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PODCAST 144: How to Drive Productivity through Operational Excellence with Mark Levinson

If you missed episode 143, check it out here: Getting in Touch: How to Talk to People Who Don’t Know You with Kata Nyitrai

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Show Agenda and Timestamps

  1. Show Introduction [00:10]
  2. Who is Mark Levinson and what is Bazaarvoice? [1:40]
  3. The role of the CRO [9:31]
  4. Productivity: The growth pillar you should always manage [14:41]
  5. Enabling productivity with new technology [20:10]
  6. The future of selling in a post-COVID world [24:48]
  7. People and ideas we should know about [28:12]
  8. Sam’s Corner [30:46]

Show Introduction [00:10]

Sam Jacobs: This week on the show, we had a great conversation with Mark Levinson, the global vice president of revenue operations for Bazaarvoice. He’s a thoughtful, intelligent person who’s served both as an operator and an analyst. So he’s given a lot of thought to operational excellence. We talk about the rise of the CRO role, the integration of revenue operations, and of course, how to drive productivity.

Before we get there, we want to thank our sponsors. The first one is Revenue Grid. What’s your sales organization’s biggest challenge right now? Remote work? Buyers tightening budgets? Guided selling with Revenue Grid allows you to guide reps step-by-step through every deal, reducing guesswork and increasing consistency so your teams have the best odds with every opportunity in the pipeline. See how you can put your sales teams in the best position to win now at revenuegrid.com/saleshacker.

Additionally, of course, the Sales Hacker podcast is brought to you by Outreach, the sales engagement platform for the modern sales orgs. I’m not here to sell you anything but I am here to share good ideas, and Outreach is a great idea. Come on now. It’s a great idea for nearly any sales leader. I’m just the messenger. Chris Pearce, the VP of Sales at Tableau, says they run their entire business from Outreach. Nicolette Mullinex, Snowflake’s Enterprise Sales Director, says Outreach is the pillar behind how they’ve been able to scale. Want to see what the number-one sales engagement platform can do for your business? Head to outreach.io/saleshacker.

Now for some other great sales ideas in my conversation with Mark Levinson.

Who is Mark Levinson and what is Bazaarvoice? [1:40]

Sam Jacobs: Hey everybody, it’s Sam Jacobs. Welcome to the Sales Hacker podcast. Today on the show we’ve got Mark Levinson. We’re really excited to have him. Mark has been in and around product marketing and sales for over 30 years. He’s worked at startups and at large Fortune 500 companies. He’s been a practitioner and an operator. Currently, he’s working at Bazaarvoice as the VP of global revenue operations, but he’s also been an analyst of the industry with his time at Sirius Decisions. So he’s seen it all, both as an observer of the industry and as an operator. He’s worked at large companies, small companies. We’re really excited to have him. Mark, welcome to the show.

Mark Levinson: Sam, thank you very much. A pleasure to be here, and really looking forward to the conversation today.

Sam Jacobs: We’re excited to have you. So the place that we like to start is with your baseball card, which is where we contextualize your expertise. What do you do?

Mark Levinson: Absolutely. Bazaarvoice right now is the leader in the industry, working with retailers and brands, and helping them to both build and obtain user-generated content to help them to better put information out there about their products. So the simplest format to help the audience really understand it is think of it around ratings and reviews. You go onto your favorite retail site or your favorite brand site, and what’s the first thing you look at before you start making a decision to buy a product? You want to go see what the reviews are from other customers. So our job is to help all these major retailers and all the brands around the world get that content both from a text perspective as well as a visual component, and help bring that to life onto their sites so that new shoppers can find the information they need to feel highly confident in buying.

Sam Jacobs: Makes a tremendous amount of sense. And if I recall correctly, the company is originally out of Austin, Texas. Is that right?

Mark Levinson: That is correct. Yeah, that’s where we’re headquartered globally right now.

Sam Jacobs: And how old is the company? I’ve been hearing about Bazaarvoice myself for 10 years, I think. But how old is it?

Mark Levinson: We’ve been around going on close to 15 years now. We started in the pure just rating and review capture point. Now we’ve expanded out to doing the sampling. So we do a lot of work where brands or retailers come and say, “Hey, we want to get some free product out into the marketplace and have some folks actually build reviews around it.” So we also have a portion of our business that’s doing that. And then the latest component that we’ve brought, which really is the differentiator for us in the marketplace, is around visual syndicated content. So if you think about how much visual content is out there on Pinterest and Instagram from consumers, pulling that information in for retailers and brands is really important. So now we’ve got this full lens of picture of how we can help them from that UGC perspective.

Sam Jacobs: That’s amazing. And tell us about your team. You’re the Head of Global Revenue Operations. That means subtly different things, I would imagine, based on where you’re working. So tell us about your remit and the size of your team and what departments you cover.

Mark Levinson: Absolutely. I’m part of our overall global revenue organization, and this encapsulates marketing, sales, and client success. So think of all the functions that are interacting with a buyer or customer all the way from the initial point of their life cycle to the time that they spend with us as a customer.

In particular, my remit is all about productivity. How can we make sure that we are maximizing productivity across those three key functional areas and ensure that we’re doing it with a very buyer-focused lens? What are our customers’ needs? How do they want to buy from us? Having good industry expertise. So we’re looking at things around operations from a marketing perspective, so building demand, managing lead flow, driving high conversion both from an inbound and an outbound standpoint. What do we then do to help our sellers to really understand what the buyer’s journey looks like and have all of the right components from key competencies, specific assets, tools that they might need, consistent and repeatable processes in order to ensure that we’re actually engaging our buyers and customers in the right way and we’re able to then have high conversion of really good opportunities to close business?

But as we all know, in today’s world, and a large portion of our businesses, you’ve got to make sure you’re then really engaging those customers. So that’s where our client success function comes in that says, “Now that we’ve brought a customer in and they actually have key goals, what are we going to do to help them reach those goals?” So how do we make sure we put good operational excellence into proactive engagement of our clients and helping them understand how to use our platform, how to best engage it, what are the key metrics that show success, and what are those things that they can do as they start to learn more and want to expand more? So it’s really about that key operational excellence to drive productivity across those three main client-facing functions.

Sam Jacobs: How long have you been in this role? And the reason I ask is not just out of idle curiosity, but focus curiosity, because there’s just a lot of talk right now about revenue operations. And I’ve heard more about this concept of revenue operations in contrast to sales operations or marketing operations really almost in the last two or three years. Obviously, there’s a few key kinds of vendors that are really focused on the area, people like Clari and InsightSquared, but has the consolidated view of the entire buyer journey been organized in this way at Bazaarvoice for a long time, or is this a relatively new effort?

Mark Levinson: I’ve been at Bazaarvoice just going on five months now, so I’m a new member of the team. Their effort to build this revenue operations function to the level that I just described has been something that they’ve been focused on for a couple of years and trying to get it right. If I go back a good six, seven years in my career, back to when I was an analyst at Sirius Decisions, I actually started to do some early publication from a research perspective around this conceptual idea of building a revenue operations function. And where it actually came from was we were doing some research on the rise of the CRO role within B2B. So this new role of not just a Chief Sales Officer and a Chief Marketing Officer, but a Chief Revenue Officer.

And as we started to look at the increase of this, I started to think for a second, “Well, this is interesting. Now we’re going to start pulling sales and marketing together.” And then followed right behind was this service and client success function coming in. And I’m like, “Wait, we’re going to need to be able to operationalize this in a single lens also.” So I was in some early opportunities of helping some companies build this out. So when this opportunity at Bazaarvoice came, it was really great. A little bit of putting it where I’ve said it needs to be and proved myself. So a good opportunity both from a company perspective but also an opportunity to really put in place some of those best practices that I’ve been researching and building upon over the last seven to eight years.

The role of the CRO [9:31]

Sam Jacobs: And now you’re in an area of even more interest for me. So tell me about the role of the CRO. We’ve been talking a lot about it at Revenue Collective, the organization that I run. And now, in particular, it doesn’t include marketing a lot of the time. It’s often just sales and customer success. But at Bazaarvoice, it does. Do you have a point of view on whether the Chief Revenue Officer should encompass marketing or not?

Mark Levinson: In my opinion, yes. And I want to make sure I’m clear. This change and this view of this more expansive CRO role, there’s been plenty written about, “Oh, it’s lowering the value of marketing.” I actually think it’s the perfect opportunity for everyone to realize just how valuable marketing is in an overall revenue-driving focus within your business because they are this incredibly powerful engine on the upfront end to build demand in your business. By the way, also incredibly important in helping in things like pipeline acceleration and helping to continue to engage buyers and customers as they make their way through their decision-making process. And then once they’re a customer, we don’t want to stop marketing to them. We don’t want to stop giving them information that helps them understand what’s going on. So if you really are an organization that has this true, clear, forward-thinking lens of marketing, it’s absolutely the right fit.

It really gets that strong connection from an alignment perspective. As I think about it from the strategy level that a CRO needs to start doing in today’s world, it’s so critical to be able to talk about, “Okay, how are we going to go out and gain market share? How are we going to go out and increase our wallet share in our existing customer base?” You can’t build that strategy or have that conversation without marketing at the table. And to have these three functions together in that true collective revenue lens is where companies need to be. And those that are doing it, I continually see are the ones that are much more successful.

Sam Jacobs: I tend to agree. I’ll tell you my perspective. I’d love your reaction. I ran marketing at a company called Livestream, which was then sold to Vimeo, which is now going public, so that’s an exciting journey for them. But because I’ve come up from the sales world, when I ran marketing, I had a lot of confidence in terms of organizational design, comp plan design, the profile of the SDRs, profile of the account executives, moving into the enterprise. All of these things that I’d had experience within the past. But when it came to marketing, I just didn’t have that much actual functional, responsible experience. I had opinions from my time working with marketing counterparts.

And I worried that the team that I was trying to build wouldn’t look up to me in the right way because they didn’t feel like they could learn from me in terms of the person I hired to run demand gen and the person I hired to run content. And then I also just worried that I was much more tentative in my decision-making. I’m just wondering if you have a point of view on that.

Mark Levinson: That is something I’m sure every company struggles with just as you put in a marketing leader. But maybe to just clarify, when we start looking at this true revenue org lens for companies, it’s not to say that you don’t have a strong marketing leader in place. You still want that person with that subject matter expertise. At Bazaarvoice, we have an excellent marketing leader who comes from an incredibly strong background, and they’re the one that takes that overall revenue strategy and really starts to translate it and say, “Okay, so what is the role that marketing is going to play inside of that overall strategy?” So when we think about the new version of the CRO, it’s not to say that they’re a marketing leader and they’re split in three. A really good CRO is someone that understands the strategy that has to be in place across all of that and has to be the executive sponsor for driving alignment.

But you also want to have those strong leaders in place within each of those three core areas. So I wouldn’t think of it as a, hey, now you’ve got someone who maybe comes from a sales background and has to become a marketer. It’s more about, “Hey, have you found somebody?” And by the way, I had clients in my advisory days where someone came up through marketing and became the CRO because they just had a really good head for understanding the overall strategy across the entire customer life cycle. So you bring up a valid point. It’s certainly something that organizations want to look at. But I wouldn’t say that this new CRO lens and this new revenue org lens for a company means that you don’t still go out and say, “Hey, I need a strong marketing leader in place to help drive strategy and execution within the business.”

Productivity: The growth pillar you should always manage [14:41]

Sam Jacobs: But you’ve mentioned that productivity is a growth pillar that you should always leverage. And you also mentioned that you’ve only been at Bazaarvoice five months, and obviously you took the job in the middle of a global pandemic. As you think about the pandemic stretching on for some time, what are your key insights for how to drive productivity in an organization, particularly in a remote work from home situation?

Mark Levinson: This is a great topic and obviously one that a lot of companies are thinking about as they are starting to go into a new calendar year and still have extensions on this. The piece of advice that I always put at the top of the list and is often forgotten is don’t forget that your customers and your buyers are also in these unique scenarios. It’s not as if only sales organizations are sitting at home saying, “Hey, what am I going to do? I can’t travel.” Well, don’t forget your customers can’t have meetings. They’re also working at home. So what we have to really think about first and foremost around a productivity conversation is, what has changed, what will continue to stay in place, what might go back to some of the ways we used to do things? On the buyer and customer side first, what does that decision-making process look like?

What has changed? Are they interacting with you from a demand gen perspective, whether that is outbound prospecting or how they interact with you from a more pure inbound perspective. What is being done differently on their side? A great example is live events. Not happening right now. Okay, well what’s a really good way to do a virtual event? It’s not about having a group of customers sit on a live event for two days, eight hours a day. It’s just not what fits the model. So there’s a factor on the buyer and customer side that we have to take into account how they’re going to interact with us that starts to drive productivity conversations around the revenue side. So it changes things that we’re doing from a marketing and a demand gen perspective first and foremost. Next, from a sales perspective, it says, “Hey, there’s some goodness here.”

One, if you were a salesperson who had a very large coverage area, so let’s just take the US, and you’re covering five states, don’t forget you can do now five meetings in a day in five different states. You couldn’t do that before. So one of the things that I think is really important is, as you think about your strategic coverage of the market, you need to also start to better enable the sales organization to think differently about how they engage buyers and customers when they’re in that qualified opportunity standpoint to say, “Look, guys, you’re gonna have to, first of all, be a little more proactive because you can’t just go and set up that table meeting with five people.” Now we’ve got to try and get five people maybe on a phone call. And how do you conduct that?

How do you make sure that you hear the voice of the buyer in those conversations? So there’s a big enablement piece to just helping to teach individuals on, “Hey, here’s how we’re going to have to interact,” but also helping them understand, “Hey, there’s much more opportunity to be able to engage more at a higher consistent level with buyers and customers than ever before because you can get in touch with people so much easier through virtual interactions.” Now, what you lose is that ability for setting that opportunity to be onsite, be there in front of them, read body language. So you’ve got to ask a lot more different questions. So we’re spending a lot of time looking at, how do we enable messaging? How do we help sellers understand how to read the signals from your buyers and customers in that virtual world?

And what are indicators? I talk about things, knowledge inflection points on the buyer side that you have to now pick up on in order to be much more confident in moving things forward. And then the final piece around productivity that is going to be really important as we continue down this street of the virtual world is, hey, don’t forget you’ve got to be super focused on engagement with that customer, especially in a SaaS world where it’s all about making sure that they start using your products, using your offerings, they’re highly engaged with them. That’s always been a day one type of thing, but a lot of times it’s because you have a service organization that might step in and be onsite. Now we’re talking about, we have to be super proactive in making sure that, from a client success factor, we’re really reaching out. We’re setting a much tighter cadence on, “Hey, over the next 30 days here’s all the touchpoints. And here’s an actual success plan we can build with you as a customer. And we’re going to check-in and we’re going to look for these metrics.”

So there’s also a lot more regularity that we need to put on the client success side. So those factors of more proactive touch are the biggest ones from a productivity standpoint as we continue down this virtual path.

Enabling productivity with new technology [20:10]

Sam Jacobs: Are there new categories of technology that you find yourself either introducing or excited to introduce into the Bazaarvoice organization to enable all of this?

Mark Levinson: Interestingly enough, I’m actually trying to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of too many pieces of technology. And that’s been a constant challenge in a lot of organizations. We used to always talk about the shiny new object syndrome. Really where I’m putting the focus is not so much putting in new technologies. What we’re really looking at first and foremost is, how well have we integrated the key technologies in our stack that we have today that we know are the most valuable? And starting at the most foundational level. So our marketing automation platform to our Salesforce automation platform out to our financial systems on the backend. Building on top of that, what demand tools are we using on the marketing side? Then we started thinking about, what other tools can we use to help make sure that our sales organization is collecting their information and keeping it within the opportunity there so that we have a 360 degree view?

So it’s really about, first and foremost, that integration all the way through. The next piece is, again, not an ad but an assess-and-audit conversation that says, “Okay, we see that we want to be able to do X. Perfect. It seems like we’re using this tool to do it.” Okay, is that the extent of its capabilities? Is it giving us enough of what we need? Are there other things we need to be doing that maybe it’s an end and replace it with something else that does more? And then the last and final piece is once we’ve then got that defined tech stack, is it’s really about engagement. And that’s going to be probably the biggest piece. Back to connecting to that productivity side, I see a very different definition between adoption and engagement when we want to talk about technology.

People talking about the importance of adoption, yeah. I see adoption as your manager told you to use the tool, so you’re using it. I see engagement as, in my role, I get up every day and I’m like, “I can’t manage my business or do my job in the most productive way without these technologies, without these capabilities.” That’s engagement. That I see the value, the WIIFM as they talk about, in my particular role. So that’s really my lens for what we’re doing. It’s not about starting to write some checks because there are some great things out there. And by the way, there are some great technologies. For us, it’s really right now, hey, let’s make sure we’ve got a really good integrated tech stack, we’ve got the right tools to help us be as efficient and effective as possible. And are we driving the highest level of engagement around that tech stack?

The future of selling in a post-COVID world [24:48]

Sam Jacobs: What’s your perspective on the future of selling in a post-COVID world?

Mark Levinson: My first take is we’ve just got to look at human nature. Look, there’s definitely going to be an increase back into some face-to-face interaction. We’re human beings. We crave that as people, and there is value to that. I personally don’t think that there is going to be this mass drive back to the old normal, for want of a definition, for a couple of reasons. One, even if you’ve got individuals who are sellers or client success that used to just be onsite more and interacting, there are productivity gains that our buyers and customers are actually learning out of this. As a buyer, I can have four different vendor meetings on the same day and be very productive in the 30 minutes in between each of them when I’m not trying to figure out, “Oh, wait, they’re coming in earlier. This group is later.”

You have much more control over those conversations. You can invite more of your team into those conversations as a buyer or a customer when you’re doing it in Zoom. So I do think that there are some habits that probably have permanently changed on the buyer and customer side as well. The other part to it is, look, there’s just some really good corporate reasons for doing this. As a company, you want to be as profitable as possible. And when you look at cost of sale and you think about where some of that big expense is T&E is a big component of that. And if you can be just as productive, just as aligned with your buyer or customer in a continuation of a lower cost to do that business, that’s hugely valuable. And there’s something to be said for that.

The other side of it is, this has really opened the door for companies to find talent in a much wider span than they ever thought about before. So the ability to now have that for reaching capability into individuals to bring into your organization to help boost what you’re doing has really grown. And that’s a valuable piece. The last I would make on this of just why I think some of this will stay, too, is there’s an obvious output value that has been shown to a lot of companies in this world. So I don’t think that many companies have looked and said, “Holy cow, because I haven’t been able to put a salesperson on a plane and in front of a customer, I can’t get a deal done.” Now there will be industries where that’s going to be hard.

If you’re in the manufacturing world and you’re talking about you need to bring samples and somebody has to touch something, that’s much different. That’s a much harder, virtual kind of opportunity. As we think about technology companies, I just think that there’s proven productivity that’s happened over the last nine to 10 months. And the second part is I just see that companies are finding their way to stay on target and profitable in this different way of engaging buyers or customers. And the acceptance of that is what’s going to allow them to continue to do it.

People and ideas we should know about [28:12]

Sam Jacobs: We’re at the end of our time together, Mark, and the last thing we like to do before we go is paying it forward and let people know about ideas, authors, leaders, mentors that have influenced you over your career. When you think about it framed that way, people that you think we should know about or ideas that you think we should know about, what comes to mind?

Mark Levinson: I’m a big Malcolm Gladwell fan. I’ve read a number of his books. And what I really like about Malcolm is his approach. He’s very open-minded. He takes into consideration art and science, as I put it, as he looks at things in the world. And especially from an operational type of background that I come from, we can get caught up in more of the science and lose a little bit of the art side of the world. So I really think about his approach. And what I would offer up to folks listening is you’ve sometimes just got to take an open mind and wider lens. I always use the camera analogy of widening the aperture of what you’re looking at. And take a balanced look of what you’re trying to accomplish. And be forward-thinking, be willing to take a little bit of a risk. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to put the time and the effort into it.

Malcolm talks about the 10,000 hours of practice. I think about my career and what’s led me to where I am today. And it’s so true. It’s been that opportunity of not just being educated from a university standpoint, but also just being out there and having to roll your sleeves up, do the work and, and make those mistakes that I’ve made and learn from them are really what’s important. And I think being able to sit down and look at examples and realize that it’s not always whatever everyone else says is at the top of the pile is the best thing. Sometimes it’s just about looking at where you’re at, what you’re trying to accomplish. Taking those two sides of art and science and really bringing it together.

Sam’s Corner [30:46]

Sam Jacobs: Hey everyone. Sam’s Corner. What a great conversation with Mark Levinson. He’s completely focused on, how do you drive productivity across an organization when everybody’s working from home?

And one of the things that he mentioned, one of these frameworks that I really enjoyed was the difference between adoption and engagement with a series of tools or processes or technologies. Adoption is “I’m doing this thing because my boss told me I had to do it.” Engagement is “I really view this particular piece of technology, this tool, as helpful and useful and critical in order for me to be able to do my job.” And there’s a key difference there between adoption and engagement.

The other thing he mentioned is he’s wary of tool fatigue. So he’s coming in and he’s looking for integration. That’s one of the first things he’s looking for. Let’s make sure that all of the different pieces of technology that we’re using are integrated so that it’s a holistic, 360 degree view of the buyer and the buyer journey and how we interact with the buyer. And also, he’s just making sure that there’s an audit, that we know all of the things we’re spending money on. We’re not going to spend tons of money on new stuff before we make sure that we’re using the things that we already have. Finally, we talked about, what are the key challenges in driving productivity when we’re all working from home? And one of the things he just mentioned is engagement, that you have to be highly engaged with the buyer and that because he can’t read body language, because we’re not in person, you have to ask more questions.

And so sales readiness, sales engagement, tools that give the sellers information that they are going to need to contextualize their conversation with the buyer are going to be really, really, and are really important. But that being said, a world where you can be in five cities in one morning meeting with five different buyers. And again, sometimes buyers prefer that as well. That world is a really powerful world. And we will return to face-to-face meetings, but I don’t think, as Mark said, it’s going to be this wholesale return back to the way it was in January 2020 or November of 2019. I think it’s a different world, and it’s a world where we’ve seen that you can be productive in a remote way using technology.

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