Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Surviving and Thriving in a Sales Culture - 6 Lessons from SuccessFactors' Dynamic Culture





“Everyone is in Sales.” I understand the point of this famous business quote but for many it is simply misleading. We are not all in Sales. Yes, we are all responsible for enabling Sales. Full stop. But Sales, capital S sales, is the role of the Sales Team. Customer Success Managers can often be confused by the difference in roles. I have repeatedly told my teams over the years, who often have deep engagement and occasional friction with Sales, that if you want to carry the bag and live by a quota, go for it. You can make more money. You can realize greater organizational recognition. You can go to Hawaii or the Caribbean for Club. But Sales is really hard work. Really hard work. From the outside it looks like bigger budgets, increased latitude, greater organization influence and recognition. From the inside, it’s stress, anxiety, pressure… It’s an all or nothing world. You either sell it or you don’t. And if you don’t for a quarter or two in a row you start over somewhere else. We are all responsible for enabling Sales, but we don’t all feel that pressure. 

In some organizations, that pressure to sell is felt more broadly than just the individual Sales rep. In organizations with a Sales driven culture, that pressure to succeed in selling is shared across teams. It creates the foundation of the organization’s values, relationships and operating model. I had the good fortune of working at SuccessFactors from about $10M to $300M+ in revenue, spanning the time from pre-IPO through IPO, and for a year after the acquisition by SAP. Throughout this incredible growth one thing remained consistently true. SuccessFactors was heavily influenced by a Sales culture. Led by Lars Dalgaard’s remarkable executive leadership and driven by Dave Yarnold, Greg Nash, Jay Larson, and Phil Carty, among others, SuccessFactors was led by a highly capable and influential Sales team. As a company we were passionate about customer success, we had a fantastic marketing team, and it was disruptive technology leading the market at the right time, but we were led by an incredible focus on winning the market through Sales. 

Over the course of the more than 8 years I spent with SuccessFactors in a variety of roles partnering with and enabling Sales through Professional Services, Strategic Consulting and Customer Success leadership, I learned (sometimes the hard way) that the following characteristics are critically important to not just surviving, but thriving in a Sales driven culture. 

Surviving in a Sales Culture

Your work must be connected to Sales outcomes 

To get and stay on the radar in a Sales driven culture, your role, regardless of what function you are in, must be connected to Sales outcomes in a clearly defined way. If you are in Professional Services that means supporting Sales calls while ensuring that customers realize quick time to value and become ready references. If you are in Finance it means the Sales team proactively partners with you to creatively price and negotiate deal terms. If you are in marketing it means leads, market awareness and compelling events that create the perception of market leadership and scale. There is little time and patience for talk that doesn’t drive opportunities or for process that doesn’t enable Sales execution. Surviving in a Sales driven culture starts with understanding this dynamic and ensuring that when Sales comes calling, your answer is "yes and ..." with a focus on making them, and by extension the company, successful. 


Slowing down the Sales process is a cardinal sin

I learned this lesson the hard way on several occasions. In Sales driven cultures there is an 8th deadly sin: slowing down the sales process. Whether you are in Professional Services and take too long to scope a project or can’t commit resources fast enough to meet the Sales Rep’s discussed timeline, or you are in Finance and require additional approvals on special pricing, slowing down the sales process is a sin in Sales driven cultures. You might be right about the process, the thoughtful approach to review and approval, but it’s not going to matter. It's about "points not yardage". 

Sales is paying your salary

A common frustration in many organizations is Sales compensation. It is hard for individuals without context on compensation structures to hear the rumors of outsized Sales pay days. Often the broader teams don’t connect the dots between the big deals that are paying the rent and their pay checks and the big Benz in the parking lot. Surviving in a Sales culture requires understanding that Sales is a hard job and the reps earn their big pay days through risk, hard work and persistence. To my earlier point, if you want the Sales pay day go take the Sales risks. Otherwise, to survive, accept that the sales team closing deals is going to make more money than you and you should be happy about that. They get paid, you get paid. Period. 


Thriving in a Sales Culture

Enable but don’t confuse your job with that of Selling

Sales meetings can be great. I have thoroughly enjoyed attending meetings with great salespeople like Dave Haskell, Payntner Higgins and Marty Pitkow. It is easy to get caught up in the energy of the moment and confuse your role with that of the Sales person. To thrive in a Sales driven culture you need to remember that the salesperson is playing long ball in a thoughtful and planned way and your job is to share your expertise, insights or project/product plan, not to close the deal. Often, junior resources get caught up in the moment and feel like they have something really valuable to say that will help land the deal for the rep. Well intentioned as it may be, it is often not helpful. Thriving in a Sales driven culture requires understanding your role and enabling the salesperson to do his/hers. 

Understand the Sales process is made up of incremental steps

This applies to every organization but is especially important in Sales driven cultures where the methodology of selling is fully baked and the Sales leaders are building on a proven model of success. Selling enterprise SaaS is hard work and deals take time to come together. Thriving in a Sales culture requires maintaining perspective and appreciation that while you may have quoted the services work a month ago, or helped the rep with a product discussion weeks ago, deals take time to come together. Sales is an incremental process of moving the ball down the field to put points on the board, not just taking hail mary after hail mary for the game winners. 

Coffee is [not just] for closers

One of things that I loved about the Sales culture of SuccessFactors was the shared success mentality. While the organization was biased toward Sales effectiveness and execution, success was shared. Coffee was not only for closers, but those individuals who supported, enabled and accelerated closing, whether that was the product team who helped innovate with the prospect and prioritized the critical features, or the support team proving their effectiveness with impromptu conference room calls to the support line. As Lars notes in his excellent post on Thoughts on Building Weatherproof Companies “A company that is truly grateful to the people in all of the constituencies it works with — investors, customers, partners, each other — will almost always be a great company and a great place to work.”


Every company has a distinct culture that defines the organization’s values, relationships and operating model. Often the culture of a company is not a deliberate choice but a reflection of the values of the Founders and early employees. Sales driven cultures can create an intensity that doesn’t exist in a Product or Engineering centric culture. It can be the cause for anxiety and frustration or it can be an intoxicating mix of growth fueled by deliberate and focused action. Surviving and thriving in these environments is dependent on your attitude and understanding and embracing the role you play. 

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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