Free Trials in Sales-Led GTM: How to Avoid a Likely Failure

Free trials can be made to work with sales-led GTM. It is difficult, and the tactic is more likely to fail than succeed as it goes against some sales-led GTM fundamentals. We suggest considering six aspects to increase the likelihood of reaching a notable sales boost.

Free Trials in Sales-Led GTM: How to Avoid a Likely Failure

In an earlier blog post, we shared how to manage a situation where a potential customer requests a free trial. In said blog, we looked at situations where the question is presented to a sales representative during an ongoing sales discussion. In this blog, we look at free trials as a freely available option and a website call-to-action while operating a sales-led GTM motion, as it is a tricky combination to work with.

We are now discussing a limited-time free trial as a self-service (so no freemium offering is available). This means there is no sales or onboarding team to help the fledging buyer before they start the trial, and they have their first touch-points with the product on their own. Even though this one and the one previously discussed are both “free trials”, the starting point is very different when the prospect clicks on “try for free” on a SaaS company website compared to the possibility of testing the service on the last stretches of a sales dialogue.

A sales-led go-to-market strategy emphasises sales efforts to facilitate customer acquisition and business growth.

Sales-led GTM, on the other hand, dictates that the sales team has a dialogue with a customer and guides them through the decision-making process. In an earlier blog, we defined sales-led GTM as a suitable strategy for those selling more costly and complex products. More complex products require or at least benefit from having someone from the seller’s side educate potential customers, which means that the price for the offering must be high enough to justify having a sales team involved. Due to the product's complexity, in sales-led GTM, a trial is usually replaced with one or more demo sessions when SaaS products are sold.

Sales-Led GTM and Free Self-Service Trials Do Not Mix

Can one successfully use a free trial to boost sales while investing in sales-led GTM? The short answer is categorically “No.”

The short answer is categorically “No.”

The reason for the resounding no is explained above. In sales-led GTM, the product is complex and requires support from a knowledgeable sales representative. If the product is simple to understand and start using, there is no need for sales. If there is no need for a sales representative, one should not have a sales-led GTM motion. One should be in product-led growth mode.

To really emphasise the point, we defined sales-led GTM as "a sales approach where the sales team interacts with customers before they get hands-on with the product."

But when is life and business so simple or black and white? Rarely ever.

Benefits and Downsides of Still Offering a Free Trial

There are a few notable benefits to offering free trials. First of all, they are very good at generating leads for the sales team, so the temptation to provide free trials for all can be understandably high.

Other benefits include increasing trust with hands-on experience, gaining a competitive advantage over competition (that does not offer free trials), and catering for different buyer personas. Lastly, a solid argument can be made that free trials shorten the sales cycle as the discussion can focus on concerns raised by the prospect, the decision is easier to make after a test, and the prospect can continue to use the service.

Given that some of the downsides of sales-led GTM are an extended sales cycle and the cost of the sales team’s involvement, offering a free trial sounds like an excellent way to counter these. However, the possible downsides should be weighed before having free trials as a website's call to action.

A failed trial can lead to an ideal customer being negatively surprised and never interested again.

The most significant risk one would face is the potential for misalignment. Misalignment can happen on two levels here. The first one is that the prospect expected the product to work differently or be easier to understand and use. Such a scenario can lead to an ideal customer being negatively surprised and never interested again. Alternatively, a milder version is that once sales engage with such a prospect, they spend a notable time discussing what went wrong during the trial, leading to a problematic dialogue to recover from, not to mention signing a deal. The second risk with misalignment is that unqualified prospects start testing the product, leading to a suboptimal use of time with low-quality leads. In either case, misalignment can lead to complicated and time-consuming situations for the sales team.

How to Make Free Trials Work in Sales-led GTM?

Free trials can be made to work with sales-led GTM. Salesforce is known to be a prime example of sales-led GTM, and nowadays, they offer the possibility to start testing their CRM for free as a self-service. So, combining sales-led GTM and free trials is possible but still a tricky balancing act.

We suggest considering the following approaches if you decide to offer a free trial for a complex SaaS product:

  • Structured Qualification and Support: Educate prospects before they start a free trial so they know who it is for and how the product works. Make sure you can support anyone on a free trial immediately when an issue pops up (yes, this is resource-intensive work!). Consider whether the sales team or support team is more readily available to support.
  • Guided Product Experience: Provide personalised guidance and content to ensure trial users engage with the product correctly. Have an SDR or account executive reach out as soon as possible to qualify the prospect (for example, using the CHAMP method) and also put them on the right path with the product. Focus on potential customers for you. Depending on how long trials you offer, schedule one or multiple calls with prospects to monitor progress, tackle issues and close the deals.
  • Success Criteria: Implement clear criteria to measure trial success and develop follow-up strategies. Do this immediately at the beginning of the trial. Also, it’s important to remember that there are multiple decision-makers in all B2B purchases, so have a plan to influence those not directly involved in the test runs.
If your customers can buy independently through a free trial, sales-led GTM might not be for you.

On a bigger picture, consider the following strategies:

  • Is sales-led GTM for you? If your customers can buy independently through a free trial, it might not be. To help with the decision, check out our checklist for evaluating sales-led GTM suitability.
  • Different strategy for different segments: If your organisation and product are mature enough, a valid strategy could be approaching different customer segments with distinct strategies. For example, a light-touch inbound sales-driven approach for SMEs and a full sales-led GTM motion for enterprise sales.
  • Offer only gated free trial: Use the option of a free trial as a lead magnet. Then, have the sales team reach out and qualify every prospect before giving them access to the trial. This is a somewhat controversial tactic, but when executed right, it might help you bridge the gap between wanting to test offering a free trial and not having all the pieces ready to deliver a good customer experience for those trialling the offering.

As you can see, free trials in sales-led GTM are not easy to get right.

To be fair, they’re more likely to go wrong than be a success. The most reasonable path to finding the working long-term strategy for your company is to test different variations and measure results. The best practice would be to start by not having free trials and then, step by step, move towards offering them if, and only if, results indicate it’s the ideal way to go.

GTM Club Newsletter #4: The Trap Named Free Trial
Free trials kill growth. Meet 3 alternatives to offering free trials.

Read about alternatives to offering free trials in GTM Club's Newsletter #4.

Post by @joingtmclub
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