Why every early stage SaaS founder needs a sales process


  1. Documenting why and how people buy is fundamental to scale
  2. Start with your very first sales and ensure you capture these insights personally - write them down!
  3. Establish a culture of ongoing customer discovery and win / loss analysis from the very start, this is critical to success
  4. Your goal is to remove friction from the selling and buying process
  5. Regardless of whether a customer is sold to by a sales rep or buys through a self serve motion, the same theory applies - you must make the experience as smooth as possible

Jennifer Bers is a Notion GTM Expert with more than 20 years experience leading sales teams for innovative, fast-scaling SaaS organisations and is a Notion GTM Expert. Her focus with Notion is on helping our portfolio companies to create and grow high performance sales teams, with an emphasis on empowering leaders and reps with coaching, feedback, training and leading by example. 

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Founders go first

I'm a firm believer that the Founders should close at least the first 10 deals. Yep, even if you hate sales, you still have to do it. What’s more you'll be involved in sales for a long time.

This will also make your life easier in the long run, I promise. You may not know what you’re doing at first but that’s the point–you’ll be laying the foundations of a repeatable and scalable sales process. Remember, nobody knows the problem you solve, your product and market better than you at this point.

First of all, you'll truly figure out if people want to buy your solution, and secondly you'll start to understand why. You may think your solution helps customers save money but it turns out they buy because it makes their teams more efficient and quicker. You think you're solving a developer need, but actually it's really cross-functional and there are more people who can benefit (and who you can sell to). 

Document all of this. Document all the questions that are asked, how you responded and how the customers responded in turn. Anecdotes, great turns of phrases, what customers loved, what they hated…all of it. Document early and document often so all the knowledge doesn't solely live in your head.

Then, once you have a number of deals under your belt, write down every step in that sales process, what happened and who was involved. Or what should have happened to make it even smoother.

This is the beginning of your sales process. So, first of all: what is a sales process?

A sales process is a series of stages, commonly defined, that your reps will go through in order to close a deal, or your customers will go through to buy as they engage in self-serve motion. You’ll need a common vocabulary so when your team says a deal is in a particular stage, everyone knows what that means, and it's not open to interpretation or end of quarter happy ears. As you start recognising patterns in those deals you’re closing, start defining what each stage is, what happens in each stage, who from your company should get involved, who from the customer should be involved, and what material should be presented. Just as importantly, what should the prospect be doing in each stage? Otherwise you’re just happily moving down the funnel because you’ve taken certain actions which is wishful thinking. The prospect has to be equally engaged and aligned.

Define entry criteria: a deal CANNOT be in a particular stage unless certain hurdles have been crossed, and you cannot move to the next stage unless you are confident these milestones are hit. These may be having confidence in certain MEDDPICC definitions (more on this to follow), such as knowing customer pains, and who your prospective champion is before moving into anything past early stages. It may be having completed and mutually agreed a valid business case. It may be that the prospect has taken particular actions such as installing a trial version. 

These are for you to determine and aren't set in stone--but give you confidence that when one rep says they're in 'Negotiation' that they're actually negotiating with an interested party. You have no idea how many times I've been told a rep has a deal in "Negotiation" but it turns out the only one negotiating is them. Good luck trying to get back pricing on that "if you close by the end of the month I can give you 10% off" desperation email. 

Why do you need a formal sales process other than having stages in your CRM system? 

  1. Execution. You’ve defined the best practices to ensure the best shot at showing value and closing the deal. As you start onboarding new sales reps, everyone has that common vocabulary and understanding of how deals get done, what needs to happen and how to orchestrate your often limited resources to best effect. Having a well thought-out process also helps stop having a pipeline of all "late stage deals" that haven't really been qualified at all. Your sales enablement will be much faster and clearer if you have a genuinely well structured process.

  2. Alignment. This is also critical to keep your whole company aware of where the prospects are, so everyone knows what's happening and how they can best help or best prepare. Say you have a deal that's just moved to Technical Validation, which in your parlance may mean the customer is about to run a trial. Product knows that there are prospects actively testing the solution, and the right people are involved to help ensure everything runs smoothly. Customer Success knows that there is a prospect at a later stage in the funnel and to start preparing for the resources needed should they close (and it's always a good idea for larger deals to introduce Customer Success earlier in the funnel so it's a nice smooth handoff and the customer knows they'll be in good hands.) Finance can start looking at estimating bookings and cash flow. I’d highly suggest automating notifications to the right teams when a deal moves into a particular stage so they can prepare.

  3. Predictability. There's nothing your board members love (cough) more than when you confidently tell them the number you'll bring in next quarter, and then you show up that next quarter nowhere close. That's not a fun board meeting to be part of. 

A possible sales process as a starting point. This won’t work for everyone, but gives a flavour of what you need:

  1. Meeting Booked: just a stage to show upcoming meetings so everyone knows who you will be speaking to. 
  1. Discovery Meeting: Very early stage, just kicking tires. 
  1. Business Validation: There’s a real deal here. This is when it ‘counts’ as a meeting booked for SDRs maybe. You can create a business case to warrant moving forward.
  1. Technical Validation: A trial, or a technical deep dive
  1. Negotiation: Two parties are mutually engaging in a negotiation and discussing terms
  1. Sale Agreed: Terms agreed, now in Legal 
  1. Closed Won/Closed Lost

Sales is a blend of art and science. Too much art and each deal is its own masterpiece–impossible to replicate and opaque in how you got there. Too much science, especially early on, and you potentially miss out on new use cases or serendipity because something didn’t fit into a harshly enforced structure. But when you get it right, with a well defined sales process that allows reps the freedom to use their experience and personalities, with a defined structure that ensures you always really know where they are in deals. It makes your life, and those board meetings where you have to show your strong grasp on the commercial side of the business, much easier.

Will this be perfect? Nope, never. And you may find that what you initially define as the process needs to evolve. That sales process helps serve as a guide and roadmap to ensuring that reps are following best practices to show value, not cutting corners and jeopardising deals. As you learn more and get more experienced, you can refine. All that documentation you did at the beginning? It’s embedded into the material, so at each stage your teams know what is likely to be asked, and how to best respond.

Granted, this article has been mostly aimed at a sales-led process, but the same arguments hold for PLG (Product Led Growth). Having a well defined process for your users who have downloaded or signed-up to your solution is just as critical. For you to be able to benchmark those likely to convert to paying, and to know what should be happening in each stage, you’ll also need to go through and document what the user should be doing, and if they haven’t – don’t move them down that PLG funnel until they do. And just as in a sales-led motion, arm the right people internally to be able to step in and help ensure they understand fully what to do so they hit those milestones.

There are lots of examples out there of ‘typical’ sales processes. Take a look at those if it helps, but make sure that you align your product and purchase process accordingly.

Now go close something!

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