Kirsty Charlton is the sales ops leader of the moment. She co-founded the UK Sales Operations Network and has built out a sales operations team from scratch at Signal AI, all in the space of one year. She set out at Signal AI with a mission – to prove the ROI of sales operations and provide total visibility to the wider team. It’s fair to say she more than succeeded, as attested by growing the sales ops team from just her to five people within a year. I caught up with Kirsty to chat about all things sales ops. Kirsty shared the details of how she built out a sales tech stack and how she measures success in sales ops. We began by discussing her ‘unusual’ route into sales ops…
Rory Brown (RB): Who is Kirsty Charlton and how did you get into sales operations?
Kirsty Charlton (KC): My route into sales ops was more unusual than most. I started life as a scientist at GSK, researching and analysing products in the lab. I then had the opportunity to join the grad scheme at Kantar in London. I was working on Kantar Worldpanel doing consumer research. It was a data heavy role and, in many ways, there were a lot of parallels with sales ops. I really enjoyed that but wanted to make the move into more qualitative research, so I moved to another market research agency. It was there that I had the opportunity to move into a sales engineer position. I was pitching and demoing and it was a great first experience of sales. From there I moved into sales operations.
RB: I think you’re the first scientist I’ve interviewed! I’d love to start off by hearing more about the tech project you’ve been working on at Signal AI.
KC: We’ve scaled massively in the last 6 months and as a result, small niggles have become glaring problems, our accuracy of data being one example, not to mention our mish mash of tools. We have a new head of sales who is very data and process driven. From that, we started a project to review our whole tech stack. One of our end goals is that all of our data would be in Salesforce, making it that single source of truth. We also wanted to create efficiencies to help sales reps sell better.
RB: Did you have measurables within that?
KC: We looked at how long it took an SDR to find a new prospect, add it to the CRM and send an email. We found that on average it took them two and half minutes. When you’re expecting someone to do 75 activities a day, that’s not very efficient.
RB: So you identified that time was a big thing. Were there any other areas you looked at?
KC: There were three other areas we looked at. Firstly, we asked ourselves ‘Does our tech stack support our sales process?’ Turns out it didn’t. Secondly, ‘Will it increase productivity?’ And thirdly, ‘Will it improve our customer’s journey?’
RB: How does the process of looking for new tech start?
KC: We started off by identifying areas where tech could help us, right from finding contacts and accounts to contacting them. We then undertook some demos and made a shortlist. In hindsight, there are a few things we should have done. Firstly, we should have had KPIs and rigidly scored each tool that way. We had them in mind as a management team but probably not wholesale. Those KPIs could have been ease of use, whether it integrates with Salesforce etc.
RB: What are the tell-tale signs that you should be looking out for when choosing new tools?
KC: I can give you an example of a great buying and onboarding experience we had which ticked all the boxes.
We were looking at Outreach and the first positive sign was that they use their own tool. After every call we had with them, they sent us a personalised email. They laid everything out in steps and it meant that we moved down the sales funnel really easily. We were always given the right material at the right touch points. They also have a fantastic knowledge base with explainers.
Ultimately, we didn’t ever feel like we were being sold to. People love buying but hate being sold to, right?! They’ve got reps who’s job is purely to onboard people – they’re experts in the tool and are extremely helpful, available at anytime and always have the answer.
RB: Adoption starts from how you plant the seed before you even choose the technology. How have you found the experience of getting all the users onboard?
KC: First things first, set out what ‘great’ looks like for you. For us with Outreach, we were measuring how many emails were sent out via cadences. When we assessed it last week it was 61%, and we were aiming for 75%. So we’re getting closer. We’ve also added Zoom Info (which is another tool we’ve bought) as a lead source in Salesforce to be able to attribute the value it’s bringing and start to work out ROI.
In terms of driving adoption, we started to drive excitement way before we bought the tool. For any tool to be successful, it’s all about the toothbrush rule. If they use it as often as they use a toothbrush, then it’s ingrained. We also kept them updated throughout the process. If they wanted to be involved in the demos, we were very open to that and involved reps in the trials to share their thoughts and opinions.
For me, qualitative measures of success were first of all using it at least twice a day and secondly, they’re happy and they’re enjoying it.
RB: How do you get senior leadership onboard prior to rollout?
KC: They were all involved in the process and invited to each demo. I updated everyone once a week via email chain where everyone could then add their comments. It turned out to seem to be a lot more efficient than a weekly meeting.
RB: That’s an interesting point. We hear a lot from vendors that rolling out is tough. And conversely, clients say that the roll out experience isn’t good enough. Where does the responsibility lie? Should the customer take some of the responsibility for managing that experience?
KC: That’s a good question. And that’s why Outreach was so good. They involved all the sales managers from the beginning and when someone new got involved, they were happy to do another demo and onboarding to bring them up to speed. Once the set up was all done, they then did weekly training sessions. On the other side, we’ve got people in the team who have already used it so we funnel a lot of questions to them. I think generally more ownership for adoption and roll out should lie with vendors. At Signal, training and enablement of users is something we invest a lot of resources into and hence we have industry leading metrics around renewal and upsell – I think what Outreach did really well was take seriously this part of the roll out, and also take some responsibility for it. Vendors are the experts, let them help you to get the team on board and up to speed / bought into the tool / convinced of the benefits.
RB: How did you approach ROI?
KC: I had to put a business case together to answer why this was something I wanted to buy and what the ROI would be. I kept visibility really high with the whole commercial team, C suite and finance.
The ROI was mainly built around efficiencies – saving the reps time, enabling them more time selling, and fostering a better customer experience.
RB: How did you find the price side? A lot of vendors out there have a huge variance in pricing. Some people end up paying more for the same thing.
KC: We were very upfront from the beginning that we hadn’t been given a new budget line but if we could match what we were currently doing we could go ahead.
With other vendors, I waited until the end of the quarter to get some negotiating leverage.
I think the key is to be upfront and honest, don’t play games. There are other ways they can help, such as free months, and throwing in more training etc.
The FD always pushes me to reduce the price, but it does help to get sign off if I can go there and tell him we got a free month or some discount, extras etc.
RB: Moving to a more general question, how do you measure success in sales ops?
KC: My team has gone from just me to five people within a year. And that’s because I set out with a massive conscious effort to prove the ROI of the team. First of all, visibility is key. I get involved with our fortnightly town hall meetings (we call them demos) and from the start of my time here I presented to the senior leadership team what my findings and actions were. This Friday I’m presenting our OKRs to the whole company, having the right OKRs really help to demonstrate what you’re working towards as a team, keep you focused and then track delivery.
RB: It would be great to hear more about your OKRs. Do you have any examples?
KC: There’s a document which our old sales ops manager from Vision Critical sent to me. It’s the anatomy of the world class sales operation. It says for every sales ops function, these are the 19 areas you should be looking at, from CRM ownership to commission structure and everything in between. I set out a team exercise using that document. For each one of those 19 facets of sales ops, the team assessed how we were performing on a scale of 1 – 5 and how much impact could we have if we got it right on a scale of 1 – 5. And I mapped it out on a board and anything that we’re not good at but we could have huge impact on we made a priority for us to work on.
From that, we’ve come up with two overarching OKRs. The first objective is to define and implement a repeatable, global, and scalable sales process. We want it developed through data and utilised by all reps. The three key results are to reduce RAMP time to four months, have the reps working a min of 36 ops looking forward and reduce our sales cycle by 50%. It’s ambitious, but that’s the idea of OKRs. You’re meant to only be 70% confident you can hit them.
The second one is massive. It’s evolving the culture of the sales management team from an anecdotal and reactive one to a team that’s data backed and proactive. A key result of this is forecast accuracy. At the moment we have open head count, we’re not analysing how many accounts are being worked. We can reactively look and say you’ve got enough. But we don’t have anyone proactively analysing whether X person has had a bad month. So another key result is for every manager to go into 1:1s with data so they can actually coach the reps. Instead of ‘how’s everything going?’ they can have data backed conversations.
We also want more visibility for the reps to know how their performance is tracking against their personal KPIs.
RB: That exercise is really interesting.
KC: Yes, it’s actually built off data, which is what we preach!