BTM Q&A: Sales Ops & Strategy: Michael Ingram

Our goal at Building the Sales Machine (BTM) is to enable sales leaders in the tech community to help and learn from each other. We’re all in this boat together, trying to help revolutionary companies disrupt the norm. To make people’s lives easier, better, more fulfilling. We’ll aim to bring some of these great teams, leaders, and strategies to life through our articles, meet-ups, speaking events and interviews.

For today’s Q & A, we’re publishing our chat with Michael Ingram, the former Director of Business Development and Partnerships at Axial.  Prior to that, Michael was the Director of Sales Operations for Axial, and the Manager of Sales Operations & Strategy for Zocdoc.

What’s the most effective short term and long term motivation techniques you’ve seen someone use?

Creating long term motivation begins with your organization’s vision – where are we going and how are we going to get there. The team needs to buy into the core purpose and direction of the organization. Use that broad vision to then frame how individual motivations are tied in. Team members may be motivated by recognition, management opportunity, learning new skills, or by compensation. Help your team understand how their own individual goals tie to the vision of the organization. And create a system that allows for dynamic individual incentives along the way. Don’t simply assume that every sales person is coin operated and that cash will always make up for a lack of other opportunities. I’ve seen too many instances where sales leaders lose some of their best rising stars by assuming additional compensation is a sufficient reward. The modern salesforce is driven by a much more diverse set of motivations.

There are a couple of really useful short term tools I’ve seen for motivating sales and success teams. The first is a well-designed competition system with a variety of metrics, timeframes, winner types (individual vs. team, multiple winners vs. winner take all, etc.), and incentives (cash, dinner, tickets to an event, etc.). These competitions present a good opportunity to incentivize short and medium term inputs – use these to drive top of the funnel behaviors that are not directly tied to variable compensation. And over index on competitions where everyone feels like they have an opportunity to win for as long as possible (team based competitions are particularly useful here) – these move the needle much more than a competition where only a small fraction of the team has a chance to win halfway through.

A second short term motivator I’ve found useful is an adoption and input CRM dashboard, sometimes referred to as a “Dashboard of Shame”. This is a dashboard that highlights key input metrics that, again, aren’t tied directly to variable compensation – did you make the minimum number of dials expected, did you follow up with your MQLs in a timely manner, did you even log into the CRM system today? Measure and create transparency around key inputs and you’ll find the team more consistently hits these expectations with less management effort needed. For growth stage companies, I also recommend including the CEO on the dashboard and have her occasionally chime in to ask why someone’s “leading” in a particular category. That’s a pretty powerful motivator.

How should sales and marketing interact in early stage companies?

Successful sales and marketing alignment is about mutual understanding, shared goals, and ongoing feedback. Ultimately, both sides must be working together towards the same outcomes. This alignment has to work back from the customer. What’s resonating and what isn’t on both the sales and marketing sides? How should we adjust our messaging to better communicate our value proposition? Both teams should be consistently developing and sharing qualitative and quantitative insights to help improve our understanding of the customer and improve our approach to delivering a compelling message to more qualified prospects.

The shared goals should include clear definitions and targets that both sides have agreed to for marketing qualified leads (MQLs), sales accepted leads (SALs), and opportunities. There should be as little ambiguity here as possible. Marketing and sales leaders should be fully aligned on the MQL targets by source. Marketing should set a clear cadence for content and a plan for spend by channel. Sales should commit to an internal service level agreement to follow up with every MQL within a set period of time and using a defined process (see: quickly and persistently). And the teams should have benchmarks for the conversion of MQLs to SALs to opportunities and to revenue. If your conversion rates drop, was it due to lead quality, sales follow-up, or sales execution? Regardless of the answer, it’s not about blame but about cooperation towards a shared outcome.

To that end, we should monitor these key input, conversion, and output metrics on a regular basis via a joint sales and marketing dashboard, and we should hold recurring meetings to review them as a team. Did marketing spend by channel according to plan? Did sales respect the SLA they committed to? Did our content convert to MQLs as expected? Ultimately, did we hit or miss expected revenue targets from MQLs, and what should both sides do differently next quarter to improve?

What role should sales operations play and what characteristics should you look for in your sales ops leader?

I think of sales operations as the revenue engineering team. The head of sales sets the vision for what you want to build. Sales operations takes that vision and crafts it into a tactical plan. They own the systems, processes, tools, and analytics that will ultimately determine whether or not you build a highly productive, scalable revenue machine. It’s a critical function and one more and more leaders are recognizing they need sooner. Bringing in experienced sales operations leadership early on allows you to build a solid foundation on which you can scale and centralizes ownership for the management and improvement of your systems and processes as the business grows. Organizations that wait too long may find that they have more holes in the revenue funnel than they can repair. And that lost revenue often far outstrips the initial investment that could have been made in a foundation of operational excellence.

I recommend targeting a few specific traits in your sales ops leader:

  • Analytical expertise – Your sales strategy should be built on a foundation of analytics. You need someone who can take data and turn it into insights and recommendations quickly with a high degree of accuracy.
  • Experience in a startup at your stage – Pattern recognition allows you to move more quickly. The right sales ops leader has seen what works and what doesn’t in an organization like yours and is comfortable with the speed of change needed for your stage of growth.
  • EQ – It’s imperative that sales ops teams understand the psychology of a sales person. You aren’t calibrating and tweaking a machine – you’re trying to change the behaviors of people. That kind of change must be actively managed with a high degree of empathy.
  • Ability to prioritize – The sales ops team inevitably becomes inundated with requests for a wide variety of projects, analyses, and tasks. A great sales ops team has a fundamental understanding of the business and uses that to wade through the endless list of to-dos and focus on what’s most important.

How do you strike the balance between analysis paralysis (trying to measure too much), and flying blind (not measuring anything)?

Leaders that want to scale in a repeatable, predictable way recognize that sales and customer success must be treated as a science. We have to observe, experiment, and measure. So we should constantly be building a system that allows us to track and analyze key inputs and outputs. At the same time, we have to appreciate that we’ll never be able to quantify everything, and we ultimately have to make tradeoffs around the time and resources it takes to gather information and the potential impact of the decisions we will make with that information.

Given the dynamic nature of startups and that resources are always limited, I like to approach most decisions by first applying the Pareto Principle. What’s the 20% analysis we can do to give us 80% of the answer? And then we have to ask ourselves if 80% is good enough. A few important considerations to determine if we need to go beyond 80%:

  • How great of an effect will this decision have on the business?
  • How different are the potential outcomes resulting from the analysis?
  • How quickly do we need to make a decision?
  • How much time would it take us to get a “better” answer?
  • Is the incremental effort spent on the analysis the best use of current resources?

And ideally any decision is based on the combination of several types of information:

  1. Quantitative – You need a system that allows you to measure and analyze the right information to inform your decision. Do you have the data? How long will it take you to capture it, if not? Will the sample size be large enough to draw meaningful conclusions?
  2. Qualitative – Can you get any qualitative insights from your customers or your team that will help inform the decision? Early on you’ll likely have to over-index on qualitative feedback, and layer in quantitative methods as the team and your customer base grow.
  3. External benchmarking – You’re probably not the first company to face a similar decision. What trusted resources (advisors, VC firms, peers, etc.) can you access to gain insight from the experiences of others?

Best tip for sales teams that are scaling?

Once you’ve got product market fit and you’ve attained initial traction, you should have a good understanding of your ideal customer profile, the value your solution provides to those customers, and some perspective on what does and doesn’t work in your sales process. But if you’re like most companies at this stage, you’ve probably only documented a small portion of this information. That’s why I always recommend building out a sales playbook as soon as you begin to scale. This is a central repository for best practices, marketing collateral, common objection responses, CRM process summaries, training materials, etc. that reflects your most up-to-date understanding of your customers and the internal systems and processes that enable you to sell to them effectively.

There is a lot of content that should live in a fully developed sales playbook (here’s a good outline if you need one: http://www.insightsquared.com/2014/07/the-10-chapters-your-sales-playbook-must-have/), and most teams will start this process with quite a few gaps. But this is a good mechanism to force you to think exhaustively through the key components of your sales process, assess what’s working and what isn’t, and to layer in best practices where there are opportunities to improve. Putting in this effort upfront will pay dividends when every new and existing team member has a singular reference point for what good looks like within your sales system. And while it’s important to put these stakes in the ground today, you do so with the knowledge that they will move as you learn and your process develops, which is why ownership and maintenance are so important. Make sure someone has personal responsibility for keeping your playbook current on a regular basis and hold them accountable for that.


michael ingram photoMichael is currently an advisor to early stage companies looking to scale their sales and success operations.  He has been building sales and customer success teams for the past 8 years.  Most recently he ran sales operations and business development at Axial and previously led sales operations for the enterprise team at Zocdoc.  You can find Michael on Linkedin here.

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