Sales team — it’s one of those terms that everybody uses, and seems to agree on what it means.
Maybe you picture it within a hierarchy like the G2 2019 SalesTech Landscape, or maybe something more nebulous. It is separate from the marketing team (except when it isn’t), follows proven processes and sales call scripts to win business (or doesn’t), is divided by territories or types of customer (maybe), and includes distinct support roles (sometimes). Account executives with (usually) quarterly and annual individual revenue quotas report to a sales manager (probably), who in turn rolls up results to a vice president or chief sales officer (generally).
Hmm. Maybe this is more complicated than we are willing to admit.
Sales team structure
A more useful definition would be, “The portion of staff responsible for growing the business and meeting revenue targets by acquiring paying customers.” It’s a blanket term covering a wide range of real-world situations, and no two sales teams are completely alike. Sales team is useful as conceptual shorthand, because explaining the specifics of each case would be a maddening waste of time. That’s fine, but since we spend so much time with this abstract concept it’s possible to overlook or forget what it covers. If we can’t precisely define the sales team, we can at least clarify its components, roles and some of the relevant terms.
Types of sales positions
There are two basic roles that are common to every sales team: the account executive and the sales manager.
Account executive (AE). Also known as a sales representative or salesperson, the account executive is probably the person who comes to mind when you think of a sales team — the one who reach out to leads and convinces them to buy, subscribe or otherwise engage with the company’s products and services. The role may also include fielding inquiries from customers who are already in the buying process and helping them fulfill their specific needs. Account executives may work in inside sales (selling done via phone and email), outside sales (face-to-face deals at the customer’s location or at trade shows), or both.
Sales manager. Somebody has to keep things organized, assign quotas to account executives and generally have a finger on the pulse of the sales group. That’s the sales manager. These people are often the most experienced salespeople on the team, having worked their way up from account executive either at their current company or a previous job. They use their experience to provide advice and encouragement to their subordinates and also to provide a clear picture of sales performance management software to company officers.
Beyond the two main roles, there are several others who may be necessary to a successful sales organization depending on company structure, size and goals.
Business development representative (BDR). Some organizations refer to this role as a sales development representative (SDR), but the job is essentially the same. These are the people who do the setup work on leads before the AE moves to close the opportunity with a win or loss. They seek new prospects, receive leads from marketing and qualify them by making sure the lead’s primary contact is the one with buying authority, that they are in fact looking for something the company can provide, and that they are ready to buy. BDRs don’t exist in every sales environment; the role can be performed by AEs and/or members of the marketing team. Typically, the larger and more complex a business is, the more likely there will be a separate BDR job description.
Sales engineer. Typically found in businesses with highly technical products, sales engineers, sometimes called sales specialists, are in charge of ensuring the details are not lost on the customer. They answer specific questions about product capabilities, educate the customer about implementation and integration of the product, and provide support to account executives who don’t know everything (which is many of them). The more complex the product, the more likely it is that the sales engineer and the account exec are the same person.
Customer success representative. These are salespeople whose job begins after the sale. Customer success is a matter of following up with customers to keep the relationship strong, make sure they are happy with their deal, are getting what they need, and know who to call if they have questions or problems. This puts the customer success rep in an ideal position to act when it is time to renew contracts and licenses.
Channel sales executive. If the business engages in indirect sales, or sales through partners, this person is the liaison to those partners. Channel sales personnel keep the indirect channels in line with company initiatives and goals, support partners’ sales efforts, arrange materials or funding for partner programs as needed, and close deals to bring new partners into the organization. Channel sales executives may report to a channel manager or may be managers in their own right.
Territory manager. Some businesses need (or find it convenient) to divide the sales department into groups serving particular regions. These might be small (a few counties or states) or large (North America, Asia-Pacific, etc.) depending on the company’s reach. Territory managers usually report to the overall sales manager.
Types of sales teams
There are three common ways to structure a sales team, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. The typical names for these structures are the Island, the Assembly Line, and the Pod.
1. The Island. The Island structure takes its name from the idea that every salesperson is an island unto themselves, performing all of the steps from prospecting to close to success management. It’s the most traditional form of sales team and attracts the most stereotypical of salespeople: Type A go-getters, solo hunters, high energy and short attention span. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there are reasons why businesses have developed other options over the years.
Simple and inexpensive to manage.
Customers form close relationships with salespeople.
Very efficient when using simple sales processes.
Reduced control over brand presentation, as it is heavily influenced by each rep.
Extremely competitive environment.
New or inexperienced reps can be overwhelmed.
Customers may follow reps who leave the company.
2. The Assembly Line. An Assembly Line approach to sales means that multiple people work each account, completing their designated task (lead generation, sales development, closing, customer success, etc.) and moving it along to the next step.
Specialized team members make the process very efficient.
Problems in the sales process are easier to identify and fix.
Yields large amounts of data for predictability and planning.
Friction at each point of customer handoff can lead to reduced performance.
Reduced employee engagement with customers.
Focus on specialized tasks can lead to information silos or disconnection from company goals.
3. The Pod. Sales teams with a Pod structure look like a collection of small Assembly Lines, with multiple independent groups pursuing sales goals. Each pod is a team with its own accounts and possibly its own areas of expertise or coverage.
Easier to manage and delegate; problems in one pod do not affect the others.
Fosters closer customer relationships than a single Assembly Line.
Flexible and adaptable.
Lack of competition may inhibit individual growth.
Less job specialization leads to teams full of jacks-of-all-trades.
Putting it all together
It is common for some – even all – of these positions and structures to be absent from a business. A startup with a handful of founders and a dream isn’t going to need or want a sales team yet, because building the brand and establishing relationships is more important at that stage. There’s also the consideration that they might not have much to sell at that point, and what they do have can be handled by the founders. As size and complexity increase, the business will become hungry for staff and the specialization of that staff.
Despite the need for a team dedicated to selling, the responsibility for sales doesn’t stop at the door to their cubicle farm. Any employee who engages with customers may find themselves in a position to add to the sales team’s efforts. Leading companies that put customer experience first know this and use it to their advantage. It is worth considering that all such employees should have some fundamental sales training and access to the systems used by sales to provide the fastest service to customers. Everybody is responsible in part for the success and reputation of the business, and allowing an active role in contributing to revenue – and earn commissions – is a great way to encourage that attitude.
Marshall is G2’s former research principal for sales and customer service applications. This role follows a career as a journalist and analyst covering CRM, customer experience, and social engagement. Marshall's background has led to a deep familiarity with the demands of those markets, as well as the ways other technologies can have a positive effect upon them. His coverage areas include sales, customer service, and contact center.