Gaining a sneak peek of how sales ops works at a rocket ship like AppDynamics? Yes please! Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to the very analytical Stephen Haltom, Director of Sales Operations who talked me through everything from the tactics of turning insights into action, to establishing success in sales ops. Stephen dialled in nice and early from sunny Dallas, and after the usual Anglo-American weather exchange, the interview began…
Rory Brown (RB): You started out in order operations. How did you make your way into sales ops from there?
Stephen Haltom (SH): I was an accounting major out of college. I thought I wanted to become a CPA because I had just gravitated towards accounting in college. So, my first role out of school was at a tax firm. It was a good first work experience but about six months into the role I realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. That’s when a friend of mine, Will May, who was working at AppDynamics in a sales role (he’s now our VP of Inside Sales) told me there was an operations role opening in the Dallas office and that I should interview for it.
I said, great but what’s sales operations? Operations in general is probably the most generic, vague sales title in the world. So, I interviewed for it and got more of a sense of the role. I understood that they needed process and that I would be reviewing and booking orders, helping with licensing, building quotes and structuring deals. After the interview I decided it was worth taking the plunge and so I made the shift and it’s been a great fit ever since. It’ll be six years in June. So it was about two and a half to three years in the order operations role. About half of that was as an individual contributor and then eventually I managed the team. The role evolved and covered everything from researching and demoing quoting tools, helping reps build quotes to making sure all the deal data is in Salesforce so we could accurately report on it. Then there was the deal structuring side where we worked closely with legal and revenue. That was more of your “best practices” role where you’re working with reps on complicated deals where we needed to give the customer what they wanted while structuring it in a way that’s best for the company. So that became part of the order operations role and then it eventually got big enough that it spun off into its own function.
I took that over full time, did that for a couple of years and then at the four year mark I had done nothing but work on the deal side of the house. So it was all quoting, deal structuring, and licensing. I had really enjoyed being on the front lines with the sales reps, working hand in hand to try and get deals over the line. But then there came an opportunity with our new VP of Sales for the Americas to support him with what we call “field operations” which was basically providing actionable insights based on data for his team’s pipeline and reps’ performance by looking at all the traditional metrics like pipeline coverage.
It was a whole new world for me. I knew how some of these metrics were calculated, but I did not have direct experience in that role. It just opened me up to a whole new side of sales operations. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last two years. More recently, in the last year I’ve supported our inside sales function.
RB: For you, what disciplines does sales ops cover? And at what point do you pass the baton to the sales leader and maybe overlap with what they do?
SH: The way I see my role is as the right-hand man to whoever I support, which in this case is our inside sales leader. And he obviously doesn’t have time to get into the weeds, dig into all the details for every function that rolls into him. So my job is to assess problems that come up, get in the weeds and figure out what specifically might be causing that and propose solutions to fix it.
But then more importantly I look two, three, four quarters down the road and try and spot trends that are maybe more in the yellow stage. Alarm bells aren’t going off yet, but these are potential issues we want to start considering and keeping an eye on. So at a high level, that’s really how I see my job. And to do that job, I make sure I’ve got all my key metrics.
RB: Could you talk through that process from mining the data, finding something indicative of a problem or a potential area to improve and then articulating that to the relevant people?
SH: When I initially took on the role, I had no experience in it. My job was basically to read up on best practices, key metrics and how the SDR and BDR team function. And one of the things I came across was the difference in how we compensate or goal our BDRs. If you read various expert research, they all suggest monthly quotas. We were setting quarterly targets for our BDRs.
So I wanted to analyse whether or not that was having any effects. When I pulled the data and I looked at it monthly per BDR, there was a very significant spike in the third month of every quarter. Not that they weren’t producing in months one and two, but the main production was coming in that third month. Their job is to book first meetings which doesn’t follow the same quarterly cadence is takes close a deal from cradle to grave. So BDRs should really be a lot more consistent because they’re not having to take a sale all the way from start to finish.
So, we made a tweak to the comp plans and we’ve seen the flattening out of those results. And the impact of that is many of those meetings that weren’t getting booked until the third month were now being scheduled earlier in the quarter. This resulted in a quicker time to opportunity and quicker time to closed business.
In terms of articulating findings to the relevant people, data is only great to a certain point.
I heard a great quote a couple of years ago at Dream Force: “If data is king then context is God”.
Anytime you show something, especially if it’s controversial or challenges the status quo, a sales leader is going to have questions. So, it’s about presenting the data in a way that’s very easy to digest while proving that you understand the context of what you’re talking about. Then if they disagree with the proposed solution, that’s fine, you can go from there and brainstorm the right solution but getting buy-in on the issue is really the key to me.
I also enjoy validating popular theories or beliefs. I’m not challenging the status quo just to challenge it. But rather it’s about not making blind assumptions.
RB: Have you found that there’s a tactful way to present a challenging theory so you don’t lose your audience?
SH: I always point back to context. The biggest thing that helps me have that conversation with them is enmeshing myself in their day to day, making sure I’m familiar with the sales process, how it works, and the main challenges. Having conversations with sales reps to make sure that my assumptions are true and validated. It’s about really understanding, getting into their world and speaking their language. I think that really comes across when you present the data to them.
By living in their world you naturally have a lot more conversations with them and you can vet your approach before you even start a lot of times. It’s about developing rapport and trust from the onset so that when you do have something challenging, you have a lot more credibility.
RB: Going back five to ten years ago, what proportion of your role do you think a VP of sales would have had to do on their own? And how much of sales operations has come with the creation of this specific role?
SH: I think five to ten years ago, a VP Sales would have had a very basic understanding of the health of their pipeline and how it was progressing. They could go look into tool like Salesforce and assess whether their team was generating pipeline consistently etc. And then post quarter end they could go pull the results.
But I think trends are an asset that sales operations provide. It’s an approach that is much more scientific and validated by the data itself. The sales leaders I’ve worked with operate from much more of a gut feel because they spend time with their reps every day (or at least the good ones do!) But sales operations is where it becomes more science that art.
I don’t think the average sales leader would have had time to test a lot of their theories out either, whereas now they can ask sales ops to do that for them.
RB: Lastly, I’m quite keen to understand how you measure success in a sales ops role? What has your experience of that been?
SH: For me, success is when I get the direct validation and the direct feedback from the sales leaders that what you’ve provided is truly valuable because, at least in my experience, a lot of sales ops leaders come in Gung Ho with great ideas about how they’re going to change the world of sales. And a lot of it winds up not resonating, not being relevant, and not being the top priority for the sales leader. If you have your priorities and they’re not aligned with the core concerns and the priorities of the sales leader, it doesn’t invalidate the work you’re doing, but it’s just less likely to make an impact with them. For me, it’s really important to align with what your sales Leader cares about, not just what you think is important.
RB: It sounds like you get a lot of qualitative feedback. Is there anything measurable you discuss?
SH: If it’s directly related to a finding of mine then yes, absolutely. The example I gave you earlier about the BDRs’ quotas and how we’ve seen a flattening out of the other results, that to me is a direct measure of success. And that’s a wonderful thing in general if you provide data that leads to a decision being made.
Want to get more insights from sales ops leaders? Check out our other posts in the sales ops interview series.