That title is a little extreme and not at all what a typical engineer wants to hear, but bear with me a little. At Grafana Labs, engineering and sales work very closely together and we're pretty sure its one of our super powers. Raj, our CEO, even talked about how we depend on and promote the engineer and sales synergy in the recent Changelog podcast. Do give it a listen!
I was chatting with some of my friends working at other enterprise and SaaS startups and was amazed to find that engineering and sales were typically quite separate. I want to outline my experience here and maybe it will help other startups!
This is post is aimed at everyone at companies with a B2B product where you sell to other companies. And remember, in companies with an enterprise product, the goal for the company is to sell! And separating sales and engineering is going to lead to a few issues:
- The customers don’t get access to some of the best technical knowledge in the company which leads to revenue loss.
- The engineers lose that sense of purpose that what they work on is valuable and important for many companies, and could lead to higher engineering turnover.
- Sales reps can rarely translate the technical challenges into new features, causing mediocre products and revenue loss.
Now my case personally is also slightly different in that I talk to customers a lot but only because I chose to. I joined Grafana Labs so that I can learn how to build my own company and spending time with customers is one of the things I enjoy. But in general, every engineer (who wants to) in my team also interacts with customers regularly either in the pre- or post-sales cycles.
The Startup: everyone is a sales person
I believe how we are now has a lot to with how we evolved as a company. When I joined, we were less than 30 people, with like 3-ish people (Hi Jacqui, Eldin, Aude and Matt) doing sales. They were mostly handling inbound requests and it was a wild and fun time! Me and Tom launched the new hosted Prometheus product and initially Tom was talking to all the customers pre- and post- sales. Soon, after a couple of calls shadowing him, I was talking to most of the customers, while Tom was handling the really important or large ones. Once the deal was signed, we were part of the customer support process too! We had slack channels for our biggest customers that I was constantly monitoring and making sure that the issues or problems they're seeing were resolved as quickly as possible!
Did this slow down our development velocity? Hell yes, but we could very quickly find bugs, and we were getting direct feedback on what our customers want to see. Everytime I was working on something, I knew exactly which 4 customers would benefit from it! Sometimes, I merged and deployed features that led to several large deals being signed and that is an amazing feeling. Seeing all your work directly translate to $$$.
Sales is not easy
This is when I realised sales is not easy. AT ALL. A lot of the times, we had the superior product, we ticked all the boxes, but we couldn't close the deal, sometimes for crazy reasons like: not having the bandwidth to migrate, not being a large enough company. Other times, it took us months (even a year+ in some cases) to close the deal, with a lot of support, training and patient (and sometimes not so patient) negotiating with procurement teams.
I've learnt that just showing a very well executed demo is not enough, you have to understand what they are trying to achieve, who has the decision power (engineers who contact us sometimes can't make the decision themselves), how to structure the trial and success criteria, etc. Like I see our sales folks navigate the politics in the customer orgs or play some multi-level political chess and I'm in awe. And finally, I've personally tried to close an Indian company multiple times now and everytime, I go in and come out with insane amount of enthusiasm, the engineers are all excited by everything they saw and want to do an evaluation, but soon the deal ends up going nowhere. After all this, I've decided that good sales skills are a super power!
But in general, it builds empathy for the sales team. Engineers will soon realise having the best product is not enough and will quickly understand what is missing in the product and how to position the features and differentiation better. And when sales asks them for help, engineering will be happy to provide it anyway they can.
Optimise for the long-term
Sales at Grafana Labs is tricky because lots of times we're basically competing with our own OSS community. An anecdata: we are generally very responsive on the community slack and have an amazing community in general with Cortex. We've lost several large prospects who chose not to go with GME or Cortex support because they were more than happy with community support. What was ironic is that sometimes the prospects quote my and other Grafana engineers' name saying we provide amazing support in the OSS channels.
This kinda sucks, but companies have to build the right balance here and we like to call ourselves Long term greedy: We optimise for the long-term and this might mean jeopardizing some deals in the short term. We know that we need to have an awesome community for more companies to use Cortex, which would increase the pool of prospective companies and we're okay losing some in the short-term. Raj mentions in his podcast that making sales understand this was no easy task and took some long conversations! Sales has hard targets to hit this quarter and having to optimise for 18+months down the lane is not easy.
But seriously folks, I love the long term greedy philosophy. I feel like I can apply to many things in life, not just OSS sales :)
Always talk to your customers
As we grew, I continued doing the sales and support side of things, but it soon started using up too much of my time. But thankfully, we started growing the Go-To-Market (GTM) side of the org which involved hiring more sales, marketing, solutions engineers, and others. Now, most of the prospects are working with our excellent solutions engineers and most of the tier 1 support is done by our customer support team.
Having said that, I and other engineers still spend a decent chunk of our time talking to our customers directly. This is because we're selling to engineers and they don't want to talk to purely sales folk! They want to talk to other engineers who are directly working on the systems they're going to rely on! And we as engineers want to talk to our customers to see what the common asks and issues are! Also, I like to be especially involved in the initial sales conversations as it gives me unparalleled insight into what customers are looking for and which of our competitors are the most interesting.
Seriously, everyone says talk to the customer, and I can't find a better way! As we grow to 1000s of customers, many of them via our self-serve system, it would be interesting to see how we gain actionable feedback.
Building the bridge
Now while it might sound great, its not easy to make a change like this in your company / startup, but you could always start with small steps:
Regular meeting where sales / customer success does recap: I usually end my week with this amazing company wide call from the GTM team, where they spend 30mins recapping all the deals that they closed and the deals they lost. What went well and what didn't. We also have customer success highlight which customers were not happy and why. This gives me an amazing overview into how the company is doing commercially and if I could do anything to help any of the deals or the customers. Start this, I'm sure your sales team would love to do a retro like this one!
Encourage engineers to talk to customers: Maybe managers can encourage engineers to start assisting the sales folk, with maybe a call every month, where they assist the customer do a POC with the product the engineer is working on. Or if this is a bridge too far, talk to the solutions / sales engineers directly on what can be done to improve the experience!
Finally, sales folk are great!
Well, tbh, I really really like the sales folks and process. Hell, I've wanted to move into sales at several points but sadly I don't think I'll be doing it at Grafana Labs. They're extremely fun (I dare say more fun than engineers :P) and also extremely kind! When hanging out with them, you talk about all kinds of different things that have nothing to do with tech and its always super fun! I want to give a shoutout to Graham, Manu, Eldin, Simon and everyone else who've patiently helped with all my sales questions and were also excellent human beings! I can't wait to hangout again with y'all!
I am not sure if this article was useful to you folks, but if you want to see your engineers build empathy towards the customer, and if you want your engineers to understand the problems and competition better, make them talk to customers directly. Any loss in the productivity is more than offset by building better and more useful products.
Finally, a huuuge thanks to Manu for reviewing this blog and making a ton of amazing suggestions!