As I weaved my way through the bedraggled back streets behind old street, there was a sense of excitement in the air. At least on my part. I was about to meet Justin Kersey, VP of Sales UK at Merrill Corporation who had recently transitioned from Sales Ops Leader to Sales Leader. A wonderful example of the rise in strength in depth of the modern sales ops role, I thought.
Justin greeted me at the reception of Merrill’s stylish new open plan office and after a quick tour of the thinking pods, meeting booths and sleeping area (not sure Justin was so keen on this), the interview began…
Rory Brown (RB): You’ve moved from a sales ops role to sales manager. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Justin Kersey (JK): It was a fairly organic transition. I actually started with Merrill in a customer relations role and from there moved into more of a commercial role that encompassed pricing, billing, estimating, and contract work. At the time, we had very little uptake on our CRM platform so I built out some tools and processes to capture what our salespeople were doing because until then the information was living in our sales managers’ heads. So that organically grew into helping build out some CRM tools that we had on Salesforce and working on some of the analytics and reporting around our sales activity.
Then I took ownership for sales operations across EMEA. Our sales ops function is based in the US and a lot of what’s being built and deployed comes out of the US and then it’s for us to distil locally how we see fit. This includes taking what’s been built by the US and making sure it’s deployed effectively for each of the regions, but then also pushing back where we have to. We have a more nuanced sell in Europe than we do in North America. You have a much more homogenous community in America but here we have different cultures, countries, and currencies. So, there were certain things that we had to push back and create our own solutions for.
RB: A lot of our readers right now are European sales ops leaders and they might be in very similar situations where they are on their own locally and they’re taking guidance from a bigger team in the US. What would your advice be to people in that position in terms of how approach that dynamic?
JK: It’s about having a greater understanding of what the end objective is or whether it’s tools or processes. Then you can assess whether you need to deconstruct it and rebuild it based on local needs. Largely, we take a lot of what our North American counterparts put together, but it’s trying to make sure that we have a voice. Again, we have a more nuanced sell here, so we remind them on a regular basis that there are certain components that we’re going to have to modify as we deploy new tools and processes.
Before any tools or processes are deployed, we need to make sure we have a seat at the table and we’re involved in those discussions to represent EMEA more effectively because certainly in the early days, we were deploying things out the door and it wasn’t working for us.
RB: Having moved to VP of Sales, how much of your remit from sales ops have you brought across with you and do you think that gave you the basis to be a credible VP of sales?
JK: I’m able to take a more metrics-based approach to selling. I’m still in a learning phase of the soft skills around building relationships, cold calling and driving into new accounts. But what I can bring to the table is an analytical perspective on those things to make sure that we’re targeting people in the right way, we’re setting their comp plans in the right way and we’re driving the right behaviour. So those targets obviously start with a revenue number, but we can break that down into the number of units it’s going to take to get to that revenue number. And that number of units is going to be comprised of a certain number of opportunities based on a rep’s win ratio.
I’m one of two VP of Sales in London. My counterpart comes from a sales background and has that strong skillset of selling DNA, whereas I have a more analytical and metric based approach. So we work well together with our combined set of skills.
RB: I’m really interested to see a sales ops leader moving into a sales leader role, having never actually come from that background. I think it’s a testament to the success of the sales ops movement.
JK: For me it was a bit of right time and place. But ultimately, I know our sales organization very well. I know the individual salespeople very well and I know the products and the market as a result of the research that took place during my sales operations time. So, I can draw on my experience and use that to deploy some coaching mechanisms with my team.
For me, now it’s about building on some of the soft skills and becoming a little more client facing and speaking to more clients, which I find really enjoyable. Ultimately, I look at my role as working for the sellers. So it’s what they need from me and what they need from the organization to help them become more successful. A lot of that surrounds what we do in sales operations. We have a global mantra of generating more revenue per sales head as a sales ops team.
RB: Is that one of the metrics you use to measure success in sales ops?
JK: Yes, that’s one of the metrics that sales ops is tasked with every year. And how do we do that? We try and build better tools that make their lives more efficient. There’s definitely a trend of throwing technology at salespeople and eventually that becomes cumbersome for the seller to actually do their job. They don’t know which tool they’re meant to use to do research, to get historical data, to get analytics, to push a quote through. They’re bombarded with information. So I think now sales ops has to pump the brakes a little bit and peel some of that back to make it a more efficient and effective process. It’s about leveraging the CRM to serve up information that’s relevant depending on the stage within the sales cycle, the nature of the client, the territory that we’re selling etc.
RB: The next question is about sales ops and sales enablement. How do you see the relationship between the two disciplines?
JK: We blur the lines a little bit with sales enablement, but we definitely have defined sales enablement people. And for us that’s all about how we upskill our current sales organization, how we onboard new sellers to teach them about the business, about our product, about our client buyer personas, and then teaching them about the tools that they’re going to be exposed to in the sales process. On the other side of that is sales ops, which is more around the analytics.
RB: Going back to your previous role as a sales ops leader, how much time were you spending with individual salespeople and what you were helping them with? And where did that overlap or pass over to the VP Sales?
JK: During my time as a sales ops leader, I was fully ingrained with the sales organization because they have an insatiable appetite for information around their book of business, what their potential book of business could look like, where to discover new accounts, how to attack those accounts etc. So a huge part of my time was spent setting up some regular reporting that displayed the metrics of how people are selling and whether they’re hitting their smaller targets that are going to ultimately feed into their larger revenue target. I was building that reporting out so that it made sense for the sales organization and allowed them to understand where they are in terms of their progress towards targets. I was setting that up alongside other sales leaders within the organization to make sure that they and their teams were getting the right information.
And then on an individual level, it’s about breaking that down into smaller chunks. I would sit with each rep and discuss what they need to know this week, next week, next month, next quarter and how that matches up with their plan of attack for hitting their target.
RB: Would you have individual meetings with salespeople about the data side of their plan?
JK: We would have regular sales meetings around general performance across a few different metrics, such as the number of demos, quotes or projects that we’d won and then how that eventually translates into revenue. Then we would sit down individually with reps and ask them what they’re focused on this week and how I can help them with various information and data.
RB: So, we talked about success metrics earlier. How do you measure the success of the sales ops function?
JK: It’s really tricky because there’s so much that goes into it and not all of it is going to have a direct correlation to revenue or units necessarily. But the general mantra is generating more revenue per sales head. And that bridges across sales ops and enablement because we have to upskill sellers on a regular basis to make sure that they know the latest product features, they know the latest selling styles, they know the latest buying personas within our market. We also need to ensure that we’re serving up the right information and coaching them through the sales process with relevant information about the organisations we’re selling to and driving new business towards them as well.
So, it’s really about supporting that full go-to-market strategy. Ultimately, we’re moving more towards revenue ops as opposed to sales ops because I think it generally starts with the marketing organisation at the top of the funnel feeding into SDRs and making sure that you’re continually cycling these people through that funnel. If they get to a stage where they’re not in a buying position, then we should pull them back up to the right place to continue to nurture those relationships and see them through the rest of the funnel. Sales ops’ job is to support from a data and analytics and tools perspective to make sure that we’re capturing all the right information, serving it up at the right times and just generally supporting the go-to-market strategy across the organization.
RB: And if you’re doing all that effectively, you can correlate the average revenue gain per head to your work on X, Y and Z.
JK: Yes, exactly.
RB: You mentioned working with marketing. How do you go about understanding the marketing funnel and how that fuels the sales funnel?
JK: In the sales ops function I was definitely more focused on just sales and the metrics surrounding them. But since moving to the VP side of things, it’s incredibly important for me to make sure that we’re continuing to top up that funnel. So I’m working a lot closer with marketing to help build out some campaigns that are more focused and measurable. I make sure we have a clear plan of attack in terms of the types of responses that we get from those campaigns and look at how we distribute those responses, whether that’s going to our SDR team to continue to nurture and warm up or assessing whether these people are hot leads.
We’ve been doing several A/B tests across some of the regions we cover. For example, we can do a specific campaign to the Nordics and see what response rates look like compared to a South African campaign or a corporate campaign here. It allows us to tweak things a little bit depending on the audience that we’re going to and then how we distribute the responsibilities as a result of those campaigns going out. It’s really important that we work closely with our marketing partners and leverage the data that they’re capturing and feed that into the sales funnel as a result.
RB: Do you have any tips for that passing of the baton moment between marketing and sales?
JK: We’re lucky in that we’re a highly transactional business and people either have a buying need at the moment or they don’t. Or they can foresee that they will have a buying need in the near future. And that allows us to direct traffic accordingly. So if they’re the right profile but at the moment they just don’t have any activity, then we know that we can either pass that back to marketing or keep that with our SDR team to continue to warm up and monitor until they’re ready to buy. If it’s someone who’s in a buying cycle at the moment, then we can get a sales rep on a demo with them.
So we’re lucky but we’ve still got some pretty set criteria there.
RB: Where you’re saying you pass leads back to marketing at the top of the funnel, I think that’s where a lot of companies have issues.
JK: The M&A community is a very defined community. So we’re absolutely going to come across accounts that we keep with the sales rep because we know that there’s a certain level of volume that’s coming out of that account on an annual basis.
And then there are those leads that are unknown quantities. Corporates are a great example of this. We don’t know when a corporate is going to go through a transaction, so that’s an opportunity to leverage marketing and continue to push content to them, such as thought leadership. Something that make them think about us as a leader in the space.
RB: What do you think are the key pillars of sales ops?
JK: Obviously, attention to detail is huge because the organisation is incredibly reliant upon the information that sales ops put forward. So, making sure that we’re accurate and on point with everything we produce is really important.
Generally speaking, increasing efficiency within the organization is really important. Then there’s finding that balance between capturing the information that you can from the sales organisation, but not burdening them with lots of admin and taking their time away from selling. This means continually monitoring and making sure that we’re refining tools and processes to allow a more efficient sales process. You almost have to treat your sales organisation as a customer. As I said, they have insatiable appetites for information about their accounts and their territories, so in sales ops we need to make sure that we’re serving up information on request or in advance of those requests.
RB: In terms of visibility, what would you say are the key bits of information that every sales person should have?
JK: We have a number of areas. We have a fairly defined client community that probably provides 80% of our business. It’s the M&A network of investment bankers, law firms, private equities, and then highly transactional corporates. So we know who those players are and we know what the buyer personas look like within those places. So we try to take steps to measure our performance against what we know they’re announcing within the market. For example if we know that Goldman Sachs will do X number of deals in a market in a given year, we ask how are we measuring up against that in terms of our quoting activity or win rate, and the number of projects that we’re getting as a result of that. We’re working from what we know our clients are up to and trying to measure ourselves against their activity.
For example, if we know that we did 60% of the deals out of X company last year, we’d like to get 65 or 70% this year to make sure that we’re continuing our growth path. So we ring fence some of those accounts against our sales reps’ names and we do regular reporting against those specific accounts to monitor our performance and those high volume accounts. On the flip side of that, there’s a whole white space area of accounts that we don’t know very well. They might have a transaction, they might not. So we also measure how many new accounts reps are bringing into their name as a result of their own prospecting and hunting.
RB: How do you show your sales reps where they need to focus their activity and efforts?
JK: We’re highly transactional so we have an incredibly fasts sales cycle. It’s a week at longest.
We do have outliers where there’s a longer sales cycle. So we would monitor some of those longer term cycles to make sure that we’re staying on top of it and we’re getting in front of the right people and continuing to make noise. Then for the shorter sales cycles, it’s more about looking at our win rates. We look at the level of activity that we have within these accounts, whether it’s meetings, demos, just calls and lunches and coffees. Ours is definitely a relationship sell, so it relies upon those touch points.
RB: How much of your current role as VP sales were you doing before in your sales ops position?
JK: I’d say I’m still around 30 – 40% sales ops. I still look after our sales ops team and have ultimate responsibility for them. Knowing what they’re capable of and what opportunities we have with our data, tools and systems allows me to take feedback from the sales reps and feed that back into the sales operations team.
Then 60 to 70% of my time is more on the sales coaching side now, checking in regularly with the sales team to understand what they’re up to, going on client visits with them to see how they approach meetings, how they prep for it, how they do a demo etc. So a big chunk of my time at the moment is client facing and learning from my sales reps.
Want to get more insights from sales ops leaders? Check out our other posts in the sales ops interview series.
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