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Hire interns for startup’s product-led sales operation

A practical guide for B2B tech startups to create a sales development internship program to support product-led growth strategy.

You are in charge of revenue and growth in a B2B startup. You found some initial tractions, thanks to a great MVP. But product-led alone is not growing fast enough, and you wonder how to hit your next milestone? Does it sound familiar? Many early-stage B2B startups have all been there, the “in-between” period.

ROI for outbound sales

You consider utilizing a more outbound sales approach to drive further growth. Yet you are on a tight budget to build out a large salesforce. You know more and more B2B customer acquisitions have moved inbound and product-led. The “outbound sales” (cold calls, cold emails, trade shows) have diminished ROI.

But we all know it may take a long time for the inbound approach to truly takes off, and outbound sales still matter. It’s just a numbers game. The only way to drive outbound ROI is to minimize investment inputs (especially money toward expensive human resources) to justify your sales prospecting operation. That’s why we believe building a sales development rep (SDR) internship program is an effective strategy for B2B startups to incorporate alongside their product-led growth.

Product-Led Growth supported by sales 

Perhaps before we dive into creating a sales development rep (SDR) internship to support product-led growth strategy, it’s helpful to look at the recent trends. Here is Hubspot’s product-led growth (PLG) definition:

Product-led growth emphasizes the product as the main driver to acquire, activate, and retain customers. It builds a company-wide alignment across all departments and teams, focusing on the product as the primary source of scalable and sustainable business growth.

The benefits of a Product-Led Growth strategy are:

  • Fast and global growth.
  • Lower customer acquisition cost.
  • Shorter time to value.
  • Product virality.

While these are strong value propositions, most successful B2B tech companies have moved into a hybrid model. Even Hubspot has in recent years moved from an inbound lead to insides sales model to a product-led growth to customer success model. “PLG is not the end of Sales; instead, PLG means that we need to reimagine sales. PLG changes the role of sales and customer success, blurring the lines between the two,” according to Oliver Molander from J2 Ventures. 

Even a successful B2B startup that relies on PLG needs to incorporate a sales-assisted motion to get to the next level. Acoma, a sales enablement SaaS platform based in Palo Alto, outlined a great piece to discuss how to build a product-led, sales-assisted go-to-market motion. The four-step best practices involve:

  1. Building a healthy self-served flywheel.
  2. Laying out a clear PLG and sales-assisted workflow with clarity.
  3. Assigning ownership roles for each customer journey touchpoint.
  4. Systemize it and scale. 

This sales-assisted PLG means there is an emerging trend within the B2B SaaS industry called Product led sales. Pocus, a San Francisco-based PLS startup, published a 2021 product-led sales benchmark report outlining fascinating stats. 97% of PLG companies plan to add more sales in the coming future. A few top PLG companies still rely on outbound, with 44% conducting cold outbound and other traditional enterprise sales tactics. 

Sales development internship program can be a strategic growth lever

PLG startups should not forgo SDR operations entirely. Instead, they need to build a flexible and capital-efficient team to support the traditional SDR activities. A well-organized sales development internship program could be an ideal solution. Sales interns can help execute “outbound sales tactics.” They can be valuable human resources for B2B startups. The traditional “inside sales” need to transition into consultation roles. Their primary function is to engage with existing product users for activation and upselling. Interns can assist with user profiling, outreaching, qualification, and appointment setting, saving time for AE and CSM from admin tasks. This way, a startup can best capture all the low-hanging fruit opportunities with minimum BD headcount investments. To design a sales internship program, here are 5 things to consider:

1. Motivate interns to jumpstart a career in software sales

One of the most significant differences between hiring an intern vs. just a freelance is the intrinsic motivation of the talent. Interns are students looking to build a career of their passions. Freelancers are typically professionals with particular skills who develop an independent profession or business. The lines may sometimes be blurry as all works move into remote today. But the fundamental drive is different. Interns are hungry to learn, especially if they are interested in a career in tech or the industry vertical you serve (e.g., retail, hospitality, finance, or manufacturing). 

2. Promote top-performing sales interns to be future AE or CSM

The sales internship program is also a great way to incubate new AE or CSM candidates. The lead sourcing, management, and outreach could get boring quickly. Startups need to educate their interns that getting familiar with the industry, target markets, and prospect hot buttons is fundamental. Mentorship by the startup founder or supervisor is critical to making sure SDR interns understand the context of their work and get a broader perspective about your industry.

We often see startups “outsource” tasks they do not want to do to interns without proper coaching. It is a big miss of opportunity. A motivating internship can promote loyal and productivity that ultimately yields an enormous impact for the company. We recommend dedicating a minimum of one hour per week to meet with the sales interns for review, realignment, and mentorship to drive the highest ROI. 

3. Leverage sales interns to generate new partnership leads and distribution channels

For B2B startups, there are tons of opportunities to “go to where your customers are” online and on social media. Since COVID, practically every professional networking platform, event, the exhibition are all virtualized. Niche professional communities are emerging all across the world. It used to take a sales rep to travel across cities, countries, and continents to attend a trade show. Now anyone can Zoom into virtual business meetups, matchmaking exhibitions, and happy hours virtually across the world.

There are many ways interns can help generate leads and channel partnerships via virtual membership directories, niche professional groups, online exhibitions. An army of interns can help develop opportunities for your startups to demo at webinars or offer a free trial or perks to various partnership channels. 

4. Train sales interns to execute authentic outreach to A/B test different target segments and messages

B2B startups may always want to A/B its message to create an optimal sales pitch. That’s why an outbound campaign A/B test could be a quick method to test various target market segments and messages. Sales interns can leverage sales enablement tools and CRM to build automated prospecting sequences to test different messages and follow-up timing. Interns also get to learn the modern sales method by improving their digital technology literacy. 

5. Task sales interns to help activate product-qualified leads or churn users  

Sales interns can play a role in your product activation campaign to check in with current users. The effort can help you understand where users are getting stuck and further the conversion journey. Sales interns can initiate outreach to existing users and track their responses. It can also be an excellent opportunity to test various metrics to determine your product-qualified lead (PQL). The interns can learn to analyze the product metrics and build hypotheses to develop the user segments to target reactivation. 

The critical takeaway for creating a successful sales internship program for your B2B SaaS startups

There are many ways to leverage interns to support your product-led sales. Let's summarize our main takeaways. 

1. Focus on context, not just task

Ensure interns understand the broader strategic implication of the revenue generation goals and strategies. 

2. Provide coaching and training on market analysis and prospecting 

Instead of just tasking sales interns to source leads. Design the assignment like a strategy development exercise to understand why you are going after specific demographics and segments, how you judge who is the right prospect persona, and their hot buttons.

3. Develop pitch messages and learn to be a part of account-based sales

You can task the sales interns to A/B test different outreach messages to different target segments, build a follow-up sequence, and even run mock pitch exercises to help interns sharpen up their sales skills. Invite interns to be a part of the internal cross-functional calls with marketing to learn how to upsell or cross-sell to various accounts. 

4. Take advantage of industry-standard sales training and assign interns learning materials

For example, Hubspot Academy is an excellent resource for interns to learn relevant sales tips, skills, and how to use CRM software. It's part of interns' digital upskilling during the internship. It also helps interns to show future hiring managers that they have experience with sales automation tools which improves their employability. 

5. Incorporate analytics into the practices

There are always opportunities to analyze sales effectiveness with data and measure conversion rate. It is valuable training for interns to learn how to extract insights out of their outreach efforts to support the broader strategic direction of the company. 

It's never too early to begin investing in a sales internship program, even if you are just a startup. Schedule a free consultation call with the Talent Basket team to learn more.  

Jason Lin

Founder and CEO of Talent Basket.

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