When Managing Salespeople, Stage Matters

by McCann, Erin

Does sales management really come down to pushing back on excuses? Several founders have asked me this question in response to Mark Suster’s sales management advice. As a former tech sales executive, I agree with many of his lessons -- when applied to later-stage, post-traction point startups [1]. However, I advocate a more nuanced approach for early-stage startup teams, and suggest the following exceptions when managing your earliest sales hires.

Feedback isn’t always an excuse
Early sales hires understand your clients best. While product managers often obtain direct client feedback [2], your salespeople touch far more accounts at a higher frequency, and thus frequently receive the most candid feedback. While I support Suster’s claim that clients don’t buy features, they can provide valuable information, as we saw with RentJuice’s pricing model [3]. I’m not suggesting accepting justification for missing targets – just disaggregate the feedback from the sale. Salespeople shouldn’t be off the hook for targets, but their insights from clients often prove valuable to product managers and may improve your overall product-market fit.

Equity & team dynamics matter
Cash certainly incentivizes salespeople (every sales executive I know has some commission-based pay), but given the non-sales responsibilities and risk taken on by early-stage hires, they’re likely motivated by more than cash. Talented sales executives could easily choose more mature companies with higher cash opportunities, and avoid difficult early challenges like those at RentJuice, such as navigating significant ambiguity and building sales collateral. What’s more, early-stage startups likely aren’t in a position to offer all-cash compensation. While equity and team dynamics may matter less to traditional salespeople, in my experience they factor heavily into attracting true “renaissance reps” who can balance the complex, changing dynamics of early sales.

Support requests may mean it’s time to scale
Requests for sales support may seem like excuses, but could also indicate the need to hire an account manager. Sure, sometimes reps just don’t like the grunt work – for me, creating proposals always felt like a huge waste of time compared to closing more deals. However, support requests might not be entirely driven by ego or disinterest, and can present an opportunity to drive higher revenue growth by managing and up-selling through existing relationships. Certainly managers need to ensure that they have a repeatable and scalable business model whose metrics justify adding team members and splitting roles. However, once this occurs, these perceived support excuses may in fact drive huge efficiency and monetary gains.

Ultimately, while I appreciate Suster’s experience, candor and self-admitted use of “broad generalizations,” I urge some caution before lumping all salespeople into a “class.” While founders benefit from understanding common incentives and excuses, early hires likely differ tremendously in terms of motivations, responsibilities, and requests. As a founder, what has been your experience with early hires?

1  Leslie, Mark and Charles A. Holloway. The Sales Learning Curve. Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2006. Print.  

2  Bussgang, Jeffrey, Thomas Eisenmann and Robert Go. The Product Manager. Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2011. Print.

3  Eisenmann, Thomas and Liz Kind. RentJuice. Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2011. Print.