Tucked away in a small bustling coffee shop in South West London, I met with Marissa White, Founder of Sales Ops Help. Given this was my first interview with someone from the States, I was curious to hear Marissa’s attitude and approach to Sales Ops, considering its concreteness over there and the sheer scale of the businesses she had worked for. So, with dainty coffees to hand, the interview began…
Rory Brown (RB) – How did you get into sales ops?
Marissa White (MW) – I was working on a large system implementation at Accenture. The system was Oracle and we were implementing a forecasting platform. When I finished the project, I was asked to come on loan for the client, EMC, in London. The role that I was stepping into was largely sales ops. I planned to be here for three months and never really left. I worked at EMC for about 5 years and built up a sales ops team there and learnt a great deal. I was parachuted into it!
The role of sales ops is growing, especially in America. I’m now getting a lot of people emailing me asking how to get into the field.
RB – So, you were parachuted into the role at EMC. How was your first year there? What were you getting your head around?
MW – I was still on loan for the first six months, so it wasn’t a typical experience. I was working for a software division at a very large hardware tech company. They had a very established sales ops group and practice and essentially, I was trying to figure out where we fit in to our systems and processes and back office. I wasn’t assembling a team until I was there for a year.
RB – How big was the team by the end?
MW – About 13. Then near the end I restructured it. I brought a few people into a centralized pan-Europe team and moved the rest to local management so they could feel closer to their peers locally who were doing similar work for other divisions. They still took 80% of their direction from me and we did an annual event every year so we felt like one team but they had more local support.
RB – You are in the UK now and you’ve admitted that we’re a bit behind you in the US. What’s your take on the role of sales ops in the UK?
MW – I’ve mostly experienced sales ops in the UK rather than the US. But saying that, I think the US and UK companies I’ve worked in have been hugely different. US companies are in the know. It’s an established practice. In the UK, it’s a more immature field. Most recently I worked for a small startup where they hadn’t heard of sales ops.
RB – Was that Concentra?
MW – Yes. I say startup but it has an interesting heritage. They’ve been around for 10 years but then pivoted to software, which was new for them.
RB – What was the first thing you were looking to tackle there as sales ops in a new company?
MW – On a practical level it was trying to figure out Microsoft Dynamics, which is an awful system to work with. The first month I was totally working blind. I had no idea how to find data or how to pull data. I’d never been that lost. So practically it was trying to get my bearings and get some resemblance of data.
RB – So your first task was a data hunt.
MW – Yes, and it took a long time because no one was really doing active sales reporting. No one was looking at the deals. So, my first task was to get some basic reporting in place. When I started there was basically one sales rep. The entire selling team was comprised of consultants. When I started we were building up a software sales team and hires two and three started two weeks after me. My first two weeks was putting together an induction for new hires. And I was new too, so that was interesting!
RB – Do you have a sales onboarding process? What does the perfect onboarding process look like?
MW – I’m not the world’s best sales enablement professional. I have a lot of respect for people who do it well. I was at Dreamforce (the large annual Salesforce conference) earlier this year and there was a side conference focused on sales enablement (Sales Enablement Soiree) and they’ve got quite a network going on! There were lots of interesting ideas presented there that gave me some food for thought in this area.
One of my favourite thoughts was the idea of ‘just-in-time training’. This is where you think ‘I don’t really need to know how to forecast until I’ve got new deals in my pipeline. And I definitely don’t need to know what paperwork to submit on a deal until I’m working on a deal etc.’ It forces you to focus on the key things that someone needs to get started and what can be done later.
I’m a big fan of not training people until they’ve been there a few weeks. Teaching someone how to use a CRM system on day three is a waste of time. I usually delay things for about two to three weeks but it was the interesting idea about drip feeding the training. For example, initially focusing the training on prospecting, because that is what new sales starters will be doing. Then things like opportunity management come one to two months in.
RB – So almost looking at a roadmap of how they’re going to progress as a salesperson and training them based on what’s first.
MW – Yes and it was really interesting because I think it also plays nicely into continuous training and continuous skill evaluation because training and management is inherently an ongoing process.
RB – Moving onto the next question. When you’re helping teams with their pipe reviews, what sort of information are you trying to surface for them?
MW – I think my opinion on forecasting has changed a lot over the last year. Mostly getting insight into how other people do it. One of the most interesting parts about going through a full sales cycle with Salesforce when I was at Concentra was understanding how Salesforce works. One of the interesting insights was how Salesforce does forecasting as their CRM system is not a good forecasting tool. There’s no real ability for judgments. So, we used Quip for forecasting. Quip is an online document that’s always real time. You can surface a bunch of data and then put other data against it, which means forecasting isn’t a process. It’s constant and ongoing and the forecast is always up to date. The bigger your organisation is, the more convoluted it gets. So, I really like the idea of the forecast always being live and up to date. Plus, the bigger organisation, the harder it is to have those meaningful conversations. I’ve seen Sales Ops running forecast calls, when really, they should be spotting the problems and creating insights for the managers, who can then do the coaching. In my experience sales managers like to be kept on track with focused updates on current quarter, current pipeline, and pipeline generation etc.
RB – So, let’s take current pipeline. What would you hope to surface for a sales manager?
MW – The better tools you have the easier this makes it. In my last position, we had Dynamics, which is awful. I was using Excel for visualisation. It was painful. Even with all the automation I built into it, it took about an hour to get together a good forecast review. If you have tools, you can have a solid dashboard. Then you can have a meeting that’s actually about the why and the where to move things. The more manual it is the more you end up going through the same list because there’s nowhere to capture what was said last time.
But even with the limited system that I had, the most important field for me to put in right off the bat was next steps. For example, ‘You said that you were going to meet on Tuesday, did the meeting happen?’ Even that helps a lot. And that’s a field that gets overwritten all the time, it just needs to be the latest next steps.
RB – You’ve touched on engagement. How do we get sales leaders to engage with reports?
MW – I think both roles need to work together. It’s great when sales ops can fill in. I’ve had managers leave the business leaving six sales reps to be looked after and they’d ask me if I could do sales forecast review with them every week. So, it’s good when sales ops can fill in for the sales leader role and the business doesn’t stall.
But the roles work best when they’re together because I think we’re coming at it from different perspectives. Sales is an art and a science. Sales management is more the art, whereas sales ops comes at it more from the data-driven science side. You need both.
RB – We talked a bit about sales enablement. Where do you think the two disciplines cross? Where does sales ops fuel sales enablement?
MW – I think there’s something overarching that covers both. Maybe it could be classed as sales excellence. Sales enablement for me is obviously training and development, but I think it’s also more than that. I think it’s ongoing coaching. I don’t think sales ops does that coaching element, that’s not part of the role.
RB – Presumably sales ops would help surface the areas of the data points that sales enablement focuses on.
MW – Yes. I have a colleague who has worked in sales enablement for about 25 years and we have a good rapport. We did a couple of road trips in the US and Australia where we’d sit down with first line managers. I’d put together the data of how their reps were doing, what their pipeline looked like, what their close rates were etc and he had the results of their Insights personality test which showed which sales skills they had a natural ability for and which might be more of a struggle. We would combine the two to sit down with reps and say, ‘so you see here where it says they might struggle with prospecting skills, well the data about pipeline growth says that’s true.’ We use the combined data to reveal the deficiencies and highlight coachable items. That was really successful.
RB – You can back up the psychological element or the qualitative element with data.
MW – Putting the individual results together with CRM data gave the sales managers extremely actionable points per individual with metrics on how to measure the success against that.
RB – How would you describe the relationship between sales ops and sales leader? What’s that like day to day?
MW – I would liken the relationship to Batman and Robin, Batman being the sales leader and Robin being sales ops. If Batman is not around, Robin can still kill bad guys. The roles are powerful in their own rights, but obviously the two together are a lot more powerful. As a sales ops leader it’s also nice to be able to come to the table and be part of that extended leadership team and not just be the secretary behind a CRO.
RB – Do you feel like your previous roles were like that?
MW – I think it really depends on the sales leader. That chemistry between the two is really important. Ideally you should know what each other are thinking all the time. Likewise, you need someone who has sales ops’ back.