Startups | 4 min read

Tips for scaling a SaaS sales team


Your typical SaaS sales organization contains a group of people whose job is to identify potential customers, and pass them on to more experienced sales people to follow up. Here’s how we improved that structure.

In a traditional environment this group is made up of Sales Development Representatives (SDR’s), and their days are spent cold calling people from a list provided by the marketing team.

While I can personally attest to the fact that this traditional method works occasionally, we at Intercom think there is a more effective way to use a team of intelligent, innovative, and ambitious SDRs. In fact Russ, our VP of Sales, has argued persuasively that cold calling is dead and makes the financial argument to back it up.

The first thing we did when we created our “SDR” team was to change the name from “Sales Development Representatives” to “Account Development Representatives” (ADRs). This seemingly slight change was actually really important to us and was more than just a matter of a name change. It highlighted that our Sales team is focused on developing genuine long-term relationships with our customers and their companies rather than just selling to them and moving on to the next hot opportunity.

An ADR, like the traditional SDR, is responsible for generating qualified pipeline for our Account Executives. The difference is that instead of spending their days calling down a list of random numbers, they are reaching out to people who have already interacted with Intercom. As Eoghan, our CEO, has explained previously, “salespeople are not the demand generation. They’re not pulling people in. They’re actually helping people buy the products.” We’ve flipped the traditional SaaS model and instead of investing money that is typically spent on a team of costly sales people, we diverted that spend to demand generation. Tactics like books, webinars, blog publishing, events etc, generate enough inbound leads that we are able to support a team of 30 reps.

We started implementing this model just over a year ago, but it was so successful from the get-go that we quickly had to scale our ADR team. Here are the key lessons I’ve learned over that period as I scaled our ADR team from three to 17 members, with three already being promoted to Account Executives.

1. The New Candidate Profile

Finding the right people is the hardest and most important part of scaling a team rapidly. Over the past few months, we have adjusted our ADR candidate profile as we try to put our finger on what exactly makes people successful. Our most successful reps are people who have a passion for product, exhibit a relentless focus on customer satisfaction, and possess strong written skills.  This is a shift away from the typical SaaS sales profile which prioritizes things like strong oral communication skills, knowledge of and experience of prospecting. In this new world of consultative selling, you need to hire smarter, more product-oriented salespeople.

2. Don’t Over Qualify Leads

In my past experience, SDRs were bottlenecks which slowed down the sales organization. SDRs felt like they had to over-qualify to get credit for an opportunity. Sales is a numbers game and we want our Account Executives to have as many opportunities to sell as possible. If a lead wants to talk to an Account Executive, then have your SDRs use the tools available to them online (LinkedIn, Crunchbase, Twitter and Clearbit) to do some basic qualification rather than acting like a sales bouncer who doesn’t want to let anyone into the club.

3. Quality vs. Quantity

This doesn’t have to be a zero sum game – it’s possible to have both. At Intercom, quality and quantity are equally rewarded. On most sales teams, the SDR that passes ten, $100 opportunities is rewarded over the person that sources one, $1,000 opportunity. We compensate ADRs on the total amount of pipeline they source, rather than the number of opportunities. ADR compensation is also tied to the overall team performance, not just their individual deals.

4. Evaluate Performance on More Than the Dashboard

Early on we created a list of “Sales Values” that we use to evaluate reps’ performances. This is more than just an ideological wish list, it’s what we measure reps against when considering them for promotions. Sales by nature is more individualistic than most teams, and creating a set of shared values helps tie the team together and rewards people who are making decisions that are beneficial to the company as a whole.

5. Treat ADRs As Your Future, Because They Are

The ADR team is the first place we look to when hiring Account Executives. By promoting top internal talent first, we foster an environment where performance is rewarded. We hire smart and ambitious people and have made it a priority to let them know they have a place to grow at Intercom – did I mention that three of our ADRs have already become Account Executives? Even if you were to look at this in pure, cold, monetary terms, the cost of hiring Account Executives from outside is far more than nurturing good talent from my team.

We are on a mission to create the best sales team in SaaS that empowers our clients and community to succeed with Intercom. We believe our ADR team is the key to starting us on that road.