What does sales do, really?
The word “sales” might conjour the image of a talkative salesperson, with slicked hair and a fancy watch. Another famous scene is “sell me this pen!” (Youtube)
What does sales do? I was asked this by a new joiner a few years ago. In that conversation, the new joiner asked with genuine curiousity “why is there a need to sell? Does the product not sell itself”?
I love the questions and believe most product led companies will ask them at some point. In this post I’ll cover:
- Why you don’t need sales
- Why you might still need sales and what sales does
- Some concerns around sales
“You” refers to a company/persons’ perspective about having a sales team or not.
1/ Why you don’t need sales
Reason #1: Self serve at its best is powerful enough
A self serve product that works and allows for seamless sign ups (without talking to anyone) is wonderful. This is the ideal in “PLG” (product led growth) companies — where the product starts being used by a few, those users are evangelists, then more employees within the company use the product and purchase more licenses . Or the product is dominant (e.g., Google Ads), and customers use it regardless of whether there’s a sales team.
Reason #2: Smaller companies (startups, SMBs) might not need sales contact
You might not need a sales team if your target customers are developers, freelancers, and SMBs comfortable with directly signing up to use a product without talking to sales. For example, selling on an app/plugin marketplace.
2/ Why you might need sales
PLG is fantastic. But here are five reasons why you might need sales.
Reason #1: Getting “flagship/beachhead” customers
In the process of finding product market fit, the founding team sells to “flagship” customers, who as first users, are an inspiration for others in that target segment. It requires sales motions of listening to painpoints and collaborating to develop a solution.
Reason #2: Selling to larger customers
There’s no specific number to define “larger”, but generally it is any business with multiple cross functions in the buying decision (so ~hundreds-thousands of employees). A buying decision to stay or churn becomes more complex. More here on finding the decision maker.
Reason #3 Competitors have sales teams pitching to customers in your target segment
I am against over-focusing on competitors (more here). However, if customers in your target segment are used to engaging sales teams, it affects their expectations. This intersects with #2, where larger customers are used to engaging sales.
Reason #4 You’re in a regulated space and/or your product touches sensitive systems (security, compliance)
If your product touches security, regulation/compliance, it likely requires sales discussions to co-solution and onboard.
Reason #5 Your product suite is becoming more complex
Sometimes, products grow in breath and complexity. In those cases, solution architects (part of sales) help customers build the technical solution for their vision.
Summary of what sales does: Sales, especially to larger companies in complex industries, helps to shine light on how a customer’s painpoints might be solved by your product.
3/ Some concerns around sales
Valid concerns about sales
Integrity issues: salespeople lie and overpromise. Company culture becomes “salesy”, rather than product and customer first.
These are valid concerns. If the culture is sales-led, this could mean over promising, over committment to custom work that derails roadmaps, and a lack of focus on creating the best product.
Quick note to address the concerns
Integrity starts top down. Leadership sets the tone through words, incentives, and hiring. How excellent performance is praised, measured, rewarded, and where leaders are hired from influences sales culture .
So back to the original question — why is there a need to sell? Does the product not sell itself? A product selling itself is an excellent goal. However, if your company has ambitions to reach larger customers with a wider product suite, then there is a need to sell directly to customers. What does sales do? Sell to those customers.
 I’ve heavily over simplified the process — there’s crucial work around marketing, streamlining the self serve funnel, and building support to create “self serve at its best”.