This was a good one, folks! Although, as the Webex video loaded, I was a little taken back when I beamed into a garden shed with a couple of road bikes hanging up in the background. Different, but “ok”, I thought. Could Robin Yeoman, Director of International Sales Operations at Snowflake actually be the Bradley Wiggins of sales ops? Turns out, not far off. After adjusting to Robin’s slightly unusual “home office” surroundings, the interview began…
Rory Brown (RB): Can you tell us a bit about your journey from your first role at Pitney Bowes to becoming Director of International Sales Operations at Snowflake?
Robin Yeoman (RY): After university, I did some language courses in France and when I came back to London, I got a job at Pitney Bowes. At that time, Pitney Bowes were running a PFI contract at HM Treasury, so I got stuck into the operational side of the business and I quickly got promoted to the client service manager for the whole contract. I spent my time running a big KPI-driven contract that covered two central government departments.
Although I love operations, I got a bit bored of the manual hands-on operations management and I wanted to get involved with technology. I ended up looking at a lot of technology around tools like Captiva, which was an EMC product. That led me to working at EMC.
I was originally looking at licensing structuring for Captiva, and then moved to deal desk where I got my first touch of sales ops.
I then moved to Konica Minolta and that’s when I got into business intelligence. I was building out a managed service information department for them, which involved ripping out how they did their consulting reporting, which was all excel pie charts, and bringing in Tableau. I quickly realised that deal desk and sales ops more specifically, was where my skill set lay. So I went back to pure deal desk at Intralinks and then that’s where I was running the EMEA and APAC deal desk.
It was a really interesting place to work but when an opportunity at Google came up, I knew I had to take it. It was at a time when they were building out the real first push of cloud platform, Google for Work as they called it at the time, and they wanted someone to come in and help build that deal desk piece for the cloud platform. So I did that in Europe and then also in Canada for a year. What I learned there was the shift from deal desk being a transactional pricing exercise to actually becoming a strategic partner for sales, developing into a deal management piece.
RB: Deal desk is a relatively new concept so it would be great if you can you tell us more about what deal desk entails and from your experience, where does deal desk stop and sales ops start?
RY: For me, I really see deal desk as integral to sales ops in general. I personally don’t break them out. And I think that’s because, as you say, deal desk is a relatively new concept that people have tagged onto the end of either finance or sales or a mixture of that within sales ops.
So, what I’ve learned is actually if you’re looking at sales ops as a whole, you’re looking at the full sales cycle. You’re looking at a deal from the lead, into any meetings, into being qualified. And then you get to the point where you’re looking at contracts and structuring deals, which is where a deal desk type function comes in. But in industries that I’ve worked in, data privacy becomes an issue, especially cloud platform or data rooms and even more so where I am now at Snowflake because it’s data warehouse.
That legal negotiation piece is such a fundamental part of getting a deal closed and being able to predict when it will close that I think that feeds right into sales ops. So for me, deal desk is a filter in many ways. From a pricing point of view, it’s around managing approvals, behaviours, contracting terms, templates, all of that sort of work. But I think it’s also developing into a deal management piece. So it’s full circle. We advise sales on how to structure their pricing but also on getting through those red lines, looking at how they pitch a cloud contract to a customer. I’ve spent a lot of time on calls with sales, negotiating, walking not only customers but also sales reps through how a contract works. Circling back with feedback on these issues encourages continuous improvement and drives better efficiency.
RB: What are you doing in terms of using data to look at what’s happening and where we’re falling down and where we should be?
RY: A lot of that comes down to pricing. It depends on the type of product you’re selling but at Intralinks for example, it was very transactional. It was very much pricing per page or per gigabytes, so very basic fundamentals. But you could then look at different verticals, different geographies etc to find average pricing. You can be looking at discounting or repeat purchasing. And then you’re giving yourself evidence to look at non-standard type agreements where you can perhaps give them bigger discounts. And that drives your behaviour in terms of pricing. I think the other thing you can look at it is the data behind contractual changes and if you’ve changed liabilities at your risk to any contracts etc. And then that can dictate where do we go with this and these customers, asking questions like ‘are we increasing our exposure if we go to other countries that have different legal restrictions?’
RB: And now you’ve moved to Snowflake into what looks like a 360 sales operations role. Would you say this is your first fully-fledged sales ops role?
RY: It’s my first one in terms of title. Most of things I’m doing, I’ve done elements of in previous roles. But it’s the first time where I’ve combined it all together and I’m responsible for other aspects like the forecasting, and a lot of the quota setting and then planning. It’s my dream scenario because not only am I doing that, but I’ve also got the deal desk piece that has to be built out and managed with that as well.
I went off and did my MBA at Warwick over the last couple of years to make sure that I had that deep understanding of every facet of the business. I was looking at marketing, strategy, analytics, and everything in between. This gives me an insight as to how to link operations to strategic choices such as new market entry or corporate strategy.
RB: There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about where sales operations sits, the departments that it overlaps or interacts with and how that’s becoming clearly more central. Which departments are you interacting with the most? And how are you finding the sales/marketing relationship?
RY: In my six months at Snowflake, I’ve noticed a few disconnects between things like who owns finding accounts, who owns the data behind that etc. And if those things don’t align then you get conflict. So I think I learned very early on that in order to make those things work, you’ve got to be fairly transparent. And you’ve got to form these partnerships with people, so for instance, I’ve been working very closely with the account-based marketing team. My job is to ensure that the data they’re giving sales in order to run campaigns is also good enough for us to run territories.
And if we’re not seeing that as a joint product and a joint project for us to get together on, it falls between the cracks a little bit. So I think that’s what I’ve learned. And there’s been a little bit of conflict there, but I think that’s natural. And it’s about managing those conversations. People have different aims in their projects and it’s about making sure that they come together close enough for you both to get a win out of it.
RB: For me, if sales operations aren’t fully ingrained in the strategy side, you’re off to a false start. What’s been your experience of how privy you are to what the business is trying to do over the next few years and whether that has a knock-on effect on the processes you implement.
RY: We’re lucky in that respect because we are very early stages and we’re a fairly small team, so I’m exposed to a lot of the corporate strategy. I’m very keen on scenario planning and modelling out six, nine, 12 months ahead.
Something I learned in my MBA was around identifying the amplifiers and the dampeners of scenarios. For example, if you say I’m going to go out and plan territories for a brand new country and through experience you can recognise the dampeners, so that will be things like poor data, maybe slow hiring, not having the right agencies working for you, but the amplifiers on the other hand are things like we’ve already got great data on this country, we’ve done the analysis, we’ve got great referrals coming in. And if you can plan out a model for the worst case, the best case scenario, and then a middle ground and identify the dampeners, you can work on those ahead of time. It’s almost like a live SWOT analysis on the business, your tools, processes and customers.
RB: Do you apply that concept to other processes?
RY: I think you can apply this to many things. So if you roll out a brand new data tool, dampeners could be it will impact any other projects in the business. Or on the flip side, perhaps you will get more benefit from rolling this out than you would the alternative. So it’s about looking at all those scenarios. And in a business like ours, it’s all about the priority for the quarter.
We are very driven by OKRs, knowing exactly what it is you’re going to achieve that quarter and then being able to keep that priority list so that if another project comes in, you can very quickly rejig that list. So using the example of a new data tool, implementation can take a lot of time, but if the benefits outweigh some of the other projects, it might be worth doing. And if it saves in time in the long term or solves other issues that you’ve got, it’s definitely worth doing.
It’s almost like storytelling. You picture what could happen, you model whether this will have an effect on another department or another part of your team and you look at what you’re able to roll out and what you regard as success. And then you talk about how you measure that success.
RB: We had an interesting interview with Brandon Bussey of Lucid where he talked about Lucid’s use of OKRs. It would be great if you could share an example of a quarterly or half yearly objective that you had and the measurables of how you achieve that.
RY: An good example is our enablement sessions. We committed to running a certain amount of what we call ‘lunch and learn’ sessions. So, we have to hit a certain number of sessions every quarter and have them documented, recorded and then put it in a place where people can watch them. And that could be about rolling out changes to Salesforce or how to forecast, for example. And it’s just delivered in a way that only takes an hour out of the salespeople’s week. It’s recorded, and sometimes it has quizzes added to it just to test that people are actually doing it. So as an OKR it’s quite simple but effective.
RB: So if I’ve understood that correctly, let’s say the objective might be something like improve our forecasting. And an OKR might be a 90% view rate of our forecasting lunch and learn session, improving accuracy by 20% and salesforce category adoption by 13%.
RY: Yes, that’s exactly right. And if you start from that lunch and learn piece, then you start looking at getting people to use exactly the same Salesforce reports. This can be measured and there are plenty of tools out there to help.
RB: And again, similar questions. We know that sales ops owns forecasting, and that starts to intertwine with finance. From your experience, where does your responsibility for forecasting stop and where do you pass the baton on to finance?
RY: Well, my view is that it’s actually sales that own forecasting. They’re the ones who are really qualifying deals in and out. I would say finance are involved at the beginning and the end. They’re setting those targets and setting a goal that obviously meets the needs of the investors. It’s then up to sales and sales ops to create the leads or opportunities and creating the flow to make that happen. But ultimately, sales own what they’re calling on the forecasting.
Sales ops, in my view, are all about giving the information to sales to say that these are solid deals. It’s about giving them enough information to ensure that the next steps are accurate. We’re the ones that do the digging, and I think this again is where deal desk comes in perfectly and it’s very important that if sales ops have been face to face with the customer in a contractual call or I’ve looked at the structure of the deal and I know what’s been going back and forth, I’ve got a window into that deal that probably a sales manager may not have had. So I think that’s a great insight to how deals are actually flowing up to close won. And I think we as sales ops own all the process piece and the data to back it up.
But ultimately sales own that forecast. Whenever I’m going through calls, I will run the reports, have them set for sales, but I’ll expect them to work through deals and call out deals. And if they miss one that I think needs talking about, then I’ll bring that up and make them aware. I see sales ops as the sidekick that provides sales with a different angle of all the deals and keeps them on their toes a little bit. And then going back to finance, at the end it’s around booking and making sure that all the financial elements are covered.
RB: There’s an interesting trend that we’re seeing where sales operations leaders are getting more and more into the realms of VP Sales. Interrogating deals for example, is traditionally something that would have been done by a sales leader. Have you always found that you’ve been involved in that or have you found that the shift has happened since you’ve been in sales ops? Or perhaps even you’ve driven that shift in Snowflake?
RY: For me to have credibility in that industry, I have to understand the customer, the business case and why they’re buying from us. And I think being able to understand that and being able to dig into the detail and the reality gives me a lot more power and trust with the sales directors. And I think that resonates with deal desk and sales ops. And as I’ve progressed and learnt more and more about the deal itself, plus the MBA and my previous experience at Google etc, I feel I’m in a place where I like to know about every big deal. I’m interested in knowing what they’re thinking commercially, whether we’re targeting the right people in the organisation, and then how that feeds back into all the other deals we’re working on and going forward. So if I just saw the numbers in Salesforce, I wouldn’t really feel confident to give advice. And I think some sales ops folks would probably just want to see the numbers and just run reports and stay a little bit outside of that. But I think then you’re not getting enough detail in my view.
RB: Who’s the one stakeholder that you’re most in tune with?
RY: Probably GVP Sales but I’ve got a very good regime with legal as well because of my knowledge of contracting and how the teams work together. These two relationships definitely help because I know how far we can go with legal and at the same time that wins me favours with legal and with sales. And there’s always a balancing act of not pushing someone too hard but also going after growth. So I think having those two people in your circle of trust is very, very helpful. Obviously from an GVP point of view, you’re driving the growth, the strategy and those little insights that you get from them can dictate your planning and types of tools you’re looking at. And getting the GVP signed up to my plan makes it much easier for me to push it out to the rest of the team.
RB: I’m interested to know what you’ve succeeded and failed in with the adoption of new processes.
RY: At Intralinks we rolled out CPQ, the quoting and pricing tools. I think it was a relatively poorly managed project at the beginning. We wanted a digital link between what’s on the paper and what was billed. This was completely alien for the salespeople and that really threw them. So what didn’t go well there was rolling it out without giving people hands on training. The idea was to have the deal desk team roll out the whole process, including the training. And this is probably where it went wrong because there were only 2 of us in Europe to around 150 reps. So we were expected to do the training through a couple of calls and in our daily interactions with the reps, and that combined with three or four pretty big bugs at the beginning caused the reps to lose trust. And with a critical tool like that, the reps were panicking that they couldn’t get their quotes out.
We ended up spending a lot more time with people hands on and spent a lot of time traveling. And then we relaxed the rules and introduced transitional periods. We let them use the old system for a bit longer and gave them an extra six months. In the end it was fairly successful but it took probably an extra 12 months.
Examples of good onboarding are probably fairly rare in this space. If you’re ever trying to change anything for sales on a big scale, there’s always an element of resistance. But something that worked quite well at Google was tiering. We said to the salespeople we were going to tier their customers based on criteria like spend, their fit with Google, their spend in other parts of Google etc and that would then categorise them for their levels of support they got.
So you could say a tier three deal would get just a deal manager and they would get limited redline support, and that’d be it. Anything higher, they would get legal from day one, they would get some time with VPs or product managers and we would really work on those deals. I think that worked quite well because from day one it showed people where they could get the most benefit from their support and which deal they should concentrate on. That was a big change, but it was managed well. The good thing about Google is there is always just tons of communication. Everything’s transparent and open and the reasons behind the changes were there and the right people were pushing the message.
You had the top sponsors saying, right guys, this is what’s going to change. These are the reasons why. Speak to X, Y and Z if you need help. If it comes from the right people at the top, it makes a big difference. It was seen as a strategic change to the way we use our resources.
RB: I think you’ve just come up with a lovely three Rs recipe: Reason, Right backers, and Resources.
RY: Exactly! I think the other thing to bear in mind is these messages are probably going out to people in different cultures, languages, interpretations of the message, and sometimes you’ve got to build that into what you’re doing as well. So if we’re doing something that goes out to APAC and to EMEA, you have to think about the clarity and the tone of your message and that is applied to your written communication that goes out to the field. But also when you’re having conversations with the field, I think that is another huge part. These are the soft skills of sales ops and are so important for anyone looking to work in this space.
And I think that’s sometimes overlooked when you’re typically seen as a data cruncher with your head down in your laptop. But actually you have to deliver some fairly tough conversations sometimes. So you’re giving people bad news, such as telling them this deal won’t work or telling them they’re stepping outside of the rules. I always look for really good soft skills when I’m hiring. I assess whether they’re able to amend their tone and their clarity and then making sure that they’re having the right conversation with the right people. Because it’s a very emotive piece, a salesperson arguing with sales ops, and it happens all the time. But if you can manage to take the emotion out of it and make it a very fact-based clear conversation, it makes things a lot easier. And that’s something I’ve learned over the years. Once you figure that out it becomes, it becomes a lot easier.
RB: One last question. What are your key ingredients for a decent forecast?
RY: A lot of it is around a clear, clean and easily understood process. Making sure that you have clear sales stages. Asking people if they’re confident that deal will happen this quarter from many angles. Reports should be very transparent and open to pretty much everyone who needs to see them. So you can quickly see that the SD is calling something, but the RD isn’t, for example. Changing the angle, testing the deal from multiple view points is critical to sales operations.
Making it that simple really helps. I always tell people to ‘Fisher Price’ things i.e. make them so simple that kids can use them.
Another element of accurate forecasting is having a bottom up approach every week. So those SDs have meetings with their RDs and they qualify in and out and it might change a bit but ultimately, you’re cutting those deals out that you’re not confident about on a weekly basis so on Monday we’re just looking at accurate data. It’s really around qualification criteria and it’s about understanding the industry as well. Knowing, for example, that with data hungry products, there’s going to be a legal conversation at the end.
And then, you know, you can dig into the numbers and look at your commits and your stretch, all the different things that people call it. It’s about simplifying it and having everyone on the same page.
Want to get more insights from sales ops leaders? Check out our other posts in the sales ops interview series.