Reimagine inside sales to ramp up B2B customer acquisition


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Robert Wahbe


Robert Wahbe is the co-founder and CEO of Highspot, a sales enablement platform.

More posts from Robert Wahbe

Slack makes customer acquisition look easy.

The day we acquired our first Highspot customer, it was raining hard in Seattle. I was on my way to a startup event when I answered my cell phone and our prospect said, “We’re going with Highspot.” Relief, then excitement, hit me harder than the downpour outside. It was a milestone moment – one that came after a long journey of establishing product-market fit, developing a sustainable competitive advantage, and iterating repeatedly based on prospect feedback. In other words, it was anything but easy.

User-first products are driving rapid company growth in an era where individuals discover, adopt, and share software they like throughout their organizations. This is great if you’re a Slack, Shopify, or Dropbox, but what if your company doesn’t fit that profile?

Product-led growth is a strategy that works for the right technologies, but it’s not the end-all, be-all for B2B customer acquisition. For sophisticated enterprise software platforms designed to drive company-wide value, such as Marketo, ServiceNow and Workday, that value is realized when the product is adopted en masse by one or more large segments.

If you’re selling broad account value, rather than individual user or team value, acquisition boils down to two things: elevating account based-selling and revolutionizing the inside sales model. Done correctly, you lay a foundation capable of doubling revenue growth year-over-year, 95 percent company-wide retention, and more than 100 percent growth in new customer logos annually. Here are the steps you can take to build a model that realizes on-par results.

Work the account, not the deal

Account-based selling is not a new concept, but the availability of data today changes the game. Advanced analytics enable teams to develop comprehensive and personalized approaches that meet modern customers’ heightened expectations. And when 77 percent of business buyers feel that technology has significantly changed how companies should interact with them, you have no choice but to deliver.

Despite the multitude of products created to help sellers be more productive and personal, billions of cookie-cutter emails are still flooding the inboxes of a few decision makers. The market is loud. Competition is cut throat. It’s no wonder 40 percent of sales reps say getting a response from a prospect is more difficult than ever before. Even pioneers of sales engagement are recognizing the need for evolution – yesterday’s one-size-fits-all approach to outreach only widens the gap between today’s sellers and buyers.

Companies must radically change their approach to account-based selling by building trusted relationships over time from the first-touch onward. This requires that your entire sales force – from account development representatives to your head of sales – adds tailored, tangible value at every stage of the journey. Modern buyers don’t want to be sold. They want to be advised. But the majority of companies are still missing the mark, favoring spray-and-pray tactics over personalized guidance.

One reason spamming remains prevalent, despite growing awareness of the need for quality over quantity, is that implementing a tailored approach is hard work. However, companies can make great strides by doing just three things:

  • Invest in personalization: Sales reps have quota, and sales leaders carry revenue targets. The pressure is as real as the numbers. But high velocity outreach tactics simply don’t work consistently. New research from Monetate and WBR Research found that 93% of businesses with advanced personalization strategies increased their revenue last year. And while scaling personalization may sound like an oxymoron, we now have artificial intelligence (AI) technology capable of doing just that. Of course, not all AI is created equal, so take the time to discern AI-powered platforms that deliver real value from the imposters. With a little research, you’ll find sales tools that discard  rinse-and-repeat prospecting methods in favor of intelligent guidance and actionable analytics.
  • Embrace data and intelligence-driven programs: AI is opening doors for those who welcome it. For account development and sales teams, AI-powered data analysis enables a better understanding of potential buyers through predictive analytics and pattern identification. Personalization is only the beginning. AI can shift the initial sales dynamic from irrelevant outreach to elevated conversations that drive strategic growth. Salesforce research revealed that high-performers are 1.6x more likely to prioritize leads based on data analysis. Embrace AI’s potential to extract insight from raw data and you can capitalize on changing buyer demands, instead of falling victim to changing tastes.
  • Develop an authentic sales culture: People know when they’re being treated as an objective. Buyers are naturally skeptical, and thinly veiled sales tactics will lead to a dead end faster than a prospect can clear their inbox. Modern sales culture needs to be rooted in authenticity and guidance. When a passion for customer success is baked into the culture, sellers, buyers, and companies alike are set up for success. Highspot account executives routinely meet new prospects at events, and then stay in touch over the course of several years, consistently nurturing the relationship with relevant information and advice. If you believe your product brings the customer true value, being authentic and selling are aligned. And when acquiring a new customer can cost 5x more than retaining an existing customer, and the majority of revenue from a given account happens after the initial sale, the seller-customer relationship is critical to your long-term success.

Account-based selling is an old concept primed for a fresh approach. Today’s model combines personalization, data-driven programs, and customer centricity at all stages of the funnel. But when selling in the enterprise, quality outreach that scales is next to impossible. Hence, my second recommendation.

Reimagine the inside sales model

We’ve all been at the receiving end of a tireless email sequence. In some cases, we may have even been the sender – an account development representative pushing out emails like our job depended on it, because in reality, it did.

Sales or account development representatives (SDRs or ADRs) have been widely regarded as the personification of Marketo, offering little customer value beyond appointment setting. Focused on outbound prospecting, this function works the phones and email with the goal of moving leads through the pipeline to sales reps who, unburdened by prospecting, can devote their time to closing deals.

Historically, account development has been rolled up into sales or marketing. This organizational structure is problematic. Highly targeted account-based sales development and an army of cold-callers cannot coexist. Even worse, the ripple effect sours morale, eroding employee retention and risking customer loyalty.

Instead, we must make prospecting its own discipline and account development its own function. As customer experience increasingly defines business success, companies must empower teams with the knowledge and training necessary to elevate customer conversations at scale.

Enabling ADRs to become trusted advisors turns account development into a strategic driver of business growth. At Highspot, our AD team is growing more than 100 percent year-over-year. Investing in this team as its own function has resulted in higher quality leads and higher customer satisfaction – major factors in our revenue growth more than doubling year-over-year as our customer base adds more Fortune 50 members alongside “unicorn” startups.
As with all things, there is a right way and a wrong way to build your account development function. Before you can expect vetted enterprise leads to pour in, you must lay the groundwork for your team to be successful.

  • Appoint leadership that gets it: Your account development lead needs to understand that account development is not sales, and it’s not marketing. Even if your leader comes from a marketing or sales background, they need to deeply comprehend the uniqueness of account development. This is one aspect that makes it such a challenging role to fill, and why in early stage companies account development often ends up lumped under the wrong department. Account development teams will benefit from the expertise, empathy, and vision of a leader who understands the nature of the day-to-day and what it takes to not only survive, but thrive. Leadership will also be responsible for ensuring tight alignment with sales and marketing – critical to account-based selling success.
  • Invest in onboarding and training: You can’t have a team of trusted advisors without training. Despite this point, BridgeGroup Inc. found that the average company spends $10 – 15K hiring an individual, and only $2K a year in sales training. At Highspot, we have every new hire complete a 30-day onboarding program, which adds up to a lot more than $2K – but it’s a long-term investment worth making. Continuous training is critical when it comes to building a successful team, especially because more than 80 percent of all sales training may be lost after 90 days. Although costly to sacrifice time in the field for comprehensive onboarding, the long-term return is much greater. Trained reps are value-adding reps. And when your frontline is made up of product experts, it’s not only conducive to better leads – it’s a key competitive differentiator.
  • Hire, develop, and retain top talent: Talented individuals need healthy challenges as much as they need room for growth. If your account development reps are more than appointment setters, you are able to both attract and retain top talent. Investing in internal development not only results in an equipped team more likely to win deals, but also in higher retention, lower attrition rates, and your ADRs often grow into your top enterprise sellers. Highspot’s account development team has maintained a 96 percent retention rate even through doubling in size each year. Hiring, developing, and retaining top talent fuels the cycle naturally as your best people become your customers’ most trusted advisors.

Invest in account development as a standalone function to drive strategic growth. Empower this team with comprehensive onboarding and training, a customer-centric sales culture, and AI-powered technology that enables personalization. This strategy produces an effective team that likes their jobs and rapidly acquires loyal customers. And this model scales as your company grows.

You’re not Slack (unless you are), so don’t try to be. Pioneers such as WhatsApp, Skype, and Zoom helped pave the way for product-led growth companies to succeed. Now it’s time to implement a new growth model for enterprise software platforms to do the same.

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