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Using Feedback Loops to Drive Revenue Growth with Rusty von Waldburg, President and Founder at Spokes Group

In this episode of the Revenue Insights Podcast, host Lee Bierton is joined by Rusty von Waldburg, President and Founder at Spokes Group, a consultancy in the SaaS Revenue space. Rusty brings twenty-six years of product and revenue experience to the conversation as he discusses different revenue touchpoints, including GTM strategies, improving market fit by implementing feedback loops, and creating targeted buyer personas. He also shares tips on tracking AE productivity and leading revenue metrics you need to monitor. Rusty also builds the persona of a typical high performer for the listeners, something to keep in mind when you hire. 

Rusty von Waldburg is the President and Founder of Spokes Group. A 1997 graduate of MIT, Rusty has twenty-six years of product and revenue experience, and he brings empathy, scrappiness, and an eye for scalability to GTM strategy and execution. His work has driven growth at companies like Salesforce and Motive. 

Time Stamps:

  • 00:38 – 02:15 – Rusty’s backstory
  • 02:45 – 06:14 – Building the go-to-market engine
  • 06:40 – 08:10 – Building and using buyer personas
  • 10:27 – 12:40 – How to solve the client’s pain areas and deliver ROI
  • 13:25 – 15:40 – Using feedback loops to sharpen the product market fit
  • 16:18 – 18:10 – Overcoming GTM execution challenges
  • 18:32 – 21:40 – Leading revenue indicators and monitoring AE performance
  • 22:20 – 28:55 – Achieving consistent attainment in RevOps
  • 30:30 – 31:40 – The persona of a top performer
  • 37:20 – 38:30 – Rusty’s book recommendation, Whey We Buy by Paco Underhill

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Understanding that persona, getting inside the buyer’s head, understanding their reticence, and start using this product that they were in love with to run their business, really helped us pull out discovery, helped us show value, helped us train our reps and our SEs on how to demonstrate that value, and ultimately helped pave the way up market. Welcome to Revenue Insights.

Every week we’ll be joined by revenue leaders from some of the most successful and highest growing companies. Together we explore how they built their revenue teams, the journeys that they’ve been on, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Revenue Insights is brought to you by Epstor. We’re a revenue intelligence platform designed to help revenue teams to build more pipeline, close more deals, and retain more customers. Hello there.

You are listening to Revenue Insights. Today I’m joined by Rusty von Wohlberg. Rusty has helped scale teams at Salesforce, Square, Motive, and more recently found a spokes group. So welcome along, Rusty. Lovely chat today.

How are you doing?

Very well. Thanks for having me today, Lee. No problem. Excellent CV. I’m really keen to dig into your experience and what you’re doing more recently.

But for anyone that hasn’t met you before, could you give a brief overview of your story and how you’ve got to where you are today?

Sure. When I first got into technology, people told me that there’s two things to do in tech. Either you’re building it or selling it. And one of the things I discovered is there’s actually a third leg to that stool. It’s building the machine that grows the company. And that’s the product that I’ve made a career out of building.

So I got into this out of engineering, where I discovered that the same skills that go into building a great product of discovery, testing, execution, go into building great companies, found my way into strategy consulting. And from there, as we built a firm, we were invited further and further down that rev ops path from pricing and packaging into segmentation. And eventually somebody asked us to build them a CRM.

I fell in love with Salesforce, spent six years there, going from about 200 reps in one product to thousands of reps in many products. I was invited to be the first salesperson at Square and help grow that team to more than 70 reps very quickly. And we delivered a lot of the growth of Square’s IPO. One of the things that I got fascinated by was automation.

So I went out and built a chatbot platform before coming to Motive and helping to scale that team from 70 million to 200. Now I’ve taken those skills and I’m applying it to help grow companies from seed to seed, building their own go-to-market engines as the spokesgroup. Amazing. And excellent summary.

So let’s touch on that a little bit then, because your experience really is, and I was having a look into your LinkedIn before, you’ve kind of straddled between both operations and sales, and obviously was a product background as well. So really nicely rounded on the whole.

So what learnings have you taken from that to really start to build go-to-market strategies today?

What is your approach to it?

I really think about the go-to-market engine as a product that gets built for the company. Taking a sort of a customer first view of this, we can think about building a roadmap for the stage of company that you’re at and what needs to be done. At some companies, it’s all about building traction. Your early stage, you’re focused on the persona, the pricing, and the cadence of building pipeline.

As you mature, maybe into a series B, C company, you’re thinking about how do I get more information about entitlements?

How do I implement the CPQ?

How do I get more customer health data and avoid churn?

Because that’s where a lot of the traditional operational work of go-to-market comes to play and really helps boost the productivity of the team. So what would you say then, and I ask this because go-to-market strategy comes up quite a bit and it’s obviously a key part of the revenue operations role.

So how would you say your approach is different to perhaps the, let’s say, traditional approach to go-to-market?

I think the place that I spend a lot of time is on the buyer persona because at the end of the day, people buy from who they like and trust and they’re out to solve a problem for their company. One of the places that we encountered this most starkly was as we built up Square. Square had a tremendous PLG motion when we started the sales team.

And one of the things that we discovered is big companies weren’t buying Square. They were using Square for maybe a pop-up, but they weren’t using Square in their day-to-day operations, where smaller companies were really happy to adopt Square. And then there is a zone in between where I think we had some leading adopters or early adopters of Square for big companies.

But when you’re implementing a POS system, you want to understand the workflow of that new POS system in really deep detail. You want to understand how inventory is managed. And if you have a team of 12, 30, 50 people, you’re not going to take an experiment and potentially disrupt your entire business.

You want to talk to an expert, understand what’s going to happen, build a change management process, and then implement Square in a methodical way.

So long-winded way of answering your question of understanding that persona, getting inside the buyer’s head, understanding their reticence to start using this product that they were in love with to run their business really helped us really helped us pull out discovery, helped us show value, helped us train our reps and our SEs on how to demonstrate that value, and ultimately helped pave the way out of the market. Really important point.

And what stands out to me is, and feel free to draw on any one of your experiences, what’s your process then to first identify that buyer persona, but then also to build out what it looks like. And then if you can, ideally how you then build that into the rest of the go-to-market function.

I think listening is the first thing, because buyers will tell you, and they’ll tell you in a lot of different ways on discovery calls. One thing that I’m continuously evangelizing to my teams is the value of reading financial statements, like your 10k, your customers 10k’s and 10q’s. The executive team actually puts in writing what are their most important initiatives and what are the risks of their business.

And if you can line up your product and service to what’s most important to your buyer, you have a better chance of helping them at the end of the day. Then it’s reinforcing that, documenting the personas, documenting the handoffs between your teams.

So what are the objective criteria that an SDR needs to achieve in an opportunity for NAE to accept it?

And having that handoff negotiated in an objective way really helps speed the sales cycle, because you’re communicating, here’s what’s important to my buyer, here’s the next step they want to see, this is what’s really important in the demo. And then it carries through the sales process, where you’re reinforcing how you’re going to address pain points all the way through.

And are you building that from your perspective into top end of the funnel, into business development and through marketing, or do you see it spreading throughout the customer journey?

It’s throughout the customer journey. I think one of the most important things is to create that feedback loop. Because as companies grow, you get to the point where there’s separate teams for product marketing, for marketing, for sales development. And one of the things that happens at the founding stage is founder led sales, all those roles are the same people.

So the feedback loop is really tight between what you’re learning about buyer personas and how you’re marketing your product. As these grow and specialize, it’s really important to maintain that feedback loop and bring the feedback from your sales development team to product marketing. I don’t think this pitch or my buyers are really curious about this other element that we’re not talking about.

How do I talk about that with them and get some PMM help on it?

Or how to bring back and one of the things that we do at the spokes group is we actually build ROI selling tools, which take the business demo of how do you build a business case for a product or service and turn it into a structured conversation where you’re capturing the customer’s information and their data helps you build a business case throughout the sales cycle.

So it helps set up the success criteria for a POC or a trial and then puts you in a great position and negotiate price at the end of the deal.

I think that’s a really interesting point that I’d love to dig more into because being able to capture that data and be able to demonstrate the potential ROI, it makes it a no brainer, right?

So what does that process look like?

What does that process look like for you in terms of is that how you’re working with customers or how you prove to customers the ROI?

Yeah, this is a service that the spokes group does for customers today. And let me tell you about how we build it and then how it gets used. So what we do is very similar to product marketing work.

We go out, we talk to 10 of your customers or prospects, and we listen to the pain that they’re looking to address with your product. We do a ton of market research so that we’re able to build logical structures with inputs and outputs of how your product delivers business value. And we capture all that in a model that looks a lot like a PowerPoint slide.

And what that does is it’s a lot like doing a product demo of you’re asking questions in a very structured way, just as you would as you went through a product demo, uncovering pain points and understanding not only the value that you deliver, but who does that value matter to?

Coming back to personas a little bit, you have a champion inside a company that might be a user of your product or might own the function that your product’s going to help. But there’s an economic buyer, there’s other stakeholders that are curious about maybe risk reduction or different elements of your product or service.

And exposing those and measuring them actually gives your champion a chance to be a hero by bringing in a business case that speaks to that array of stakeholders and making the decision more about the business value of that you’re going to deliver and an ROI case. Because without that, it’s on your prospect to sort of guesstimate it based on what they think of your demo, their confidence in your capability to implement.

And that calculation is on their side. So you’re really helping them out by structuring that business case.

And I think the bit that stands out to me then, and to bring us back to the point on the feedback loop, I’ve certainly found with feedback loops like that, like you’re getting from those customer interviews, it’s a question that I like to ask quite a lot because I don’t think there’s one clearly defined way of building these feedback loops and often find that they’re often more organic than anything.

So in your experience, can you perhaps give one example of I guess what you consider to be one great feedback loop?

Because I don’t think there’s a process to do it. And feel free to touch on that. But we’d love to know your perspective and perhaps one experience that you’ve had if it really working. Where it’s worked best, we’ve designated floor champions for different products. So we had AEs that were specialized in product A or product B. And that did two things.

One thing it gave everybody on the floor, somebody to go to if they had a question about the product, an expert with that next level of detail. It also created a lightning rod for all the feedback on that product. So that AE actually had a career opportunity by going to meeting with the product team on a regular basis monthly and sharing that feedback in a structured way.

Because without that sort of organic partnership and collecting feedback from across the team, it’s the loudest AE or the biggest deal that influences product, which is usually not the right thing.

So it helped our team have a voice with the product team and making sure that we were speaking for the business with data and numbers so that it wasn’t just one deal or a loud AE that was influencing the direction of the company, but became a very data driven conversation. And a lot of those AEs found a career path.

A lot of them have gone into product marketing or to be founders themselves because of that experience. And it was probably one of the more positive things that we did. That’s great.

The things that kind of springs to mind is what was the incentive to get them initially signed up into that initiative?

Was it this is what we’re running and you had a handful of really enthusiastic people or take it away?

We ran into sales problems and customer support problems. Something didn’t work or we didn’t know which to sell. And we needed a structured conversation with the product team to go answer those questions. And we outnumbered the product team. So it couldn’t be everybody slacking them all at once. We needed to organize ourselves in order to make progress.

Yeah, that makes sense. We’ve touched a little on go to market strategy. And I always love looking at the through the lens strategy on kind of two sides. One is very much on the high level, what it looks like and the documentation and everything that goes with it. And then the other side, which is so often the most challenging part, which is actually executing and on that strategy.

So what is your approach to the execution of that strategy once you’ve created it?

Let me use headcount planning as part of that as one example, because I think one of the things that go to market ops and rev ops teams are deeply involved in fiscal planning.

So what are the markets that we’re going to invest in over the course of the year with sales, with marketing and with product?

And how do those stack rank from there?

Where are we going to put our resources?

And what are the I’ll say the gates or the trigger points with which that we slow down or accelerate investment?

And there’s leading indicators like how many inbound leads are we getting or what’s our SDR call to meeting conversion rate?

And then there’s lagging indicators like sales, AE attainment versus their quotas, and then ultimately revenue and turn right. So it behooves us to approach this as a structured hypothesis. We believe that this industry or this segment of the market is going to be great for us. We’re going to invest X percent of our incremental growth in doubling down on that industry. We want to see leading indicators of conversion rate.

We want to see lagging indicators of AE attainment and tracking those on a monthly and quarterly basis and doing a deep dive on boy, this is performing better than we expected or our conversion rates are really high, but those deals haven’t dropped yet. And our attainment is lagging.

Why is that?

And what do we need to do differently?

And so you’ve got the actually one thing I want to ask before we go down that route is we’ve got all of these leading and lagging indicators.

What would you say two of the most impactful leading indicators on revenue from your experience?

Yeah, I lean really heavily on meeting conversion rates. And then my other really strong indicator is AE productivity. So dollars per period per head.

I’m really curious on AE productivity, could you expand why?

At the end of the day, that is your, at least in a sales driven company, that is your measure of efficiency because in a growing company, you’re adding the AE heads and due to ramp, you have to hire the heads today that are going to drive your growth next year.

So being able to track your AE productivity per ramped head or fractional head is critically important because if you pull back on AE hiring, it saves you money in the near term, but it actually cannibalizes next year’s growth.

For AE productivity, how do you track that?

What metrics tie into that?

So there’s a couple and let me, I’ll wave my hands a little bit as I talk. It starts with AE heads in seat. Then most teams have a ramp period for their AE heads. I’m going to use a ballpark average of, let’s say it takes three months for an AE to come to fully ramp. So your first month, I’m not expecting anything from you.

You’re in bootcamp, you’re building out your pipeline, your territory, you probably won’t close the deal.

Secondly, you’re going to have to be able to get to 50% of your monthly quota. Third month, maybe 100%. Maybe it’s instead of 0.50, 100, it could be 0.33, 67, 100. So depending on the segment you’re selling into, you have different ramp times. So what I do is I take the heads in seat, multiply them by the ramp, and then I have our target times the quota and I have our target productivity for the team in seat.

And I can measure how much sales did we close versus that target productivity. And then there’s layers underneath that.

Do I have a rock star rep that’s carrying the team?

Are my new hires tracking to their projected ramp or not?

And you can debug every element of that.

But it really starts with having that, what is our target pro-rated productivity for the team and how are we performing against it?

And that was exactly what I was going to ask.

Because I find often when you’ve got it down on paper and you’ve got an idea of, yes, this is how productive I need a rep to be, often you do have your superstar reps, right?

And A, attainment is notoriously challenging to achieve consistently.

How do you factor that into your calculations?

Can you factor that into your calculations?

Yeah, I think this is part of the strategy.

This gets into that strategy conversation of who do you want your sales team to be?

Because when I was coming up through Salesforce, we referred to Oracle as the evil empire. I’ve matured past that in my life now. But at Oracle, one thing that happened is you didn’t get much ramp. You got a really high quota, but you were only expected to hit 70% of your number. And that was a good year. That’s a drag mentally and emotionally to only get to 70%.

At Salesforce, we took a different tact. We set lower quotas, and our OTEs were lower if you hit your number. But we designed quotas so that you could get a good amount of time. So that we averaged something like 90 odd percent attainment across the team. And we tried to get that balanced attainment because it’s an area under the curve problem.

If you have 10% of your team clobbering it and 90% of your team struggling, there’s a big potential productivity. So we spent a lot of time trying to balance territories, a lot of time on enablement in order to get our average attainment up into the 80s and 90s.

Yeah, we still had some outliers both on the high end and the low end, but it’s the middle that really drives the growth of the company and the efficiency of your go-to-market model. What was the secret to when you’ve got your high performers, and now I’m using my hands too, and you’ve got your high performers and you’ve got some of your low performers.

What were some of the things that you did to really bring some of those lower performers up to help you hit the targets to where you needed to be?

I think there’s some things that are under the rev-ops team control, and some of them are broader. Let me start with territory design. We did a lot of work to figure out what are the most important signals in a balanced territory.

So is it the mix of urban versus suburban companies?

Is it the mix of industries?

Is it the mix of customers versus new logos?

And we spent a lot of time, we actually ran regression tests over the past couple of years of data, and we demonstrated to our sales leaders that this algorithm we came up with would give everybody a higher average attainment than what they were getting with bespoke territories. So that was a big watershed.

One other thing that I lived through at Salesforce was when Lehman Brothers failed, which is a little bit too reminiscent of the events of the past week or so. And what that prompted us to do is take a really hard look at what makes a successful rep. So we went through historical data, and we linked it through to a lot of recruiting data.

And we found that our best reps were top performers at previous companies, which is kind of obvious. But we revamped the interview process. And this is something I ended up borrowing at Square to be a panel pitch where you’re pitching to a panel of stakeholders, and they role play. And at Square, we actually took this a level further.

We gave people seven slides, and we said, pick five, make one of your own and come in and pitch Square. And one of us was the economic decision maker, one of us was the champion, etc. And we challenged people with questions we didn’t expect them to have the answer to.

And people’s ability to do discovery, to be straightforward of, gosh, I don’t know, but I’m going to help you find that answer, really paid dividends in how their results were in how they ended up performing. And at Salesforce, one of the things that we discovered is that our best reps were able to sell across a wider variety of payment types.

So they sold quarterly, they sold annually, they sold multi year, and they sold more products. So sales cloud, service cloud, etc. Which was a big indicator to us that they were selling what the customer wanted to buy. And we tried to replicate that ability and through enablement. Because we also had top reps that showed up at President’s Club every other year.

And they were more like two year olds with hammers, they knew how to sell one product. And every other year, they would clobber it. But we tried to recruit that army of people that could do well in these territories that were a lot like a assembly line. They were very balanced, very interchangeable. And we tried to put the team on the field that could sell exactly what the customer wanted to buy.

The question that came to mind as you’re going through that was, I love the point of having a committee when interviewing, were there consistent factors that you were looking for in that hiring process?

Was it like a characteristic, a certain behavior, an outlook on things?

I’m intrigued to know if there’s perhaps like very tangible things, it’s like, yep, this person’s got it, we know they’re going to be a good fit. Two things really came to the fore of asking questions about the business before offering solutions. And then really strong next steps.

What is it?

When you say a really strong next step, what would you say that is?

It’s concrete and specific. So as an example, Hey Lee, thanks for your time today. I’m going to, let’s look at calendars right now, because you’ve asked me for X, Y, and Z. And I’d love to block time this next Tuesday work for you in order to answer these questions.

And can you bring your manager to that meeting?

Because a lot of these have to do with the economic questions that they’re asking you.

Can we make that happen?

And giving that agreement in the meeting was a big differentiator of people that were going to progress deals versus people that were going to, I’ll say, be led through a sales cycle by their champion.

Yeah, really interesting.

And that we’re talking about before, the thing that I’m curious to know is, do you believe that that is still the case?

Or has your thinking developed since then in terms of what differentiates a top performer from the rest of the pack?

Actually, it’s probably amplified that. Because especially in this time, as economic headlines are blowing, it really behooves every salesperson to do two things. Get to the meat of the pain that a company is experiencing, is experiencing, and be very concise about how you’re going to address that pain point. And then secondly, be stingy with your time. You want to move deals forward.

You want to identify who is real about having a purchasing discussion versus somebody that doesn’t have purchasing power. Because it’s very easy to dance with somebody for a very long time in this environment, and not be able to close a deal with them. Because the timing just isn’t right. And that’s not a ding on your salesmanship. That’s not a ding on them as a buyer. It’s just the timing isn’t right.

And there are people out there for whom the timing is right. Absolutely.

And so often that’s a big reason why deals slip, right?

You know, deals are being held onto and poke more than expectation. Curious to get your perspective on deal slippage in particular.

How have you dealt with that in the past?

And perhaps could you shine a light on any solutions that you’ve found that have reduced the amount of deal slippage?

This is where I think EBSDA really helps in forecasting tools like it. Because you’re surfacing a lot of the elements that sales managers and rev ops leaders focus in on.

When was the last time that you actually spoke with somebody?

Are they responding to your emails?

Are you connected to power inside of a deal?

Because we can talk a lot about different sales methodologies, but all of them boil down to those same elements of are you getting to the pain point?

Are you quantifying the business case?

Are you getting to the decision makers?

And have you started the process that you need to go through with legal, with procurement, etc.

in order to be in a good position to close this deal?

And those are fairly objective criteria.

Yeah, absolutely. And often then the challenges and certainly from analysis that we’ve run, there’s clearly an impact that things like sales methodologies do have on reps that are using them. But still the amount that actually competing this feels is still relatively low.

So in perhaps businesses that you’ve worked in or working with, have you found a way to really get reps on board with perhaps using methodologies like that or leaning into some of those indicators that suggest, for example, there’s no activity in the past seven days or there’s no meeting booked in the future.

How do you get them on board?

Yeah, two things. And one I enjoy a lot more than the other. The one I enjoy is having a slot team of early adopters. It’s typically at least one of your top reps. But I love getting and coaching a middle performer or even a low performer into this group of give me a month, give me a couple of weeks to try this out.

And we’ll see if you can make an impact on your pipeline. Because the stories, the case studies from peers are super impactful. And that’s sort of the, oh, Joey just clobbered his number.

How did he do that?

Or, boy, so and so seems to be really on top of their deals. And they’re having a different level of conversation. They’re assigning tasks to the management team during forecast calls, where I’m getting drilled.

How do I flip that around?

Everybody on the sales floor is incredibly talented. And they pick up on patterns like that right away. So that’s my favorite way. The other way is the stick method of just grinding in on an inspection and having the data to do it so that you can show people, hey, it’s been seven days since you last interacted with them.

Have they responded to your last email?

When’s our next meeting with them?

What is the agenda for that next meeting?

All those very specific questions are very knowable. That’s what CRMs were designed for. But that conversation is brutal. And people that are able to capture those specific next steps in the CRM elevate that conversation of all the data is already there. It’s in my forecast. It’s in my next steps. The data of my interactions and my activity on this account are visible.

So let’s have a conversation about what our close plan is.

Do you know the head of procurement?

Do you know the CFO?

How do we get time with them?

And it becomes more about social selling and closing?

And how are we going to demonstrate the value X or Y than it does about getting that next meeting?

And that’s really when teams start performing at a high level.

Yeah, I completely agree. The stick method is never a nice one. Sometimes that’s necessary.

Brostee, I want to ask you one final question. And this one’s not really sales related.

So if you could recommend one book to other revenue leaders, which would you pick?

And that could be fiction or nonfiction or whatever way you’d like to take it. One that comes to mind right away is the goal. It’s an old one. It’s about somebody that takes on a factory and goes through that factory, boosting productivity in one area than the other. And I think that’s a lot about what our roles in go to market ops are, is we have a factory to run.

I think that’s sort of one that’s probably on everybody’s bookshelf. The other one I’d recommend, and this comes back to personas, is Why We Buy by Paco Underhill.

And he was one of the foundational people in retailing that did deep thinking and quantitative analysis of where do you put things in a grocery store in order to sell more?

And why does the top shelf work better than the bottom shelf?

So it’s a fascinating read. And as you apply it to B2B enterprise sales, all the same dynamics come to play. So it really gets you inside the head of your buyers. Love it. I’ll make sure that we include a couple of links to those both down below.

Rusty, it’s been an absolute pleasure chatting.

For anyone that if they have any questions or want to connect, where can they find you?

You can find me at rusty at Rusty at Perfect. We’ll include those down the show notes as well. Excellent.

Well, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much again, Rusty, for joining me and to everyone that’s listened to this week’s episode. We will see you next week. Seriously. Thanks. Thanks for listening to Revenue Insights. If you want to learn more, subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll deliver every episode straight to your inbox. If you have any questions, feel free to connect with us on LinkedIn.

Our links will be in the episode notes. See you next week.

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