly documented, actively kept up to date by the appropriate subject-matter experts, and accessible wherever reps are working (i.e. in their chat tool). 

My teams use Guru for this, but if you’re not ready for a purpose-built solution, use a Google Doc or whatever works for you. The cost of doing nothing here is high. Reps sharing the wrong product information with a customer will lead to a lot of frustration both for the customer and your reps. 

New Processes You May Want to Consider

As we settled into our transition to PLS at Guru, we found that there were a few new processes we needed to develop to smooth over the experience for both customers and our sales team.

First, we created a system for helping customers get through friction and move on to the next step in the journey. Sometimes friction is easy to identify — like when a customer brings it up in chat — and sometimes it’s uncovered when reviewing product data for negative health indicators. 

Once that friction is found out, there are different ways to work through it: demonstrate a solution, educate the customer about the best path forward, guide them out of the friction step-by-step, and even aggregate product usage data to help the user see how an upgrade can solve their problem. 

In addition, we found that we needed to route leads in a new way, define product-qualified leads based on activation score (read more about converting PQLs), and map new offerings to various points on the customer journey (onboarding trainings, consultations, 1:1 calls vs. 1:many webinars, etc).

Want to hear more advice from Rob?  Join us on April 27 at 11 am for our next instalment of 'Real GTM Advice' on moving from Sales-Led to Product-Led. Register for the panel 👉 here.

Challenges to be Aware of in Your PLS Evolution

As I’ve mentioned, change management has been a challenge in Guru’s PLS adoption because people are naturally, and understandably, nervous when it comes to shaking things up. 

Another challenge we’ve run into that I hope you can learn from is scope creep. Going from sales-led to product-led, or some hybrid of both, is a big project. You need to break it down into smaller elements and assign a scope to each. And you must stick to that scope in order to keep the whole process manageable.

We also ran into some challenges with getting our technology systems to sync up as we hired new reps, injected new data sources, created different types of reports, and built new processes into the workflow. Hangups like this are pretty common when asking old-school technology to keep up with modern approaches. To get around it, I've seen teams rebuild parts of their tech stacks and workflows, or buy entirely new software that’s geared toward solving these challenges.

Measuring and Celebrating Your Success

Here, in the final stretch of getting a functioning PLS motion in place, you finally get to measure how far you’ve come, look forward to where you’re going, and celebrate your wins. 

At the tactical level, this looks like A/B testing the initiatives that you launch within this PLS shift and reporting on very specific key performance indicators (KPIs) on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis. At a macro level, you want to look at company-level metrics over a quarterly and yearly basis, and across the entire funnel. Here’s what I’d recommend measuring:

  • Top of funnel growth
  • Conversion
  • Expansion
  • Retention/churn
  • Quarter-on-Quarter/Year-over-Year growth rates 

While this is a great phase in which to enjoy the progress your team has made, remember that it is just the end of a cycle. Making the shift to Product-Led Sales is making a commitment to continuous iteration as the market evolves and your product evolves along with it. But don’t worry, you now have the insights you need to build your own playbook for thriving through the change.

This long form read originally appeared in The Product-Led Sales Playbook for more insights from GTM leaders like Rob, download your copy 👉 here.

Making the Switch from Sales-Led to Product-Led Sales
Rob Falcone
Senior Director at Guru
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