Scaling Your Sales Team: Determining the Right Time to Grow

Allan Telio by

You’re an early-stage B2B company and you’ve had some success landing a few accounts. Well done! But, now you’re faced with a difficult question: “Should I hire more salespeople?”

If you hire your sales team before your company is ready, it could be an extremely costly mistake. Wait too long and your competition might swoop in and steal business that could have been yours. To paraphrase one of the great philosophers of 1989, Big Daddy Kane, “Scalin’ sales ain’t easy.” Of course, he didn’t use the word “scalin’” and he wasn’t actually talking about growing a business, but you get the point. Knowing when to scale your sales team is hard. Harder still is figuring out how to scale once you’re ready to do so.

I’ve helped several organizations scale and I’ve always found myself asking the same three basic questions before deciding to grow the team. Keep in mind, this isn’t an exact science, but these questions can provide an excellent starting point.

Who is your target customer?

Know who you’re targeting. Does this sounds insanely basic? That’s because it is. It is also one of the hardest things to figure out when you start to scale. Once you answer this question, you’re not finished — this is something you’re going to continue to refine as your organization grows and your product evolves.

So, why does this matter? Focus. As you start to add salespeople to your company, you’ll want to provide them with the focus they need to spend their time effectively. If they don’t know who a typical buyer is, they’ll waste time selling to people who aren’t qualified. There is no greater way to build a bloated, ineffective pipeline than to sell to people who aren’t truly qualified buyers.

Focus impacts everything you do from pricing, to value proposition, to the size of the actual sales team you build.

What is your value proposition?

Again, this seems simple. If you have a product, of course you must know its value proposition! When you’re scaling a sales team, you need to make sure that they too understand the basic benefit your product provides. What is the pain your solution resolves?

Your value proposition will come into focus after you’ve defined your target customer. I recommend speaking with 50 to 100 potential buyers. Never forget that a customer is just a person; we all know how much people love to talk about their problems. Developing the discipline to listen without bias or pre-formulated answers is the hard part.

You want to arm your sales team with as much information and direction as possible prior to having them sell. It is possible for them to figure out your value proposition on their own (and they will help refine it and improve it over time) but you don’t want them to spend their selling time doing that. You want them focused on selling!

How are you going to feed the beast? Have you thought about the top of funnel?

Let’s assume you’ve figured out who you’re selling to and what your value proposition is. Depending on how quickly you want to scale your sales team, you need to ask the question, “How will I feed my sales team?”

Earlier in my career, I helped scale the inside sales team for a cleantech company. As the team grew (we went from five inside salespeople to a team of twenty in less than a year) we ran into a common problem: not enough leads. There’s nothing sadder than a BDR with no one to call. We quickly created a lead generation team and started to feed the growing sales team.

If you’re going to scale your sales team, take a look at your sales funnel and determine which channels you can use in order to generate leads for your team to contact. This could involve list buys, inbound lead generation, trade shows, Google Adwords, Facebook, direct mail, content marketing…whatever. Just have a plan for how you’re going to make sure the top of the funnel is filled!

Hopefully, these three questions will help make a difficult process a bit easier. Just remember that your sales team is only as good as the leads you feed them. So if you’re spinning up sales without a clear marketing plan, you might want to rethink your plans for growth.

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  • MARC TRUDEAU

    I was part of the management team of a startup through its first two rounds of venture funding, toward the end of the dot com boom. We could have survived the downturn with a burn rate of $0.25M/mo., while building out our product offering incrementally, through professional services engagements. Instead, our new “professional CEO” scaled our sales team until our burn was $0.75M/mo., hoping to sell one or two copies of our vapor-ware and secure another round of funding. Needless to say, we ran out of money. Good but painful lesson.

  • MARC TRUDEAU

    I agree with the author’s assessment that all three of these questions are very hard to answer at first. I strongly suggest a learning-by-doing strategy (perhaps using Scrum or some other Agile/incremental value delivery framework) of using small proto-engagements to gradually calibrate your answers to each question, prior to large, potentially off-target, investments in sales force or lead generation. Assert/assume answers to each question; and inexpensively test lead generation tool, value proposition, target customer, and specific product offering; to see which assertions have legs and which reflect your team’s misguided assumptions. You can then invest big in those that actually find traction, and share those proven insights with potential funding partners.

  • Stop Islam

    I’ve been hired by companies in this (scaling) position and all success- lack!- was built upon the 3 points you described. It’s been a surprise to me every single time that I was the only one who worried about these three items which had been entirely disregarded.