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Building Explainability Into Your Product

From Sales Engineering to Sales Operations

Barry: So Semir, tell us a bit about yourself and Clari. Then, we’ll deep dive into what it means to be a sales engineer and to do operations.

Semir: Yeah, my pleasure. I’ve been at Clari for over two years now, spearheading the European expansion. We’ll dive into that. I think what would be interesting for people. I’m from Switzerland originally. I grew up in a small village in Switzerland. I went to Accenture and worked in the Salesforce practice after my university degree. That’s where I got exposed to CRM and the cloud.

Then after that, I worked at Salesforce in London. After that, I thought I want to jump on the startup train, I want to do something exciting so I became the very first sales engineer for Clari EMEA and do the landing team with a few reps and SDRs and we started building the market here with Clari, which is a brand new solution.

We were founded around nine years ago in the Silicon Valley from the need that there had to be more than a combination of CRM spreadsheets and BI tools, and operations people and sales leaders were really looking for something to bring all that revenue data together, where you collaborate more closely, you understand what’s happening, and you can close more deals faster, make it all just more connected, more predictable and more efficient. That’s what Clari does. That’s what we’ve been doing for nine years and over two years now in Europe. It’s been a wild ride, to say the least.

Barry: That was a fantastic description of Clari. I’m sure your marketing team is very proud.

Semir: I hope so. Thank you.

Barry: I think there are a few interesting topics for our listeners that we’re going to cover. One is that you went from sales engineering to operations, but two, also that you helped expand the team globally and the product in the go-to-market globally. I should be more specific, meaning, you were brought in as a first sales engineer in Europe, and the fact that you, I guess, are from Switzerland and you’re more familiar with the landscape, you also are strategically helping the teams go across the world and across Europe and across other parts. I think that’s a very interesting topic. But I think let’s start with sales engineering. What exactly is your day-to-day and then how did that lead to more operations perspective?

Semir: Yes.

Barry: But first, let’s start with sales engineering.

Semir: Yeah, perfect. For those who don’t know, sales engineers or solution engineers, pre-sales consultants, they’re oftentimes the unsung heroes in the sales cycles. We are behind the scenes making sure that the solution that we are promising actually stands up to the expectation of a prospect or customer. Demos are often done by SEs and many other things. It’s a very multifaceted role.

I got into this after Accenture, at Salesforce doing the SE role for a few years, and then at Clari. What really helped me to do a decent job at Clari when we were starting was having that background in Salesforce and knowing what happens after people buy, because I was implementing Salesforce as well and implementing solutions. I just loved it. I just loved it at the startup as well because we were breaking into new countries and our first customers in Israel, so wherever you are today or in Austria or in Ireland.

It’s just super exciting to be the SE at the forefront. It’s not just to demonstrate a product or to showcase a certain module or to go through a security review before somebody buys a software, but it was much more than that when you’re part of the first four or five people that are in a new region, first time outside the US for Clari two years ago. It was all about feeding back and having a very tight feedback loop with the product team, with the marketing team, with the operations teams in the US, and that really over time, has evolved to become a formal part of my title now and what I do every day.

So I do the SE role, helping our sales teams win more deals, position the product, demo, but I also give feedback and I say, “Hey, this is what’s working in this market. Hey, this is the product gap that we have specifically in Europe that’s a bit different from the US because yeah, you’re based in Israel, I’m based in the UK and we all know not everything works exactly the same way across the world as it does in California and Silicon Valley. That’s been the fun part of having that operations hat on and learning every day.

Barry: It’s really interesting. I know in Israel, we try to duplicate what’s done in Silicon Valley and I think we actually do a solid job. One thing that is very different is that our language is right to left. The language is important. Usually, most Israelis in high tech read English, but I know that’s definitely a factor for tech companies when they’re a product factor. This is just off-the-cuff, but what are some of the other product features? You don’t have to be so specific, but what are some big gaps that people thought, maybe the rest of the world wouldn’t have an issue with, but for software, they actually do have that issue? From a hardware perspective, I used to sell actually musical instruments and we sold an electric guitar. We sold on Amazon. One time, our manufacturer ran out of American outlets and he just sent to America ones with outlets that only worked in the UK and that was a disaster.

Semir: Yes, I can imagine. Oh, my goodness.

Barry: Yeah. And then hardware, we even tested it before him because you have to, but you only get a sample. It was only like 5% of the box that had this of the 10,000 shipments. So that for hardware was a harder fix afterward, but I’m curious about some of the software things that you’ve seen, some of the software trends where there’s a big gap between the states and the rest of the world.

Building “Explainability” into the Product

Semir: There’s a number of things. As you evolve as a company and get more into the enterprise for instance, or deeper into certain sectors, different things become important. One thing that I knew would be important and we’ve constantly started feeding back to product is the explainability of things. We have a certain element of AI in our projections.

CROs can tell in week two or three where they will likely land at the end of the quarter. In the US, people just love that. They jump at it. They’re very open to new things and when you start to sell the same capability may be in Germany or in Holland, for instance, they ask, “Well, how does this AI really work? Can you tell me more? What’s the science behind it,” and the explainability of how your solution actually works and how you position it, really critical as well. That’s something you have to build into the product and how we can explain it.

How does this magic exactly work? What’s in the box that delivers this? But then there’s also hands-on stuff. We all are big fans, of course, of GDPR and privacy and security. I think that is something I think every software company has learned or is learning probably very early when they start internationally expanding about how do we get GDPR compliance, how do we follow all the privacy rules across different countries? I think there was a learning curve for us as well in pursuing that path. So those are just two examples of the nuances that you might not know if you’re somewhere in California when you first expand into the European market.

Barry: Yeah. When you were talking about the role of a sales engineer, I’m a product marketer, it sounds even like there are a lot of overlapping features like, what is the messaging? The explainability thing is very product marketing kind of insights. It’s really interesting. I think this might be the first time I’m talking at a professional level with a sales engineer to hear some of the similarities there. It’s super interesting.

Semir: Cool. Yeah, there is. It’s a multifaceted role, that’s for sure. I’ve been enjoying wearing those different hats and that’s part of the excitement of being in a startup. People wear multiple hats. You are not just running the business, you’re also helping change the business and evolve the business. Clari has changed so many times since I’ve joined from four or five people that we were two years ago to 35. The challenges are different. The product is different. The market has evolved. It’s been fantastic.

Barry: Yeah, absolutely. So cool. We are discussing before that you started as an SE and you still are the SE. That’s your main role, but as you just mentioned, from a startup world, you’re doing multiple hats and you moved into the operations a little bit more. What kind of operations are you doing and are they related to sales engineering? Are they related to more RevOps? Are they related to more than just getting things done? Tell us a bit more about that.

RevOps: Getting Things Done

Semir: I think the getting things done is probably a good description of the operations bucket that I wear whilst we’re growing at Clari in Europe. The hat really varies. I think it’s partly the unique combination of the background, trying to weave in all the experiences I’ve had in Switzerland, then Accenture, then in Salesforce and sometimes it’s revenue operations, classic territory planning. That’s what we did in December, November time last year.

We were really focused on which markets we target, which accounts are good, which are not, and having somebody who’s feet on the ground here is really helpful for our actual RevOps team in the US. They’re amazing in what they do. They work really closely together and it’s good that they have this additional input from somebody like me who knows technically a bit of what’s happening, but also knows the market a bit, has traveled around, and knows how different customers work.

That’s been tremendously helpful in Q4 as we’re planning the new fiscal year. It’s been a fantastic learning experience for me as well learning from them who do it every day all day, because that’s just in the end, part of the day in my role.

Eventually, we will get a RevOps person in Europe and then that person can do all that magical stuff. Then it evolves. We win a lot of customers in Q4, and then it’s all about, how do we transition now well to professional services, ensure that they go to value very quick and we can then upsell at some point to them? So that’s where I work closely with our professional services team.

I was like, “How can we improve the transition from pre-sales to post-sales? How do we get customers’ value very quickly? What are the learnings we have to apply to the sales cycles now in order to do a better job post-sales again?” It’s just nice that it lends on as well whilst now I’m leading the team that’s still running the SE organization and function here. So that’s multifacetedness. I think as companies grow, you get more specific in what you do, but we’re on that journey at the moment and there’s still plenty to do and plenty to wear multiple hats on.

Barry: That’s awesome, man. It sounds like you really enjoy wearing multiple hats. If you didn’t enjoy wearing multiple hats, it sounds like it would be terrible, but it sounds like you enjoy it.

Semir: I do enjoy it. Exactly, yes. Exactly. Not for everybody, but I do certainly enjoy it.

Barry: I think most of our listeners like wearing multiple hats. I feel like that’s a RevOps kind of role or even CRO role, just relationships, but also getting things done and also working with different teams. I definitely feel like our listeners can connect to that.

I think we can deep dive into three of the things you mentioned. One is going global and that territory planning outside of America. I would love to discuss that.

The other thing you mentioned just beyond territory planning was going from pre-sales to post-sales. I think it would be cool to talk about it for five minutes, and then the last thing we could talk about would be just going SE to ops in general, but let’s go one by one.

Territory Planning

Barry: Let’s do territory planning. What can you tell people, our listeners? Most of them are based in the US. If they wanted to do territory planning into Europe and they have a few people in Europe already, it’s not the first hire, not the first sales hire, what do they need to do? What should be the strategy? What’s important for them to know before they even get started?

Semir: Yeah. There are lots that we’ve probably learned in the past few years. I mean, a few tactical things for anybody in RevOps in the US thinking about expansion into Europe. Data is not so great for European companies. If you buy from ZoomInfo or you buy it from another source, it’s just hard. The landscape is so scattered, different countries, different laws, different languages. You will not get the precision on the data to run excellent territory planning. So you need to account for that.

You need to build in a buffer or you need to just be conscious of how that will pan out with the sales team as you deploy the territories into different teams that you have in Europe. I think tactically, be mindful of the data gap that you have in Europe, and as you think about that, you need to build in a buffer and factor that into your territories. I think that’s a very tactical thing we’ve learned. Super important.

I think that the next thing is as you think about the different countries, they are much different than the different states in the US. It’s very different to sell to the UK versus France versus Israel where you are, or Sweden or Finland than selling compared to the Boston region versus the New York region. There are different states in the US that are more similar probably than the countries in Europe. So you have to definitely account for that as well as you build your books.

You can’t just give it to somebody. Here’s all of Europe. That might work for certain industries and if you’re in tech, everybody speaks English, that’s fine, but as soon as you’re selling into manufacturing, you have to have a French speaker in France. You have to have a German speaker in Germany, and that’s a very important nuance as well that people sometimes forget as well.

These are the two things. Then I think everybody in RevOps who runs a good RevOps organization, they do have that feedback loop with the field. I think this is just a strategic decision to always nurture that feedback loop. Our RevOps people in the US, they’re amazing. They always are asking us, “Hey, Semir, what is happening in Europe? Does this make sense? What do you think about this approach?” and they do the same for the different stakeholders they engage with. They really want to do a good job and they’re really curious learners.

They’ve especially tried to learn a lot from Europe as well because it is so different, you have to learn more. That’s really helped us build a good team and a good go-to-market motion, create good territories that reps, when they get them, also feel confident that they can hit the ground running and have a successful year. So that’s one of the strategic sides, I think, what I find interesting in going global and how it affects territory management, and territory planning.

RevOps Team Collaboration

Barry: You mentioned that you have an amazing RevOps team, so first of all, shout out to your RevOps team, but is it planned like, “Once a week, I have a call with Semir” or is it more just on the fly like, “Oh, I’m doing this new thing. I should reach out to Semir just to get his opinion” or “I’m in the middle of something. I’m starting it. I’m going to reach out to Semir”? What’s usually the relationship with that and again, what do you think do they get the most out of it when they have that type of relationship?

Semir: Yeah. I have my weekly touchpoint with our revenue operations person in the US. That’s when we go through just what’s top of mind, be it the Salesforce report, be it how the team is doing, be it how the new rep that’s joining the book that he or she will get. That’s a weekly touchpoint, so very frequent in that sense. There is more collaboration definitely in Q4 as also the sales leaders around building the territories.

We will have definitely much more in terms of collaboration going on there, but just the need. I mean, we went from, as I said, four or five people, I think 14, 15 months ago to 35 people now. Most of them are in the go-to-market function somewhere. There are new books to be built, to be deployed.

There are assessments like, “Hey, does this work? What have we done? Is there a gap anywhere in what we’ve done?” So this constant interaction is needed. I think some teams might require less and some a bit more, but I’m keeping my weekly touchpoints. It’s good to have that, I think. You might learn things, especially when you don’t have a full agenda necessarily. You just might talk a bit about stuff because you also want to hear what’s working in the US, what are they doing, and what could be applied here. So yeah, for me, it’s the weekly touchpoint that works really well.

Barry: On a related note, do you have weekly touchpoints with sales engineers in the states? Are those insights shared globally?

Semir: Yes. We have the sales engineering leadership team. We meet up on a weekly basis as well. The majority of my job is focusing on the sales engineers. Make sure they accelerate deals, make deals bigger, and work the sales reps in the most effective way they can. Then there are all these adjacent functions in the new market. As I said, enablement is one I work with at the moment.

Again, with so much growth, you have to enable people to effectively position and transform what comes from product marketing into field-ready pitches and presentations. That’s currently one of my focuses, let’s say, in that operations bucket. It varies all the time, but it’s good to have that one-stop-shop if you want through me and then have it dispersed into other teams. So that’s been fun and yeah, it varies.

Pre- to Post-Sales Transition

Barry: That’s very interesting. Now let’s talk about pre-sales to post-sales. You mentioned that was a task that you’ve been working on in the past 15 months. Tell us, I guess, maybe some of the pain points and some of the obstacles and how you got through some of those obstacles?

Semir: This is so interesting. I love that pre to post-sales transition because that’s when all these promises on PowerPoints and POCs and demos come to reality. I’ve seen that at Accenture, how Salesforce can sell something. Now you then have to implement it and how reality hits the dream and sometimes, it’s a bit too far off. I want to make sure that that’s as close as possible and delivered as fast as possible, so time to value has been very critical.

When I joined, we didn’t have a post-sales team. We just implemented through the US with the time zone gap. I was trying to stitch together as much as I could in terms of keeping the customer interaction healthy, and being there as a person of contact as well during European hours if they had questions.

Then over time, we started to put processes in place, regular touchpoints for the post-sales team. I would help them understand who the customers are, what their pain points are, and really do extra deep transitions if you want. We go through different calls. We’ve had different slides and do maybe a bit of extra, but that was needed because of the time zone difference. Already, you would have a bit of disconnect, so wherever you can make that gap a bit smaller, I was overinvesting into that to make sure that it would work.

There is a cultural gap as well. If you have a team implementing in California and you have a German team who wants an implementation to be very precise, organized, ready, and planned through, help bridge that and say, “Look, that’s how that customer works. That’s what they’re used to, so we just need to approach it from that perspective as well so we deliver the best experience.”

It’s been great. Then we started hiring our implementation team. I helped coach and mentor some of the people who got onboarded in that team, and now they’re pretty self-sufficient and running well, implementing customers on a continuous basis. We’re evolving as a company too.

It’s nice to see that transition from having nobody here who does professional services and implementations and post-sales to having a whole team in customer success and implementations and processes and a bit of structure. I can’t wait for what it’ll look like in a few years when we’re even bigger and better organized.

Understanding Cultural Differences

Barry: Yeah. It sounds like it comes down to that cultural differences, just expectations, explainability, things that we’ve heard about or I think a lot of our listeners have read about differences in cultures and then just acting on that. It’s sometimes like you read in a book, you’re like, “Oh, it’s probably overstated,” but then I speak to people and they’re like, “No, it’s not overstated. You have to explain more to these people in this country.”

Semir: It’s exactly like that sometimes, yes.

Barry: It’s really interesting and really wild. What’s one, I guess, without obviously saying anything bad about Clari, but what’s one thing that in that process was surprising? It could be a good thing. What’s one thing that you wish you knew beforehand, four to 15 months ago when you were working with them?

Semir: Yeah. That’s a good question. I’ve learned so much. It’s been a fantastic journey. I’ve grown so much personally and professionally as well. I think what I learned, there are so many things. I think one thing I’ve learned is just to collaborate, again, with the US, for me. I worked at an American company before. It was Salesforce, but they were already hugely established in Europe and in London, so the cultural difference would be much smaller, but I think working with people in the US, I understood also the other way around, how I work with my manager effectively or how I work with the US team effectively, where I think that’s really important as well.

It’s not just, “Hey, they need to understand things are different in Europe. The Americans, they don’t get it. It’s different here. You can’t sell like this into Holland or into France,” but also goes the other way. What does my manager expect? What is the mindset that they have about approaching go-to-market? I think it goes both ways. It goes both ways, especially if you’re early days in a market.

For anybody in RevOps who will deploy their first talent to Europe in the next six or 12 months, the learning has to go both ways. I think that has to be encouraged. That’s really important. That’s why it’s good to have somebody who’s maybe worked at an American company, has a better idea that things are different, or somebody who’s done it before, of course. When you look at hiring, I think a key thing is, have they done this before? Have they worked so internationally before? I think that’s one thing that probably surprised me a bit it goes both ways.

Barry: By the way, I would say it’s even for your benefit that you recognize that early and that you’re able to work on that communication. I guess that goes with everything in all relationships, whether it be sales, whether it not be sales, whether it works internally, but it’s really interesting and it’s a good point, especially for someone that doesn’t live in the states.

Semir: That’s good.

Barry: It’s funny that you mentioned that. I recently was speaking to some friends in America and they mentioned the company they’re working at now and they’re like, “The company we were with before was also Israeli.” I’m like, “What? What’s going on here?” It’s like, “Is this an accident?” They’re like, “No, no. We like that culture. That’s what we want to work with.”

So there are cultural differences and it doesn’t just matter for sales and explainability and being better at GDPR. It’s also very important for internal relationships. So that’s absolutely important and a great point. The third thing I wanted to bring up with you was what we mentioned, was sales engineer DevOps. It’s really interesting. One of the reasons I even reached out was because I saw that was your background on LinkedIn. So I’m glad you put that in your LinkedIn so then I could target you for the podcast.

But sales engineering and ops, it seems like you fell into the ops because you’re in Europe and you’re really informed and you’re really smart and then they probably wanted you, but I would love to hear more about that. Moving more into ops, obviously, you’re still in sales engineering, but I would love to hear more about that relationship between sales engineering and ops and what you’ve seen in the ecosystem of sales engineers and ops.

The Relationship Between Sales Engineering and Operations

Semir: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of my pet projects or something I really love to spend more time on, is developing people and cultures and how they nourish the learning and how people progress to new career paths. That’s amazing, I think. I’ve seen it at Clari. I’ve seen it at Salesforce. The SE, the sales engineering pre-sales or solution engineering career path is one that lends itself to many other facets of the business.

Because SEs are naturally very curious. They love the technology and how it benefits businesses. They have to constantly learn more about new products, new capabilities, and new launches. Whatever the case, they have to learn. They have to learn about the customer, their pains, their issues, and their problems. Naturally with that, they always seek to learn more and we’ve had it at Clari.

We’ve had people that go into product management, go into marketing, they go into strategy. I have now started embarking on a path as well, where I do a bit of operations and who knows whatever it will lead to. Maybe I do more of that as I grow my career. It’s just a fantastic thing to see as people develop into that. I have a friend. His name is Adam Freeman. He used to just be in an SE leadership role at the company and now, he is leading not just SEs, but he’s also in charge of enablement and many other aspects of the go-to-market.

Another person I know is a guy called Martin at a company. He moved from SE leader to the RevOps leader because as the SE, he saw the go-to-market teams. He saw the different AEs and styles of how they work. He saw what resonates, what doesn’t resonate, the product, and where the gaps are. He could then effectively help bridge that by moving into that role.

Then you even see SEs going to sales, our own CRO, Kevin Knieriem. He used to be a sales engineer and he’s now our CRO. That really inspires me to just think about, hey, what could be next? What’s the next fun thing that I could do? What’s the next fun thing that my team could do? I have team members. They were in sales.

I have a team member who was a Salesforce consultant before, and now they’re all SEs and in three, four years’ time, they’ll be something else maybe again. That’s just very inspiring to see. I love to see people grow and pursue their passions. I think SE’s a great chapter in many people’s careers and sometimes, it’s like the only thing that we want to do as well, which is great too because there are always things you can learn as an SE as you embark on a career in sales engineering.

Barry: That’s really interesting. I’m really glad. You’re our first sales engineer on our podcast.

Semir: That’s cool. Thank you for having me, as I said. Yeah, it’s fantastic.

Barry: I think it’s really interesting for our audience and our listeners to hear. It sounds like you’re doing great things for Clari. It’s nice to hear about their expansion. A lot of RevOps. I’m sure our listeners even use Clari, so I hope that’s helpful also for them. I’m looking forward to staying in touch, and thanks for an awesome podcast.

Semir: Thank you, Barry. Have a fantastic day. See you soon.