Interview: Catalin Tilimpea

Catalin Tilimpea believes that the power of sales ops lies in that certain balance between being analytical and being action-orientated. And if his successful sales ops career is anything to go by, his advice is worth taking! This week, we look at my chat with Catalin, Director of Global Sales Operations at technology company, Arm. We discussed turning insights into action and how to tactfully present challenging insights to decision-makers, aligning sales ops' targets with sales, identifying areas to introduce new technologies and process, and whether sales ops will become a C-level role. After musing over the personality traits of good sales ops leaders, the interview began…

Rory Brown (RB): What drew you towards sales operations?

Catalin Tilimpea (CT): It think it is primarily a personality thing. It requires a personality at the intersection between extroversion and introversion. You need to be analytical and reflective because a lot of things we do in sales operations look backwards; it’s not always about looking to the future.  But you can’t exactly be, let’s say, an accountant either if you are working with salespeople. It is really a very tight bond there that makes the relationship work.

So you need a certain balance between being analytical and beingaction-oriented.

RB: That’s a reallynice way of putting it. Let’s focus in on this area of analytics into action, bothfrom the moment you take your insights to the relevant people and the processof then turning that into something that the business uses to improve.

CT: Firstly, you need to have the right systems and you need to have funding to collect the data. You’ve got to have the people with the right orientation to transform that data into insight, and they have to have the right tools (something like Kluster fits into that category). And the operations professional has the task of bringing everything together.

You need to have the business acumen to actually extract theinsight and then you need to be able to sell that to the decision-makers in thesales organisation, which is where the extroversion comes in.

RB: It is interestingyou have used the words ‘push’ and ‘sell’ there. Your job isn’t done when you uncoveran insight. You then have to convince the stakeholders after that point.

CT: In my experience, that is the hardest thing to do because it requires a lot of experience. But unfortunately, many companies or many operations departments generate an insight and they ‘call it a day’. Because the convincing element is so hard.

RB: Why do you thinkthat that last bit is so crucial?

CT: There are two types of insight. One is an insight that validates theories about what is going right and what is going wrong. And that is not so hard to sell.  But then the really potentially disruptive insight is something that says either what we are doing is not good because it is not progressing as we expected, or there are factors that are fundamentally affecting our ability to execute on the plan we made - or everything is going excellently as planned, but there is this greater opportunity that we are missing. 

So either way, that kind of insight is hard to push becauseit upsets the vision that people are already sold on, that they want to happen.They made plans on it or they pictured themselves and their careers taking offin a certain way. So essentially, you can end up being the bearer of bad news.And part of selling it is to sell it as an opportunity, not ‘bad news’. Youhave to provide an opportunity in the form of a solution.

RB: Any advice on howyou would tactfully present a challenging insight to a decision-maker?

CT: I thinkit is about building the right relationship beforehand. They need to trust yourjudgement and that takes some time to build.

RB: In your firstquarter as sales ops leader at a business, what are the sorts of things thatyou are looking to understand and how do you create a strategy off the back ofthat?

CT: I think the thing you start with immediately is relationships. I have actually just started the role I am currently in and my focus is almost exclusively on meeting people; not just understanding what they do, but understanding what kind of people they are, how to approach them and how to work with them.

Then the next quarter is about trying to deliver some valuein a non-disruptive way - going with the flow and enhancing what is in place.Unless of course the business is very small or has gone through a bigdisruption like an M&A. In those cases, there isn’t much flow to go withand you’ve got to start by showing some initiative.

RB: Who are the keypeople in the business that you are working with daily? And within that, who isthe person that you would work with most frequently as a sales ops leader?

CT: As far asI am concerned, the most important stakeholders for sales ops should always besales. I am of the opinion that sales operations should be thought of, for allpractical purposes, as part of sales.

The rest depends a bit from company to company. I would sayfinance is the next step. Sales operations has a critical role there to pushthe sales agenda into finance in a way that finance people can understand andvice versa – there are often really rigid constraints, legal constraints thatsales need to take seriously. 

RB: In yourexperience, how much interaction would sales ops leaders have with individualsalespeople?

CT: That varies a lot from company to company. In some companies, sales ops encompasses a coaching role because of their bird’s eye view of sales.

Then sometimes sales ops works with or takes on part of therole of sales enablement.

RB: What has been your experience of the sales enablement and sales ops relationship in your career?

CT: My focus hasn’tbeen at any time sales enablement but the only place where I have seen salesops and sales enablement very closely aligned was reporting together into an SVPof Sales Operations. The closest senior figure that was responsible for bothwas a very senior figure. And I think it wasn’t a bad thing because in thisbroader organisation – even though there were different people doing differentthings – the broader organisation was perceived by the sales department as aone-stop shop for everything they wanted inside the company, which goes back tohow I think things should be.

RB: That is very interesting. And again, a similar question for marketing as well.  A lot of businesses are relying on marketing to help them produce the pipeline. What has your experience been of getting that sales and marketing relationship right?

CT: I think sales operations has a role to play in that. And I think the primary instrument to make that work is by putting people together and mediating.

RB: How do you measure success in sales ops?

CT: I believe that sales ops has to be thought of as part of sales, and I strongly believe that it is best if you measure sales and sales ops together based on sales results, like dollar figures.

I am a strong believer in objective metrics, preferablynumeric and making sure that they are exactly the same metric for sales and forsales ops. The sales ops professional that works with sales needs to feel thatthey are part of the team, so they have to be incentivised on the same basis. That bond is very important. You have got to feelthat you are working in the team and you are cheering when that number goes up.

I think that is a very powerful motivator. You are like theco-pilot, but you are in the same race and at the end there is going to be somereward, of the same type, for the co-pilot, just as for the pilot. 

RB: Let’s say you have decided you are going to roll outa new process or a new technology, how do you go about identifying whereimprovements can be made?

CT: Work backwards from the results you want to attain. There has to be a high-level vision or mission for the company and then you work backwards from that. Say if you want to increase your revenue, you look at your current revenue and maybe you interview customers, which is where customer success organisation and sales can play a huge role. Collect all that information and then use your experience and intuition to figure out which of the signals that tell you what you could do are – a better signal to knowledge ratio and then form a plan.

And then you go again to the people who would beimplementing and then figure out whether it would be a good idea? What problemswould you see? And you refine them like that a couple of times before you golive.

RB: When you are rolling out a new process or technology,how do you ensure good adoption from the sales team?

CT: Salespeople want to look good and smash their target. If you connect your new technology or process to that, they are going to be listening at least. They might not agree. But you are going to get their attention and you have something to work on.

RB: What sort of things can you do to ensure that all thestakeholders are enforcing the reason for this change, and the benefit of thischange, right from the top?

CT: Whatever change you roll out, the justification for the change and the intention for the change needs to come clearly and loudly from both sales leadership and sometimes general management as well.

I think sales operations is also a necessary voice in thatchorus to create the confidence that everything else is going to support thechange. 

RB: Do you think we could see sales ops becoming a C-level role? Or do you think it will always be reporting to C-level people?

CT: Some companies are very sales centric. You have sales operations being the biggest piece of operations for the company.

But I’m not sure sales ops can become something like acompletely separate function because its reason to exist is sales. So the pathto the top goes through sales leadership roles and progressively more seniorsales ops roles but at the top they are going to merge into some senior revenuegeneration figure.

At the very senior level, sales and sales ops are almost thesame. There is this key role in sales ops of chief of staff. The chief of staffpartners so closely with sales leadership, and especially the top sales leader,that they get to know each other so well that essentially at some point theycan switch roles. 

This interview reflects Catalin’s views, not those of his employer.

Want to get more insights from sales ops leaders? Check out our other posts in the sales ops interview series.

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We recognise the growing importance of sales operations. No longer seen as the function that provides spreadsheets, sales operations is integral to building a repeatable, scalable sales machine.

That's why we built Kluster. We make analytics and forecasting systems for you so you can spend time doing what you do best: uncovering trends and delivering growth defining insights.  

Kluster gives you total visibility into the effectiveness of your sales machine and helps you generate credible forecasts to revenue leaders and the board.


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