Build Your Dream Sales Team: 3 Sales Team Structures for High-Performing Organizations

Written by
Josh Jordan
May 31, 2022

Developing a high-performing sales team seems like magic when everything works right. While some amazing groups come together purely by chance, the factors that influence a high-performing team usually aren’t random. Each sales rep has unique strengths that contribute to the overall success of the company. Reaching your goals means paying attention to how you structure your sales team to make use of those strengths.

In general, there are 3 sales team structures that have proven to be most effective for SaaS companies. That said, every sales team is different. No single team structure will work for every organization. Sometimes, you may need to design a unique model that meets the needs of your department.

The key is to know your budget and what you can achieve within those limits. Let’s look at the 3 best sales team structures and what each one can accomplish for your organization.

The Most Effective Sales Roles

To understand how these team structures work, let’s first look at the different roles within a sales team.

  • Sales Development Representative (SDR) - SDRs are typically the entry-level salespeople at most SaaS companies. In some cases, they are called Business Development Representatives (BDRs). Their primary job is to bring in new deals for the account executives to close. They spend most of their time researching prospects, making calls, sending emails and qualifying leads.
  • Account Executive (AE) - AEs are skilled sales reps responsible for closing deals. They continue the conversation with prospects, conduct demo calls to overcome objections and work out any unique customizations. In essence, they turn warm leads into new customers.
  • Account Manager / Customer Success Rep - Once the prospect becomes a customer, the account manager or customer success (CS) rep helps them implement the solution. If the customer has trouble using the product or achieving full adoption of the solution within their team, the CS rep helps the prospect overcome those obstacles. They are also responsible for maintaining a positive relationship with existing customers and upselling them on more premium packages.
  • Sales Engineer - While sales engineers aren’t part of every sales team, they may be necessary for large companies with complex software products. Their primary task is to analyze the software from a technical perspective and understand the solutions it can provide to customers. They may also help customize the product for unique use cases. Unlike the average salesperson, sales engineers typically have an abundance of technical knowledge. While they can be good sales strategists, they may not always be great on sales calls.
  • Sales Manager / VP of Sales - Sales managers are responsible for building and maintaining the success of every role on the sales team. They meet with reps on a regular basis to forecast and strategize how best to approach the sales process. They also review sales calls and coach reps on how they can perform better. At a larger company, a VP of sales may be in charge of multiple sales managers as well as the sales velocity of the company. However, early-stage startups often combine these roles until they can scale the team.

Structure 1: The Island

The Island structure employs multiple non-specialized sales reps under a single owner or founder of a business. In this model, each rep handles the sales process from start to finish. The terms SDR and AE don’t necessarily apply in this model since reps are both prospecting and closing their own deals.

Often, this structure forms out of necessity with early-stage startups. Founders will hire a few skilled reps to take over the sales process. Eventually, the goal is to have a sales manager or VP of sales become direct supervisor of the sales team so that the founder or business owner can step away.

As the company grows, this model will likely require a separate customer success team. Otherwise, the growing customer base may require too much maintenance for your reps to keep up with.

However, the Island structure can be great for startups with shorter sales cycles and tight budgets.

Advantages of the Island Structure

The main advantage of the Island structure is the autonomy it offers your sales team. With less managerial oversight, you give your sales reps the freedom to make the best decision for each situation. Since they are qualifying and closing their own deals, Island-style reps have a greater stake in doing their job well from the beginning. This often helps them take ownership over the customer journey.

As time goes on, this autonomy produces confidence. The more confident and well-rounded your reps become in their ability to sell your product, the less support they will need to achieve the same performance standards. This means you won’t have to hire a separate team to take over different parts of the sales process.

Drawbacks to the Island Structure

Sometimes it can be difficult to find sales reps that are qualified to handle a position within the Island structure. Most sales rep candidates are best suited for one specific part of the sales process. Very few are well-rounded enough to succeed in a full-cycle sales role.

This model may also create a hyper-individualistic culture, with each rep fighting for their own success. While some competition among reps can be healthy for a sales team, a culture where everyone is out for themselves can be dangerous. Great sales teams work together to achieve great results. However, if every rep is responsible for closing his or her own deals, this may not incentivize them to lean on each other when necessary.

Beyond that, the Island model can make it difficult to create a consistent customer experience. Because each rep handles the process from start to finish, the sales process is more likely to be shaped by each rep's unique personality.

Structure 2: The Assembly Line

The Assembly Line structure divides responsibilities within the sales process into multiple specialized roles. Teams are created based on specializations, and the job description for each rep is much more narrow. This allows your team to break down the sales process into specific functions or tasks (such as qualifying leads and closing deals). This is where you will most likely find separate SDR and AE teams. Assembly Line-style sales managers may be assigned to coach and supervise small teams of reps from each role.

In many cases, you may break down role-specific specializations even more. For instance, you may have one SDR team that handles inbound leads and another team to handle outbound leads. With AEs, you may assign one team to small companies and another team to large corporations. Beyond that, some organizations break down each team to focus on a target customer type, product type or location.

Advantages of the Assembly Line Structure

By making reps responsible for only one stage in the sales process, you can easily track each rep’s performance against specific metrics. When the job duties are this narrow, it’s much easier to assign clear KPIs. This also makes it easier to isolate problems within your sales process. Because each rep has specific metrics for their assigned stage, you can clearly assess which part of the process is failing and take measures to correct it.

The Assembly Line structure is typically used by larger sales teams, mainly because it’s designed for scalability and efficiency. Each role has a specific job, and the handoff of prospects from one rep to another makes for a very fast-moving pipeline when executed properly. You can easily scale your team by hiring reps for specific roles, promoting top performers and using the new revenue they produce to hire more reps over time. When a rep leaves, the team isn’t nearly as affected as they would be if that person was involved at every stage of the sales process.

Drawbacks to the Assembly Line Structure

Sometimes, this structure may create unhealthy competition. If sales reps are distinguished by their responsibilities (and compensation), it can create a dynamic of SDRs vs. AEs. In reality, both roles need one another to succeed. But this kind of hierarchy may divide people by status. Because they have different responsibilities, goals and challenges, they may not be willing to work together for the common good.

Beyond that, Assembly Line structures may create friction within the customer journey as the prospect advances to different stages and interacts with different team members. When each rep is responsible for a different part of that journey, the effort one sales rep takes to build a relationship with the prospect is reset once they transfer the conversation to the next person (SDR to AE, then AE to Customer Success). While many people understand the need for specialized roles, some people may prefer to speak with ‌a dedicated sales rep throughout the entire process. There’s also no guarantee that the next person in the cycle will have the same rapport with the prospect, which can derail the entire cycle.

Structure 3: The Pod

With the Pod structure, teams are comprised of sales reps at nearly every level of specialization. Each pod works together to sell to a single prospect.

A common sales pod might look like this:

  • 1-2 SDRs who prospect and qualify new leads for the pipeline.
  • 1-2 AEs who take those qualified leads and close the deals.
  • 1 Account Manager to handle customer success and upselling.
  • 1 Sales Engineer to help create sales strategies. While you may find sales pods with a dedicated sales engineer, their presence really depends on budget. It’s not uncommon to leverage a sales engineer’s expertise across multiple pods.
  • 1 Sales Manager to coach reps and review metrics of the whole pod.

Because every person in the pod works with the same leads and prospects, metrics tend to be simple to monitor with this team structure. You may have individual metrics for each role, but many companies use a collective revenue-based metric for an entire pod. This puts the focus on collective success rather than individual ambition.

Advantages of the Pod Structure

The Pod model is designed to facilitate teamwork among different specialized roles. Instead of focusing on a specific task, reps work together to focus on the customer journey as a team. Because they have a common goal, they are more likely to cooperate and work hard to support one another. Often, pods allow for multiple people to be on a sales call together, leveraging the skills and expertise of everyone involved.

Pods are also more flexible than any other kind of team. The more these specialized reps work together, the more acquainted they will be with other strengths within the group. This not only facilitates positive work relationships and empathy, but it also makes each rep stronger and more versatile individually. When a new challenge comes along, it is much easier to assign pods to those challenges with confidence. With their collective strengths, they can handle more than the average specialized team.

Drawbacks to the Pod Structure

While the Pod structure has many advantages, team members in this structure may become less specialized over time. In a pod, responsibilities often overlap. This can make it difficult to set boundaries for individual contribution. If the pod’s success is measured as a group, how do you know if everyone is pulling their weight?  This dynamic can also make it harder to isolate specific issues in the sale process.

What’s more, the tight-knit nature of a sales pod can make it hard for competitive reps to get promoted. The mentality of “everyone has a place” is great until someone wants to try something new. If you have a few team members who are motivated by challenges and advancement, fixed roles may stifle their overall performance.

Which Structure is Right For You?

Deciding which model of sales team is right for your company is a complex question. You’ll need to take a close look at your sales plan to see what you can accomplish at your current stage of growth. Here are a few tips to help you select your own ideal structure:

  • Consult Your Sales Operations Team - The sales operations team will ‌take a deep look at past sales data. They can then align that with the performance statistics of your sales team and help develop a strategy that works best for your sales process.
  • Know Your Budget - Your team may benefit from a specific model that is outside of your current budget to sustain. That’s okay. Create a structure that works best within your budget for now, and create a plan with specific goals to get where you want to go.
  • Know Your Sales Cycle and Process - A shorter, simpler sales cycle may be encumbered by multiple teams of specialized roles (the Assembly Line). Consult your sales playbook to see how you can best assign reps to different tasks. If you have a highly skilled group of reps that can tackle multiple tasks at once, the Island structure may be perfect for your team. Look at the goals of your company and develop a structure that works to accomplish them.
  • Consider Your Culture - The culture you want to create within your company will help determine which structure will work best for your team. What kind of values do you want to encourage in your teams? Do you want to motivate people through personal ambition? Or do you want them to mostly focus on the customer’s journey? Either way, you want to design a team structure to incentivize living by company values.

Final Thoughts

A great sales team isn’t built on the fly. It isn’t something that you just build as you have time, either. It takes intentionality and consideration toward the kind of effect your team structure might have on your employees and your customers.

With any team structure you create, there will be both drawbacks and advantages. Instead of trying to find the perfect team structure, it’s a matter of developing something that works for your company's goals.

That said, team structure is only part of what makes a high-performing sales department. The most effective sales teams are comprised of highly skilled sales reps. While it’s true that everyone has their unique strengths, it’s a safer bet to hire someone who is well-versed in virtually every part of SaaS sales.

That’s the kind of development we strive to nurture in every one of our Prehired members. We developed our Science-Based Sales® curriculum from studying and interviewing some of the most successful salespeople in the SaaS industry. When reps emerge from our training, they emerge with the confidence to tackle a variety of sales positions. Armed with these skills, you can be confident in their ability to ramp up to being some of the best performers on any team.

Start investing in high-performing reps for your dream sales team. Schedule a call today to learn more about hiring a Prehired member.

Josh Jordan

As Prehired's Founder & CEO, Josh Jordan is leading the mission to help 10,000 people launch 6-figure software sales careers by the end of 2024.

How? With Prehired's Science-Based Sales® process -- born from helping dozens of software companies build their sales teams...

...and then consulting with hundreds of Software Sales Managers on exactly what they wanted new hires to know...

...and then helping hundreds of regular folks break into software sales in 12 weeks, on average.

Josh created Science-Based Sales® to help nearly anyone succeed in software sales, because it creates clarity for prospects. No killer closer instincts, charisma or kissing up to decision makers needed.

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