Aliisa Rosenthal is currently the VP of Sales at WalkMe, a SasS company that helps users keep up and understand technology features. She talks us through the role of a VP of sales in a fast growing company, the relationship between Sales and Product and more.
Question [00:00:08] How did you get started?
Aliisa [00:00:11] I don’t think I ever set out to have a career in sales. I went to school in Rhode Island at Brown University and thought I wanted to be a lawyer to study political science and studying for the LSAT. And then I went to New York for a weekend, my senior year, and met a woman at a party. Who said, “Hey, I’m at this thing called a startup”. This is back in 2005. So we didn’t have SAS startups yet, but it essentially was a SAS startup. “Do you know what you’re doing when you graduate? Why don’t you come to check us out?” I went by on Monday morning, they were operating in a warehouse with cardboard boxes and just she said “we just meet people. Can you just join and answer phones?” And I said, sure, this looks interesting.
So I took a job right out of college at a company called capital IQ, which essentially is a SAS financial data platform. Ended up finding my way into sales there. When I joined, I was just answering the phones a client’s port representative. And I was watching the guys on the sales floor, and I say guys because it is predominantly guys. They looked like they were having so much fun closing deals. And I just thought, “I want to give that a try”. I went and I, pitch the VP sales, on giving me a shot at a sales role. And this is back in 2005, 2006, a little old school, but I came in one day and there was a plane ticket on my desk and a French English dictionary, it was a ticket to Montreal. And he said, “here’s your territory, go see what you can do”. I got the Quebec region as my territory and ended up working that for five years and growing that business from a million ARR when I inherited it by the time I left, I had opened an office in Toronto with six people, had 15 million in ARR, had built a whole Canadian business and I was hooked. I just loved sales from that point and have been doing it ever since.
Question [00:07:58] What does it mean to be a VP of sales at a fast-growing company?
Alissa [00:08:03] The title will vary according to the size of the company. So if you’re talking to a startup, it might just be the one salesperson there. Typically at a bigger company, VP sales are at least a second line manager. So you’ve got, your managing managers who then manage, account executives. The bigger the company, the higher up that title might go. There might be third or even fourth line management. But the idea is, I’ve got a number, I’ve got a quota that I’m carrying and it’s the roll-up of all the account executives under me. So my quota could be $20 million this year. That is a roll-up of all the sales reps and their managers below me who roll up into my organization. It also sometimes can mean that you are managing renewals, which, I do manage at WalkMe. Not all VP sales manage renewals as well, sometimes that’s a separate organization. It can mean customer success. It can mean sales engineering. It can mean sales operations that do vary a little bit from organization to work.
Question [00:13:33] What do you think is the best way to develop a ratio between product and sales?
Aliisa [00:13:39] The million-dollar question. I don’t think I have this figured out. I’ve seen five different, SAS companies now, and everyone approaches this a little bit differently. I think my advice is to start from a place of mutual respect and understanding. Salespeople ultimately, despite our reputations are not out to screw over the customer. It’s not in our interest. We make money when we bring in a customer who’s happy and renews and engages and continues to buy from us. If you pull salespeople, especially, the SaaS salespeople you see in Silicon Valley are sophisticated elite sellers. They are looking to build longterm partnerships with our customers and they care deeply about setting them up for success, not everybody, but the great majority. And if you can start with that mindset, that the salesperson is not selling a bad deal or just pushing this through, to get paid, that the salesperson cares about their customer. I think it’s a much more constructive place and framework to start from. That’s just my advice in terms of thinking and interacting with salespeople.
The second thing is we the frontlines, we’re in the trenches all day, every day, interacting with customers and prospects. We’re the first ones to hear when your competitors have a new feature. We’re the first ones to hear if two or three prospects are asking for the same feature, we’re going to hear that and we’re going to process it.
I was having a conversation with my CEO, Dan last week. He does a great job of listening, listening to customer feedback, and takes the sales feedback near and dear to heart, which is one of the reasons I wanted to work at walking me. We were on the call and, one of the product leaders on the call was pointing to all the metrics saying “But, the survey data says this and that, but the KPI said that”. Then Dan said, “you know what my KPI is, it’s Alisa. If she’s telling me this product, isn’t good, this product, isn’t good”. I was like, “thank you so much Dan”, but it’s true if I’m hearing it over and over again, or my reps are hearing it over and over again where there’s smoke, there’s a fire.
So, from the sales perspective, again, we want to make our customers successful. We want a good product to sell. That’s all we care about. We are completely aligned with you. Yes, we get paid when we sell deals, but that doesn’t mean we want to sell bad deals or screw up our customers.
The Valley is small and your career is long and we run into our customers over and over again, we want to be trusted. So if you think about your sales reps that way, and think about the feedback they’re bringing you from that mindset, I think it can be much more productive.
The other thing I’ll say finally, gets in the calls with your reps join their deals, get in their cycles. If a customer churns, call the customer and ask them why they turn and be openminded and ask why. Get in there with us, roll up your sleeves and get on the calls with us because it’s a, it’s a great way to hear what we’re hearing and then you don’t have to take it from us. Whenever I bring a feature to a Product Manager, I get the question “why? Why? Why? What’s the use case?” Get on the phone and ask yourself those 10 why’s.
Maybe I’m bringing you a solution rather than a problem, if you think of the design thinking mindset, maybe I’m saying you should build this thing and you want to know what’s the problem that solving. Well, jump on the call with me and ask the customer yourself. You don’t have to rely on your salespeople to understand how to apply concepts of design thinking, but when we’re hearing the same request over and over and over again, there is a need to build or develop in that direction.
Question [00:18:37] What are you learning these days? What’s in your bookshelf? How do you block time also to invest in yourself?
Aliisa [00:18:49] Great question. So I’d say I’m personally passionate about the art of negotiation, the art of understanding how to change people’s minds, and influence them. It’s just always been an area that’s interesting to me and I practice it every day, all day. I like to think of myself as a bit of a student of negotiation and a student of people’s opinions. I am currently reading a book called The Righteous Mind, which my husband recommended to me, which is fascinating because it’s more around the framework of politics and religion. How do you change people’s minds? But the basic concept is you can’t convince anybody of anything until you’re starting from a place of mutual respect and understanding. Our opinions are deep-seated so you can’t just throw facts at somebody to change their opinion.
It comes from a place of establishing rapport and trust and understanding before you can convince them of anything, which is super relevant to sales for me. I always coach my reps. Don’t just jump into a negotiation. Don’t just jump right into a demo, take the time to build the relationship and the foundation with whoever you’re talking to, and make sure you have a strong, fundamental place of respect and admiration and value before you just start pitching products. Anyway, highly recommend the book. It’s great. In general, I’m always just, reading or learning anything I can about how people make decisions and inform opinions.
Thank you for tuning in to Season 4 of the Product Podcast by Product School. Stay tuned for more!