I joined Salesforce in 1999 as the second sales hire. I was looking for a change. It was the dot-com days, and after time at a large software company, I wanted to do something unique, challenging, and fun. I’d also seen a lot of situations where customers were not getting the value they were promised and witnessed many big failed implementations due to the complexity associated with enterprise technology.

What attracted me to Salesforce at the time, especially after I interviewed with our Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff, was that it was trying to make enterprise software — back then, sales force automation (SFA) — as easy to use as Amazon. This really resonated with me. The subscription business model also really forced us to earn the customer’s business every single day. From the very beginning, we wanted to be a different kind of company.

Looking back 17 years later, what might have seemed a bit risky, especially with a wife, a young child, and another one on the way, obviously turned out to be a great decision. I’ve had the chance to help build and lead a tremendous sales organization. While there have been many lessons learned along the way, these three are top of mind.

Growth without an emphasis on customer success first isn’t going to get you very far. You end up running out of runway if you chase transactions without focusing on customer outcomes. The size of a deal shouldn’t matter: If you win the customer first, solve their business issue, and make them successful, you will have a launchpad for many years of prosperity together.

Salesforce wouldn’t be what it is today without customer success as our #1 value. When we entered an already competitive market, this was our differentiator. It meant that we had to truly understand our customer's business, to do really great discovery up front and then deliver on customer success with our technology and our people. Even as our sales organization has gotten significantly bigger, our products more sophisticated, and the way we go to market dramatically more complex, the foundation of customer success has never wavered.

From the view of an individual salesperson, there’s no doubt that focusing on customer success first is also the way to grow a much longer and more successful sales career. We often reinforce this sales lesson with our account executives. If they deliver success that aligns to their customers’ business objectives, a dollar earned today will result in two or three times more over the next 12–24 months.

A key part of sales leadership is ensuring that employees feel they’re highly valued, can be successful in their roles, and can grow their careers. This is true regardless of where in a company you work. For sales leaders, it’s easy to get very focused on the near term — what's happening this month, this quarter — without thinking about the long term, which is all about development of your people.  

Remember that sales is a people business. Just as customer success can drive great outcomes for your company, so can the success of each individual in your sales organization. You need to make him or her feel like a part of the company, and part of the culture. This is one of the things I enjoy most as a sales leader. It’s how you build loyalty and longevity into your team, and ultimately scale your business.

Growth without an eye to retaining your talent is very difficult. Say you look at your head-count growth plans and you have to add 25% more people this year, but aren’t keeping the team you have. Instead of adding 25% new hires, if you’re losing employees, the gross number you need to add might be closer to 40–45%. That’s a hard way to build a company over the long term, and it’s extremely inefficient if you are spending all your time hiring and training new hires.  

If you’re hiring great people and retaining them, that’s a testament to whether or not you’re doing right by them. Early on at Salesforce, specifically in 2000 and 2001, there was a downturn in the economy and the technology industry was especially hard-hit. While some of our team left and went to different industries, there are still a lot of employees with the company today who stayed through that time because they believed in what we were building, the values we stood for, and the culture of the company.

There is always an art and a science to building your go-to-market strategy, but based on my experience, it’s best not to make these decisions based on your gut feeling. The data we have from years of selling activity drives the majority of our decisions: which new industries to double-down on, which segments of the market are getting the best results, which products our customers are loving, or which regions have the most upside.

We have this rich data because everything we do has been captured in our Salesforce instance. It’s great to have visibility into this month’s pipeline or next month’s big deals, but being able to leverage the volumes of data that has been created over the years to help guide your future decisions is invaluable.   

Once you have put the plan in place, you have to measure all aspects of your business. I have always liked Peter Drucker’s quote “What gets measured gets improved,” and have built it into our daily cadence. The leadership in our sales organization has key metrics they use to run their business. We can make very quick pivots or increase investments in specific areas where necessary based on real-time information. Yes, this might seem obvious, but it’s a task that is never finished. We believe there are always ways to improve the execution of our business.

Because we decided to run a monthly business from the beginning, it has also forced us to be much more disciplined in our execution and align more closely to our subscription service model. We often joke about having 12 quarterly closes a year because that is how we run the business. But it also gives us insights about the health of the business much earlier than if we were running a quarterly or annual business.

Growth without an emphasis on customer success first isn’t going to get you very far. You end up running out of runway.”

Brian Millham | President, AMER Commercial and B-to-C Sales, Global Strategy, Salesforce
 
 
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