An enterprise sales story: How our SaaS closed the deal by walking away

Allison: Dude, he showed up with donuts.
Me: What? Donuts?
Allison: He said he wanted to talk things over.
Me: Did he spring for the good kind or just your standard glazed?
Allison: He went artisanal — we’re talking pineapple basil!
Me: So, what happened?
Allison: I said there was someone else; it was too late…

Based on the above excerpt, you might assume Allison and I were discussing a breakup. However, you would be mistaken.

Allison works in the marketing department of an enterprise-level company. Last week, she called to tell me her organization had ended its contract with an enterprise-level Ahrefs competitor.

FYI: I’m the CMO of Ahrefs; we sell an SEO toolkit known for housing the world’s biggest third-party database of search queries.

Ahrefs strives to be a self-serve platform; our small team of 45 individuals includes zero sales representatives.

Allison persuaded her manager to use Ahrefs because it was the better tool for the job. It didn’t hurt that it was also A LOT cheaper than the “enterprise tool” that they were using.

The sales executive showed up with gifted donuts in an attempt to salvage the account within one week of cancelation. Actually, he had a buddy tag along for moral support!

When Allison told me this story, I was blown away by how much effort our competitor put into retaining her company as a client.

Having just navigated Ahrefs’ first “enterprise courtship,” I couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly jump through the hoops involved in landing a contract over and over again.

Allow me to explain…

How to court enterprise clients in 5 easy steps

A few months ago, one of the world’s largest corporations contacted Ahrefs about the possibility of using our SEO toolkit.

Not only is this organization one of 30 companies included in the Dow 30, but it also boasts operations in more than 170 countries. They wanted to strike a licensing deal for the marketing department of one of their branches.

Partnering with such a reputable company seemed like a great opportunity for our bootstrapped SaaS.

Upon hearing about our potential “big fish,” I was stoked.

However, my initial enthusiasm quickly waned during the very first meeting; the Friday night, conference call included Ahrefs CEO and founder Dmitry, myself and several corporate executives.

Our questions for them were simple:

How many people in their organization would be using Ahrefs? And were all of them from the same department or were they from different branches?

Comparatively, their questions were significant:

What’s the ETA for feature X? Could they negotiate the features and the price of the “package?” Could they pay via bank transfer?

The corporation was prepared to pay a significant sum of money for our services. However, in exchange, they expected a high level of product customization, personal attention and onboarding support.

Since Dmitry and I were participating from our own homes, we immediately jumped on a private line after ending the meeting.

Turning away business is never easy, but we both agreed accommodating the requests would jeopardize resources.

Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with the CEO of a company that exclusively focuses on enterprise sales. The business also happens to work within the SEO niche.

We learned the size of their sales team, their average sales cycle, their approximate cost per lead and other insightful details that further solidified our opinion: traditional enterprise-level client courtship doesn’t work for Ahrefs.

Was their oversharing part of a bigger strategy to discourage us from tapping into enterprise sales and competing with them? I’m not sure, but it definitely influenced our decision to forgo building an enterprise sales team.

Below is a simplified overview of the steps involved with courting and landing enterprise clients. Note: I don’t recommend any of the following steps for courting romantic interests.

1. Stalk them

In this case, we were lucky — the enterprise lead approached us.

However, that’s not what happens the majority of the time. Consistently closing deals with enterprise clients requires creating and maintaining detailed lists of Fortune-500 company managers, chief technology officers and other organizational decision makers.

While cold lists can be bought for a hefty fee, gathering the specific information you need requires a fair amount of detective work.

Scouring LinkedIn profiles, attending conferences and requesting introductions from common acquaintances are common activities. Some established companies even launch their own industry events with the sole goal of attracting desired leads.

Unfortunately, establishing initial contact with your dream client is only the tip of the iceberg. You may also be expected to…

2. Make promises (that are hard to keep)

Have you convinced the prospect that your product is worth evaluating? Congratulations! You’re ready to move onto Phase 2, which often involves a series of negotiations for product adjustments.

Corporate executives are accustomed to getting what they want and can be extremely persuasive when negotiating terms of agreement.

Unfortunately, what the enterprise client wants isn’t always win-win for everyone involved. The tendency for SaaS sales and marketing departments is to be overly accommodating in hopes of closing.

“Want to eat lavender-infused chocolate on the moon? Sure, we’ll get that done for you within the next 5 years!”

Of course, enterprise clients generously pay for their requests. But do those requests align with your business model? Would you be over-committing resources to something that takes away from your “bread and butter?”

In this instance, we would have been doing exactly that. Despite the fact that our developers were already working on the requested features, we didn’t know when they would be released.

Ahrefs has thousands of paying customers waiting for all sorts of requested product improvements. Due to our limited resources, we couldn’t realistically balance both commitments.

3. Agree to complex terms

Should you agree to their terms, expect to receive legal papers. You will wade through several sophisticated documents, consisting of more than 5 pages each.

Regularly reviewing such documents would require Ahrefs to maintain a dedicated legal team. Otherwise, we might end up agreeing to crazy unfavorable terms and be none the wiser. So, this was another huge deterrent from partnering with enterprise.

4. Honor painful payment methods

You may be surprised to learn your enterprise client has some cumbersome payment terms. It’s not uncommon for large corporations to budget specific expenses for pre-determined quarters.

Translation: Your team may do significant work upfront for little to no pay. The enterprise client will also pay by check or bank transfer. Both of these payment methods require extra processing efforts; a dedicated billing person to manage the account is recommended.

5. Be at their beck and call

Unfortunately, the burden of training the client’s team in the new technology will rest on your shoulders. You will need to assign an account manager to ensure they are happy with the product.

After putting significant time, energy and resources into courting the client, you’ll do everything possible to keep them. Have a “churn busters team” ready with donuts, if all else fails.

Am I over-dramatizing the experience of working with enterprise clients as a small organization? I don’t think so.

Successfully executing the aforementioned steps would require doubling, maybe even tripling, our headcount. The cost of hiring these sales executives, account managers and legal experts would be astronomical. Couldn’t we just pass those costs onto the client?

Absolutely, but we would have to secure substantially more enterprise contracts to turn a worthwhile profit.

Many companies become extremely profitable by prioritizing enterprise accounts. However, they also baked the associated components needed for success into their early business models.

Conversely, Ahrefs was founded with the intention of being a self-serve business from the beginning. We believe sticking to our original plan will yield the greatest returns.

As previously mentioned, Dmitry walked away from the original deal because it wasn’t in Ahrefs’ best interest.

However, something interesting happened — the enterprise-lead from our story purchased our most expensive plan, anyways.

How we won by prioritizing product development and customer education

The company’s internal “champion advocate” was so persuasive that they decided to move forward without the dedicated account manager, customized features and bank transfers.

Champion advocates are customers who are passionate about your product’s features, capabilities and benefits. In fact, they are SO enthusiastic about their results they effortlessly convince their parent company to buy on your behalf.

The good news? Creating this kind of word-of-mouth advertising isn’t the least bit mysterious. You just prioritize three things above all else:

  1. Product Development
  2. Customer Education
  3. Brand Development (and a thriving community)

These three factors are the reason Ahrefs has achieved more than 60 percent YoY growth for the past 3 years alone.

I’ve spoken before about how I used to believe marketing was hard. It wasn’t until working for a product-first company I learned how easy growth could be.

When you have a phenomenal product, the best thing you can do as a marketer is teach customers how to achieve their goals with it.

The more we educate our existing consumers, and the industry at large, about how to increase their search traffic with our SEO toolkit, the more champion advocates we create — this snowball effect of PR builds over time.

People like my friend Allison become better SEOs after learning from our blog and using our software to practice their learnings.

Once your customers begin getting results, and gaining value from your product, they’re eager to pitch their bosses on your behalf. In my experience, champion advocates even volunteer to train their fellow employees.

Their product knowledge even allows them to assume leadership roles within their respective departments, thus opening the potential for promotional opportunities.

The bottom-line: SaaS companies can sell to enterprise without a sales team.

  • Focus on making the best product you possibly can.
  • Creating high-value content that demonstrates its usage.
  • Allow your “champion advocates” to sell on your behalf.

Our brief experience flirting with enterprise was enough to convince us of one thing: If your product is equally useful to both SMBs and corporates, you can succeed on your own terms.

Now over to you…

Do you have a sales team dedicated to enterprise clients?

What do you think would happen if your organization put more effort into creating enterprise-facing product features and educational material instead?

Tell me in the comments below.

Disclaimer: This story is based on a series of true events about donuts, bribery and enterprise-level marketing. Names and timeframes have been changed to protect the parties involved.

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