PLS

Building the Sales-Assist Function from Zero to One

Is sales-assist the key role to operationalize your Product-Led Sales playbook?

Steeve Vakeeswaran
Venture Partner at Afore Capital
Building the Sales-Assist Function from Zero to One

Playbook Overview

When should you run this playbook?
You see a high volume of hand raisers or you have a more complex onboarding journey where there is self-serve drop off.

Playbook goal?
Get users to experience value faster or help them do more with your product.

Responsible team(s)?
Sales-Assist

The TL;DR

  • Get new trial or freemium users to value quickly by implementing a a Sales-Assist motion.
  • Build out a successful Sales-Assist motion by focusing on hiring the right profiles for the team.
  • Learn from Steeve's example on how he helped build the Sales-Assist function from zero to one at Zapier.

From coach to specialist to advocate, there are many names for the internal role that guides users through their interactions with a product. 

But while its name may vary, there’s one underlying feature that defines this role across the board: assisting users in any way necessary to help them find value and deepen their engagement with a product — ultimately generating sales, improving customer experience, and garnering retention.

This is why it makes sense to call those in this role “sales-assist” professionals. 

But what exactly does the sales-assist role do? Do you need to implement it at your company? And, if so, where do you start when building this function from zero to one — and beyond? 

As the Head of Sales and Expansion at Zapier, I’ve had the opportunity to work across sales, marketing, and customer success to develop a deep understanding of the sales-assist role. In this article, I’ll introduce you to the nuances of sales-assist, how to find the best people for the role, and how to start building your own team today.

What Does the Sales-Assist Role Look Like?

The sales-assist role in a Product-Led Sales (PLS) approach is precisely what it sounds like. In this role, sales professionals assist users in their journey, whether they need help making a purchase or support getting past a point of friction while using the product. 

The sales-assist team offers a human touchpoint for users who are potentially good sales opportunities and need help solving a problem, getting value out of the product, or making a purchasing decision. 

There are three core tasks for which the sales-assist role is responsible. 

Sales Support

First and foremost, the sales-assist role should identify opportunities that are ready for sales. They may find these opportunities while helping users (such as hand-raisers) with upgrade decisions, answering pricing inquiries, and doing anything else they can to remove friction in the sales process. But sales-assist reps also need to be savvy at looking beyond the hand-raisers, especially in product-led growth organizations with strong self-serve motions that make these opportunities rare. In this setting, sales-assist reps may not be helping users who are on a human-led sales path, but instead adding value by quickly inserting themselves into the workflow, unblocking a user, and exiting the flow so that the user can go on to complete a self-serve purchase. 

Education and Enablement

When using a PLS model, education is enablement. The sales-assist role should focus on educating users on product features to deepen their engagement, unblock them, and showcase the value of features beyond the paywall.

Feedback Loop

Finally, sales-assist pros should empathize with users to capture feedback and funnel it to sales, product, marketing, and growth teams. In particular, feedback about how to remove friction is most beneficial. This input can help product and growth teams make improvements so that future users can self-serve into higher plans without a human touchpoint.

As far as what the sales-assist role should not do, they should not engage with every single user that comes through the self-serve funnel. This is an inefficient use of time and can cannibalize the sales motion.

Of course, tasks will look different depending on your go-to-market, product, and company goals. So while the sales-assist role typically consists of these three core components, some conversations might skew more towards sales, others toward support and enablement, and so on.

The Role of Sales-Assist During Onboarding at Zapier 

At Zapier, the sales-assist team doesn’t get on calls with users to educate them on the value of Zapier. Users can find the information they need through our self-serve documentation and marketing content. The goal of the sales-assist team is to showcase the product, inspire use-cases, and get them past the procurement processes.

My sales-assist team does this by helping users through setup so they can reach their “aha moment” and experience value  — ideally while on that live call with the sales-assist team. Specifically, we want them to experience the “aha” of how easy it is to experiment with zaps.

We’ve found this to be the highest incremental value action the sales-assist team can take — to impact the activation and long-term success of users. 

Experimentation is Key When Building Sales-Assist Responsibilities

It’s important to remember that we didn’t always have our sales-assist system figured out. It’s been an iterative process. We tried and failed at other approaches before landing on this as the best way to inject humans into the onboarding flow. 

For example, when first building out the sales team at Zapier, we put the team on live chat in hopes of converting people. Turns out, that was a poor way to convert our users — especially when it came to very sticky users! So we pivoted away from that and experimented until we landed on the workflow we use today. 

Iteration is essential when building the playbook that’s successful for you. I can tell you from experience that best practices and effective tactics hardly ever translate directly from one organization to the next

Try this Playbook

#1 Determine if You’re Ready for a Sales-Assist Function

When I first joined Zapier, the company’s focus on product-led growth (PLG) and self-serve meant that they had not yet hired a sales team. 

Here are the factors that indicated to me that it was time to add a human touchpoint to the existing processes at Zapier:

  • The primary persona in the funnel had changed from user-centric to buyer- or procurement-centric. Multiple stakeholders had become involved and it was tough to cater to all of them using the existing low-touch system. Because of this, Zapier experienced a dip in conversion rates.

  • The time to first value also changed as Zapier targeted enterprise use cases with multiple stakeholders.

  • The seat expansion process was not easy enough for self-serve users to complete. 

As Zapier moved to an upmarket expansion motion, new moments of friction appeared in the onboarding and upgrading stages that hindered our growth. By hiring sales and sales-assist professionals, we were able to turn these friction points into smooth sales touchpoints.  

To get more general, here are a few common scenarios that may signal it’s time to add a sales-assist team at any organization: 

  • An uptick in hand-raisers: If you’re starting to see a high volume of hand-raisers within potentially high-value accounts, you may want to shift the responsibility from your reactive customer success or support teams to a proactive sales-assist team.
  • Friction in the self-serve process: Friction can cause drop-off or prevent users from seeing the value of paid plans. If you see stagnation in your conversion rates, you might want to experiment with a sales-assist role to carry users over known friction points. 

#2 Outline the hiring profile to start building Your Sales-Assist team 

When you’re building a sales-assist team from zero, your early hires need to have a majority of these traits:

  • Experimental: Ability to test, learn, iterate, and test again — rapidly
  • Technical: Curiosity about the product and ability to go deep into the product 
  • Collaborative: Works well cross-functionally 
  • Communicative: Can communicate effectively, distill feedback, and synthesize ideas
  • Educational: Ability to slip into a customer success-like mindset to educate and enable 
  • Metrics- and data-driven: Familiarity with data, ability to identify why and which data is vital to the role, and comfortable being measured against key sales metrics

It’s safe to say that, in the beginning, new hires should have a generalist skillset and mentality. You’ll need them to cover all the bases while your team grows. But as you go beyond your first few hires, you won’t need to find as many “unicorns” and instead can focus on making sure the team is well-rounded.

Just like everything else in the emerging field of PLS and the sales-assist role, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to hiring. Ideal candidates will depend on your business, go-to-market motion, and goals. For example, a product for developers may want to hire more technical resources that lean toward customer success and support. But a less technical product may want to hire more traditional sales profiles to build a sales-assist team that compliments their business development team.

#3 You’re ready to start building your Sales-Assist team today

I hope you’ve enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at what has worked, and what hasn’t, during my time building the sales-assist function from scratch at Zapier.

While some of the details will look different at your organization, remember these key elements to put together your best team: 

  • The focus of the sales-assist role is to remove friction, conduct education and enablement, refer opportunities to sales, and develop feedback (not engage every user in the funnel). 
  • It’s time to consider adding sales-assist when you’re seeing increased hand raising and/or friction in the self-serve workflow. 
  • Early hires should have a variety of sales and customer success skills — add specialists later. 
  • Never stop experimenting!

About the Author

Steeve Vakeeswaran — Currently Venture Partner at Afore Capital. Previously he led sales and expansion at Zapier and helped to build their sales-assist team from scratch. 

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