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Product-Led vs Sales-Led: An Introduction to Product-Led Sales

The most famous product-led success stories like Slack, Zoom, Atlassian, Dropbox, and Calendly all had rapid growth fueled by a great product with incredible market fit.

And they did it without a sales team (initially, at least).

That’s very rare. Possible? Yes. Common? No.

There are many good reasons why companies can’t just switch on a product-led growth spigot. Some of those reasons may include:

  • No self-service free trial or freemium option.
  • No ability to purchase online.
  • A pricing strategy that doesn’t include an ‘easy-to-buy’ pricing tier.
  • A clunky user experience.
  • Product complexity, requiring setup, configuration & training.
  • The product wasn’t initially designed to have a self-service customer acquisition mechanism.

There are a lot of products that fall into these categories. While not every company can have a true product-led growth model, any company can set out to create a product-led funnel.

What is a Product-Led Funnel?

A product-led funnel creates a more self-qualified prospect even when the customer can’t try and buy in a self-service manner. It’s a way for a sales-led company to move prospects deeper into the funnel by putting the product front and center of their go-to-market strategy

The product-led continuum in the product-funnel

With a product-led funnel, a company that relies on a sales function to acquire, retain, and expand customers can create buyers that are further along in their purchase decision.

How to spot a product-led funnel:

  • The company looks sales-assisted rather than sales-led. Prospective customers have heard, seen, or experienced enough of the product to discover its value on their own. Their purchase likelihood is higher when they enter the sales funnel.
  • There is increasing inbound organic demand coming from a flywheel motion.
  • There are hot, inbound leads who, on the first call, ask for a free trial or even ask for wiring instructions or where to send a Purchase Order. You may even find you are able to close customers on the first call.
  • There is inbound customer demand for account expansion.
  • The sales cycle is getting faster.

So where does sales fit-in in this product-led world? 

In a product-led go-to-market strategy, the emphasis is on the quality, value, and experience of the product. But sales can (and perhaps should) have a role in driving growth. 

Contrary to popular belief, selling is not dead. It’s very alive and most buyers still make their business purchases through some level of sales experience.  

Buyers want to control their own journey—finding, trying, and buying products on their own. And yet, most companies still rely on a sales team to acquire customers, and many of the fastest-growing product-led companies eventually hire sales teams.  

So sales and product-led should be considered as strategic partners. This is product-led sales. 

Product-led sales is a customer-centric method of reducing friction in the sales cycle.  It can accelerate the funnel by creating well-qualified prospects no matter where they are in their buyer’s journey. And it works no matter if you are already product-led or are still primarily sales-led. It offers you a way to create a more modern buying experience based on how customers actually want to buy, not on how you want to sell to them. 

Success comes down to finding a way for these two strategies to complement each other to fuel even more growth than they could on their own.

There are two different paths into product-led sales coming from completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Let’s explore:

  1. How to add sales if you are product-led.
  2. How to become more product-led if you are sales-driven.

1. How to add sales if you are product-led

Product-led growth is a bottom-up motion where users choose the product and the customer base grows organically: from invites to colleagues and friends and the sharing and natural virality that comes with an easy-to-use product that solves a problem or makes lives easier. 

Prooduct-led model

But even companies that are famously product-led eventually layer in a sales motion. A sales organization can help drive expansion and renewal revenue.

They also have the unique capability to sell to a large enterprise organization on a much bigger scale than a product alone, driving adoption and expansion.

A sales organization can help drive the transformation from users choosing the product to the company choosing the product, which further solidifies the relationship between company and product. 

When adding sales to product-led growth, here’s a three-phase approach you can follow:

  1. The initial rollout should be on low-hanging fruit with a land and expand strategy. This means focusing on expanding existing customers through a top-down approach that complements the bottom-up growth that’s already occurring. Create an account management team singularly focused on making in-roads with existing customers.

  2. The next phase can be adding a sales-development motion on marketing-generated leads to help accelerate their buyer’s journey. Using a highly tailored, lead-specific approach is important with this approach.

  3. And finally, a product-led company may even want to try outbound at some point. This approach, in particular, can be challenging for product-led companies, and a targeted approach will work best. To start, target 100 dream customers you don’t already have rather than targeting 1,000. A controlled approach will help you learn what works and what doesn’t. You can iterate with a small number of target accounts as you scale the program to become more efficient over time.

Finding the right mix of sales motions for a product-led company requires experimentation and patience, but can work really well at acquiring, expanding, and retaining customers.

2. How to become more product-led if you are sales driven

A traditional sales-led environment centers around targeting ideal customers, outreach, and then working to qualify, find a need, create interest–all before we get to the nuts and bolts of product talk. 

Some sales-led companies even discourage product and pricing discussion until after discovery and qualification entirely. This is a top-down, sales-driven approach to acquiring customers.

Sales-Led Model

More and more, a sales-led organization finds itself facing off with a product-led competitor. This causes increased pressure from buyers who expect a more product-led approach. In these cases, it is useful to create a product-led funnel that helps accelerate the sales cycle and create a more frictionless experience for the buyer. 

When a product-led funnel is created for a sales-driven organization, the team finds themselves talking to prospective buyers who are 80% sold on the product, are ready-to-buy, or just have a few questions. 

These buyers don’t need the typical steps of qualification, evaluation, and negotiation that can slow down the sales cycle. 

The approach to creating a product-led funnel includes doubling down on customer advocacy, creating more ways for customers to explore your product, even if you aren’t able to provide a free trial or demo environment (think: videos, tutorials, infographics, screenshots, value-based messaging and transparent pricing). 

An example of this in action is from Pendo. They offer a product tour—sort of like a do-it-yourself demo. 

They have a clear call-to-action on their homepage that invites visitors to tour the product without requesting a demo or speaking to a salesperson.

Visitors are then asked to choose a topic to make the most out of their product tour.

Once they indicate which option they would like, visitors are then self-guided through the product.

Pendo product tour

Leading with your product can be a tricky shift, especially if you have a complex product that requires hand-holding & training. But it is possible to position your product in a way that feels more product-led and supports the way your prospects want to discover, try, and buy. 

Whether you fit the classic model of product-led growth already or are just starting to think about a product-led funnel, considering how sales fits into your go-to-market strategy is a key part of accelerating results.

Anna Talerico
Anna Talerico
Anna Talerico is an Operating Partner at Arthur Ventures in Nashville, Tennessee where she focuses on capital-efficient go-to-market strategies across sales, marketing, and customer success for their portfolio companies.