Sales for Startups founder and CEO, James Ker-Reid, talks to Nazma Qurban, previously the CRO at Cognism, a B2B sales and marketing lead generation platform about building sales pipeline in COVID-19.
Before we start, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what Cognism do?
I was the Chief Revenue Officer for Cognism. Cognism is a lead generation platform. We basically help businesses find B2B contact data for their customer profiles and help them engage through our outbound technology. The company launched 3.5 years ago, so we went from me joining as the first commercial head, to growing the business to, hopefully, £10m in the coming months. We’ve experienced exponential growth, we’ve grown the sales and marketing engine from 1 to 30 people in total and we’ve also expanded globally. We launched New York in September last year – aiming for global domination I hope!
Over to what’s been happening recently, what have been some of the changes or pivots that you guys have had to make in the last 6-8 weeks?
Everything to be entirely honest! We were hit hard in mid-March – we looked at our sales pipeline and saw about 50% of it had dissipated and we thought how are we going to survive? We made the business decision that we would adjust our targets which was the very first thing on a business level that we did and in my role I predominantly look at sales and marketing so I had to look at the data and understand exactly where we are going to get our success from and what we should be moving away from.
So we looked at was client targeting; exactly who are the businesses that we are looking to that we would add value to that would be in a position to buy. We absolutely changed our approach, from the way that the SDRs are outreaching and how they are positioning our businesses and ensuring that they are empathetic and even when it comes to marketing, ensuring that we are pushing out content that is adding value even throughout these uncertain times. Then understanding where we are getting the successes and how we can build up our sales pipeline. Understanding every part of the sales funnel and how we are hitting those golden benchmarks we have put in place, so it was a lot of reviewing, analysing data, putting together new targeting lists and approaches and then just working on building out the sales pipeline.
And in a time like this, how did you communicate this to the rest of the team and the business as a whole?
I think when it comes to uncertain times, there’s always uncertainty within the team. We are big advocates of over-communicating with the team and making sure everyone understands what’s going on in the business. As soon as we were hit by the pandemic, it was very visible because we talk about numbers on a weekly basis and when we do our Monday morning meetings, I was very transparent and clear saying this is what’s going on. Also giving transparency to the other teams when it comes to the sales pipeline – it’s really important to communicate and understand that we are having challenges and they are also then given the confidence that we are doing the right things and we are looking at the data on a regular basis.
We froze spending, which was one of the first things we had to look at, in the midst of all of this, I spoke to the other business heads and it became clear that I was spending a lot of time analysing data and going into great detail so I really needed a data analyst, so I communicated with the team saying that I’m going to find somebody who can really aggregate that data and provide trends. I saw this as a decision that can lead us to recovering at a very quick pace and they understood. It is those actions and decisions that you take that give confidence to a team and help us move towards getting to our original targets. Therefore I feel like overcommunicating and getting the team to understand what we are doing definitely provides them with confidence and makes them more comfortable in being part of the business, giving them security in their role.
You mention spending, could you give a couple of practical examples of where you cut spending? And also some examples of the difference between your target persona from pre-covid to today?
When it came to spending, although we did have to raise money, we had to go into defensive mode and really understand what our runway was and if we are going to continue with the performance we had in March where we were on 50% of our target, what is that going to look like in future and do we have the head count? Do we need all the individuals in the team in order to achieve that target? We just didn’t have enough data, so one of the decisions that we made, in order to preserve that operating cash, was not to pay out commissions, so we provided stock options for those who receive bonuses and commissions. We communicated with the team the reasons why and, for me, I was super happy and impressed with the way they took it. All of those decisions and the visibility and understanding that we are doing everything we can to preserve people’s jobs helped.
When it comes to pivoting, we are B2B data provider, so anyone who was looking for an outbound technology or B2B data is our ideal customer profile. We’ve worked with recruiters in the past and we know that has been one target that has one audience that has been hurt by this crisis. So us looking at this, in detail, all of the industry and company sizes and profiles of businesses and then removing them from our approach was quite important. And then also going back to the drawing board and saying, right, this is all of the sales pipeline we have lost, which sectors should we be targeting and how do we fill our sales pipeline with opportunities that are sitting within those that are, perhaps, performing really well during this time? So it wasn’t as simple as looking at the trends and just saying that a certain industry is working well – we had to get really granular. Some HR technologies are doing great, but some aren’t – we had to go after an account-based approach. Therefore, we created lists of businesses, industries, specific sectors that were beaming and then created focussed lists around that, so thankfully, as you know, we have the technology to be able to use that in a very efficient way. That definitely added value and we saw the fruition in April and May already.
In terms of the sectors that are booming, how did you make that analysis and judgement?
We looked at information that was publicly available, going on websites, looking at webinar tools, looking at the technologies that we would be using and that we will practically be looking at. For example, remote working platforms, collaboration platforms – we understand that we’re working from home and the virtual/digital space is the space that have businesses that are stable and running as usual. That’s mainly how we worked on that – it was almost like going back to scratch and startup mode. Finding those names and putting in the resources needed in order to find those customers and profiles.
Going back to what you mentioned earlier and the young team you have and asking to exchange commission for stock options. Tell me about that process of explaining to the team the upsides and downsides to taking the stock options
To be clear, it wasn’t just the sales and marketing team – the management team took a 30% pay cut and anyone that would have bonuses as part of their package were also impacted by this.
The very first thing we did before we communicated to the team, was to put out the feelers with the middle management layers and get them to understand exactly what the impact would be and how this strategy would prevent losing a lot of people and letting people go. After that we had a company-wide call where the CEO spoke about the changes that were going to be put in place. That was something that we put in place immediately and then when there were any changes or adjustments to this, it would be the same process with a group call, putting it out to open forum and if there were any questions, then the CEO himself would action it and of course always a follow up forum, so you could send emails to the CEO, the CFO and of course speak to me. If there were any concerns it was probably because it wasn’t understood or there wasn’t as much clarity perhaps that the individual had, so they were able to communicate with the management team.
Tell me about the process you went through from selecting to onboarding that data analyst that you mentioned earlier, in order to give you the value and insights you needed
What I did first personally was work out what data I am looking at and what data am I analysing. To give you context, it was every single metric that we measure from calls made, connections rate, ICP, conversion rate, meetings booked, meetings attendance, how many of those become opportunities etc, so all the data and metrics you can think of as a sales leader.
Something else I was also doing was looking at our past performance and really digging deep, so week 1, how much of the total revenue are we generating as a business? What are the trends, what is the average? So when we got to week 3 of March, we would usually generate, say, 30% of the revenue. And then ask, how much of that total revenue that we are targeting have we actually achieved? Then also looking at meetings booked and meetings attended.
So actually comparing it comparatively to the averages over the last 6 months. That kind of detail takes significant amount of time to do it – although I was happy to do it, it was something we thought had to be done and we looked at those that had real high levels of experience in this, as of course that would be the ideal go-to. But at the same time, I’m having to justify this decision to the team because I serve the team and how would they feel that I’m going to be bringing someone on that is super experienced at a time like this?
I then also thought that is if money is now an issue, then why not do what we always do is find a graduate? Find somebody who’s got strong maths background, somebody who has a good analytics degree. So I went to a few of the graduate agencies that I worked with and asked them to find somebody who had a strong background with those qualities. I did video interviews and then with 2 of the individuals I provided them with a data set that was purely conversion rates of week 3 and asked them to derive analysis from it and one of the individuals did an amazing job and it was a no brainer. Onboarded him the very next day and then he started crunching his numbers.
One thing to add was that when I did make my decision, I usually do my Monday morning meeting and I communicated to everybody that we made a decision and, due to everyone not being paid normally, I had to make sure I justified this in the right now, so the way I positioned it was I sent out everyone an email saying that we’ve brought someone on that is a data analyst and that my objective and end goal is to get us to original target as quickly as possible, so this individual is going to help us understand what’s working, what’s our performance and what are the things that we really should be doing.
Then I broke it down by each of the different functions and how this role would add value and what he’s able to do, as an example, we are going to be sending out all of the job titles and all of the personas that we’ve seen convert in the shortest amount of time within the 30 days sale cycle. Then, for example, the SDRs will know exactly what personas they will need to be targeting that will be converting as quickly as possible.
One thing that I didn’t mention is, taking into consideration that we lost just under 200 opportunities – we had more than 400 in our sales pipeline – we actually hit our target in April and against all odds we actually generated 45% of revenue in the last week of April, and 66% of all opportunities we closed in April we actually generated in the month of April. This was a huge huge success.
And to give you more context, our sales cycle, on average, is around 90 days so the fact that we’ve been able to look and understand the data, put these new processes in place and then see how that’s made an impact on the sales pipeline and has given great confidence in the team. It goes to show how that as everyone was given full visibility of what’s going on and making changes super quickly, this is a demonstration of if you’re looking at your data and understanding it, then you can see what’s going to happen. You need to ensure you action what you derive from the data as well as find and understand the data in the first place in the sales pipeline.
For other sales leaders out there, maybe CEOs of tech companies, who would you recommend follows a similar exercise to the one you’ve just explained.
To be honest, I think everyone should be doing this. Everyone should be looking at their data and I would openly admit that one of the things I noticed was that some of our channels didn’t have the data fields that were needed. I’ve always been proud that our data fields are enriched, but when I looked deeper, there was gaps in the data.
Therefore, if there is a CEO out there that has had a sales engine that has been running, but can’t get the granular insights to create the profiles, that’s the first thing you should be looking at and fix those gaps now.
Every CEO out there needs report analysis delivered to them on a weekly basis – there is no time to wait around. Your management should be delivering you the data, conversion rates and performance of the team on a weekly basis to make those decisions. Although we made actions quickly and I would recommend to do this, it’s also important you don’t make rash decisions without having the right or enough data.
So how do you make sure you have enough data in order to inform a decision?
I would say consistency is important – if you’re seeing consistency and if I’m looking at each function, I’m looking at consistency in that performance, so a week isn’t enough. It also depends on each business – if, for example, you have a longer sales cycle, is making a decision because you’ve missed one month of targets, even though you have a 6 month sale-cycle, a good decision? So it’s all really relative to what your business model usually is and that’s why it should all be comparative.
The one thing that I would add is that if you look at businesses with a longer sales-cycle, and I’ve seen it happening with various businesses I have contact with, they often say that building their pipeline is incredibly hard right now but as the revenue is currently there, they’re not worried – but the point I would have is, yes you’re not worried right now, but you’ll be worried in 3 months time when the sales pipeline that you’re supposed to be generating hasn’t been generated. So you really need to dig deep now and find out the data of the sales pipeline that isn’t there, analyse that data and make decision and adjust accordingly. That would be my advice.
To round off, what would be some tips that you would pass on to VPs of sales, or even smaller company CEOs, during this time?
It follows on from what we’ve been talking about – look at the data, analyse the data, analyse the data comparatively to what your performance would normally look like over the last 6-12 months.
Secondly would be, do something! If you are impacted, don’t just sit around and see what happens, there is no way that this situation we are in would have impacted your business in one way or another, whether positive or negative. So understand how it has been impacted and react to it.
No one knows how long we are going to be in this situation – if this is something we are going to be dealing with for a long time, then the data is going to be more and more important. And be transparent with your teams – if you explain why you are making decisions, then people will understand.
If anyone wants to connect with you, where’s the best place to find you?
We want to thank Nazma for today’s interview. Since conducting this interview, Nazma has announced that she is taking a well-earned break since her journey began 3.5 years ago with the company!
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.