Interview with Alex Brielmann, Sales Operations Manager at Conga

15 min read

Alex Brielmann’s career in Sales Operations has given him a plethora of knowledge and experience leading him to his current role at Conga. I was particularly excited to virtually catch up with him and learn about what he has learnt in the wondrous world of sales ops.

Rory Brown (RB): Alex, thank you so much for joining me today. To start with, I’d love to get an overview of, how you made your way into sales. You’ve only been doing it for a number of years now, but how did it all came about in the first place?

Alex Brielmann (AB): Sure. I’ll give you a real quick general background as I’ve probably been on a similar path as a lot of operations people. I went to school for a bunch of different things. I started as a chemical engineer, eventually got into business and marketing, and sales was my final major. I hopped around looking for what I liked; I worked at Fidelity Investments as a financial advisor, I tried selling insurance for a little bit. None of that really worked out. But I knew I really liked working with numbers.

Then I actually moved to New York without a job, which was probably a reckless choice. But I knew I wanted to get into some type of operations, so help planning or help strategy, that type of role. That’s what I really enjoyed the most. I got a job at a little small company here that nobody’s ever heard of but they were a republishing firm. So they sell content from magazines and newspapers to clients that want to use it for their advertising. If Kluster wanted to say, “We are a top hundred company to work for because Fortune magazine said we were,” my company resold that. I got my start in operations there.

I came on board and worked with a CRM system called Act!, You remember it?

Interviewer: Yes. With the exclamation mark?

Alex: That is correct.

Interviewer: Yes, I remember it.

Alex: I haven’t heard of it in quite some time and that’s the only time I ever used it.  They had two sales managers and one was going to be out for about six months, so they just needed help in generally putting together sales docs, putting together some marketing content, working in the CRM, and just being a generally useful person.

I didn’t have a hyper-specific focus of “I want to do sales” or “I want to do marketing”. I wanted to be a global  blob of everything within the company. That’s where I got my start. I learnt a lot of sell skills under the manager there, which was super helpful in my operations journey. Then, right before I left that company, they were moving from Act! to Salesforce, and that’s where I really dipped my toes into Salesforce. I helped with the implementation, learned about the whole rollout process, all the planning, all the operations behind it that you need.

I was there for about two and a half years and then I went to a much bigger company called AppNexus. This was a global reach, multibillion-dollar valuation, kind of thing. I joined their team as a revenue operations specialist. That’s where I did a lot of front end work. I worked with Salesforce, I worked with sales teams to plan out sales, made sure we could handle everything on our team. It was really cool there. We got to do a lot of side projects.

I did a couple of special projects seeing where deals actually fall through in the sales cycle. I was actually being able to influence changes. We had random stages in the sales process in Salesforce and cut it down from 11 to 7. I still think seven is high!

When I started there, it was a much smaller, 150 people, just US-based ad tech company. They had a sales operations team of one. Again, they just needed help in everything. When I started, my boss gave me a few, “Here’s a test. I want to see if you can use Salesforce and generate some reports for us.” I was good, so she said “Alright, you’re the Salesforce guy from now on. That’s your role.” Then I took the training course, got certified, and I worked heavily in developing Salesforce and getting everything set up.

I also, again, got to do special projects. One of the things I got to do was, I just did it on my own, a little projection plan for the upcoming year. I think it was in 2015 we made 42 million, and then in 2016, I was helping plan. I was like, “I think we’re going to come in at about, I would say, 45 million.” I did a little bit of a detailed analysis and I didn’t really see any reason for growth other than just hopefulness. Our company, the finance team, our CFO came up with a projection of between 70 and 80 million. They actually ended up at about 39 million.

But they had spent as if they were going to make 70 to 80 million, went through massive layoffs. I made it through the layoffs as the only person on the operations team left. I think it goes to show the power of operations and projection work, and being very meticulous with your data, and being data-driven rather than heart-driven.

That is how I really got started. Then the next two jobs I worked at were similar roles of Salesforce developer and helping on the side with the finance team, projections, data analysis, all that stuff.

RB: Nice, I love the detail! And what are some of the projects you’ve been working on recently?

AB:  I think the best one, the biggest thing that I’ve been working on lately, is getting actualised revenue into our Salesforce, into our database. The way that our business works is our sellers go out and pitch and sell our product, and then we, in turn, get an ad campaign. If Oreos wants to run a SuperBowl ad campaign, they would say, “We want to run on your platform for the month of February. Our budget is $100,000. Go to town.” The way that our Salesforce was set up before I started was we would track that $100,000 win and then nobody really knew what happened after. Nobody really knew if we under-delivered, over-delivered, if the deal was cancelled, if anything happened.

We didn’t know if there were multiple month-long campaigns. We didn’t know the pacing of it, we didn’t know if we didn’t deliver everything until the last month or if we had over-delivered immediately, so there was no tracking. We aren’t a SaaS company, so it’s not like you get an upfront payment or monthly payments or whatever it is. We get paid whatever we run when we run it, and if we don’t or somebody cancels, then we’re just out of luck.

When I started, there was a bunch of other things, but that was the big thing that I realised needed to happen. My first week– my first day, actually, I came in early and my boss said, “Hey, what was our close rate last year? How much did we run?” I was like, “Oh, I have 49 million.” He said, “Well, our finance team has 45 million.” Comparatively, I guess, it’s not a huge discrepancy, but $4 million is kind of a big deal.

RB: Yes, it definitely is that.

AB: I worked alongside some Salesforce development partners that I worked with for years. We put together some automation that basically when a seller wins a deal, based on what the products are and what their start and end dates are, it automatically flights out a campaign depending on if it’s supposed to be evenly spread. So sometimes, you can have a campaign that’s $30,000 over three months and they just want 10,000, 10,000, 10,000. Sometimes they’ll do 20,000 in the first month and 5,000 in the second and 5,000 in the third.

So depending on if we want to do even pacing or not, the automation builds out the monthly schedules, and there are three different revenue fields that we capture now. There’s our planned revenue, which is whatever we assume and want the spend to be, then there’s delivered revenue, which is our actual internal system and I pump those numbers in from our internal system every month. Then there’s invoiceable revenue, which comes from our finance team, and sometimes there’s a discrepancy between what we have in our system versus what a third-party tracking tool has. We want to see that difference.

It’s been massively helpful to be able to actually be able to pull a quick report. All of our dashboards were just a bit of a joke, to be honest. Nobody used them because they didn’t trust any data. Now we have goals in Salesforce, we have a revenue attribution dashboard for everybody so they can actually see, real-time, when deals come in and when we pump in the delivery numbers and invoicing numbers, what their percent to goal is. Because a lot of times they thought they were over 100% to goal when in actuality we were still showing, for example, one seller sold a $500,000 deal, was psyched, and they actually canceled right away before running a thing, which is an incredible bummer. In our old Salesforce, she would have showed as still having won that $500,000.

RB: Got you.

AB: Now we actually have real numbers. People actually use Salesforce now. It’s one of those things that I think our roles typically are not the most gratifying. It’s usually I’m viewed as a necessary evil rather than a helpful asset. So I think this has been, for us, it’s been pretty revolutionary in being able to track pacing. A big thing for our company is, are we behind schedule? Are we ahead of schedule? What did we deliver this month versus last month? How can we compare last year to this year what we’ve delivered?

I think that’s been the big project that I’ve done is mostly it’s just getting real numbers into Salesforce, but also putting a lot of automation behind it so that sellers and account managers don’t have to go in and; well, they were all living in spreadsheets showing the managers, “Oh, this is what I actually billed. I don’t know why Salesforce is wrong.” Getting that cohesion and having this be an actual source of truth rather than just some random thing that annoys you, I think has been my biggest win thus far.

RB: Nice. You explained quite nicely what life was like before. How did you set about thinking about what’s the solution going to be or how am I going to find out what the best result is going to be? Did you involve other stakeholders? Was it a personal project? Talk me through that a little bit.

AB: I am essentially a solo team of one. I think every company has a different path that they need to take to get to where they need to go. I sat down with our head of finance in the US. I sat down with our VP of customer success. She handles both pre and post-sales, everything but sales, basically. I sat down with her. I sat down with even the people who were doing the grunt work, so account managers, just to see what their daily life is outside of Salesforce, how we can bring that in.

My Salesforce certification level is the lowest that there is, just the general certified admin. I’ve found partnering up with a good partner team. I’ve used them at my last three companies. I partnered up with them to talk about the automation, what we want to build out, everything that we need to see. Then my direct boss, the CRO here, he always has the big picture idea, and then I have the minutiae that we need to actually go and put into building this process out. He basically says, “We need to see pacing for our campaigns. We also need to see what everybody’s actual percent to goal is. I know those numbers aren’t real so figure out what you need to do to get there.”

Once I was given that task, it’s me with every solution there is for Salesforce combining with the partner team. Getting the input from each team head, and then a couple of the actual workers, I guess you would call them, to see what their day-to-day really is because management can sometimes be a bit removed. I sat with everybody I possibly could and probably annoyed everybody to a maximum degree, but we got to where we needed to be after a few months.

RB: Nice. Talk me through the rollout as well. Obviously, you’re creating something new and it sounds like far more valuable. But, the car will still be pushed back with the salespeople concern. How did you manage that process and any challenges there?

AB: It was a big role. It’s not my first global company I’ve worked at but this is the first time I’ve really worked globally in building something out. The big challenge, especially for us was France has a different invoicing method than the UK, which is different than the US. I have a counterpart who basically handles all requests and rollouts in EMEA. We sat down together and figured out what all the challenges and differences were in that regard.

Then for the rollout; I never fake it and say, “This is going to be the most riveting thing.” Salesforce isn’t super entertaining. We put together and worked on a document that showed literally screenshots step by step, this is how you do it. Then I did video calls with every office and every team type. So there’s a different process for the sellers, there’s a different process for the account managers, there’s a different process for the finance team. We did either video chats or the finance team is all in New York, so I was able to just sit with them. I did a lot of demoing, I just created a bunch of fake accounts and fake deals that we would have a scenario and we would create and walk them through it all.

Then I actually had everybody go through and put together a fake deal. I would sit down with sellers as a team or individual sellers for the ones that are a little bit more needy and had them actually go through the process. I think the best learning type, I still get questions now because nobody will ever fully grasp until they do every scenario. I sat down with people and had them put it in and actually do the work out. I find that practice and using it in application is much better than in theory. You can only learn so much from a textbook and from a user guide.

We had, basically, training where I did a lot of demos, followed by passing out of the user guide, followed by each seller or team going through and doing a little practice themselves.

RB: Nice. I like that a lot. Did you get any feedback initially that then you tweaked things or was it as it was?

AB: Yes, we’ve tweaked a few things. You think you’ve thought of everything, but you never really do. Our process, it’s become super granular, so it can feel tedious. We definitely took a few thoughts, especially from the account management team; so they’re the ones uploading the invoice numbers because they get the numbers from finance and then go back and forth. We took a few ideas from them. We now do, instead of them going into each individual record and updating at the end of the month with their invoice numbers, we just have a mass CSV file that we download. They punch in numbers, and then I do an upload. That’s a little bit of a quicker process.

Then the other; the sellers, they’re never too engaged, but I remember they had a few quick thoughts while on the demos that I was running. We took those into consideration and made a few changes. People will ask, “When you go home from work, do you turn your brain off from updating and optimizing?” No, Salesforce can always be made better. It’s never a set-in-stone process.

RB: The other thing I’m interested in is with all projects is it the notion of success. You’ve already talked a little bit about the fact that it’s been valuable, but if we take success before you even embarked on the solution, did you have in your mind, “This is what I want the world to look like”? Or did you from other stakeholders, “We would deem this a success.” You have something to work towards, or was it something that you were just counting on would fall into place?

AB: Yes. Listen, to be honest, when I started the user adoption level was incredibly low. And within Salesforce, people lived in Chatter rather than using it as a tool to help them have predictive analytics or just streamline their daily work. I think for me, the first initial thing was to have our data be relevant. Even when I would pull reports for my boss, I would say, “This is directionally accurate, but I don’t totally trust what’s happening because we don’t know if people are using this correctly.”

I would say the big thing is getting true data into Salesforce, and having those actualised figures was a huge component. Having my CRO be able to trust our reports, and for me being able to send them and trust that they are correct is a huge win. And the sellers and account managers weren’t using their dashboards at all. Whatever was created for them, before I started, it wasn’t helpful. We now have a user login report. People weren’t logging in; people didn’t even care. They weren’t using Salesforce. We have a user login dashboard. Everybody’s logging in, basically every day. Dashboards are actually refreshed when I go in to see if they’ve been refreshed. There are always people who just can never get to care about a dashboard, but for the most part, dashboards are being refreshed daily, people actually reach out and say, “Hey, my numbers don’t look right here. What’s going on?” So really, user adoption for me, and making Salesforce a helpful tool, as vague and general that is, was really my success for this project. 

Now that we have those things, now we can get into the nitty-gritty and hopefully build out some API sync so that we don’t have to do these manual uploads and downloads, all that kind of stuff. For this higher-level project, it’s just been make Salesforce usable and trustworthy.

RB: You saw a direct correlation when the information you put in was trustworthy or reliable or useful for people, and then you obviously, you went through this process of rolling the system out as well? That the uptake was quite noticeable?

AB: Yes. The backstory of our Salesforce; when Ogury purchased it it was bought and initially rolled out in the UK and the people who rolled it out were a kid fresh out of university and a seller. Not to their discredit, but they were tasked with a project that normally requires multiple skilled, experienced Salesforce admins. They rolled out a system that was able to collect some sales information, but it was not a capturing everything we needed and it lacked automation. People, again, use it basically as talking tool. They used Chatter, they didn’t upload files. They just pumped into Chatter. They didn’t use Salesforce in any helpful type of way. They just knew that managers told them to use it.

So any dashboard that was built out had false data, nobody even cared to refresh anything because they knew it was wrong rather than like, “Oh, this doesn’t look right, but I know you can fix it.” Now, we have percent to goal gages. We have the gap between your target for this quarter and what you’ve actually hit. A lot of upcoming close deals, what you’re pacing towards goal, all these types of things that seem like they should be standard, they weren’t there. So getting those out there and just again, making it useful.

To them, they viewed it as ”we’re basically doing double work because this isn’t helping us, all our reports stink, why would I want to enter anything, it makes no sense”. The big thing for them is the dashboard. They can actually see their percent to goal and see their gaps, they can estimate what their commissions are going to be. Finding out what incentivises them, and building out something to help them see that I think was just a huge win for them.

RB: Yes. For the sake of anyone reading this, could you just open up what you mean by pacing?

AB: Yes, sure. For our campaigns again, say a deal was four months long, we sold a back to school campaign for Target or something, they wanted to have it be four months for a $100,000. Then they wanted to spend $25,000 each month.

RB: Got you. 

AB: We want to be that good, but sometimes we’re not. We want to see, and again, the future iteration of this is daily figures getting pumped in with an API sync, but at the end of the first month, did we run 25,000, did we run 10,000. What do we need to do? That affects all teams. We have sellers who can see after they start the campaign, is it really working, our account managers who deal with the clients day-to-day, they can report to the client. Then the people who actually run the business, we call them business intelligence team, they’re the ones running the campaigns, they get to basically make sure like, “I’m way behind on this campaign.” Or, “Oh, I’ve run too much this month, I need to slow our pacing down.” They actually get to see how the campaigns are run. Then I guess you can also just say pacing is also what the sellers need to see what their percent to goal is. So they all start getting one they can see how close they’re actually getting to completing their quarterly goals.

RB: Nice. That’s really good, thanks for sharing that, Alex. Taking the conversation a little bit broader and staying on the remit of success, in your experience, what does success look like for our sales or revenue operations team or individual? I guess you’re both.

AB: For me, I’m assuming pretty much everything is always going to be sales-related. It’s having a cohesive flow from the pre-sales process all the way through to whenever you’re done with the client and ensuring everybody knows their place. Again, when I started, everybody was very disjointed. Nobody knew when their job ended and when somebody else’s began. Being able to have, in a well-documented way, the whole flow of a sale from start to finish, is a big victory for us.

When we started, everybody just got trained… I don’t even know a better term other than everybody just got trained willy-nilly. Like somebody would tell him how to do one thing, another person might have a different process. I think a big thing is just having structure. Building out these user guides also has been just a huge win for our team. When we had new hires and right when they started, I did not feel confident that they would know how to do what they needed to do because I didn’t even really know. Nobody knew because everybody seemed so siloed. Having a pretty open level of transparency as to what each team is responsible for and then what the new hire is responsible for, I think that’s a huge win as well for process. 

Now that we have used user guides, when somebody comes in, we go through what they need to do. This is your step-by-step, day-to-day job. There’s going to be some other responsibilities that come up, but we feel confident that people can actually come in on the fly and be successful immediately rather than somebody might come in and have no idea what they’re doing just because they weren’t trained and don’t know what’s going on.

I think just having a lot more structure in place, a lot more just knowledge of what each team has to do, I think is a huge win for operations as a whole. Especially for startups, most people are just whatever they want to do, they do, and you hope that you make money. But we’ve grown; we’re making great money, so now we need to solidify that process so that we can make it repeatable. I think that’s the big focus and the big win, I think, for my team.

RB: Nice. Good. The second point to that question is, do you feel that there’s a demand from the way the business or people you’re reporting to or senior business leaders to say, “Hey, show me the success you’re having or the impact you’re having or how you’re moving the needle on revenue or pipeline”? What’s your experience of that?

AB: That’s a good question. My experience, I hope it’s different than others. Again, I’ll say I believe I’m viewed much more as a necessary evil than a fun revenue-generating cog in the machine. From my standpoint, I’ve actually been given a ton of freedom because I guess my track record looks pretty good and people generally trust me. l I have a CRO who comes from a completely sales background. My last job didn’t have any operations team. I was the only one, and then the job before that I actually did have a COO, a VP of operations, and then me.

That was the one that we had the most like, “How many requests in Salesforce did you handle? How many side projects did you do? Is our revenue growing? Is our lead to deal time closing?” When you actually have the upper management that actually cares about operations, I have had those strict measurements. My last two jobs, to be totally frank, they don’t really know or I think care too much about my methods of success. It’s much more like, “We know we need your help, please come help.” Then, “We trust that whatever you’re doing is helpful.”

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