The New Rules of Developer Sales

Modern Sales Principles for Developer-First Platforms

Developers hate being sold to.

Traditional sales paradigms are intentionally opaque, mired in friction and non-customer aligned incentives. Contrast this to common developer principles of transparency, ease of use, and doing (vs. talking) — and the animosity is easily understood.

Self-service, pay-as-you-go business models have emerged as the de-facto standard for developer platforms. Companies like AWS, Heroku, Twilio, and Stripe are leading examples of this. These platforms are also fueling the rise of developer influence in purchasing decisions, revealing a new path into enterprise IT budgets.

In this context, it’s fair to ask: Is Self-Service alone a sufficient sales strategy?

The simple answer is no.

An intelligent and developer-focused sales strategy is essential to:

  • Successfully onboard new prospects
  • Ensure long term customer success
  • Deliberately pursue untapped opportunities

So how does one design a sales strategy that developers won’t hate?

1. Embrace Self-Service

In a world where prospects can learn about, evaluate, and eventually deploy your platform without intervention, a sales team’s responsibility is to focus on adding value beyond the self-serve offering.

This value comes in many forms:

Business Advisor. Understanding the business problem a prospect is looking to address, providing education on how similar customers have approached the problem, and building a tailored business case for the challenge at hand.

Technical Advisor. Once a business problem has been identified, helping prospects think about implementation strategies, relevant best practices, and how to make efficient use of the platform and its array of features.

Organization Advocate. Prospects will inevitably have rigid procurement processes, legal requirements, and payment preferences (among other things) that will not map directly to your self-serve model. Your sales team needs to educate prospects about the benefits of your business model, while always considering the fastest way to onboard a specific customer. In some instances, this may require flexibility on your side, i.e. working through a custom contract to meet a unique procurement need.

Not all customers will need this level of engagement. And that’s the point.

Don’t add friction to the selling process when unnecessary. Implement a sales process that can intelligently engage prospects, with the right resources, at the appropriate stage of their evaluation cycle.

2. Align Sales Process to Customer View of Success

In traditional software license models, vendors earn revenue when customers select a product . They pay up front, at contract signature, regardless of the project’s ultimate success. With pay-per use , vendors book revenue only when customers successfully use a product. This requires re-evaluating key aspects of the traditional sales process:

Incentive Plans: Pay-as-you-go forces sales teams to focus on opportunities that provide tangible and recurring benefits for a customer. Take for example the scenario where a sales rep over-sells a solution early in the sales cycle. Even if the customer chooses the technology — there will still be no revenue to recognize if the project fails to gain traction. Another reality is most production applications gradually ramp into their expected steady state volume. Appropriately incenting that early revenue traction, at the inflection point where you know it will drive a long-term successful customer, is what you want to point your sales team towards.

Sales Stages. Creating a sales methodology that closely mirrors a software development lifecycle is critical- once again because no revenue will be recognized unless an application successfully launches. Clear entry and exit criteria at the analysis, design, pilot, development, and launch phases of a project will help you deploy the appropriate sales resources to help customers evaluate, choose, and successfully use your technology.

Continuous Improvement. To ensure you are helping customers progress in their evaluation as efficiently as possible, you will want to measure how you are executing on key metrics within each stage of your sales cycle( i.e. sales cycle duration, time to revenue ramp, etc.). This will provide you a framework to understand which areas you can tweak to improve the efficacy of your sales program.

3. Build Sales Teams with Developer-Aligned Competencies

Perhaps the most important component in creating an effective developer-focused sales strategy comes from hiring sales professionals who understand how to work with developers. Some important attributes I’ve seen in successful reps over the years:

Curiosity. The skill of asking good questions and being able to deeply understand problems prospects are exploring. Also, in hyper-growth markets, it’s likely that your sales team will be expanding into new market segments rapidly. The ability of your team to pattern-match and quickly draw analogies across new customer profiles will be important.

Ability to Teach. Educating a prospect on how your technology can be used in their business context—and articulating why your platform uniquely solves their problems . Teaching is half of the selling process. In the platform business, this is need is exaggerated by the freedom customers are afforded when applying your technology.

Ability to Problem Solve. Customer environments (across technical, business, & political landscapes) and competitive mix (between traditional vendors and new entrants) are constantly in flux. The playbook on how to solve a specific problem in the sales process will often not be written. Reps who can embrace this ambiguity and proactively solve problems for their customers will succeed.

Drive to Help Customers Succeed. The desire to help customers solve real business problems, while laying the foundation for a long term business relationship. Also having the fortitude to overcome technical and business challenges/objections that are inevitable in any complex sale.

4. Embrace Seed and Grow

In 2007, a Fortune 500 CIO asked me to keep him updated as new developer accounts were created within his company. While it was still early days of self-service APIs — it was a sign of the increasing decentralization we see today. Individuals within lines-of-business are able to operate much more autonomously from central IT than ever before. Optimizing for this has some important considerations:

Address Immediate Pain. Individual business units will often come across tactical challenges that haven’t been specifically budgeted — but are critical to overcome in a short period of time. Developers will often take on these tasks, seeking creative solutions. This provides a unique entry point for you to solve a high priority problem.

Less Red Tape. With a top down sales process , there will be multiple levels of bureaucracy to navigate, with an evaluation process than can often take a year (or longer). In contrast, a bottoms up approach will involve fewer decision makers and influencers. Just as important — lines of business will often have a greater urgency to address problems, which can facilitate a shorter sales cycle.

Built Trust & Expand. There is no better reference than an internal advocate within an organization. By addressing a need for one business unit, and executing well, you will be in a position of credibility when you seek to expand across the business. Once you are in multiple business units, a top down roll out becomes becomes much simpler.