Interview with Melinda Forest, Sales Operations Manager, Decibel

10 min read

With sales ops experience that encompasses marketing analysis and process improvement, Melinda Forest is no stranger to wearing a lot of different hats. This week, we take a look at my chat with Melinda, Sales Operations Manager at Decibel. We discussed using SLAs to get sales and marketing on the same page, the three V’s of marketing and sales: value, volume and velocity, and how to measure success in sales ops. With Melinda’s extensive experience of both sales and marketing ops, I was in for some serious learning. The interview began…

Rory Brown (RB): Can you tell us about your career?

Melinda Forest (MF): I started my career in sales, grew out and managed a team, and developed an affinity for operational analysis and insights that I thought could be used organisation wide. With that, I moved into sales operations.

Working at high-growth startups means wearing a lot of different hats and because of that, my role in sales operations has also encompassed marketing analysis and process improvement. I’ve come to see sales and marketing as the same thing. One is a short-term sales process and the other is a long-term sales process. It’s given me a dual understanding of what both teams are trying to accomplish and how to bring that together to make them more successful.

RB: I really like the way you say sales and marketing are the same. I’d like to get your thoughts on how to get sales and marketing on the same page and whether you have any processes for that.

MF: First of all, every marketing activity should be tied to a sales objective. We begin the process with questioning: How is marketing generating leads and revenue for sales? How many leads are they generating? How much does this contribute to pipeline? How can they make it easier and faster for sales to close deals? Are they reviving lost opportunities?  

In that questioning process, we instil measurement and accountability on both teams. The goal is to create this one, cohesive revenue machine and we rely on each other’s expertise to do their part. We are looking at value, volume, and velocity of leads and opportunities. Marketing is creating the content, awareness, and demand gen on the lead side. And they are nurturing that lead to a point where, upon accepted criteria, it enters the sales cycle.

Then it’s over to sales who likewise have to treat that lead with proper care and effort – which we measure via momentum and conversion. Feedback for the marketing team is critical; they want to know why it wasn’t qualified or what was missing in the criteria process that would have moved it along faster.

And with that, you have a pretty well-oiled machine. Everyone is collaborating and they are all in it for the same purpose.

RB: How do you set up a neat process to align everyone’s expectations to avoid conversations like, ‘the leads weren’t good enough’, or ‘I have sent you loads of leads, where are they?’?

MF: There is always finger-pointing, that’s natural. But it needs to be brought up in a functional and transparent way. It is really important to have closed loop communication around expectations and establish agreement through a process metric, and I think if you are working in an agile way, you put together a project case where you outline who is responsible and accountable for what, and who should be consulted and informed – the RACI framework. Then you meet weekly. With that, each team member has different touch points in the project, much like a lead does within the sales cycle.

The whole lead handover process doesn’t have to be as daunting as many make it out to be, with revenue SLAs on both marketing and sales sides and consistent meetings to understand closed loop reporting – you have the ability to iterate and improve.

Likewise, I think there is a lot that the sales and marketing ops person can do to properly provide weight to those meetings. For example, recording lead source is imperative but recognising and understanding patterns of engagement throughout all touch points is just as impactful.

It helps determine the lead scoring process, and make decisions around things like– Should we deliver a lead to sales without all the accepted criteria? Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no. It really does depend on your team. But they should have some autonomy in making that decision.

Sales and Marketing Ops streamline the lead assignment process. Within seconds a lead should move from your marketing automation tool to your CRM tool, be assigned out, and have the right person notified. We want our sales team to have everything in one unified platform so they can take immediate action.

And then through closed loop reporting and sales enablement meetings, sales and marketing ops can prove the success rate of both SLAs being met. Then marketing can improve content, help develop on-brand pitches or strategy for best ways to approach leads for higher conversion.

RB: The SLA is an interesting concept. Would you be able to tell us more about the SLA from both the perspective of sales and marketing?

MF: From a salesperson’s perspective, their SLA is dependent on the lead definition. The marketing team is saying: Here is a qualified lead. We have agreed that this is a qualified lead based on the expectations given prior. And the sales person then guarantees that they are going to follow up in a timely fashion and they are going to provide more insight into what went right and what went wrong with this lead. If they want changes made to marketing SLAs they have to provide feedback, and they have to have done everything in their power to have tried to convert this lead.

Conversely, to meet the marketing SLA, there may need to be exceptions to the accepted criteria. Because it’s often difficult to balance capturing enough lead information without risking form abandonment. I think it is really important that the sales department supports a weighted score here. Someone who comes in through a form, who is directly engaging with your site, is likely going to have a higher score and should be prioritized higher, despite lacking a job title or headquarters.

It’s up to that sales and marketing operations person to think of the Plan B in that scenario to enable velocity of this lead through the stages, whether that’s a round robin lead assignment, or creating some kind of incentive on these high score leads.

Marketing SLAs are ever-changing and they are sometimes misunderstood on the sales side. I think that having some more transparency into something like lead scoring, which historically has been very marketing focused and never really something introduced to sales teams, can de-mystify why lead value and volume while providing multiple options for SLA compliance.

RB: And whose responsibility is it to produce that SLA?

MF: That is a great question. I would say that the responsibility belongs to the department heads.  However, in a lot of ways, sales operations acts as the mediator since they have insight into both platforms and processes . They can translate the needs of both teams  and use their domain expertise of the tech stack and available KPI analysis to develop measurement for the SLAs and create actionable change.

RB: Let’s look at the meeting of the sales and marketing world from a reporting viewpoint. Something that sales operations people do a lot of is reporting, analysis, etc. Where does one start when looking to understand and report on the marketing funnel flowing into the sales funnel and how one impacts the other?

MF: The three V’s: Value, volume and velocity are always what both marketing and salespeople are looking at. Start with value, marketing is going to be looking at the value of leads that they are bringing in and the type of content and events they are being converted on, in order to duplicate that success. And if leads are not meeting conversion criteria, then what process is triggered for these lesser value leads. Because I wouldn’t say that any lead is useless; rather, it can be considered market mindshare. You have this group that just needs to be nurtured back to a point where they will eventually be a valuable lead and handed off to sales.

In terms of volume,  you are very conscious of that ratio of qualified leads to market mindshare. Because lead maturity then feeds into velocity. Sales and Marketing Ops afford insight on lead maturity by analysing marketing touch points.: How many touch points does marketing make before the lead converts? Subsequently, we are looking at what the leads are converting on. That way we can accurately forecast based on marketing’s contribution to top of funnel.

RB: Can you explain market mindshare?

MF: When I talk about market mindshare, I’m talking about those temporarily lesser value leads. They make up part of our total addressable market, are aware of us, but still need to be nurtured. So separating those out is going to give sales a way to prioritise, and for marketing, priceless information on the market’s perception of us and whether we are leveraging channels appropriate for the market. They can understand cost of acquisition on a specific customer per campaign. And then how much budget to allot to that next event in the future.

You want that ratio to be perfect. Perhaps that means changing your content to reach a different market or leveraging specific campaigns to nurture the market mindshare while addressing competitive arraignment. But either way, you want to create time stamps along the way so you can get the big picture around the lead to buyer journey.

As marketing digs into understanding and speeding up lead life cycles, they can also support sales by applying their insight and help provide feedback on which activities have swayed a decision. They may have the secrets of how to  shorten your sales cycle and improve pipeline acceleration.

RB: One of the things I’ve seen is that the depth and breadth of the sales operations role is increasing. Right now, in 2019, what would you say are the key responsibilities?

MF: You are absolutely right. In a lot of ways, companies are looking not just for a sales ops person or a marketing person, they are looking for both. They are looking for someone that can close the gap between those two. You need to be someone who can not only understand both marketing and sales tech stacks, but often admin them as well.

You need to be agile in an interrupt-culture, create impact reports on demand generation, bookings and revenue, create territories and quotas based on your TAM to measure performance, and there’s still the ongoing saga of , data health and management. You are looking at understanding and deriving analysis around customer market, competitive intelligence, and then doing predictive modelling with those analytics. I would say this role in a lot of ways is also training and development, documentation, and process improvement for the sales and marketing teams. It is a lot of project management and making sure that both teams are realistic in their priorities. I think that is a big one. You have two different groups who each have their own expertise and they work often separately in making sure that their activities are achieved in the allotted amount of time but what they don’t really do, is stop to think about how significantly they impact each other.

RB: We talk about all these SLAs, targets and metrics that sales and marketing have to adhere to, what about sales operations itself? How do we define, quantify or measure success in that role?  

MF: We produce an ROI, we really do. In the same way that you are looking at metrics for the marketing and sales team, you measure the marketing and sales ops person on the improvement of those metrics. If lead and opportunity value, volume and velocity are indeed improved upon, that is a measurement on me.

We define success through new processes  put in place, integrations to the system that have streamlined workflow, and progressive productivity of the sales workforce. If we see an increase to pipeline, that is a measurement on the sales operations team. If we see a shortened sales cycle, that is a measurement on us as well.

I think people throw out stats all the time, ‘you should see 30% growth and that’s due to your sales operations person’. I can’t necessarily say that, because, hypothetically, only 30% of what I do relates to the sales team; 30% to marketing, 30% to finance, 10% to management and business intelligence. I think we have a hand in everything, and any type of growth is significant. If you are doing your job right, you are streamlining process; you are helping all departments achieve their metrics.

If they are not, I think likewise you can say, sales ops need to step it up.

RB: Good answer. In a scenario where you are changing or unifying a technology or process, what are the steps that you go through to make sure that the people involved in that transition are on board?

MF: Again, I think it is really important from the start to have agreement on why this change is being made and how it impacts them as an individual. You might not have everyone onboard initially, but if they agree that there is a solution to this problem, they’re more likely to adopt and promote the new process. Everyone is a stakeholder in change. So getting full involvement and cooperation is huge. We can agree on how to measure the impact and set a time frame.

There is a level of involvement from everyone as processes change. I think when they see that the process has made things better or improved it, we can start to incrementally improve over time. So, we get everyone on board, I make the changes, I document those changes, I make sure that everyone is trained and feels comfortable with the new process and then I work my magic behind the scenes, be it a validation rule in the system, automated trigger, or a required field, just to encourage adherence This allows everyone to adapt but also give the new change a fair shot.

Then, I incrementally move the rules and those requirements away and it becomes second nature to everyone.

RB: You mention two very interesting things, which I think a lot of people might miss. Firstly, the fact that you think of what is measurable that can define the success of this change, and secondly, you agree on a time frame from which you review whether it is working or not.

How would you come up with those, and what is the importance behind having those in place as well?

MF: I come up with the timeframe based on the level of analytics and data we can feasibly draw within the period. Working quarterly allows for a more substantial pool of data.

I think the time frame is really important because it has this level of non-permanence that reduces the anxiety around change. In order to gain adoption to the new process you need to lower the anxiety levels, and it helps to have a time frame to reconvene and discuss and close out the project, so that everyone has  a say and no subsequent decisions are looming.

RB: So presumably then the time frame within which you can see results might dictate how you prioritise or budget for the process change in the first place.

MF: Yes, absolutely.

RB: In your last couple of roles in sales and marketing ops, who are you working most closely with?  

MF: I work closely with my boss, the CRO who trusts my expertise and gives me a lot of autonomy and authority. That said, he also trusts that I am communicating to both marketing and sales appropriately and often.

So I would say the main people that I end up working with the most is the Inside Sales group, mostly because they are the recipients of marketing leads and they are also the funnel creators. That relationship is really important because you have sales and marketing leaders asking,‘What happened to these leads?’, “How did this Opportunity come about?”. And the answers are sitting with the SDR; they are sitting with your Inside Sales team.

So that close relationship is pivotal in gaining that knowledge, and it is developed from the hard work, analysis, robust reporting, and lead assignment, notification, and diligent process, you, as a sales ops person have put in place.

Want to get more insights from sales ops leaders? Check out our other posts in the sales ops interview series.

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