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Product Led Growth: Turning Salespeople into Pathfinders

There’s a common misconception that sales and product led growth don’t go together, and I think I understand why.

Think of product led companies like Slack, Dropbox, or Zoom.

Did you start using any of those products because a salesperson sold you on it?

Probably not.

And yet product led growth companies do have sales teams. It’s just that the way they sell the product is so different that it’s laughable to imagine them using the “normal” B2B Sales approach.

Let’s dive into what product led growth is, what makes a good PLG salesperson, and what’s needed to turn salespeople in PLG pathfinders who guide users to the ultimate goal — widespread usage of the product.

What Is Product Led Growth?

Product led growth (PLG) is a sales growth model that focuses on the end-user. PLG companies rely on the product itself as the primary driver of customer acquisition, conversion, and expansion.

For product led growth to work, the product needs to be easy for users to adopt. Usually, that means creating a frictionless, near-instant self-serve funnel.

It also means that the end user has all of the power, requiring SaaS companies to adapt their approach. The hottest companies have turned to a PLG model to better align with end users’ priorities.

Why Product Led Growth Works So Well

With the right product in the right market, product led growth can be the key to unlocking very low customer acquisition costs.

Why?

Check out these examples of well-known product led growth companies:

  • Slack
  • Zoom
  • Calendly
  • Dropbox
  • Docusign
  • Github
  • Surveymonkey
  • Airtable

These companies have won hearts and minds because — first and foremost — their products are excellent. People want to use these products, and they deliver amazing user experience, so it’s easy to start using them.

Because these products make their jobs easier, users spread the word among other members of their team. The products encourage a feeling of affinity and turn their users into their biggest champions.

But users don’t advocate for these products selflessly. In many cases, people’s jobs and lives are actually easier if they tell others about these products.

For example, if I’m using Calendly, and I convince others to use it too, not only do I save time when I schedule a meeting, but when others book meetings as well. I have a vested interest in other people adopting this product I already love.

Slack is so deeply committed to a product led strategy that they even point out these network effects in their S-1 filing:

“We believe that the long-term value of Slack to an organization increases as an organization expands its adoption, increases application integrations and grows inter- and intra-organization communications.”

…which is a long way of saying “our product is even more useful when more people use it.”

Users Are Your Best Sales Reps… Until They’re Not

User advocacy is the magic of the PLG business model.

But there are limits to how much growth it can drive. Sooner or later, users will bump into needs or problems they can’t solve on their own.

For example, maybe the customer needs:

  • A custom SLA to expand to new departments
  • Access to more sophisticated, team-based features
  • Help navigating the product’s APIs

Whatever the reason, when the end user reaches out for help, smart product led businesses bring in customer success or sales.

The smartest PLG companies don’t wait for the customer to reach out. Instead, they have a sales team that proactively reaches out to certain accounts before they run into barriers.

They anticipate problems and pay attention to the signals that indicate growing needs. They may even offer incentives, like a discount for paying upfront, to make the expansion process more appealing.

The role of a salesperson in a PLG company is not to convince people to start using. Existing users can do that all on their own. Instead, they’re focused on increasing product adoption.

The Role of the Salesperson Is Changing

It’s hard to imagine a PLG company employing an army of blazer-clad salespeople, hawking software at tradeshows and flying around the country to host fancy steak dinners.

It’s even harder to imagine they have a gong-banging, beer-chugging sales floor, populated by hundreds of SDRs and AEs.

PLG companies do have a sales team, but PLG salespeople act very differently from your average salesperson.

The salesperson in a PLG company is like a pathfinder on Everest. You only meet the pathfinder once you make it to basecamp. The product gets you that far, and the pathfinder helps everyone navigate to the summit.

The pathfinder is a guide in the process, helping everyone reach their mutual goal: widespread usage of the product.

As Slack conveys in their S-1 filing:

“To acquire new paid customers and increase adoption within larger organizations, we utilize a direct sales organization that complements our self-service approach. Our direct sales force leverages Slack champions and proofs of concept developed through self-service adoption. We combine this bottoms-up demand with direct sales efforts targeted at C-suite executives and business unit leaders.”

In other words, “our sales team is focused on upsell, not new customer acquisition.”

How the product led sales process is different:

Product led growth doesn’t upend everything we know about sales. Many parts of the sales job remain the same.

Customer discovery still exists. A deep understanding of the different players and influencers remains important, and there are still budget discussions to be had.

And of course, there is still a quota to hit.

But there are some subtle yet important differences in the sales process in a PLG model.

 

1. Customer discovery is more nuanced, because the customer is already using the product in some way. Their use-case is not hypothetical — it’s real.

So the salesperson needs to understand the pain points and opportunities of both the end user and how the department head perceives them. Since the product is already in use, that will all evolve in real-time.

2. The salesperson needs to be more capable of different kinds of storytelling. They need to be able to frame things in different ways for different audiences, and pivot from one frame of reference to another quickly.

When speaking with the end user, the story must focus on how the product makes the job easier. When speaking with the executive, the story must focus on the ROI they can expect.

3. The salesperson has to be more attuned to user behavior. Unlike a traditional sales model, where the salesperson has some education to do, a PLG model requires the salesperson to educate themselves on how the customer already uses the product.

They need to find moments that show users are getting value from the product, and identify where users run into limitations that might require more features.

4. Mapping the organization requires more detail. Since the product has already been adopted somewhat, the salesperson doesn’t get to control who gets to weigh in with objections, pain points, and benefits.

The buying committee can sprawl in a PLG model, so salespeople need to be even more nimble.

Who Makes a Good Product Led Growth Salesperson?

A lot of what makes a successful PLG salesperson is their values and the culture they build around themselves.

Many companies have leaned into different flavors of sales tribalism, and the traits of the PLG salesperson don’t really align with any of them.

For example, the world of PLG isn’t a great fit with the militaristic, break-down-the-door style of the “Enterprise Sales Is King” mentality. This mentality can feel a bit too brusque within the PLG model.

PLG also doesn’t fit with the “Inside Sales Is Eating the World” tribe, where velocity and volume rule. The repetitive, “pure hustle” approach risks oversimplifying the relationship with the customer.

Here are the top traits that are unique to great salespeople at product led growth companies:

  1. They are hyper-focused on sitting on the same side of the table as their prospects.
  2. They know that no single approach to sales will always work. They’re flexible and capable of taking multiple approaches at the same time.
  3. They’re a fantastic listener and genuinely curious about others. (You might say that this is a requirement for all salespeople, but it’s even more important in a PLG model.)
  4. They lean into a highly consultative sales process. They’re capable of offering service and advice without a pitch.

The Risks of Building Out Sales in a PLG Company

So far, we’ve looked at the upsides of building a sales team within a PLG company. And admittedly, there are plenty.

But there are risks too.

Product led growth risk #1: Treading too lightly

Because product led growth strategies can lead to success without a sales team or sales strategy, they can approach sales in an overly tentative way, or lack a sense of urgency.

But even if it’s the most incredible product in the world, the salespeople still need to ask for the sale. They can’t become so customer friendly that they become completely passive.

It’s important to remember that climbing a mountain can be hard sometimes. The journey can be uncomfortable. A good pathfinder doesn’t shy away from pushing at times, if that’s what it takes for the whole party to make it to the top.

Product led growth risk #2: Building sales in a culture that looks down on sales

Many PLG companies take pride in the fact that, historically, they’ve grown with a touchless sales model. Product managers may have internalized the notion that pushing the customer to take any action hurts the customer experience.

The entire team needs to talk about the product led growth culture and think about how to build a sales team that fits. The reality is, the culture often needs to change. This is the responsibility of leadership, and it’s a tricky one to manage, but it can be done.

Product led growth risk #3: Setting the bar too low

Since growth can be owned by so many different teams within a PLG company, a sales leader might not set his or her goals high enough. Because they’re not the only person in the spotlight, some sales leaders might take a step back and relegate themselves to a supporting role.

But sales goals should be just as aggressive within a PLG company as within a sales led company, though the approach may differ.

The leadership team can help keep the bar high by using clear metrics.

A sales team in a product led growth model should focus on expanding monetizable usage with product qualified leads (existing users who meet a set of criteria for requiring more from the product).

That might mean:

  • The number of users
  • Actions or events
  • Features
  • Use-cases
  • Adoption
  • etc.

The Last Word

Getting to the top of Everest isn’t easy.

Businesses that rely on product led growth need to hire the right team for the job. And that team will look a bit different than the traditional sales team.

A good PLG salesperson will display openness, empathy, and storytelling to help everyone reach their desired destination. And sometimes, the pathfinder has to crack the whip a little to get everyone to the top.

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