Hiring A Sales Team Around Culture With Ollie Sharpe

by James Ker-Reid - August 14, 2020

Sales for Startups Founder and CEO, James Ker-Reid, talks to Ollie Sharpe, an experienced commercial leader in the B2B space with a  passion for developing teams for success.

We learn about his own experiences as a new joiner as well as the principles he operates around when it comes to bringing new members of any team into the fold…

  • Thanks for your time, it’s great to speak with one of our partners – Salesloft. Can you tell us a little more about yourself and the business?

I joined Salesloft in April 2019 as VP of Revenue, although prior to that I had started my career with door to door sales before 10 years in sales recruitment. Just before Salesloft I spent 10 years at LinkedIn, taking new products to market, as well as building and developing teams. 

At Salesloft, my role is really to land in the market and grow across EMEA. I currently manage a team of 15 and work with companies of all sizes. Our solution is a sales engagement platform – it helps organisations generate more business, give a better buying experience to their prospects, and their buyers, and it increases their efficiencies. It’s really a revenue-generating platform – we also purchased a company called Costello that we have integrated onto our platform – it helps salespeople and leaders manage opportunities, pipeline and forecasts.

But first and foremost we believe we’re a culture company, we’re culture first in the way we work with customers, partners, and our employees. 

  • Let’s talk about the journey – you’ve had more than a year window since being the first on the ground. Tell us your experiences so far, what have you learnt?

I was very lucky, as on my first day there was someone who came over from the US who was a Rep and had been an SDR (Sales Development Rep) before moving up to an AE (Account Executive). She was with me on my first day. When I look back at how different it could’ve been had she not been there, it would have been totally different to how I was learning and how she could take on the sales herself. 

Onboarding somebody – and getting them up to speed in the way she was doing – would have been very tricky, so that was a godsend to have her there. We then very quickly recruited the team: we got sales, customer success, presales and everything else. My biggest learning from that was thinking about recruiting around culture first, something I’ve already mentioned. It was stripping back the experience that I wanted, rather than thinking about ‘have they sold in the same space’. It was taking it back to the bare essentials so that I could prioritise culture, as long as I knew they could do the job. 

I learnt a lot about my thoughts on building a team. Having diversity of thought was a huge learning for me as, when I first went into leadership, I initially messed up. I built a team with a cookie-cutter approach where everyone was very similar and you lack that diversity. Not just that, but when I started to recruit others that are outside that core, it became harder and harder. That was a big learning from the past and therefore something now I am proud of here, that I have made quite a dispersed and diverse team – it’s made a big, positive impact on us. Lots of learning!

  • Moving to now, what are some of the changes you’ve had to make as a leader and a team in the last few months, with the impact of COVID?

It’s forever changing. If you look at the change curve and where we are on it, we’re at a stage where looking forward is one of the healthiest things we could do. It’s important to remember to learn from everything that’s happened so far. We are all remote and the fact that our product works remotely is a blessing for us. 

We’ve started looking differently at the use cases and talking and learning from our current customers which is super important. How customers used to use our product isn’t necessarily how they’re using it now or how they’ll use it in the future. So understanding our current customers and looking after them, checking in with them, making sure they’re OK, not trying to sell them, is crucial. 

We’ve also looked at different measurements  – we understand that out of maybe 10 customers that would have bought in the ‘old world’ perhaps only two or three of them will buy at the current stage. It’s working out your KPIs differently but also going in with a completely different mindset. If you go in expecting to qualify if it’s something that is an option to buy now, or perhaps in the future – and go in with the right mindset – you can make a massive difference to mentality and morale of the team. 

One of the biggest things is communication – we’ve always had a good culture of when we’re in the office together, we liked having a laugh, but we’re now all separate. I’m never on the phone, I’m always on Zoom, so we’ve changed how we communicate which has been massive. Zoom fatigue is certainly real, but we’ve had to ensure we keep connected.

  • In terms of your own business planning as a leader, you’ve said it’s changing and you’ve got to be agile… what are the processes and timelines you’re installing at the moment to review that progress as a sales leader?

I think everyone is different with this. It’s hard to plan timelines when you don’t know what your timelines are. I’m not worried about putting those in place as the chances are you’ll probably have to change it. I think I’m more around: look, let’s just constantly learn and constantly reassess, and then you’ll work on timelines later. All we can say right now is we won’t be going back to work or we won’t be doing certain things before ‘X’ date. You can’t really say much more than that…

We’re in the crisis that actually causes the change, and the change curve will change quite a bit for us, and probably more than once because you’ve got to adapt at what’s happening throughout this. When we come out the other side, you’ve got to adapt again! So for me it’s not around specific planning because that’s too rigid. For me it’s about keeping agile and reassessing regularly. 

  • You mention ‘when we come out of this’ – what do you believe the opportunities are for your platform and other tech businesses as well?

I believe there will be an opportunity. It obviously depends on what market the platform is for and that may change, our personas may change, our use cases may change, a lot of change! But I think that because the space we are in is sales, and that we’re selling to salespeople, most companies will see light at the end of the tunnel and sales is what’s going to get them the revenue to impact their business in a positive way. 

There will be similar areas, such as recruitment due to the amount of companies that have headcount on hold right now. It all depends on your product and platform and the market you’re selling into, but I would encourage you all to reassess those markets. Countries are going through different stages of this at different times so it’s a case of which countries should we be going for first, and if we should realign on that. 

It depends on the industries as well. We’ve seen a decrease in email response rates on our platform across all our clients, however professional services have seen an increase in response rate. It shows there are certain areas that are more active right now than others. The data that you can find will help you to find out which countries and markets to go to first and then the ability to reassess the persona and ICP (Ideal Customer Profile). That, to me, will impact how positive you can come out of this. And there will be positives, as long as we are agile and can think about different use cases and narratives. 

Another factor for us is to also think about what tech they may have cut since COVID, but also what they were considering buying before COVID but can no longer afford. Think about where you could branch out to offer an element of what that tech is. Just thinking differently! A great opportunity for us to learn from our customers and prospects instead of pushing.

  • You’ve spoken about your experience in recruitment and potential room to expand teams… a lot of recruiters are talking about potential talent shortage. What’s your opinion on when to hire and looking forward, do you think there will be a talent shortage in the next 3-6 months?

I’m not sure why we would see a talent shortage when there is such amazing talent out there. When I was in recruitment, a talent shortage was the best time to be in recruitment! A lot of people are talking about the great talent on the market. You should be recruiting if you need to recruit, but it depends on how risk-averse companies are… 

I personally believe it’s not the time to take your foot off the gas if you are able to keep it on, but I don’t think the best thing to do is be recruiting and put your business and that person’s career at risk during this time. It depends on everyone’s own view – if things are meant to be, they might still be on the market when I’m ready to look. The timing has to be right for the business

  • What are three things you would recommend that sales leaders should be doing right now considering everything happening?

‘Appreciating what you’ve got’ is probably the banner I would put it under. I think that’s caring for the team – the most important part of the business is employees. It’s a tough time for employees – they’re maybe not used to working remotely, their success rate of calls is down, so making sure you’re looking after your employees is what, I believe, should be your primary focus and supporting them mentally. 

My second would be existing customers – especially for software companies in a SaaS model, the worst thing that could happen is the loss of clients and customers. Chances are most companies are going to lose some, but hopefully it’s not something that the provider has done, and instead something to do with the customer. Touch base and ask them if they are OK and if there is anything you can do to help right now.

The third is really learning and understanding everything. Learn from your team and others around you about what this new world is looking like and what the future could look like. Those would be the things that I am (and will continue to) prioritise to ensure we are in the best position.

  • Final thoughts from you, Ollie? 

Just a note that I feel for the companies that are onboarding people – I hear that some recruiting has stopped, but there were still new employees who had been offered roles before this all started so that’s something that is key. I’ve taken on three since this has started, but luckily they all had experience – I can imagine it could be trickier for others in a different situation. Make sure you have the tools and structure in place, as well as the support network of the team to ensure everyone understands the expectations for anyone who comes onboard. 

  • Thanks for today, Ollie. For others who want to find out more about you and Salesloft, where should they head?

Linkedin! I regularly post and share my thoughts there, and is the easiest way to communicate with me – happy to help answer questions and also learn from others!

Great to connect with Ollie recently, thanks! 

We want to thank Ollie for this interview, a really good conversation with a sales mentor that I hope everyone reading can take something from.

That is all from us at Sales for Startups today, be sure to tune in soon for more interviews with CEOs and Founders of some great companies that are shedding some light on the current issues we are facing. If you’d like to be interviewed please comment below or feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or submit a request on our website.

Further Reading

Patrick Thorp
August 5, 2020

7 key attributes needed for high performing sales teams

+Read More
90 day plan with Just3Things
James Ker-Reid
December 22, 2021

90 day planning with Just3Things

+Read More
Sales goals
James Ker-Reid
April 26, 2022

The importance of sales goals

+Read More