Full-Stack vs Specialised Sales Team

What’s the difference and which one you should choose

Ford assembly line circa 1913

I am often asked about what the best way to build a sales team is. While the answer is hardly ever the same, the very first step always is — you need to decide what type of sales organisation you want to run.

The good news is that your choice here is fairly restricted. Broadly speaking you only have two options — you either go for a Full-Stack sales team or a Specialised sales team. The important thing to note is that there isn’t really a right or wrong answer. Each model has its merits as well as its shortcomings. Which one you go for largely depends on your company’s strategic objectives, your business values and to an extend your ability to hire, train and retain sales talent.

This is a short post, that sheds some light on the two models and aims to highlight some of the considerations you’ll need to make when deciding which of the two models might be a better fit for your company.

So first thing first;

What is the difference between a Full-stack and a Specialised sales team?

In a Full-stack sales team — very much as the name suggests — one individual manages the entire sales process end-to-end. This includes lead generation, qualification, closing new business and managing existing accounts. In Specialised sales teams, different individuals are responsible for the different parts of the sales process listed above. It is a process-driven, manufacturing-like approach to selling, which in recent years has established itself as the classic SaaS sales model.

In the Specialised sales team, Sales Development Reps (SDR’s) will focus on lead generation and qualification. Once a prospect has been qualified, they will be passed on to a Sales Representative, whose job is to close the deal. From there it is the responsibility of an Account Executive to manage the relationship with the client moving forward and ultimately extract more value out of the account. The names of the those roles may vary across different organisations, but the basic premise is always the same.

The role specialisation makes it easier to hire and train sales people (relative to the Full-stack sales model) and overall makes this approach more easily scalable. So what’s not to like about it then?

As Jeff Szczepanski, COO at Stack Overflow points out, the biggest drawback of this model is the fact that any improvement in operational efficiency comes at the expense of the client. Consider the following — As a prospect, you speak to a given individual from the company you’re engaged with, who you happen to like. You are ready to move on, but then you are passed on to someone else. The relationship-building (and to a certain extent the sales) process starts again. And this happens at least one more time at the next hand-off. Something that could be very frustrating indeed. This is how Jeff puts it:

“I like the approach, it all makes a lot of sense. What I don’t like is the fact that the customer is exposed to this litany. […] The hand-off in each phase really terrorises the customer.”

Ok, so let’s assume the above does not bother you and that you won’t lose sleep over putting customer experience over potential revenue growth. Is there anything else you need to consider here? As it turns out, there is indeed and the earlier you are with product development/product market fit, the more important it is.

This is where the Full-stack model has a definitive advantage. The process may not scale as well in the later stages of company growth, but as Jeff points out it’s definitely where you want to start. Not only it guarantees a much smoother customer experience, it also ensures that there are no compensation plan complications, no information sharing problems and most important of all, you have a much shorted feedback loop. If you are in the early stages of selling and you haven’t quite figured out what your product’s USP is, and why early adopters are buying in the first place, this is of paramount importance. The sooner you’re able to figure this out, the sooner you’re able to start scaling your team. Furthermore, adopting a Full-stack sales model means that you also get a consistent story as to why deals are being lost (i.e. you don’t need to worry about whether one person’s ability to source/qualifies leads affects another’s ability to close deals).

Best of Both Worlds

So where do you start if you’re in the process of moving away from founder-led sales and beginning to assemble a sales team? Which model should you choose? As I wrote in the beginning of this post, there isn’t a right or wrong answer here, but my recommendation would be to start off with a Full-stack model and think of how to transition to a Specialised team later. This is exactly what we did at Stack Overflow. You can hear the full story here.

Good luck and happy s̶e̶l̶l̶i̶n̶g̶ scaling :-)

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