This interview was truly a fountain of gems. Lauren Colburn did not have the most cliché introduction to the Sales Ops community, having been offered her first job by a parent she once nannied for. However, Lauren’s exceptional ability to overcome adversities and maximise the potential of her sales teams has made her story quite inspiring – and serves as a great testimony to why she belongs where she is today. I caught up with Lauren to learn about how to develop an effective and coherent onboarding process, and was fortunate to gain some excellent tips along the way. After finding out how Lauren found herself at 98point6, the interview began…
Rory Brown (RB): Could you tell me a little bit about who Lauren Colburn is, your career, and how you got into sales ops?
Lauren Colburn (LC): When I was in college, I worked as a nanny for a family. The father was the VP of Sales for a software company for a large ships. When I was graduating, I needed to find a job elsewhere, and he offered me one at his company. It set me up on a journey that formed the basis of my entire career. I began working for him and stayed for about a year, doing things such as office management, PR, marketing support, and sales ops support. But my journey into sales ops really took off when I was at Clearwire – which was one of the first wireless internet companies. I was among some of the very first employees, and there was no sales operations team. As they began to scale, I founded sales operations and grew it alongside the company. It was exciting to have witnessed something grow and change. It was a consumer-based product though, so the sales operations are very different to what I’m doing today – which is more B2B.
My next role was interesting. I went to work for an insurance company called Premera Blue Cross. They had originally asked me to join their consulting team focused on restructuring their sales and sales operations teams. However, when I got there, the project shifted and they asked that I own the enterprise project management office. It seemed daunting at first, but it was a great experience, and I learned a lot in those two+ years. Much of that helped me move on to F5, where I was for 2 and half years. It was interesting because I began with a sales ops support team of 13, and by the end I had a team of 51. We moved from a team of 13 to 30 in a 6-week period, which was exciting.
RB: Wow, amazing. And that brings you to your current gig?
LC: Yes. It is an interesting story because I would say this role is a combination of all three. It involves going back to my Clearwire ways of starting small and from scratch, it relates to my Premera experience of being in healthcare and understanding how it works, and it has even involved a period of rapid growth, similar to what my team went through with F5. I suppose you could say it is like the ‘perfect marriage’ coming into 98point6, where I was the first and only Sales Ops person hired.
RB: At F5 you did a lot of onboarding. Was that for salespeople or people in your own team?
LC: That was for my own team. As I mentioned, we were growing from 13-30 which would typically take about 6 months to onboard something – but we had to shorten it to 6 weeks. It was very hectic, and we went through a pretty intense overhaul of that entire system.
RB: It was shortened from 6 months to 6 weeks! Where does one start with that?
LC: We decided to document as many processes as we could think of, and we hired a consultant to come in and do that for us. Until then, training was all word of mouth, which meant it was slow and given the huge range of processes that we had to support, it would have been totally implausible in this scenario. All of this institutional knowledge would be much better off being captured and documented. We then essentially created a content library of resources that was easy to navigate, and we categorised it based on whether the process was technology driven, finance driven, or product driven.
We also decided that groups of people should start at the same time, so we stacked our start dates and had a set group of people who we would run through a 2-week boot camp. It was organised to be based on the sales cycle, with certain days associated with each individual step of the sales cycle. Over the course of these two weeks, we had various guest speakers from within our organisation (such as senior leaders and executives) come in and help educate them about who our customer is, and what our sales team do daily. Part of the second week was being able to present to the team what they had learned. By the end of the process, we paired them up with previous members of the team, who would be their mentors.
RB: That sounds fantastic. And what was the purpose of giving them a mentor? Did it make any visible difference?
LC: By giving them mentors, we upgraded the role of our existing members to ‘sales ops specialists’. This was beneficial for two reasons. Firstly, it would give the new recruits something to aim for. Most millennials that join the working world are looking for more money and more promotions – and by introducing different levels to their role with clear requirements for their mobility, they would have something to aim for and be more likely to stay on with us. We are obviously interested in retaining them for as long as possible, having taught them over 600 different processes. We also allowed them to take on different side projects and develop other skills, and our hope was that they would start looking within the company for where they might want to go next. Not everyone would want to be a ‘sales ops specialist’ for life of course, and that meant that I could promote people from my team across the organisation. These new team members would already have a great understanding of the company and the product, so it made sense for them to be a great source of recruits.
Secondly, after their initial training, the new trainees would become the new mentors for incoming recruits. As a result, they would go through the process again and pick up more new things the second time around. They also had the opportunity to get to know our senior leaders better and fill in any gaps in their knowledge. It was a great bonding experience, and it allowed the team to remain very consistent in their messaging. By having them come back to teach it, it also allowed us to see that they were fully trained, and how they had evolved. We would eventually test them on their knowledge, so I suppose it was more of a certification process than a training programme.
RB: Brilliant, you are really killing two birds with one stone there, it is a nice idea. I also like the sound of a certification process. Where did the idea to do that come from? Also, what sort of value did it add to the process?
LC: We had a lot of debate on whether it would be a true certification. It came up because my manager at the time had been in pharmaceutical sales earlier on in his career. He mentioned the fact that when he started out, you would be given the necessary materials, trained, and tested. If you failed the test, you would be fired on the spot – so it was very sink or swim. Part of him wanted it to be strict and make it a full certification that should you fail, you would have to discontinue your position. I don’t think the company was ready for that, and from a HR position it didn’t fit within the team or the culture. However, what I like about the test was that it helped us to improve our process. Based on how people were doing, we could see where we needed to improve our training, and maybe readdress how we teach it altogether. We didn’t just use the test scores to look at individuals, but also to evaluate our approach to them. To be able to give the team the right knowledge and the ability to look at the resource guides for help was fundamentally important, as it is no secret that the product itself is very complex and it continues to change.
RB: Great. It is almost like when you collect data through a sales funnel, and you look at where you need to improve things. I suppose your test was like your data capture for your onboarding process.
Moving onto your current role, can you reflect on how you approached being the first sales ops hire in the business?
LC: Interestingly, I feel very lucky to have started at 98point6 when I did. The sales team may have the best intentions, but they are not operations driven people, so things can get messy. This often leads operations people to have to clean everything up and start off on the wrong foot. I was fortunate to begin before we had a single client. That gave me the opportunity to completely redo Salesforce so it would monitor the pipeline, our clients, and the all data that we need to be tracking. I am obsessed with keeping Salesforce as simple as possible, and as we all know, it is very easy to over complicate it with way too many fields. For 98point6, that was one of the most critical things that I wanted to ensure – that we had set up Salesforce the right way from the very beginning, and that we only had data that would be used in a report. I got rid of any unnecessary fields so that it would be easy for the sales team to utilise it.
RB: What do you think the argument is for bringing in sales operations before the sales team have started selling? Why do you think that is so important?
LC: I think that it allows us to be more efficient and effective from day one. Being an operationally minded person, the next thing I did was find out where people on the team were struggling, which was in the proposal stage of the sales cycle. My next step was to work with the finance team and the legal team to try to simplify that process. It was taking them way too long to get a contract through, which was partly why they hadn’t had one signed yet. We investigated things like what it was requiring and even how many pages it was – and it was too much for certain clients, especially given that we were just a startup.
By having someone that could address that from day one, we were able to move more groups through the contracting process and do it far more efficiently and effectively. That allowed me to realise that having an operations person, especially one that is seasoned, truly helps the sales team to be more effective from day one. Instead of everyone doing their own thing, having their own proposal template, and their own approach to gathering data, a uniform and standardised method makes the team far more successful.
RB: If we dig into your current onboarding, where do you start with your onboarding plan? What sort of things are key to think about?
LC: For us, being a startup, it was important to think about each individual department and what was most critical for the team to understand and be aware of. Our product is a software, but it is also primary care, it is a physician. It is thus important to have a deep understanding of our tech and our clinic. In response to this, I essentially delved into what are the most critical things to understand about the company, and what are the most frequently asked questions that we get from clients. This would be great information to provide our team when we are training so that they can answer these questions properly, even with little prior experience. I started at the top with each department. For the product team, I had our chief product officer come in and talk about their road map, structure, and so forth.
We also had product managers show us behind the scenes of the product, and then some existing team members share their most frequently asked questions, such as the product roadmap and the next language that would be available. From there, the marketing team built a 32-page document from all that information. It sounds insane, but it gives you the ability to search and find any required information, so you can literally copy and paste it into client emails. It really saves them a lot of time and gives them a marketing-approved answer instead of having to write their own. They can self-serve in a way that always puts the brand in the best possible light.
RB: What about things like the handover with account management, finance, and legal for contracts. What did you do there?
LC: Essentially the same thing. From a legal perspective, it was important for the General Counsel to come in and speak with the team about the huge regulatory landscape that we deal with as a healthcare organisation. This meant the importance of using the right language and ensuring that we provide information to our clients. That was a huge element for us, so we did it in a few different ways. We started with a few basic overviews and walked through the contract with the sales team, and we have done a lot of ongoing training about which part of the contract is the most redlined, because those are where they get the most questions. We also provided lists of legal questions that they are likely to be asked.
There was even a legal alias response team set up just for the sales team so that they can send any questions they haven’t seen before, or any red lines on the contract, and that way we can have ongoing support and the fastest possible answers. Instead of it being bottlenecked when they run into a problem, we have the chance to get the fastest possible answer to the clients. This has proved to be super successful for us, and it highlights the advantages of using a team approach.
RB: Brilliant. Are there any other key things to think about to do with onboarding?
LC: One of the most important things we did was to give our team early exposure to our values, our brand and our CEO. Part of the initial onboarding that our team goes through is a brand overview from our marketing team. We dive deeply into what the brand means to us, and we communicate the reason behind the voice, the persona, and even the colour choices to help them understand why we approached it in such a deliberate manner so as to give them a better understanding of the company. We have our CEO lead a conversation about ‘values’ with the team, because like most startups it is a big component of what we do here. Our values at 98point6 are not just something that put on the wall, they are something that we live and incorporate into all that we do. Our CEO has created a challenge whereby every single day, you should either say or write down one of the values in one of the communications that you are having. That is a very different approach to what I have seen at other companies.
It is especially challenging to give our remote team members a sense of culture when they are not in the office every day. Therefore, a critical part of our onboarding was to help them truly experience our ethos in their opening two weeks and make them feel like they are a true member of the team, instead of just someone sitting in Atlanta or Philadelphia not knowing exactly what they’re involved with. The ability to spend some time with their CEO really gave them that sense of connection or ownership of what they do. When you see a founder’s mission and their passion, you take some of that on board, which I think is particularly fantastic for those remote folks.
RB: I agree. The branding, the ‘why’, it all adds to a story doesn’t it?
I’d like to thank you very much for all the valuable information you’ve given me here. It will be of fantastic use to our readers.