I had looked forward to this interview. And as expected, I was impressed by the incredible breadth of expertise and knowledge that Julian Harris had to offer. From looking at account scoring to developing accurate forecasting methods, Julian is clearly a forward-thinking, strategically orientated, and well-versed member of our sales ops community. After explaining how he got himself into sales ops, the interview began…
Rory Brown (RB): I’d love to get an overview of your career and how you made your way into sales ops.
Julian Harris (JH): Yes, absolutely. I came out of college with a finance background. After spending a little under a year in investment banking working with tech companies, I became really excited about the tech space. Fortunately, I had a good friend who was working at a tech startup and he got me a sales role there. I did that for about two years and then I moved into an Account Executive role at Classy. At that time, I knew I wanted to get back into something a little more strategic.
I came to an agreement with management that I could do sales for six to nine months, take time to understand the product, understand the landscape of the company and the industry and then move into a strategic role. In about that six-month time frame they started to have a need for a business ops team. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first members of that team and really started to build up those functions. It really began as sales and marketing operations and then as we grew out the team, I chose to focus more specifically on the sales ops function.
Then within the last six months or so, I moved into revenue operations. Now I’m looking at everything from demand generation, sales ops and go to market strategy. It’s been really cool to go from focusing on the sales ops side of things to the whole go to market plan.
RB: Brilliant, thanks for the intro. It would be great to focus on the sales and post sales/CS alignment. From a very step one point of view, what are the key considerations in getting sales and post sales in sync?
JH: I think the biggest thing is setting those expectations both with the customer that you’re bringing on and with those other teams throughout the company. Understanding, first from a data standpoint, what are the key things that we need to acquire from that customer through our sales process to be able to feed over to our post-sales teams so that they can hit the ground running and understand where the customer is at and what things they should be hitting on those ongoing calls.
Those first 30 days are extremely important. Using historical data to understand the metrics that drive customer success, how do we best acquire those on the sales side in as frictionless a method as possible. How do we feed that over to our post-sales, CS and renewals team? Then how do we continue to build on that and provide a continuous feedback loop to the sales team so that we’re constantly improving.
RB: Focusing on the last point there about that continuous feedback loop, is there a structure, a mechanism or a process that you use? It sounds great, but how do you execute it and make it stick?
JH: We’re still learning. We use Salesforce as our CRM, so we have a couple of different objects that all of our reps are interacting with. The sales team on the front end are with an opportunity and then we have onboarding items that the renewals and post sales teams are looking at once that sale moves across to them.
Then we provide automated reports to our sales leaders so that they can see discrepancies in that information, understanding what’s going well and then we can take corrective action. Again, it’s something that we’re constantly iterating on and we continue to learn more from the data we’re collecting now.
RB: Awesome. If we take a step back for a second, you’re four years into sales ops and now moving into rev ops. If you take it right back to that first year, how did you start and what did you initially focus on? Were there any wins you wanted to focus on first?
JH: I was very fortunate. We’ve got a great team here that really guided me and allowed me to make some mistakes early on. But we also had a really good board of advisers. One of the guys came from Salesforce as part of their sales operations team, so he helped provide a lot of the foundational components. He showed me where I should be focusing and the skills I should be developing.
Those first six to 12 months were heavy on building the tactical muscles and being able to produce the models, reports and analysis that the business needed. Then after that period, I was able to be more strategic.
RB: Where you’re at now, what would you say are the key principles of choosing the right information?
Also, how often do you go off card and look for information that the business wouldn’t usually consider?
JH: I think there’s new questions on almost a daily basis. We have a shared go to market model that has all of the main KPIs and that’s shared across all of our VPs, sales managers, and operations teams. So there’s always the visibility into how we’re doing today against our goals. And it’s taken a lot of trial and error to reach this point. It involved a lot of listening to the questions that people are asking on a consistent basis and then making sure we had an easy mechanism for them to see the information they needed without having to ask for new reports every day.
We’re now able to be more proactive because we’ve gotten to a place where we have a lot of the data in real time at our fingertips so the questions that we’re able to ask now are not what is happening, it’s why is that happening and what can we do to improve upon it now and make sure that it doesn’t happen again in the future. Those are the types of things that are coming across my plate more now. And that’s the result of a couple of years of learning what they need on a daily basis and then being able to be less reactive.
It’s a collaborative process. It starts with the operations team. We produce the first iteration on the data points that we think are really important for the business. We talk about it, present the assumptions that we used to build the models and talk some more.
RB: Great stuff. You mentioned that there are some KPIs within your go to market strategy. Are they across the whole company or do each department have different KPIs depending on their part of the go to market strategy?
JH: Yes, each department definitely has their own. We’re looking at a very high level at a few key metrics from the C level. Having some pipeline generation bookings, renewals, retention. Those are the things that we really care about and then obviously we break those down into their smaller parts and we focus on those on a day to day and weekly basis. It’s both, but definitely very specific indeed on the department by department basis.
RB: In this new role, is there a particular department that you find yourself working with more or would you say you’re quite evenly weighted between them?
JH: I definitely still spend a lot of time on the demand chain and the sales side in the growth environment. Customer acquisition is extremely important, but I’m starting to spread my wings a little bit more. Part of that is definitely a comfort level thing too. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years so that’s what I know the best. I’m trying to now move and make sure that I’m immersing myself as much as possible with our renewals teams so I’m able to, again, provide that feedback to the front end and to our onboarding team.
It’s about asking: How can our forecasting on the sales side impact their planning and how they’re allocating resources? How does our channel team operate and how can we leverage that and throw that to decrease some of the friction on the front end sales processes? In the last two or three months, I’ve been making more of a concerted effort to really dive into those areas that I don’t know as well and haven’t been as comfortable with.
RB: Awesome. Forecasting then, you mentioned you had a finance background and you highlighted it as an area that you felt was quite interesting. I guess the first thing to ask is what forecasting processes you employed and how did you arrive at that as a good method versus the various other methods that are available?
JH: We use a two-pronged approach. It started off as just using the roll up on the pipeline in the forecast category dashboard on Salesforce, keeping it very simple. Then, as we learned more about the business, it got to a point where we’re coaching the managers up on forecasting best practices. We’ve adjusted our sales processes to be a little bit more rigorous around the gates from stage to stage so that we would have confidence in our pipeline. In the last few years, we put a lot of rigor in place around pipeline hygiene and health.
We use the manager roll up and put their guidance on a management forecast level. We have that component. Then we have a forecast model that’s running alongside that as the ops finance stress test on what the VPs and managers are saying. That’s a combination of that weighted pipeline approach as well as a projection that is not yet in the pipeline but will be created over the course of the month or quarter or next quarter.
We’re summing that up in conjunction with push and pull rates and a few other data points we’ve been able to gather. We’re looking at those things side by side in the forecast. When the VPs say, “I think we’re going to do X,” we’re saying, “Hey, the model’s got you here and this is why. Let’s dig into those areas and see if we can get these as close as possible.” Usually over the course of a month and a quarter, they tend to align.
RB: You mentioned there that you’ve got the projection of deals that aren’t in the pipeline yet, but you know what it will be. Is that looking at just historical trends or looking at activity data in the pre-funnel? How does that work?
JH: It’s actually both. We knew historically what percentage of our bookings come from opportunities that were created within the quarter that we didn’t have within our pipeline on day one. We’re also looking at our current FTEs on the AE side, their capacity to generate new opportunities on a weekly basis. Again, we’re looking at the marriage of those two things and saying: These assumptions make sense for what we can create within this period and what we expect to close. Of course, we’re using the historical conversion rate on that as well.
I think that the process is important to be driven from the top for people who really care about the math and what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. The math can be great, you can be 100% accurate, but if you’re not driving the right behaviors from the top down around forecasting, it doesn’t really matter. I think that’s really where we’ve changed in the last few years.
RB: Brilliant, that’s really good. Territory is something that you’ve mentioned. Maybe you can give me an idea as to what you’ve done with territories?
JH: Absolutely. To give you a bit of context about how our team is set up, we have a commercial sales team and we have an enterprise sales team. As it stands today, our enterprise sales team are geographically based, and our commercial team are round-robin and account-based. We’ve done a lot of work over the last few years on general account scoring and understanding the propensity to buy or the propensity to be a good customer of a given account. We’ve iterated on that process again.
Probably every six months, we’re looking at how close is this to what we’re seeing in the trailing six to 12 months’ acquisition cycles. That was the foundation. There’s 10 data points or so that go into the makeup of the account score. From there, we’re saying in the commercial side we want reps to be working a couple hundred accounts at any given time, and then we have a process for backfilling and recycling that they can go through and exchange accounts.
With the enterprise team, it’s a lot more focused on the particular regions. There are less accounts to go after, but obviously bigger deals. We’re looking at where to focus their time within their region. An exercise that I’m working on right now with our team is putting together territory briefings for the enterprise reps so that they fully understand the makeup of their territory. They’ll know who their top 50 accounts are, the competitive presence and landscape, and the expected opportunity value within the territory.
That allows us to also say: If the overall value of your territory is projected in between $1 million and $2 million, you should be generating $250,000 in the pipeline each quarter or each month. Then we can hold them accountable to that and really understand what the forces at work in each territory are. How do we properly go out from a marketing standpoint, from a manual rep outreach standpoint, and how do we join those efforts. The hope is that as we do this at the enterprise level and really gain an understanding of each region, we percolate that down to our commercial segment and create a cohesive commercial to enterprise market strategy.
RB: That’s great. Is there an element of making territories fair or a territory is what it is and then people are compensated as a result? How does that system work?
JH: Our goal right now is to make it fair. That’s absolutely a conversation that we’ve gone back and forth on internally. The way we’ve gone about that is a combination of the number of accounts that are in the territory and the total account score of the territory. We look at account scores, and if, for example, there’s a total of a million points in accounts scores and we’ve got 10 reps to spread 10,000 accounts across, we try to cut those geo regions up as evenly as possible. We’re also layering on top of that the marketing engagement interactions that we have in that region, which is looking at the inbound interest each region has had. If it’s high, like the Bay Area or Southern California, that’s going to be a much smaller geographic region than say the mid-west where we don’t have as much inbound engagement. That’s going to be a broader region.
RB: Got you. I’m really interested in this account scoring because a lot of people talk about lead scoring but I haven’t heard of many people doing it by accounts, which I really like. Are you able to share some of the data points that dictate an account score?
JH: Yes, totally. We will look at vertical or, as it pertains to nonprofits, it’s something called an NTEE code which says what type of organization this is and we’ll look at our historical won accounts and what percentage makes up a particular cause sector. Then, we’ll look at average sales prices by those things as well and see if we should tweak any of the weighting based on the verticals.
We’ll look at what technology they’re currently using. We have some third-party tools that we use that can tell us if they’re using a competitor of ours. So we’ll give them a point value based on whether they’re using anyone that we know is a good potential target for us. One of the things that’s been helpful for the non-profits sector, a lot of the revenue information has to be made publicly available.
Since we target non-profit organisations, a lot of their revenue information is publicly available. We’ll take a lot of data from there and say they’re likely in this revenue range, they’d have this many employees and then they break out how they’ve spent that money in someway. So, you can say, this organization spends a lot on offline fundraising. They may not be as ready today to buy but they could still be a good fit for the future. We’ll rank them a little bit lower because they do a lot of offline or it looks like they do. Just trying to directionally guide the reps and say, “These guys probably do a lot of fundraising online.”
RB: So the reps also get visibility of why the score is what it is, so it gives them context when going into the account?
JH: Yes, absolutely. Then we’re actually asking them to rank the accounts on their end so that we can cross-reference that with the score and say, “Yes, the score makes sense based on what the reps are saying or this account score doesn’t.” We can take that information and further iterate on account score to make it better for next year.
RB: That’s really good stuff. Anything else regarding territory that you think would be good to share?
JH: I think the point you made around the reps having visibility is something we didn’t do very well to start with. We’ve been trying to be more transparent with how we’re scoring, why we’re scoring this way, why they should be spending their time on the accounts that are scored higher than others and really getting the reps involved in the process earlier rather than waiting until we have something completed and trying to present it to them. Ultimately, they are the ones who are going to market with this and getting them to invest in data capture process and understanding why it’s beneficial to them is really what’s going to drive this forward in the future.
RB: Brilliant, a slightly broader question now. Given that you’re four years in now so you’re well immersed in the world of sales ops now but you can probably still remember what it was like at the beginning, what would be your advice for someone about to tackle their first sales ops role, particularly people coming from a sales background?
JH: I think really understanding the stakeholders that you’re working with. In the sales environment, people like to interact face to face. Obviously, the tactical components are very important, being able to understand the numbers, build the models, build the dashboards. I think that goes without saying. But things like understanding how the managers or VPs or C level individuals you’re working with like to receive and interpret data. Do they like to talk through things, or do they like to get an email first?
Understanding the business objectives as well, so that you can feel empowered to say no to things at times. I think one of the pitfalls early on in sales ops is trying to do everything. You’re working with a high paced group and they want answers and more data, which is good but having an understanding of the overall business objectives and what you’re trying to head towards for that year or the next couple of years can really help service your guiding light around what to prioritise and which requests to put on the back burner.
RB: Nice, I like that a lot. Now onto a broader question. How do we measure success in sales operations? What has been your experience of that?
JH: We use the OKR system. We have OKRs as an operations team in the form of projects that are rolling up to drive the success of the organization. At the end of the day, if we’re missing our revenue and retention numbers, I don’t see that as a successful period. Our job is to drive investment of those teams. Not only hitting our overall numbers but are we getting more effective at doing it? Are we driving improvements in ASPs, are we seeing a higher percentage of reps hitting quota, higher percentage of reps over 80% quota? Those are the things that really drive or move the needle for the organization.
If we’ve got a sales team where two people hitting 200% of quota are driving us to the number, that’s not a recipe for long term success. Those are the things that we may not have a specific OKR dedicated to make X percent as your reps hit quota or help drive that but there are ancillary projects that are geared towards that ultimate goal. At the end of the day at the end of each quarter, each year, if we can help hit on those things that’s a successful sales ops team.
RB: I really like those. The ASP percentage you mentioned, did that come off the top of your head or are they actually things that you guys really focus on?
JH: Those are absolutely things that we focus on with the territory, account scoring stuff, a big part of that is how do we find the highest value accounts? We’re trying to drive the ASP there. How do we help the reps best optimize their time on a day to day basis? Am I working the right accounts that are going to help me to hit quota as quickly as possible?
One, increase in your bookings per AE and also increase the number and percentage of reps hitting quota. That’s how I think about those projects and trying- it’s not always the sexiest work on a day to day basis but the bigger picture is the value that you’re adding to the organization.
RB: Fantastic. Thank you for sharing that.