Catalin Tilimpea believes that the power of sales ops lies in that certain balance between being analytical and being action-orientated. And if his successful sales ops career is anything to go by, his advice is worth taking! This week, we look at my chat with Catalin, Director of Global Sales Operations at technology company, Arm. We discussed turning insights into action and how to tactfully present challenging insights to decision-makers, aligning sales ops’ targets with sales, identifying areas to introduce new technologies and process, and whether sales ops will become a C-level role. After musing over the personality traits of good sales ops leaders, the interview began…
Rory Brown (RB): What drew you towards sales operations?
Catalin Tilimpea (CT): It think it is primarily a personality thing. It requires a personality at the intersection between extroversion and introversion. You need to be analytical and reflective because a lot of things we do in sales operations look backwards; it’s not always about looking to the future. But you can’t exactly be, let’s say, an accountant either if you are working with salespeople. It is really a very tight bond there that makes the relationship work.
So you need a certain balance between being analytical and being action-oriented.
RB: That’s a really nice way of putting it. Let’s focus in on this area of analytics into action, both from the moment you take your insights to the relevant people and the process of then turning that into something that the business uses to improve.
CT: Firstly, you need to have the right systems and you need to have funding to collect the data. You’ve got to have the people with the right orientation to transform that data into insight, and they have to have the right tools (something like Kluster fits into that category). And the operations professional has the task of bringing everything together.
You need to have the business acumen to actually extract the insight and then you need to be able to sell that to the decision-makers in the sales organisation, which is where the extroversion comes in.
RB: It is interesting you have used the words ‘push’ and ‘sell’ there. Your job isn’t done when you uncover an insight. You then have to convince the stakeholders after that point.
CT: In my experience, that is the hardest thing to do because it requires a lot of experience. But unfortunately, many companies or many operations departments generate an insight and they ‘call it a day’. Because the convincing element is so hard.
RB: Why do you think that that last bit is so crucial?
CT: There are two types of insight. One is an insight that validates theories about what is going right and what is going wrong. And that is not so hard to sell. But then the really potentially disruptive insight is something that says either what we are doing is not good because it is not progressing as we expected, or there are factors that are fundamentally affecting our ability to execute on the plan we made – or everything is going excellently as planned, but there is this greater opportunity that we are missing.
So either way, that kind of insight is hard to push because it upsets the vision that people are already sold on, that they want to happen. They made plans on it or they pictured themselves and their careers taking off in a certain way. So essentially, you can end up being the bearer of bad news. And part of selling it is to sell it as an opportunity, not ‘bad news’. You have to provide an opportunity in the form of a solution.
RB: Any advice on how you would tactfully present a challenging insight to a decision-maker?
CT: I think it is about building the right relationship beforehand. They need to trust your judgement and that takes some time to build.
RB: In your first quarter as sales ops leader at a business, what are the sorts of things that you are looking to understand and how do you create a strategy off the back of that?
CT: I think the thing you start with immediately is relationships. I have actually just started the role I am currently in and my focus is almost exclusively on meeting people; not just understanding what they do, but understanding what kind of people they are, how to approach them and how to work with them.
Then the next quarter is about trying to deliver some value in a non-disruptive way – going with the flow and enhancing what is in place. Unless of course the business is very small or has gone through a big disruption like an M&A. In those cases, there isn’t much flow to go with and you’ve got to start by showing some initiative.
RB: Who are the key people in the business that you are working with daily? And within that, who is the person that you would work with most frequently as a sales ops leader?
CT: As far as I am concerned, the most important stakeholders for sales ops should always be sales. I am of the opinion that sales operations should be thought of, for all practical purposes, as part of sales.
The rest depends a bit from company to company. I would say finance is the next step. Sales operations has a critical role there to push the sales agenda into finance in a way that finance people can understand and vice versa – there are often really rigid constraints, legal constraints that sales need to take seriously.
RB: In your experience, how much interaction would sales ops leaders have with individual salespeople?
CT: That varies a lot from company to company. In some companies, sales ops encompasses a coaching role because of their bird’s eye view of sales.
Then sometimes sales ops works with or takes on part of the role of sales enablement.
RB: What has been your experience of the sales enablement and sales ops relationship in your career?
CT: My focus hasn’t been at any time sales enablement but the only place where I have seen sales ops and sales enablement very closely aligned was reporting together into an SVP of Sales Operations. The closest senior figure that was responsible for both was a very senior figure. And I think it wasn’t a bad thing because in this broader organisation – even though there were different people doing different things – the broader organisation was perceived by the sales department as a one-stop shop for everything they wanted inside the company, which goes back to how I think things should be.
RB: That is very interesting. And again, a similar question for marketing as well. A lot of businesses are relying on marketing to help them produce the pipeline. What has your experience been of getting that sales and marketing relationship right?
CT: I think sales operations has a role to play in that. And I think the primary instrument to make that work is by putting people together and mediating.
RB: How do you measure success in sales ops?
CT: I believe that sales ops has to be thought of as part of sales, and I strongly believe that it is best if you measure sales and sales ops together based on sales results, like dollar figures.
I am a strong believer in objective metrics, preferably numeric and making sure that they are exactly the same metric for sales and for sales ops. The sales ops professional that works with sales needs to feel that they are part of the team, so they have to be incentivised on the same basis. That bond is very important. You have got to feel that you are working in the team and you are cheering when that number goes up.
I think that is a very powerful motivator. You are like the co-pilot, but you are in the same race and at the end there is going to be some reward, of the same type, for the co-pilot, just as for the pilot.
RB: Let’s say you have decided you are going to roll out a new process or a new technology, how do you go about identifying where improvements can be made?
CT: Work backwards from the results you want to attain. There has to be a high-level vision or mission for the company and then you work backwards from that. Say if you want to increase your revenue, you look at your current revenue and maybe you interview customers, which is where customer success organisation and sales can play a huge role. Collect all that information and then use your experience and intuition to figure out which of the signals that tell you what you could do are – a better signal to knowledge ratio and then form a plan.
And then you go again to the people who would be implementing and then figure out whether it would be a good idea? What problems would you see? And you refine them like that a couple of times before you go live.
RB: When you are rolling out a new process or technology, how do you ensure good adoption from the sales team?
CT: Salespeople want to look good and smash their target. If you connect your new technology or process to that, they are going to be listening at least. They might not agree. But you are going to get their attention and you have something to work on.
RB: What sort of things can you do to ensure that all the stakeholders are enforcing the reason for this change, and the benefit of this change, right from the top?
CT: Whatever change you roll out, the justification for the change and the intention for the change needs to come clearly and loudly from both sales leadership and sometimes general management as well.
I think sales operations is also a necessary voice in that chorus to create the confidence that everything else is going to support the change.
RB: Do you think we could see sales ops becoming a C-level role? Or do you think it will always be reporting to C-level people?
CT: Some companies are very sales centric. You have sales operations being the biggest piece of operations for the company.
But I’m not sure sales ops can become something like a completely separate function because its reason to exist is sales. So the path to the top goes through sales leadership roles and progressively more senior sales ops roles but at the top they are going to merge into some senior revenue generation figure.
At the very senior level, sales and sales ops are almost the same. There is this key role in sales ops of chief of staff. The chief of staff partners so closely with sales leadership, and especially the top sales leader, that they get to know each other so well that essentially at some point they can switch roles.
This interview reflects Catalin’s views, not those of his employer.
Want to get more insights from sales ops leaders? Check out our other posts in the sales ops interview series.