Without tons of precedents to learn from, it can be difficult to know if you’re taking the right approach to hiring a well-appointed sales team that is capable of identifying high-value leads, guiding users to value, and building systems that continually optimize sales functions.
But in my time at Atlassian, Dropbox, and Confluent, I helped define some of the most robust profiles that exist to describe the main hires that make up an effective PLS team.
Let’s discuss those profiles, as well as how to screen candidates for product competency and why the PLS organization is an ideal training ground for creating leaders across your company.
Three Profile Types for Building Your PLS Team
As the VP of Self-Serve Growth at Dropbox and CMO at Confluent, it became clear that there were three types of profiles that we needed to build a well-rounded sales team.
If you’re just getting started building out a Product-Led Sales team, it is best to hire for one profile at a time — whichever makes the most sense for your goals and who you already have on your team — and then gradually build over time.
Now, let’s dive into the three types of profiles.
Profile One: Sales-Assist — Curious, Customer-Focused Reps
The sales-assist role is made up of "early-stage" reps. Whether it’s their first sales job, first job out of college, or first job after switching professions — it’s their first introduction to sales. Or, if you’re building a sales-assist team from your current roster of employees, the team can be made up of sales development reps (SDRs) or customer success reps that are passionate about your product.
I strongly believe that people who are newer to the sales game make for the best candidates when it comes to sales-assist. They are the most curious and the most hungry to learn from customers. They’re not so far down the rabbit hole that they can’t gel with a new way of doing things.
When hiring for this role, I always looked for people who were fundamentally curious about our product and technology and somebody who really wanted to study customers and how they were using the product. I found they were usually inclined to learn from customers, rather than to only try to sell to them. This matters because, in a sales-assist role, it really isn’t about selling or even qualifying leads — it’s about helping users get to value.
What Does “Sales-Assist” Mean?
Let’s back up the bus for those of you who haven’t heard the term “sales-assist” before. I’m not surprised if you haven’t as it’s only recently started taking off in the PLS world. It’s a label I came up with in my early days at Dropbox, when I was tasked with figuring out a solution for serving customers that existed in that chasm between the inbound and outbound sales motions.
You might already have a similar role at your company, but you’re calling it a customer advocate, an onboarding specialist, an inbound salesperson, an SDR, or something similar. Whatever you call this team, its ultimate goal should be assisting a user in their journey, whether that’s to complete a purchase or overcome a friction point in their free experience.
There are four main tasks that every sales-assist rep should focus on:
- Interacting with hand-raisers (inbound): In an inbound, reactive function, sales-assist helps users with low-touch mechanisms (email, live chat, etc.), then sends them back into the self-serve funnel.
- Looking for opportunities to improve the motion with a human touch (outbound): The sales-assist team is responsible for finding high-value prospects and adding a human into the motion at the right time. I call this the “smart touch” motion. When I’ve implemented this strategy at past companies, the rule was that every experiment that the outbound team ran had to compete against the self-serve machine. If the outbound motion could beat the self-serve machine with additional ROI, they could keep the segment.
- Enterprise lead generation: Sales-assist reps should be qualifying leads with a simple set of questions before sending them off to the enterprise sales team.
- Creating a feedback loop: Because they’re on the front lines, it makes sense for sales-assist reps to capture feedback from self-serve customers and funnel that information back to sales, marketing, growth, and product teams. This is the most important function of the sales-assist team. Sales-assist folks are the intermediaries between the customer and the business. They talk to 10x more users in a week than anyone else does in a year, so they’re really getting into the minds of customers.
You may think this sounds like a customer success role, and I agree. The sales-assist role is similar to the customer success role, except it starts earlier in the funnel. Sales-assist reps are often doing a key task that customer success reps would do — helping set up or use the product. But in a PLS function, this is happening before the sale instead of after.
That’s why when you’re hiring for this profile, you’re very much looking for someone with a customer success skill set. You might literally even want to hire a junior customer success person. Eventually, this person could exit sales-assist to become a customer success rep within your organization. That’s just one example of how the sales-assist role can double as a “boot camp” of sorts for Product-Led Sales folks — which is a concept I’ll talk about in more detail later.
To learn more about the origin and definition of the sales-assist role, read my AMA with Pocus CEO, Alexa.
Profile Two: Product Advocates — Deep Product Experts with Sales Experience
Your core sales team will function much like other traditional SaaS sales teams, but they will primarily target product-qualified leads (PQLs) rather than MQLs or cold leads. So the reps who make up this team need to have at least some level of sales experience. And since you’re in a product-led environment, they should also have deep product expertise — especially if your offering is highly technical.
You’re looking for these skills because you want your sales team to be ready to serve customers in three critical ways:
- Engineer solutions at a high level: Unlike sales-assist reps, your sales team will focus on addressing customers who don’t have basic usage and feature questions — they want a solution, right now.
- Take use-case deep dives: Sales reps will also work with customers who want to learn how your product serves their specific use cases or how a particular feature works. For this, you need sales folks who have exhibited that they’re able to take on and communicate detailed product knowledge.
- Has experience closing sales: I usually gave a little discount power to my sales reps so when the solution they helped engineer turned into a sales conversation, they had more leverage. But if a rep didn’t know how to wield that power, it could actually become a poor customer experience. That’s why you want to make sure people in this role already have some experience closing sales.
When hiring for sales, I look for candidates that show technical aptitude or product aptitude. People who can go a little deeper, who understand the product and how to navigate the product. But most importantly, they also have to understand how to talk to a customer — which I think sometimes you don't get at the traditional SDR level.
Great sales reps should be able to go on to become solutions engineers. At Confluent, that’s how we thought about hiring for our sales team. We looked for what basically amounted to junior solutions engineers.
Profile Three: Sales Ops — A Management-Minded Enablement Group
The final layer of a full-fledged Product-Led Sales team is an element that tackles overarching tasks that help enable the PLS motion. While I still think of it as sales operations when giving it a label, it’s a modern take on traditional sales ops that’s partially operational and partly program management-focused.
No matter what this team is called, what matters is that they are the ones who aren’t selling but who are thinking about how to scale selling. They’re thinking about a variety of optimizations:
- How do we train this whole group of Product-Led Sales folks?
- How do we utilize chat (and other programs) across all these different folks?
They are like an enablement, education, and tooling function. They take resources created by product marketing and go, "Okay, how do we teach everybody to do this?"
For example, at Confluent, there was a point where we realized providing demos was a simple yet high-leverage opportunity to deepen sales conversations. So, what our sales operations-like team did was find the best people that we had at giving demos and recorded them.
At first, they used these recordings to teach other reps how to give great demos. But what they soon realized was that they could just create one strong demo video that every rep could either play for or send to users. From there, the conversation moved away from just showing the demo to answering product questions, discussing product use cases, etc. That video became a doorway to deeper engagement.
This is a simple example, but I use it to show how our sales operations team came up with, owned, and scaled an enablement feature. They worked with PMMs and SDRs to create the right video and assets, but they were the ones bringing it to life.
When hiring for this role, I recommend looking for people who were in operations or program management teams at other companies. Which means that, yes, traditional sales ops practitioners could fit this role, with the right mindset.
I think this role really ended up being the secret sauce at the companies that I worked with. It always helped scale the whole Product-Led Sales organization in a way that wasn’t previously attainable.
Product Should Always Inform Profiles
When talking about profiles, it’s important to highlight that the product you're selling should influence which of these types of hires to invest in more versus less.
For example, with Dropbox, most people can fundamentally understand Dropbox. Customers can start using it in some way through an onboarding experience. The conversion is almost fully automated and almost doesn’t need a human. When a user does need a human, it’s for very transactional tasks, like asking a few questions about pricing. We knew we didn’t need a deeply technical person in that sales role. On the flip side, we did need sales reps who were capable of doing a complex deep dive into a more technical product at Confluent.
How to Screen for Your Desired Product Competency
There isn’t one single question you can ask to check if a candidate fits the level of technical or product competency you’re looking for. But when I’m interviewing anybody that's in sales or growth, I try to listen to their narrative about how they either solved a problem or what they did for their job.
To get this narrative going, I typically ask a few questions that start a conversation around how the candidate has approached sales and product in the past:
- Did they learn the product thoroughly, or were they more focused on using sales techniques?
- Did they ever change their approach because a certain sales technique wasn't working?
- What questions did they ask potential customers?
- How did they qualify people?
These questions tell me if the candidate really took the time to understand the product they were selling — no matter if the product was as simple as Dropbox or as complex as Confluent.
Another way to find a good fit is to listen to examples. Let's say somebody tells you, "Oh, we gave product demos." Cool. I would follow up by asking what they did for product demos. You want to be able to almost hear them giving the demo in their answer. That’s when you know they have something. They can really go deep on the product or whatever topic they’re talking about with users.
PLS as a Bootcamp for Roles Across the Organization
In a traditional enterprise sales approach, sales reps are able to get away with knowing less about customers and products. But this lack of knowledge, over time, creates a bad customer experience. It’s a disadvantage for the customer if the person they're talking to on the other end fundamentally doesn't understand them or the product itself. You have to change that status quo in a Product-Led Sale environment.
PLS roles are the closest to customers. They see firsthand how users get value from your product, so use your PLS organization as a powerful training ground for not just sales reps but for roles across the organization. Use it to turn everyone into a product and customer expert.
In the early days at Atlassian, every single person — that's not an exaggeration, it was a team of just 12 or 13 then — from our product-focused sales team went on to become a product marketing manager or a product manager. And good ones, at that. The reason for this was they understood the customer, they understood the product, and they were ready to market and manage it. PLS was our boot camp, even though we didn’t originally realize that it would be.
In the old sales model, sales had a job to do, marketing had a job to do, customer success had a job to do, etc. Each role existed in its own silo. But in the new PLS model, you’re looking for “full-stack” people, to use an engineering term. Because Product-Led Sales teams have to think beyond the sale — about how customers are going to adopt the product, etc. — these reps have to think a little more full-stack.
Everybody who deals with the product and customers at your organization could stand to do six months in the PLS function, dealing with customers, solving their problems, and understanding the product. In this way, PLS serves as a boot camp that graduates full-stack team members into roles like customer success, sales, product marketing, and so on.
The Right Profiles are Key for Effective Product-Led Sales
The truth is, most customers are not going to go all the way through your onboarding process, even if they're the right persona and fully understand everything about the product. Automated processes will help them get to a bunch of aha moments, but they're not going to fully complete their transaction.
Where automated processes falter is where the Product-Led Sales function picks up the ball to complete the sale. Many times, you're still going to need a human — or more likely a well-rounded team of them — with the right product knowledge and skills to close that gap. Now that you have the techniques you need to identify and hire product-profile fits, you can get started on building that key PLS motion.