How To

May 17, 2024

How to transform your sales culture

Eleanor Lightbody, CEO of AI legaltech platform Luminance, shares her top tips for building a revenue-generating machine

Eleanor Lightbody didn’t start her career with sales in mind — she didn’t even know it was a career option. Instead, she started in the marketing team at cyber security company Darktrace, where she was one of the first people in its UK office.

“I would see the sales people walking up and down the floor and it just looked so interesting — the conversations they were having, the excitement — so I asked if I could be a part of that team. That’s the joy of startups, you get a lot of exposure to different roles and functions,” she says. She loved it, excelled and went on to open Darktrace's South Africa office and became the head of Africa.

Now, she’s the CEO of AI legaltech platform Luminance and is keen to change the perception of sales as a second-tier profession and celebrate its value. She’s also very passionate about how sales teams should be built. Here she shares her top tips for building a high-performing sales culture.

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Make everyone part of the sales team

Selling isn’t just for the sales team. Everyone in the company has a role to play, whether that’s figuring out features or products that’ll sell, marketing those products or ensuring the terms and conditions are customer friendly.

Don’t silo your sales team

Everyone has to know what different departments do, and appreciate their role and skills. Create moments for cross-team collaboration. Sales teams are out there meeting potential customers. They can give feedback to the marketing team by saying, ‘Hey guys, people are buying us for this message or this key bit of our service’. The marketing team then knows it can pull on that lever to increase interest, maybe go to conferences that address that particular need or write copy with different positioning. The same can be said for linking up with the product team. However, importantly, you don’t want sales to lead product or lead you astray from your path and vision. These examples also enable the sales team to learn how to speak ‘marketing’ and to speak ‘product’ effectively, which deepens the understanding of the thing they’re selling.

Create clear communication channels

You don’t want a free-for-all where salespeople are messaging everyone. Instead, figure out how they can communicate within the company’s structure. It could be developer tickets or a Slack channel. It may also be processes that aren’t particularly scalable. For example, we get our developers to sit in a first customer meeting or a customer trial. They get to see the work they’ve built in action. Seeing customers pay money for something you’ve built is a motivator, and it makes them more open to receiving feedback from salespeople too.

Lead from the ground

Leaders need to be actively engaged with sales teams to understand what they’re facing, why things aren’t progressing and to solve problems. They can’t just sit in their ivory towers looking at spreadsheets of what’s going wrong or right. You need to hear the conversations to really get it. Go sit in the corner of the team room and don't say anything — which is sometimes very hard — and just observe what's happening. Can you sense what needs improving? How do they feel when you sit in the corner? Is there a hierarchical structure that you weren’t aware of that’s impacting the team? Importantly, you need to set the tone and process to ensure that no one's off limits when it comes to constructive criticism — but your team needs a safe environment and role models to do that.

Focus on soft skills

Hiring the right people is crucial. Hard skills like pitching and closing deals can be trained more easily than soft skills — although these can also be nurtured. Here are some things to look for:

  • Grit and resilience. Ask them: "What is the thing you’ve worked hardest for in your life and why did you work for it?" Then ask them for the second and then the third. You’ll learn how people apply themselves, what they learn and how, what challenges they face and why they've overcome them.
  • Competitiveness. Have they done or do they do a sport? Do they compete in anything?
  • Empathy and curiosity. The best salespeople tend to ask a lot of questions naturally. It’s useful to see how engaged a candidate is throughout the interview process. Things like what they’re trying to find out, what excites them — not just when they’re asked if they have any questions. You want people who are genuinely interested in what you're doing and why you're doing it.

Train for active listening

Salespeople need to actively listen to customers, understand their needs and meet them. It’s not about giving them the whole spiel, just the bit they need to solve their current challenges.

On the subject of… sales culture

1. Scaling sales teams. How to equip your company with the best sales function possible. One from the Sifted Intelligence team.

2. How to manage sales teams that scale.

3. Don’t focus on growth at all costs. Instead, scale your sales sustainably.

Anisah Osman Britton

Anisah Osman Britton is coauthor of Startup Life , a weekly newsletter on what it takes to build a startup. Follow her on X and LinkedIn