In March, Visionaries Club hosted a roundtable event in London, bringing together a select group of revenue leaders from Europe’s most successful SaaS unicorns and promising early stage companies in the sector. Our aim was to bring operators together for a sector-specific discussion to kickstart a new pan-European knowledge sharing community — a way for operators to be able to phone a knowledgeable friend.

Our first session was focused on outbound sales in the SaaS sector, and brought industry leaders including Personio CRO Geraldine MacCarthy, Slack’s Global Head of Customer Success Chris Mills, DeepL CRO David Parry-Jones, and our resident Partner Johann Butting together to discuss the most pressing issues of the day — including sales survival in a recession.

Below are the key takeaways from the fascinating discussion. 

Customer success should not be commercial.

“Someone in the company needs to be fully focused on maximising value for users — Customer Success. If they have a commercial target, they will divert part of their attention elsewhere, and get distracted,” says Chris Mills, Global Head of Customer Success at Slack.

  • The Customer Success team’s role is to drive product adoption, proper usage of the product, and to help the customer define what business goals they want to achieve. If they deliver on those goals, it will make a huge contribution to the company’s commercial success. 
  • Customer Success Managers (CSMs) need to hussle and have grit! They need to identify use cases and success stories for products. None of that happens on its own: the optimal CSM combines a consultant mindset with a sales attitude. 
  • Introduce your CSM before the deal closes. That way they can build a relationship with the customer’s senior stakeholders during the final stages of a deal, and you demonstrate to the customer that you care about their success. If you only introduce CSMs after the deal closes, successful rollout and usage become an afterthought.
  • CSMs must not be perceived as an onboarding resource by the customer. That would make it impossible for them to build a long-term partnership, helping the customer maximise value over many years. This is why you should set up a dedicated onboarding function early on (either for free or as a paid service).
  • There is broad consensus that using a POD model — that is, a small group of Account Executives (AEs) and CSMs with joint responsibility for the same set of customers — encourages the best collaboration between sales and customer success.
    Of course it all depends, but an ideal ratio is often one CSM to every three AEs.
  • Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) is a metric that AEs should track, not CSMs. But if they do their job right, CSMs can have a huge impact on ARR. Successful customers will buy more and refer others.

Prepare early for outbound lead generation, and involve the entire company

“I think it’s crazy that after 15 years, the SaaS industry now has a default of ‘outbound is something scary.’ Outbound used to be the default,” Christian Finstad, CSO of Mentimeter, remarks.

  • Very few companies grow through product-led growth (PLG) alone. For a certain group of products, PLG is the dominant growth driver early on, as early adopters sign up on their own. But for continued strong growth, companies eventually need to target the mainstream market. That will require going outbound.
  • Make going outbound a cross-functional effort and prepare early. Product, Marketing and Sales all need to work together as they determine how the ideal customer profile (ICP) evolves when they start targeting the mainstream market. They need to share insights on what personas and sales verticals respond best, and what use cases and pitches resonate among these potential customers.
  • Sit your marketing team surrounded by the sales team to listen to the account executives’ (AEs’) calls and better understand the ideal customer profile (ICP). Have product managers present in customer meetings, so they receive direct customer feedback.
  • Make your early AEs understand that they are also researchers. It is part of their job to constantly try new pitches, address different personas, experiment with positioning, and determine what works best. Hire sellers who are willing to go the extra mile and do this, beyond just hitting quota.
  • Business development reps (BDRs) can make a huge difference in the early years. Because their sole focus is to create leads, they are best positioned to experiment with customer personas, messages and pitches. But you need to manage them accordingly. Hire the cream of the crop into your initial BDR team, hire experienced BDRs, create career opportunities within the team, and pay them well.
  • At the same time, never expect your BD team to contribute 100% of your leads. AEs need to do their own lead generation, especially early on in the company lifecycle.

When it comes to sales, it’s all about culture.

“Getting goal setting right is important. Set big stretch goals that feel uncomfortable when you’re setting them. Especially in early-stage businesses, if you don’t set really big goals, you’ll never know if you can get there,” says Geraldine MacCarthy, CRO at Personio.

  • Once you’ve set the big goals, foster a culture that’s comfortable with failure. Make things fun — we either win or we learn, but we also have fun as a team! Strive to create an ambitious, yet highly collaborative culture.
  • To build the right sales culture your early leadership hires are critical. Concentrate on where candidates have worked before and how they can adjust to your company and lead by example. Find culture carriers early who can set the tone you want, who foster a sense of approachability, and are seen getting their hands dirty with sales calls themselves.
  • Take the time to be intentional in hiring and let the culture breathe — it’ll grow organically.
  • Culture isn’t just internal, it’s inherently tied to the product. If your internal culture is over-complicated, it’s going to be difficult to deliver a simple product. Think of the values you want in your product as the ones you want in your company culture, too. Get the CEO to interview candidates.
  • Develop a common language when talking about what your company does. This will then be reflected in a clearer outward sell.
  • Shout out and celebrate successes across the organisation, making an effort to highlight all the people from different teams that were involved — not just the AE that closed a sale. 

AI is gaining rapid adoption in sales.

“As sales leaders we deploy a very expensive resource – people – to grow the topline. Our job is to deploy as many sellers in the market as possible, while being profitable. This is why technology that improves efficiency is so critical,” Johann Butting, Partner at Visionaries Club emphasizes.

  • Artificial intelligence can help make sales more effective, and drive more growth with the same or fewer resources.
  • Companies have a wealth of data in their internal sales, marketing and customer success systems. Using this data – in a compliant manner – to build models on top of LLMs can deliver massive productivity increases. 
  • AI is gaining rapid adoption in sales. Numerous SaaS companies are investing in artificial intelligence to improve the efficiency of their BDRs. They’ve built models on top of Open AI to function as a “sidekick” and support their sales development representatives (SDRs) in identifying companies that fit the ICP, and their specific needs. Product and marketing teams are using AI to help fine-tune what the ICP looks like. This all saves time and money.
  • One company has built its own model to fetch data from the systems they use to log usage and commercial data, so that it can understand and propose the most relevant customers for up-sells. Once it has suggested a company as a target, the model then sifts through the company’s sales enablement database and recommends the sales playbook and training materials that are best suited to that customer.

SaaS in a recession: focus on what you can control.

“All you can do as a company is drive the metrics. The market will look after itself,” says David Parry-Jones, CRO at DeepL.

  • Eighteen months ago, many sales teams were panicking about the recession, but Europe’s SaaS sales leaders say that economic cycles help make it much clearer which parts of your business are broken. Sales leaders say that the recession has served as a useful focus reset to help them fix things.
  • There is now a stronger focus on efficiency (customer acquisition cost, unit economics, productivity) over revenue growth at all costs.
  • It varies between sectors and markets, but SaaS companies that have weathered the recession better have been the ones whose sales teams have increased the focus on customer retention and up-sell, and moved away from ‘land grab’ strategies focused purely on new customer acquisition.
  • An even higher focus on value for the customer has become crucial for this refocus on existing customers. Sales teams have had to work harder to prove their product’s values to CFOs. Customer Success has had a key role to play in this, too. There’s been a refocusing on how you can create a product solution that your competitor doesn’t have and that your existing customer is asking for, rather than a scatter gun approach of selling to more.

Investors are also driving this behaviour among SaaS companies. They’re holding onto their purses, so SaaS companies must look inward, driving metrics, and wait for the market to look after itself — i.e., “focus on what you can control.”