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Sales Leaders Must Measure What Matters

The podcast version of this interview is available on Barbara Giamanco’s podcast The Razor’s Edge. Barbara Giamanco, an internationally recognized author and Top 25 Influential Leader, interviews Rob Käll, CEO of Cien on the impact artificial intelligence is having on the sales process.

Barbara Giamanco: Rob Käll is a serial entrepreneur, who has built a reputation for his data-driven approaches to sales productivity. His latest startup, Cien, is a new artificial intelligence app focused on helping teams increase their sales productivity by answering their most difficult questions.

I am excited to talk to you because AI is all the rage and Cien has a very different spin on it.

You definitely have a different spin on how AI can help sales. Some of the things that you advocate are getting sales leaders to measure what matters hat they must measure are things like sales numbers and budget, how do I plan for those for next year, why do my teams make or miss their sales target.    

What about applying AI to leads and opportunities? Which ones should my reps be focused on? What items in the playbook really have the most impact on sales? I have talked to other AI companies where their software is about scheduling. This seems to be a lot more about measuring the metrics that leaders care about.

Are sales leaders are actually measuring what matters in sales today?

Rob Käll: I think the sales leaders sometimes suffer from the problem of not seeing the forest for all the trees. By that I mean people look at a hundred metrics in their CRM dashboard and they have all gone up and down in various ways. But what does it all mean? And what is it that you need to do to significantly move the needle of productivity? And I had the same problem myself and that’s why we started working on Cien.

Barbara Giamanco: What is interesting about your comment there Rob is I am also a believer that often sales leaders are focusing on things that I think are pretty low level. I think leaders use a lot of time focused on number of calls made, number of emails sent yet the quality isn’t there. And then I often wonder if they are focusing enough attention on the things that really drive those measurable outcomes. So, are these some of the things that you were thinking about this leadership challenges and the fact that they are focusing on perhaps way too many metrics? So did this lead you to start a company Cien?

Rob Käll: Yes, like most entrepreneurs I experienced these problems myself. I had several successful startups. One we had two people starting selling and then we scaled in a couple of years over a hundred people. And as we were scaling, we just noticed that sales productivity per person per hour kept going down and down and I kept wondering to myself what are the reasons? What is the difference between these two original sales people who were among the best I have ever worked with to all hundred that we had towards the end. And after we had tired from that company and got us some time, my business partner and I who was the same I guy I did my last startup with, we decided that hey this problem is actually something that we can solve using AI.

Barbara Giamanco: You went from having a small sales team to a large sales team. What were some of the things that were getting in the way of productivity?

Rob Käll: There were so many different things that were all opaque for us as we were growing at the team. We basically come up with something called a sales value chain. We were using something that I am sure most of your listeners are familiar with that is called a high velocity level of the sales model where we were doing a lot of marketing inbound lead generation, we were using prospecting SDRs to build up opportunities and then we had account executives that their task was to close opportunities. And the typical way to measure productivity in that sense is to look at what the account executive is actually delivering at the end of the day.

For example, an account executive might sell for a $160,000 in a month and then you draw the conclusion that his proactivity was if he worked 160 hours for $1,000 per hour. But what matters is that he may have received $80,000 worth of leads and opportunities from the prior month. And another account executive may have only produced $120,000 of sales but she only received $20,000 worth of leads. So the second account executive was more productive, she added more value, and this were the things that we noticed we could not measure properly and that is what we wanted to solve with Cien.

Barbara Giamanco: Ok, so let’s dig in a little further then, how does Cien helps solve some of those problems?

Rob Käll: It basically comes down to that you have tried to get a 360 view of your sales environment. So we look at like there is another companies out there that are doing similar things that are looking at the pipeline and the lead qualities and do different types of lead scoring and so forth. And we think that is important and we get some of that data from your CRM and then we apply machine learning models to understand how good those leads are and how to lucky they are to close. We all know that it is not just about leading the pipeline; it is a lot about the people. And there we have some really unique tools to measure things.

For example, we measure things like work ethics. You talked about before activity management. It is not just about doing a bunch of activities; it is about getting meaningful activities. So when we are measuring things we did look at what activities leads to engagement versus what activities are just spinning wheels, sort to speak. We look at things like product knowledge, closing ability and then the third dimension which is also very important is the macro environment. Things like how are your competitors working in your current environment.

Another super important thing is seasonality. So right now I am calling from Barcelona, this is where we are putting up our product development centre and I was fortunate enough to be a general manager for a business here a couple of years ago and the one thing that I had not taken into account was the severe seasonality of the business in Barcelona. And I got taken by surprise on that and I don’t want Cien’s customers to have that experience, so we look at that stuff a lot.

Barbara Giamanco: One of the things I believe is interesting here is that you talked about the people’s side of the equation which I think is incredibly important. And looking at the activities that are actually leading to those measurable sales outcomes which is where I get on my mini rant. Because I keep hearing from sales leaders that they are concerned about leads in the pipeline and for whatever reason I don’t see enough focus on the quality of the activity that should lead to more of those opportunities in the pipeline.

So, from everything that you’ve just said, your product sounds like it helps sales leaders to dig into that. I don’t want to fault sales leaders and just say hey they are not focusing on quality, I kind of wonder if they just haven’t had the ability to really dig in to figure out what’s the right quality activity that leads to the outcome they are looking for. What are your thoughts on that?

Rob Käll: We just talked about it you know, much of this softer side of the sales management or sales leadership is not really captured inside Salesforce, for example. So if you look just at your KPIs you are missing that. We are coming up with other ways to measure those aspects and then we are building those into our predictive models and therefore we can try to determine exactly how important these factors are.

And speaking about playbooks and so forth, I think this is a really interesting point that different types of sales leaders tend to have different playbooks. But they tend to take the same playbook for the next job when in many cases you need to have a different playbook for each new situation that you come into. Sometimes the people factors are the absolute low hanging fruit, in other cases it might be something completely different and then in something we help with.

Barbara Giamanco: You mentioned work ethic, how does AI help measure someone’s work ethic? How do you know that Barb Giamanco is gonna get in and crush it more than somebody else in the sales organization?

Rob Käll: I love to talk about these technical things but I am gonna try to keep it short here. It basically comes down to a few known facts: first of, the quality of your CRM data is never perfect and we build statistical models to deal with that fact. Once you have accounted for the fact that the quality of the data is not perfect, now you can start comparing who has activities that lead to results and who has activities that did not lead to results and who has basically no activities or literal activities compared to their peers and then we can start scoring that and see who is actually making meaningful activities like you talked about and who could be doing a lot more.

Barbara Giamanco: I do understand that if your boss is on your back to make more phone calls and emails, I get that, you are gonna do that to check the boxes but the reality is that it is the quality of the activity that is gonna lead to greater sales successes. And in fact, someone last week I am LinkedIn shared a caption of a screen cast, I assume to kind of promote the idea that their “call software” could help reps do a lot of calls. But get this, they were kind of touting the fact that reps were able to make in 4000 calls, in a course of a month, 20 sales opportunities. Pretty low ratio. So it is not more of what is gonna work.

Who is a typical user of the platform? Is it strictly for sales leaders or is it also for sales contributors?

Rob Käll: No, our goal is to make this a platform that is like a Fitbit for your sales team. With that we mean that I have a Fitbit and I check it every morning to get the information that I could not figure out on my own: like how I slept or how many steps I did yesterday and so forth. So every single contributor in the sales organization from the CEO down to the starting SDR they all have their own things that they probably don’t really know if they are doing right or not. The whole point of Cien is that it gives you that, what I call the leader practice, the feedback that you really need in order to continue to improve your portion.

So we have a bunch of heuristics, rules of thumb that work for you in your particular role and for your particular timeframe. So some of them are the very practical stuff you do the same day but as a sales leader you also have to be thinking strategically what you can do in this quarter and what you can do over this year. So we have heuristics that hit all of those different criteria and then we are running it through our AI engine to determine which ones of those are the ones that are gonna have the biggest impact for you in terms of increasing proactivity.

Barbara Giamanco: So Cien is the Fitbit of sales?

Rob Käll: Right, there are a lot of different terms in sales and we know there are tons of tools out there. We wanna be the tool that tells you what else to do, like if you should get an average sales enable amount tool or if you should do further marketing automation that, whatever makes sense to you to improve your thing.

But we look at proactivity as our success metric because proactivity is the ultimate free launch. When you improve proactivity 1% or 2% points from your sales team there is a massive profit contribution to that because it doesn’t cost anything extra and in terms of our value as a tool for your sales team we can very easily realize up to a 1000% RI for example. Because just a couple of percentage points in the typical technology service company has a huge impact especially when you have a high gross margin product that you are selling.

Barbara Giamanco: I think the ability to help the sales leaders answer the question “what else should I do?” makes a lot of sense because one thing that I’ve noticed over the last 12/18 months is this default “ok we have a problem in the sales organization, ok let’s go and buy some piece of technology”. But I don’t know how much deep analysis goes into figuring out whether or not that is the right next step to take so I think your product can certainly help with that. Tell me about Salesforce Einstein, what are your thoughts on that?

Rob Käll: I think Salesforce Einstein is a great tool, we were fortunate enough to be named Salesforce’s Customer Hero and we were speaking at their event in Madrid last week. But Salesforce Einstein and what we are doing are two very different things: Salesforce Einstein is all about helping you find the right leads for example; we help you find the right playbook so it would take a wider stands on how we are looking at the problem.

Barbara Giamanco: So Cien sounds like it’s actually more strategic, it’s more big picture, I am looking at some of the higher level/deeper level questions that imply sales leaders, right?

Rob Käll: And some other differentiators are around the people’s aspects and so forth to be able to measure those things we talked about before like work ethics, product knowledge etc.

Barbara Giamanco: I love it. Clearly AI can benefit sales people if used in the right way. Any other thoughts about that? I mean you are obviously watching the AI landscape, so am I. People are talking about it, it’s the big hot thing. I don’t know whether or not a lot of these AI products are really a benefit for the sales or not, are they?

Rob Käll: I think that AI will change everything that we are doing. That’s my strong believe. It’s another technology wave like the web, pc, mobile, all of this stuff. AI is the next big technology wave and it will change everything including sales. And we are just one of many companies which are applying AI to various processes and we are hoping we can add value to the sales category. I am sure that there will be other companies that do that too, solving different problems.

Barbara Giamanco: Yes, absolutely and I’ve interviewed some folks who do have AI technology and they are solving different problems like the problem of scheduling where reps are going back and forth trying to schedule meetings not just with individuals but teams of people. But what I loved about Cien is that this is going to a more strategic level in my opinion. And I certainly think the approach with looking at the people’s side of it makes a big difference. What else would you like people to take from this conversation?

Rob Käll: We are creating a new type of AI-first enterprise software that is super easy to use, a bit like a fit bit for sales people. You can check the Cien app first thing in the morning, and then again when you come back from lunch. It’s not something that you go to a training class for a week to learn. It’s targeted for that busy executive. I would love to hear their opinion about how AI will change the future of sales and we have a survey as you mentioned. It has some jokes in it so you may even enjoy it - and then we would love to hear more from you. And if you are interested in our product we have a preview program right now and you can find out more about that on www.cien.ai as well.