AMA with Steli Efti

Steli Efti explains how to price a product, sell it to customers, and build a sales team.

Avatar Photo of Steli Efti
Steli Efti

Steli Efti is the cofounder and CEO of Close, a SaaS application to help companies close more deals. He’s one of the world’s leading sales experts.

  1. Introduction
  2. Outbounding
  3. Pricing and selling
  4. Scaling

Industry leader and cofounder and CEO of Close, Steli Efti, hosted a Q&A session with the Stripe Atlas Community.


What cold email subject lines lead to the highest open rates?

First, a caveat: I’ve seen really high open rates, in the 80% range, but that doesn’t mean that those emails were ultimately successful. One of the best subject lines I ever received from a salesperson was the subject line “Really disappointed...” and when I saw that, I instantly thought, “What did we mess up? What did I do wrong? What happened here?” It was the first email I opened after a long vacation. I had hundreds and hundreds of emails, but that one stood out.

The subject line was “Very disappointed...” and then the body of the email continued, “... that we haven’t been able to connect. I called you multiple times because our web development shop...” I thought, “Mother effer, you got me to open the email,” and then I deleted it, because if the first thing that starts our relationship is you tricking me into opening your email, that’s not going to make me trust you and want to continue.

I could make the subject line “I have your parents in my basement,” and it would get a very high open rate. Even people whose parents aren’t alive anymore would open that email. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to translate into a customer relationship.

That said, a healthy benchmark to aim for—if you don’t use any trickery—is somewhere between 30–40%. If you can get that in outbound emails, that’s very, very good. If your open rate is below 15%, then you’re in trouble, and I would focus on improving your subject line before doing anything else.

What are the characteristics of great cold emails?

A great cold email clearly and concisely answers the right questions at the right time, and it ends with a single call to action.

The subject line both piques somebody’s curiosity and promises something that the body of the email will deliver. If I’m receiving your email, I read the subject line and I think, “Huh, what is this about?” So I open it. Your body text needs to immediately answer the questions in my mind: Who is this? What do you want from me? Of all of the people in the world, why did you reach out to me?

If you answer those questions well, each one of your sentences makes me think, “Okay, this is who this person is, this is what they do, and this is why they think this is important to me.”

You need to end your cold email with a single, specific call to action—just one. It cannot say, “Read this email, do this thing, sign up for a free trial, click the calendar, and also talk to these three people.” No one will ever do that. Just end it with one thing.

So in sum: a curiosity-provoking subject line, a question-answering body text, and a single CTA. That’s the flow of a great cold email.

If you cold call prospects, what’s the best way to actually start the conversation?

It’s similar to cold emailing. The most important thing is to put yourself in the shoes of the person receiving the call. When somebody picks up the phone and they don’t know the number, they immediately think, “Who is this person? And are they trying to sell me something?” You need to quickly answer these two questions. State who you are, what you do, and why you’re calling.

When it comes to cold calling, almost more important than what you say is how you say it. Your tonality—your voice—will create a certain feeling in the person that receives the call. If you sound overly nervous, you could say the greatest thing on Earth, and I’m going to want to hang up. If you sound overly aggressive, you could say, “I’m about to wire you a million dollars,” and I’m going to hang up. It doesn’t matter how great the words are if the way you deliver them is bad. You could say something terrible, deliver it well, and you’ll get people to keep listening—and they won’t even know why!

If you want to sound good on the call, you need to put yourself in a good state of mind. You want to be excited to be talking to them, because, if you’re not excited, why should they be excited to listen to you? You want to be clear and concise in your language—not too slow but not too fast. If you’re nervous, afraid, or anxious, it’ll sound weird and I’ll want to hang up.

So: Be in a good state of mind, say hello, and explain who you are and why you’re calling.

What is the average response rate, per medium, for a B2B SaaS company?

When it comes to emails, you should have a minimum open rate of 20–30%. Your response rate among those people should be in the 10–20% range.

When it comes to cold calls, you should have a minimum answering rate of about 15%. Your leads-to-something rate among people who answer the phone should be about 15%.

And again, those numbers are the lower bounds. If you are lower than that, stop doing what you’re doing because fundamentally it won’t work out. The math just won’t add up. If you’re in that state, something about what you’re doing—your subject line or how you start the conversation—is fundamentally wrong. You need to fix it before you continue.

Pricing and selling

Do you have any advice for founders trying to price their product?

Charge more. If you’re an early stage founder building a B2B business, my number one piece of advice is to charge more.

Most founders try to price their product so cheaply that price will never be an objection. That’s not the right way to price your product.

The sweet spot in pricing is when you’re at a point where:

  • 20% of the people you talk to say, “This is insanely expensive! I would never buy this. This is outrageous!”
  • 20% of people are like, “This is kind of cheap, I would even pay more for this.”
  • 60% of people really think about whether your product is worth the price. And then they conclude, “Yeah, if it was cheaper that would be nice. But I do think the value is much higher than the price.”

That’s the pricing sweet spot.

How can you create urgency at the end of a web demo?

There are two ways.

The first way is quite common, but I’m not a big fan of it. “Hey, we’re running a promotion! If you buy before X amount of time, you get Y better price or you get Z more seats or you get an upgraded product for the lower package, or whatever.” Some kind of a promotion that tells them, “Hey, if you make a decision sooner rather than later, there’s going to be a big, lasting benefit for you.” But I dislike this approach. I think it’s gimmicky.

The best way to create urgency is to understand what is urgent in this person’s professional life and then tie your product to that thing. Can your product help them accomplish this really important thing?

For example, if the biggest priority that we have right now in our business is to hit our quota for numbers, and you have a marketing tool, and you talk to me about how your marketing tool will help me get more likes on Twitter, there’s going to be a disconnect between my priorities and what you’re telling me. But if you could credibly explain to me how your marketing tool will help me hit my numbers? Now you have my attention. Try to figure out what’s urgent for them, and then connect your product to that thing.

You can learn more about this in my free ebook.

When there is human interaction in the sales process, what things should always happen?

The most important thing is qualification. You’re going to have the most success if you act like an expert doctor. First you spend a lot of time trying to deeply understand who is in front of you—how they think and feel, what the problem really is. Once you have a diagnosis for what’s going on, you need to ask yourself, can our medicine help this person? And if the answer is yes, then you’re not debating, discussing, or asking. You’re prescribing.

At that point, you go, “I know what to do here. Here’s what you have, here’s our medicine, here are the alternatives, and here’s why ours is the best. You’re going to start taking the medicine today, and you’re going to take 2 per day for 14 days.”

If you do that, it’s not a debate anymore. I made the decision for you because I’m an expert and I want you to succeed. But in order to get to this point, the first thing I need to do is truly be convinced that our product is the best for you.

A lot of people don’t take that step. They think, “Well, I have a product, I need to try to sell it to everybody.” So when they start interacting with customers, they instantly jump into selling mode: “Let me tell you about my medicine. My medicine is really great. Here’s everything that’s great about it. And also it’s really cheap.” But we haven’t had a conversation about who the person is, what pain they have, and what solutions they’ve tried before.

You need to spend time truly understanding them. It creates trust and credibility, so at the moment you tell them, “I know how to fix this—my medicine,” they’re going to believe you.

The next thing I’ll highlight is you need to follow up and follow through. You need to champion the relationship. The ball is never in their court. It’s always your job to help them and guide them to keep progressing to a decision.

Should you charge enterprise customers for pilots?

Yes. You want paid pilots. When it comes to enterprise, you want to uncover real buying intent as fast as possible. Even if the product is totally buggy or not finished yet, you should ask for a paid pilot.

A lot of times, people who are insecure about their product will offer it for free as a way to feel more comfortable, as a way to offer the customer something that’s “fair.” I would argue strongly against that.

If you’re inclined to do that, don’t. Instead, ask them for money, tell them it’s completely refundable, and then don’t under any circumstance spend that money. Put it in a separate bank account. It’s not revenue until the customer has stayed for six months and says that they are happy with everything—then you can touch the money.

This has the same effect as giving your product away for free—there’s zero risk for the customer—but by doing this you’ll weed out bad customers, and you’ll learn how to get customers to pay you.

In the enterprise world, if you’re not putting a price tag on your product, it’s not going to be valued. A lot of times people think I’m going to start by not asking for money, and then it’ll organically lead to asking for money. That’s not true. You have to charge enterprise customers, no matter how early it is. If you don’t, a lot of people are going to be friendly and give you pleasant feedback. “Oh, new technology, of course I want to see this!” It’s even going to feel like you’re accomplishing things. But you’ll be wasting your time.


Any tips for building and scaling a sales team?

There are four things.

In the beginning, you’ll sell in a nonscalable way, and that’s totally fine. But eventually you have to start selling in ways that you could teach somebody else to do. That’s step one.

Step two: Once you’ve had some success selling in a teachable, repeatable way, hire junior salespeople, ideally in small teams of two or three. Transition from doing it yourself to teaching a few other people how to get similar results.

The reason why it’s important to hire two or three people at a time is that if you just hire one person, and they don’t perform well, you’re not going to know if it’s you teaching them poorly, if it’s them, or if it’s the market. But if you have two or three people, it’s very unlikely that they’re all going to perform the same way. One person will do much better than the other two, which will give you a lot of insight into what kind of person you should hire.

The third step is to hire a junior sales manager. This is ideally somebody who is a year or two ahead of you—someone who was at a startup at your stage two years ago and they became a manager there and helped grow the team.

You hire this person because they’ve seen the future! They’ve done it before. At this point you’ll have a little bit of a process, and they’ll instantly know how to improve it. Once they scale the team to 15–20 people and the team has become so big that you need to have multiple sales managers, that’s the time to find a VP or a senior sales manager, somebody who is really experienced in scaling things. They’ll know how to open more sales offices, improve the compensation structure, put together a training and career plan for the company, and hire other senior people.

You want to go from doing it yourself to hiring junior people to hiring the junior manager to hiring the senior manager. You can learn more in my free ebook.

Any tips for selling internationally?

Start by focusing on international customers who already speak your language, so that you don’t have to speak a foreign language.

For us, 40% of our customers are international, but we didn’t do anything for that. Our product is still just in English, and we sell it in US dollars. We actually make it hard for international customers to purchase, but they still do because our product is strong enough, good enough, and valuable enough for people to want to buy it.

If you’re just starting to sell internationally, I would not do a lot of over-optimization to support local languages and currencies. It’s too complex to handle at the beginning.

That said, if you’re early on your journey and you do want to do local optimization, I’d suggest doing the simplest thing you can do: Take your website and create a /germany landing page that routes based on IP address. It could still be in your native language, and it might just have a few copy changes, but you’ll quickly learn whether you should further invest in localization.

Any parting thoughts?

Don’t think of yourself as somebody without sales experience. You have sales experience!

Sales is nothing more than results-driven communication. Any time you communicate with someone and you have an end goal, you are selling. Any time someone does that to you, they are selling to you and you’re buying.

Selling is just a type of communication. You’re already doing it all of the time. So don’t doubt yourself. Just do it.

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