How to Manage a Sales Org Spanning Two Continents and Two Cultures
Author: collin stewart
The standard SaaS startup model for a sales team is deeply ingrained in US business culture, Billy Sheng explains on a recent episode of the Predictable Revenue podcast. He’s talking about the classic model that stems from the Predictable Revenue book – the SDR/AE model.
Other sales strategists and methodologists have built on this model and gone so far as to suggest the optimal layout for an office, detailing the exact proximity between SDRs, AEs, and sales operations people as they work.
Billy’s sales team has been subverting this structure since the very beginning. While he replicates the intention behind such a prescriptive model – a collaborative spirit – in other ways, the team itself is separated by 8,070 miles of land, water, and (sometimes spotty) internet connection.
Esper’s initial hires were in Bangalore. As a burgeoning tech company, they were looking for strong tech talent, and India was going through a tech transformation. Huge companies like Chargebee and Freshdesk had built empires and penetrated the US market from India.
The talent in India was on par with everywhere else on the globe, but the financials were a lot more compelling. Senior leadership at Esper quickly discovered that they could iterate and scale rapidly without spending too much on salary, headcount, and operational costs.
Once the dev team was established in Bangalore, Esper hired marketing and then salespeople. They felt that if they were going to outsource, it was important to have a local office and to hire everyone in the same city so that they could come together and feel a sense of camaraderie. At the same time, Esper was hiring its first US sales reps.
At first, the salespeople in Bangalore and the ones in the US were selling into the Indian and US markets respectively. But this was before Esper had raised its series A, and when it came time to scale up opportunities for the US sales reps to close, the leadership team realized once again that the best place to build that team was Bangalore.
Although building an office in another country and filling it with employees under your management is not truly outsourcing, for some people, it leaves the same bad taste in the mouth. Billy has learned that this stigma stems from two things: communication and image.
Communication: Sales is all about communication and trust. Sales reps spend many hours a day on the phones, and trust is built within the first few seconds on a phone call. There is an archaic opinion still held by many in the business world today that an Indian accent denotes either a telemarketer or a scam.
Here is the truth. Everyone who speaks a language that is not their first language has an accent. This accent is influenced by the geographical location in which you learned this language and how you learned it.
But if you’re selling to modern, inclusive companies – especially tech companies, the prospects you’re reaching on the other end of the phone will not have an immediate aversion to accents. They will give you the time to get your message across and, if you have nailed timing and relevance, your team will book the meeting, regardless of where they’re based.
Image: The same camp that wants to put the phone down the millisecond they hear an accent has another issue. If they give you half a chance to make your point and hear about what you offer, they will still feel that your product or service is subpar because your company employs “foreigners.”
Once again, if you are targeting the innovators, the disruptors, and the early adopters, this will rarely be an issue.
The average SDR in Seattle is raking in anywhere between $45k and $75k base salary. You can double those numbers if we’re talking OTE. But in India, you can get an SDR for a third, if not a quarter of that salary. When calculating OTE, you can add half the salary again. This means that you can hire four to five SDRs in India for the price of one SDR in the US.
In the early stages of a company when you want momentum, this can be a crucial business strategy for a number of reasons:
1. 5 SDRs can produce more meetings than 1 (duh).
2. With 5 SDRs you have access to 5x the data points when iterating and refining outbound strategy.
3. If you have a budget for 1 US SDR and you don’t hire the right person, letting that person go and training/ramping a new one can set your company back months.
4. Managing 5 people remotely will accelerate your learnings as a manager and force you to become a better listener and communicator.
ADAPTING THE INTERVIEW PROCESS
When interviewing a candidate in India versus in the US, you’re looking for the same things. You’re looking for specific behaviours, past success, written and verbal communication skills, and time management. But how you look for them needs to change.
If you’re interviewing a fresh college graduate in the US for an SDR role, you’re not expecting them to come with any prior outbound sales experience but you are looking for a set of behaviours suited to the SDR role like coachability, adaptability, confidence, etc.
So you ask the graduates about circumstances they may have found themselves in where those traits could shine. In western cultures, there is emphasis put on non-academic activities, both in high school and university, so US applicants generally have a plethora of experiences to draw from when asked these questions. That’s not necessarily the case with Indian applicants.
In India, school is just about academics. So Billy finds asking candidates about times when they’ve been involved in their community, or times they’ve worked on personal or family projects, to be the best way to uncover examples of the behaviours he’s looking for.
As far as past sales experience goes, it’s common for US companies to hire US candidates without specific business or sales experience.
If Billy is hiring in India, he wants someone who has already been trained in sales or business. This is partially to mitigate the risk that comes with hiring a remote team, and partially to thin the large candidate pool. A team with prior sales experience will generate revenue quicker and need less hand-holding to get the job done.
SETTING EXPECTATIONS IN THE INTERVIEW PROCESS
The SDR function hasn’t been as popular in India as it has been in the US, and staying in the SDR function for more than a very short time is even less popular. That’s because the Indian business culture is focused heavily on hierarchy. When people in India see on a resume that someone has been in the same role for many years, it represents a lack of growth and progress.
That’s why Billy has built a growth path with improving job titles into the sales team at Esper and shares how to achieve it with each candidate he interviews for an SDR role in Bangalore.
HOW TO MANAGE AN INTERCONTINENTAL TEAM
Time is the one resource you have that is equivalent to teams anywhere on the globe. It’s the one thing you can use that makes people feel like they’re important. Spend as much time with your team as possible. If they are in a different time zone, have some meetings in their time zone and some in yours. Have senior leadership share their time with the international team as well.
Give the international team the same access to the top as the local team. Make sure you don’t give more of your time or the org’s time to your local team – the last thing you want is for your international team to feel secondary to the local one.
Plan social events in both locations. Read about and share cultural events happening in your country, and ask the other team to do the same.
Encourage feedback. In western countries, we expect a collaborative work environment. Leaders, therefore, get a lot of feedback, unsolicited or otherwise, from their employees. But in more authoritarian and hierarchical societies, employees are more likely to wait to be given instructions.
You, as a leader of an international team, need to empower your team to voice their opinions and show them that their opinions are valued and will be taken into account.
Share wins. Give everyone on your local and international teams access to the same metrics, dashboards, and call recordings. Show the whole company who the top performers are, and encourage your people to learn from them.
There is a stigma that exists around “outsourcing.” But in the midst of globalization, digitization, and technological transformation, the beliefs that fuel the stigma are long outdated. For companies that are bootstrapping, building an office and hiring a team abroad can accelerate your growth while slashing costs by half or more.
Even companies with VC backing who want to increase their footprint and scale rapidly without high operational costs are perfectly suited to this business model. What Billy Sheng says is: keep an open mind. That talent you’ve seen out there, near and far, is ripe for the picking.
More on behavioural interviewing and finding the right person for the role, no matter where they’re based: How to Build a Top-Performing Inside Sales Team From Scratch
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