Interview: Neel Suri at Newsela

When I caught up with Neel Suri, it didn't take long to gauge his long-standing passion for revenue operations and his deep-rooted desire to make a real contribution to the rev ops world. Now at Newsela, he is evidently committed to his goal of making things simpler, more cost-efficient, and more transparent. I was particularly interested in his use of ‘communication plans’, something that he regards as fundamental to the successful implementation of a new process. After hearing about his journey into sales operations, the interview began…

Rory Brown (RB): Could you tell me a bit about who Neel is, and how you got into sales ops?

Neel Suri (NS):  I have always been a systems guy. In college my major was Information Science, and my first job out of college was working for a large global consulting company as a business analyst. I have always had the desire, and fortunately ability, to tie technology with process optimisation. I think learned that from my Dad – he was always coming up with ideas of how to improve things around the house.

As my career progressed, I went from being a systems analyst to a project manager, which led me to Wiley. At Wiley, the first project I was assigned to was implementing Salesforce into its team in Australia. That initial project got me exposed to Salesforce, which was a relatively foreign concept to everybody at Wiley.  It was a huge success. From there it just snowballed – my focus at Wiley became less about back office project management and more about deploying Salesforce across the organization.

I had a lot of success at Wiley, but eventually I decided that I want to move to a smaller company – somewhere I could help build something.  Somewhere I could have more influence, and more opportunity to ‘leave my mark’. That is what led me to Newsela. I started as sales ops manager which, as you know, is a role that includes a ‘pot pourri’ of everything. As we have scaled as an operations organisation, my focus has shifted towards building out our technology stack and optimising our sales function.

We are focused on driving velocity; driving larger deals and doing more of them. A lot of the traditional sales ops functions, such as commission calculations, moved over to our finance team. This opened the door for my team to really focus our time on impacting the business in a very positive way. The motto I use is: How do we sell more, more cheaply, more quickly.

RB: Nice. Thanks for the introduction. You have mentioned process and technology – two things that go hand in hand.

In your opinion, when does a business diagnose that it needs a process change? And, how do you then work out that technology is the answer to that process change?

NS: When I first started, we wanted to be a data driven organisation. But it soon became apparent that we have tons of data, yet much of it is not clean. This rendered it completely useless - we obviously didn’t want to make decisions from bad data - that would inevitably result in bad decisions. We realised we needed to tighten our process when our data outputs weren’t providing what we needed, and we began this process by working backwards. We started by looking at KPIs like how exactly we get the information we need, and what kind of data we need. These are the type of KPIs that we want to measure the business against. 

There is yet other information that we need to gather which is only accessible through our interactions with our customers.  So, how do we source that data? And with regards to optimising the sales organisation, how do we capture that data? Eventually, we need to revisit our processes because the outputs that we were getting were not good enough for what we wanted to be able to do in terms of measurement and tracking. It is at this point we consider laying on the technology. We then look into how we can use our technology to calculate the data that we want, instead of having users input it.

RB: I really like those steps that you have given me. So, when your sales reps are out there communicating with customers, how do you manage to get the data you need without disrupting the ease with which people can sell? 

NS: It is a challenge. From a management perspective, it is easy for us to suggest that they add a field and populate it. However, you soon realise that although you have a field in there, it won’t necessarily be useful, or even used at all for that matter. We try to stay away from open text boxes because anyone can put any garbage in there. Also, you can’t analyse it - no one is going to read through every single piece of commentary. To exemplify how we tackled this: We sell subscriptions to schools and districts. When I first started, our sales reps would have to manually create a record for every school that we closed a deal with.

Now, what we realised on the back end was that records weren’t being created. Eventually we would begin to get bombarded with emails from various people nagging you about creating a record. We realised, we can get those outputs – know the school, know the product – but what we need to do is change the experience that a user has. So as opposed to them creating records after the opportunity is won, we modified our process and created a wizard for users to easily select the schools, select the products, create the relationship. 

Now we have made a system in which records are madeautomatically – there is no need to chase anyone for them, and it can be donejust a few clicks. You are not going to have to create separate records, we aregoing to embed it into your workflow and make it an experience for you. Asopposed to, ‘another thing I have to remember’.

RB: So, the idea is that everything needs to be one click. Everything needs to be easier and everything needs to save people time.

NS: Yes. That is kind of the mentality that we try to take – do more with less clicks. Ideally, we could move everything to one click, but the reality is there is no cheat code that can do everything for you. To combat this, we try to figure out whether there is data in other places that we can pull in. Is there data that we can calculate or derive from what we already have, to minimize what a person needs to do?

Sometimes there is a key piece of information that we need, but there is really no incentive for that user to provide it. In those cases, we will have to create blockers, such as, ‘you can’t close that opportunity unless you tell us what that funding source is.’

RB: What we are saying there is, if we can show people that they are going to get something back, and you can do more with less clicks, we would like something in return please. And everyone should be happy.

NS: Yes. You must give them something before you ask for something.  I have been part of organisations where your traditional ops team are like the police. That situation does not work because for my team to be successful, I need to have a strong relationship with our sales managers, our sales reps, as well as other folks within the organisation. That relationship is based on working together in a fashion that is mutually beneficial. I am not always taking. But I am also providing and enabling and giving.  

RB: Nice. I like that a lot. Speaking of data, and what data you need, where do you start with that? How do you establish the meaningful KPIs and keep it aligned with unforeseen data capture?

NS: When we came to establish our KPI’s, they were influenced from a lot of places. A lot of it is leveraging the expertise of the leadership team (we have some executives who have grown businesses and done this in the past) and knowing what we need to use to drive the business.

And a lot of it is looking at the wider community forguidance. I talk to Salesforce - they are our vendor for our CRM, and ask, howdo you guys run your business?  What areyou guys looking at?  How are you doingit?

It is largely down to seeing what others are doing andleveraging the expertise of the folks that we have here. Then, as our businessis moving, we identify results that we want, and what the KPIs are that we needto track and maintain those results.

RB:  Verynice, thank you. 

Let’s say you identify a new process that needs to be rolled out. What steps would you use to start getting all the key people, from the very top to the very bottom, engaged with this new process before you can fully immerse in it?

NS: What we spend a lot of time and effort talking about is: Let’s not roll something out for the sake of rolling it out. We need to make sure the changes that we implement are measurable and more importantly, impactful.

We don’t make any rash decisions, we do everything in an organisedand coherent manner: We have conversations with our key stakeholders, I meetwith our CRO twice a week and our Regional Sales Managers once a week.  It is all about communication – we worktogether to make sense of what is a priority and why certain things shouldn’tbe a priority

Going back to: How do you go about changing process? I think it can’t be in a silo. It needs to be in partnership with your key stakeholders. You need to consider timing, the mechanism and the methodology that you are going to follow to roll it out - and the communication plan that you will have.

RB:  Nice. You mentioned a Communication Plan. Could you unpack that a little bit, and maybe offer some guidance around what a good communication plan for process change would look like?

NS: It can’t just be an email you send out the night before. It must be well organised and pre-prepared. We leverage our sales managers by getting them involved early in the process, so they know what we are thinking. They are also part of it, to influence how we approach it and what we do. We rely on them to filter that message to their team during their weekly meetings.

We supplement that with material to ensure the message is clear and concise, in the form of emails or screenshots if there is a technology component to it. That way, when we go live, they already have the background of why we are doing it and how we are doing it. Then it is just a matter of flipping the switch and making it live.

RB: Brilliant. Really good stuff, thank you. One of the key words you mentioned previously was insights. One of the big knowledge gaps in technology is insights into an action which does something good.

What has been your experience of mastering that situation? In sales ops you see all this data, but how do you know what to take to people?

NS: Our approach has been to not overwhelm them with a bunch of different things. We don’t want to end up in a situation wondering what exactly to do or where to look. Instead, we look at areas of opportunity, and areas we can improve upon. We will find those areas and then translate it into the report or the dashboard metric that we can provide to them. 

Next, we present that in the form of: Here is the dashboard,this is what it tells you, this is the type of activity that we expect you oryour reps to do and it will influence this element of performance. To answeryour question, we look at areas of opportunities – that is what drives themetrics that we want to build and take action on.

RB: Perfect. A little more of a more general question: From your experience, what does success look like for a sales ops team

NS: I think the biggest thing is ultimately hitting the number – impacting the business in a big way.  Some will say it is about having perfect data, governance, and a tightly controlled environment – All of which do make a difference. But if you’re not hitting the number, none of that stuff is important.

So, I think the definition of success is being able to showthat the work that you are doing, the initiatives you are pursuing, and thechange you are implementing is moving the needle, driving more sales, and drivingincreased velocity.

RB: Excellent. With that said, what are the key measurables to monitor success in sales ops? If the goal is to make more cash, what are the key measurables that allow you to say, ‘Sales ops contributed to that.

NS: I think sales productivity is certainly a key component, and this can be measured in different ways. For example, in a technology sense, you could focus on reducing the amount of time a rep is occupied from engaging with a customer. Another focus could be, how quickly are we ramping our new reps, so they are contributing to the bottom line?  

I’ve also tried to measure our success through internal data collection. After my first year here, I sent out a survey to the sales organisation. We had a series of questions focused on getting feedback about their personal experience with the company and how supported they felt. Ultimately what I wanted to do was get an annual NPS score to monitor our progress. 

RB: Brilliant. Thank you. I think people will get a lot of value out of thinking that way.

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

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