The path into sales ops often takes a few twists and turns and Sofiya Ulyak’s journey is no different. From antiques to construction, Sofiya has covered many industries and roles. I had the pleasure of speaking to the now Director of Sales Operations at Star to find out how she has built a successful sales ops career. Sofiya shared details of how she built Star’s sales process from scratch, how sales ops and customer success work together at Star, using weighted forecasting, and why sales ops and Lego have more in common than you might think! After talking me through her diverse career path, the interview began…
Rory Brown (RB): So, who is Sofiya Ulyak and how did you get into sales ops?
Sofiya Ulyak (SU): I’ve had a challenging route into sales operations. In my final years of university, I worked as business development for an antiques and jewellery company, then I worked for a construction company building the new terminal at the airport here in Kyiv. I also did some freelance translation for oil and gas mining companies. I had been switching industries and roles until I found myself here at Star seven years ago. Initially, I joined the sales team as a team assistant to support with growing business, but my responsibility eventually grew, shaping into something called sales ops and we started growing the team from there. Now we are a team of four covering sales ops and enablement.
RB: Nice, fantastic. Thank you for that. Let’s start by looking at processes. When a company is going through high growth, what are some of the key considerations as to how to make your processes and workflows as useful and used as possible?
SU: I’ll use the Lego analogy – it’s all about bricks of different shapes and sizes and various people. You start by figuring out what you want to build and why, and then what pieces you need to build it. A house? OK. Once you are done, it doesn’t stop there. Perhaps you want a beautiful lawn around your house, so you add flowers and trees and anything else that makes sense for you.
When I first started at Star seven years ago, we didn’t really have a process in place. It was just salespeople doing their own thing and growing business. But overtime, being in such a high paced environment with so many different roles, competition, ever-changing market needs, it has pushed us to value the importance of consistency, communication, and alignment. Now we have put in a set of consistent processes that everyone follows, programs that enable the team to perform better, and this highlights the importance looking at historical data to realize what worked before map that on where are we heading and define how we will get there. The key here is listening to the heartbeat of the company and healing the body to make it perform at its best. That’s what we do.
The Lego analogy is about agility and flexibility towards the process. You can pick any brick, figure etc as long as you have the WHAT question figured out (what is it that you want to achieve – the endgame). At some point, we realised there are peculiarities to the sales process and workflow depending on the services that we sell, our offering and the industry. So, we must be flexible and agile when we learn about those differences. No matter the scale of the group, there will always be some tweaks that should be considered to set the team for success.
RB: With regards to maintaining a consistent process, what have you seen there that has worked? Also, what kind of difficulties has that side of things presented you?
SU: Listen, understand, calibrate and communicate. It starts with the training of new hires and education of veterans. The team here is responsible for onboarding new hires for the sales team and ensuring proper training and consistency here from the very first day. When a person starts with a new company, they learn a lot, so this has proved to work well. They understand how things are done there, and we need to support then in following the process.
It can be trickier with company veterans, because they’re set in their ways. With them, it is not only the process that you must change, but the behaviour as well. You need to be persistent in always communicating the importance of why we need to follow the process. In response to this, I have learned to show people the benefits of ‘doing it right’ according to policy and process. I try to back it up with data.
For example, I might say ‘If we take sales cycle, and you follow the process and involve these people, the sales cycle is shorter by X time’, and ‘If you do it your own way, it is going to be longer.’ So you are hurting yourself. Those are two major things that I have learned so far, but there might be other best practices which we haven’t realised or implemented yet.
RB: That is fantastic. Going back to onboarding the new hires, what kind of things do you do to ensure that they are onboarded and following the right processes straight away?
SU: Our onboarding consists of several parts and spans through the first month with regular refreshers and continuous support from sales ops side. Before we train them on our sales process framework and methodology, the new hires pass online onboarding focused on company history, values and offering.
We then bring them to Kyiv to meet the team and assign them a coach (a veteran of the sales team) and then run through an effective process known as The Three S’s: Shadow three calls; share three calls and then show three calls receiving feedback and also facilitating them to ask questions as they learn. During this process the new hire will learn what has been said, the questions that are frequently asked by prospects, and so forth.
To answer your question further, we want the new hire to shake off that ‘new kid at school’ feeling as quickly as possible, so the key here is communicating and setting expectations straight away, giving them the necessary materials for their success and also supporting them every step of the way.
All of this should be backed up with regular refreshers where you continuously identify gaps and fill them in.
RB: When setting up these processes, I assume you decide where to start and which areas will be the most impactful towards your efficiency. How do you go about identifying the right areas to direct your attention?
SU: Data. I think that is the only asset that can highlight where things are falling through the cracks, and where you are successful. It is extremely important that you are focusing on these data trends, during both times of success and failure, and implementing what you’ve learnt across the team.
A lot also depends on the company overall strategy and goals. You have to be aligned to them tightly as the team we serve is basically responsible for making it happen. So, when the company implements new service or focuses more on one of the lines of business, you have to adjust and again, it comes down to adjusting your onboarding program through to sales process to commission plans to facilitate the expected growth in the particular service line.
We looked at different metrics that we found applicable for our type of business and our sales team. It’s different from product sales and that’s where the challenge lies. Some basic generic metrics include conversion rates, sales cycles, push rates by rep and activity by rep (this one is complex and split into several sub-categories), time to the first deal, average deal size and stage age that affects conversion.
All of these and more enable us to prioritise our efforts and attention.
RB: Fantastic. You mentioned that you look at a lot of historical data. But with so much out there, many don’t know what to look for. In your experience of sales operations, where should someone start to look for data that is meaningful and actionable?
SU: CRM is the obvious answer, right? But unless managed, automated properly and aligned to your sales process, it’s a graveyard. I’d need to answer your question in two separate tracks. First we need to ask what you want to achieve with the data you’ll be looking at. Questions might vary from how are we hitting our goals and digging into what doesn’t work and what does, what service lines are winning and where do we need to be focusing on more. In this case, one would look at revenue numbers, forecast (actual and probability adjusted), open pipeline value, and conversion rates, revenue sources. These are few fundamentals. You can add as many layers there as needed depending on the question you are trying to answer. That’s the key, otherwise the picture may be too blurry and might lead you to the wrong assumptions.
If the question is about sales rep performance, that’s a completely different story. A lot depends on the market maturity that is assigned to a rep, specific industry clusters within the region (you don’t expect high win rate in Automotive services in Finland), and seasonal fluctuations in sales. All reps have a quota number, so that’s the number one measurement of how well each one of them is doing in terms of hitting those both in the next and current quarter as well as historically. Then, open pipeline by rep, conversion rates again, win rates, split between various types of revenue like net new, upsells etc. Complement the mix with deal sources to see where the deals are coming from, average deal size and age of deals in particular stage that affects directly conversion and win rates. Then educate them on the data you see, that’s another important aspect.
RB: Presumably then, when you are looking at implementing new technology, a new process or a new initiative, the idea is that you are going to move the needle on one or two of those metrics. How do you prioritize new projects and new processes that you want to implement?
SU: We look at a combination of historical data, where we are right now and where we as a company are heading. An important piece here is not what and how but why. You need a vision connected with goals presented in a roadmap reflecting how you achieve it via a delivery plan. One of the great examples is how we have recently launched what we call the practice model – basically having a team selling to a specific industry. You don’t go into this blindfolded just because everyone does or it’s a rising trend in the market but because as a company our goal is to increase our visibility, revenue and expertise within particular industry. You then ask yourself how and supplement it with historical data within that particular industry. Everything then comes down to the delivery plan: what team do we need, what do we currently have, success metrics, tools and process adjustments.
RB: Brilliant, thank you for that. Alignment is a great topic. You mentioned the many different departments which all circle around sales: product, finance, marketing, customer success – all these different things. Where do you start with trying to get people on the same page and getting these departments to be a little bit more friendly with each other?
SU: We are still not there for several reasons but we will be because we are investing a lot of cross-functional efforts and time into this now. We have a very well aligned process for collaboration between sales and pre-sales, delivery and pre-sales, but that is largely due to the few people who drive this within Star. We have yet to do the difficult job of aligning sales with marketing, with lead development and business development. Therefore, when trying to align two or more teams it is important to get insight from everyone involved, i.e. what is working and what is not and what should we do more. This allows you to prioritise, see the full picture and implement the small changes step by step. Communication is key here vs pointing fingers. We are all here for the success of the company.
RB: Brilliant. I really like that. Moving away from sales and marketing alignment, let’s talk more about some of your successes. What have you now got there that is working well?
SU: The role of customer success here at Star is particularly different to anywhere else because we consider it as a truly integrated customer experience throughout the business. We acknowledged the need not as a dedicated role but the need for sustainable success of the customer by leveraging our services. So, customer success at Star has evolved into a role that combines several skillsets: program manager or delivery role, sales and business development. The first one should ensure that we are delivering on time, on budget and on quality managing the expectations from both sides, while building and expanding the relationship within the customer business as business development role and identifying further needs thus eventually upselling our services to the customer.
RB: Understood. How do you create a mechanism whereby the customer success joins the customer journey in a seamless fashion, in terms of what the customer is experiencing?
SU: The new kid in the block is always perceived with caution and lack of trust, so it’s about time as well as seamless and smooth transition. The role itself is challenging and I personally don’t believe in hand offs from sales to account executives as it usually happens. I’ve seen companies hurting themselves by doing so without proper transition plans and knowledge transfer.
For us thus again it comes to prioritising which customers should immediately leverage the customer success role or are ready, and which will enjoy the company of sales, customer success and delivery project manager smoothly taking the sales person out once the relations established for everyone involved. We keep the sales and customer success together so they can complement each other and prosper together until we see the healthy and trusted relationship between customer success and client being built. The whole role is about customer not feeling they are continuously being sold something but feeling the value and care from our side. For this reason, customer success at Star has evolved into a partner, co-creator and go-to person for anything preventing the customer from success.
It is crucial for the customer to be continuously supported by the person they’ve met initially – their first Star contact. From there, they will leverage the experience and capabilities of both, smoothly transitioning to our customer success people because they are knowledgeable about tech and are also business and customer oriented. I think that combination is a perfect setup for customers because they get ‘Two for One’.
RB: Fantastic. You mentioned a methodology that uses agility and flexibility. It sounds great. It also sounds like – if not done properly – it could be chaotic. Could you explain what that is all about? Is this an initiative that you set out?
SU: If you look at companies that have been on the market for a really long period of time, they have either their own methodology that they follow, or something that has been instilled in the team with orders to follow it. They have a structure, policies and roadmap and that’s fabulous to keep up with an ever-changing market, technology and demand. We used to be very here and there before we started following a ‘Value Selling’ methodology about two years ago. Until then, we were using the best of different methodologies and implementing them into our own sales process – and we still do that to some extent taking Value Selling as a core. If someone were to ask me what methodology we follow now, I would say Star methodology.
The Lego analogy I mentioned earlier is exactly the way I would describe it. At any point you can take out some pieces and either replace them or take it down to the foundation level as long as you have the desired outcome figured out mapped on the company strategy and vision.
If we see that some of the steps documented in our sales process don’t make sense, our data will still be intact because our CRM system is well aligned with this flexibility. Through being able to adjust, we can plug in certain people at certain stages of the sales process. Or we can skip some. Still, most of the sales people still follow the established sales process and exceptions are rather rare and well defined in the first place.
RB: Great. So how does that play into things like forecasting, where ideally, we need something that is very similar happening all the time for it to be reliable. How do you get around that and still come out with a credible forecast?
SU: We have an open forecast for our prospects in the open pipeline, and a separate one for our customers – we call that the order book forecast. The open pipeline forecast has been rather challenging because we realised that many variables can affect it, such as how many times the salesperson has pushed the close date, or how many times they have revised the initial amount. If these metrics are looking high, and a deal has been the pipeline for twice our average sales cycle, we simply exclude those deals from our forecast altogether. We consider the probability of that deal to happen to be 5%.
The order book forecast is relatively straight forward because it is about customers. We already have visibility on the potential timeframe for the project to be delivered or the solution to be developed, so we can also understand the costs that we will encounter on a monthly basis. The open pipeline is much more challenging and requires much more attention because eventually you want to see how many new customers/ more revenue you will have in three months and you need to adjust that number based on various aspects mentioned like sales cycle, age of the deal and probability, competitors bidding, lead sources etc. So, you must be careful about that.
RB: I really like what you were mentioned about the open pipeline – that if it has been open a certain number of times, the amount has been changed a couple of times, and the close date has been moved back a few times, you just exclude it totally. So, are you using weighted forecasting there, or do you use judgement-based forecasts? And surely your salespeople have to convince you that it’s happening sometimes?
SU: We use weighted forecast, so yes, sometimes our salespeople do try to overrule the data. Furthermore, based on the historic data, there could be different things at play – e.g. where is the deal coming from in the lead process. If this prospect has been referred to us by a former customer, the probability of closing that deal is higher. If we met the prospect at some event that we attend, this also plays a role. But for opportunities which have been pushed or are dragging between stages, I would say that we automatically exclude them.
RB: Brilliant. On a broader topic – I would like to ask about how we define success in sales operations. As hard as it is to quantify that, what types of things might you be able to measure – or what has worked in your experience?
SU: It is a truly great question, and it’s a question each organisation defines for itself to some extend. On a global perspective, for any function within the company, it’s measured by its company’s success. For me personally, sales ops success is relying on my team and knowing if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, they will drive things.
Sales operations itself is a niche responsibility within the company that people may not realise the value of. And I think the only way to measure whether sales operations are successful is by looking at how well the sales team is hitting their goals. That is the only quantitative measure of sales operations. If the sales team is successful, it means that sales operations is moving in the right direction, it means that we are investing the effort and time into it and some tiny portion of that success belongs to us.
When looking into our qualitative success, it’s the perception of the team as well as feedback, we ask people what we should improve on or if we are going in the right direction. Feedback that our CRM is easy to work with; our onboarding works well; the process is clear; and so forth; is always positive. It means that the Lego blocks we pick are the right ones and the entire team shares the vision of the result.
RB: Brilliant. Thank you very much for your insights, Sofiya. There is plenty of information in here that I’m sure our readers will find useful and applicable.
Want to get more insights from sales ops leaders? Check out our other interviews in the sales ops interview series.
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