PODCAST 77: Navigating the Pace and Pressure of Startup w/ Vikas Bhambri

Sales Management

This week on the Sales Hacker podcast, we talk to Vikas Bhambri, SVP of Global Sales and Customer Experience at Kustomer.

Vikas is a well-respected sales leader in NYC and comes from a sales engineering and product background, with more than 20 years experience. We hear what makes a great entry point for sales and sales engineering and why having deep authentic technical product knowledge actually works in sales.

If you missed episode 76, check it out here: PODCAST 76: Bottom-up Approach for Sales Rep Productivity Model w/ Kevin Egan of Slack

What You’ll Learn

  • Why sales engineers are the “technical conscience of a deal”
  • The difference between the pace of a startup and large company
  • How to transition between sales engineering to managing revenue
  • Why hiring well matters

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Show Agenda and Timestamps

  1. Show Introduction (0:09)
  2. About Vikas Bhambri & Kustomer (01:32 )
  3. Why Sales Engineers are the Technical Conscience of a Deal (18:19)
  4. Vikas’ Journey from Sales Engineer to Managing a BD Team (22:20)
  5. The Art of Hiring and Managing Well in Sales (27:47)
  6. Navigating the Pace and Pressure of a Startup (36:02)
  7. Sam’s Corner (43:33)

Show Introduction

Sam Jacobs: Hey everybody, Sam Jacobs. Welcome to The Sales Hacker Podcast. Today on the show we’ve got a very special guest, my friend Vikas Bhambri. Vikas leads customer sales and customer experience department overseeing sales, BD implementation, customer success and support. If you don’t know Kustomer, that’s with a K. It’s a customer experience platform. Vikas is a well-respected sales leader here in New York City, but also comes from a sales engineering and product background. So I think his insights are going to be really interesting and helpful.

Now before we get there, we want to thank our sponsors. We’ve got a new sponsor on the show today, Vidyard. Now email isn’t dead, but man is it boring. Add video to emails to stand out in the inbox, for free, with Vidyard. Vidyard helps you easily record, send and track who is viewing your video content in three easy steps. Go to vidyard.com/saleshacker for more information.

Our second sponsor is Outreach, the leading sales engagement platform that enables sales reps to humanize their communications at scale, from automating the soul-sucking manual work that eats up selling time to providing action-oriented tips on what communications are working best. Outreach has your back.

Now, without further ado, my interview with Vikas Bhambri.

About Vikas Bhambri & Kustomer

Sam Jacobs: Welcome back to The Sales Hacker Podcast. Today, we’ve got Vikas Bhambri, the head of revenue, in many senses, for the company Kustomer. Vikas’ background is sales engineering as a path into sales and revenue leadership.

He leads Kustomer’s sales and customer experience departments, overseeing sales, business development, implementation, customer success, and support. He’s worked at companies of all sizes and stages to leverage technology to enhance the people and processes to best acquire, grow, and retain customers. Vikas builds teams that follow this ethos. It’s his responsibility and their team’s responsibility to deliver knowledge and value in every conversation that they have with customers and partners. Vikas, welcome to the show.

Vikas Bhambri: Thanks Sam. I really appreciate you having me.

Sam Jacobs: Tell us what is Kustomer? Who is Kustomer?

Vikas Bhambri: Kustomer is a SaaS technology company helping leading customer service brands like UNTUCKit, Paddle, Anomaly, and Bulletproof to leverage our customer service platform for their contact center agents to deliver a reimagined approach to customer service. So when we think about a re-imagined approach to customer service, it’s one that is truly omni-channel, data rich, and automated whenever it needs to be.

Sam Jacobs: You’re at the top of your profession at this point, managing a number of different teams, how’d you get into sales? Walk us through your journey in terms of how you got to this point.

Vikas Bhambri: Before even the journey to sales management. I started my career as a developer and I quickly realized that I was going to be a good developer, but I was never going to be a great developer. I liked engaging people, etc. And that just wasn’t the job back in those days as a developer.

I ended up becoming a consultant managing and implementing call center CRM software for clients like Bank of America, UPS, and Eckerd Drugs. So I actually shifted out of being a developer now to more of a program manager, tech consultant.

So how did I get into sales? I got a call from a recruiter who wanted to talk to me about a role as a sales engineer. And my initial reaction was “thanks, but no thanks.” And the way he explained it to me, he goes, “Vikas, the sales engineer is the technical conscience of the deal.”

And that’s what began my career in sales. I’ve leapfrogged from developer, to consultant, to sales engineer.

Why Sales Engineers are the Technical Conscience of a Deal

Sam Jacobs: We want to talk a little bit about sales engineering. Charlie Ryan said that the sales engineer is the “technical conscience of the deal.” Tell me what that means.

Vikas Bhambri: Charlie was basically referring to, especially when I said (“whoa sales, those are the bad guys.”) was you have your account executives that are going in and looking at the problem that the customer’s trying to solve. And they have a pretty good understanding of what their technology is, what the use-case is, and what they’re supposed to do.

But marrying the two and how it’s actually going to work in that particular customer’s environment from a technical implementation perspective, usability, user experience, reporting, all of that is about five levels too deep.

So really validating that we can deliver upon the promise, right? That’s what Charlie was alluding to. And then what I tried to live up to many years as a sales engineer.

We’re saying “okay, yes we understand and this is what our product does.” But now how is it actually going to exist in this particular environment that the customer already finds themselves in? Because they already have tools in place, they have people in place, they have processes in place. How do we actually live within that environment? The technical conscience is making sure we feel comfortable that this is a deal that we can live up to and be successful at.

Vikas’ Journey From Sales Engineer to Managing a BD Team

Sam Jacobs: So let’s go back to the story a little bit because chapter one, to your point, is you went from being a developer into being a sales engineer. How did you make that transition from being a sales engineer to what is, basically the CRO. How did you make that journey? Walk us through that.

Vikas Bhambri: So that’s chapter two, right? I came into Oracle via the PeopleSoft acquisition where I was a sales engineer. And what Oracle was doing at the time, they were going through their own journey and transformation as a tech company to a company that was also selling applications.

So they created this role of business development specialists that would work with the regional teams to transition them from tech to app sales. And I found myself as one of these business development specialists in the CRM group, because CRM had been my background. So this was a great learning environment. I was working hand in hand with senior leaders across the business to go through these very big transitions/transformations at Oracle.

When I ended up leaving Oracle, I ended up joining one of our implementation partners. And this is where I kind of came at an MD title, but had the responsibility for everything from business development to the tech resources. So that was where I really got firsthand not only exposure for managing the team members. So managing the business development team, managing the technical implementation resources, executing a go to market strategy.

And for the first time, I actually owned deal negotiation because I had to negotiate our contracts and our services and statements of work with companies like United Healthcare, Fidelity, Starbucks. So once again, just a very great learning ground for no longer being an individual contributor now managing team members, and staff, and P&L, etc.

The Art of Hiring and Managing Well in Sales

Sam Jacobs: Was there a lesson, or a strategy, or a set of tactics that you used, or heuristic? How did you teach yourself? I think what you’re talking about is just delegation, right? How did you learn how to do that besides maybe going home one day and realizing that you’re totally underwater and swamped, and needed to give other people some work? How did you build that skill?

Vikas Bhambri: One lesson that I took to heart was “Hire good people and get out of the way.” And that’s one thing that I did pretty early on, in this first management opportunity, was I got out of the way. That’s the biggest thing I see now, being on the other side and having promoted people into first time management opportunities, is my recommendation to them to not try to get your hands in everything. Just step back and let your team run a bit. And be there for them and jump in when appropriate when they need help, when they ask for help. But basically, don’t become that micromanager. And because I’d worked for somebody who had that ethos, that always rung in the back of my mind was hire good people and get out of the way. And something I still try to do obviously to this day.

One of the things I’m a big believer in, and I’m unashamed to say this, is I hire people smarter than me. So I’ve brought in people who really know what they’re doing in these different areas of the business because I’m willing to learn from them, I’m willing to work with them.

My responsibility as a leader is to get obstacles out of their way so that we can be successful together. Whether those obstacles exist internally, or whether they’re things that we mutually face out there in the market from our competition.

Navigating the Pace and Pressure of Startup

Sam Jacobs: You’ve been at Oracle, which is really ground zero for learning and understanding true enterprise technology sales. What are the biggest differences both in terms of approach and mindset when you’re at a super big company to a very, very small company? How do you have to reorient yourself?

Vikas Bhambri: Oracle was just a tremendous learning opportunity. It was like getting an MBA in technology sales, not only to learn what to do, but sometimes to learn what not to do.

I think the biggest thing from going from a big company to a company like Kustomer is, at Oracle, there’s a tremendous safety net. When I came into this particular role at Kustomer, everything goes back to you. The success and failure, now don’t get me wrong, is obviously with my peers. My engineering peers, my product, my CEO, my head of marketing, etc.

But ultimately, especially as somebody who owns revenue, it lives and dies with you. There is no ‘safety net.’ And that’s where I see a lot of people struggle with the transition from going from a big company to a startup. There’s definitely a different type of pressure. I think the pace is something people can’t keep up with and it’s something I definitely look for when I’m interviewing people. So those are some of the things that I think are markedly different between a bigger company like an Oracle or a Salesforce to a startup.

Sam Jacobs: Is there a way to prepare yourself for the pace and the pressure?

Vikas Bhambri: So here’s the thing. I think it’s really unfair to expect somebody to figure it out. What I mean by that is, what I try to do during the interview process, is I try to be as candid as can be and unveil the kimono, right? And it’s one of the things I try to tell people. And I say I’m trying not to scare you, but I want you to know what you’re signing up for. It is a different pace. And it’s okay if this is not for you. Doesn’t mean you’re not a great salesperson or you’re not a great customer success manager. And it doesn’t mean we’re not a great company. It’s all about timing and fit. And I think what a lot of people try to do in the interview process is both sides of the table try to tell people what they want to hear. And that’s when basically, you’re creating a recipe for failure.

The other thing for me is, I like to see people who’ve seen the movie before. What I mean by that is whether they were at a big company or at an early stage company is they understand the motion. I think what a lot of startups try to do is teach people. Especially at roles that I would say are not entry level roles. And I think that becomes very challenging because once again, the pace, the expectations are so high. So those are some of the key I would say missteps that I’ve observed and I’m trying not to replicate.

RELATED: Key Differences Between Enterprise and SMB Sales Processes

Sam’s Corner

Sam Jacobs: Hey folks it’s Sam Jacobs. The one that I want to leave everybody with today is what a great entry point for sales, sales engineering, or solutions architects can be. Because I think in the modern world where we’re selling technical products, I think the challenge is can we combine technical knowledge and product knowledge with sales acumen, sales expertise, and sales discipline?

Now you may say that’s the reason that we have a difference between sales engineers and salespeople. I think that’s true. But I also think that product knowledge, deep authentic technical knowledge of how technology actually works. I really think it’s very, very valuable.

I think the sales people that have it, the sales people that come from a sales engineering, sometimes even a product background. Those people are just positioned in a different way than salespeople that no understanding of how the technology, how everything from the colonel within the CPU, all the way up to the application layer, how those things run, how they work, what the different interlocking parts are.

What We Learned

  • Why sales engineers are the “technical conscience of a deal”
  • The difference between the pace of a startup and large company
  • How to transition between sales engineering to managing revenue
  • Why hiring well matters

Don’t miss episode 78 (next week’s episode)

Before we go, let’s thank our sponsors. Outreach, the leading sales engagement platform and Vidyard. Vidyard helps you easily record, send, and track who is viewing your video content in real time in three easy steps. Email isn’t dead, but it sure is boring. Add video to your emails to stand out in the inbox with Vidyard.

If you want to reach out to me with feedback, you can reach me on LinkedIn. If you haven’t rated the show, please give us five stars on the iTunes rating system so that we can remain in business and continue to bring you this show.

As always, thanks so much for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.

Sam Jacobs is the Founder of Aqueduct Revenue Advisors and the New York Revenue Collective and regarded as one of the top start-up CROs in the tech community.

He has has over 15 years of experience scaling companies from post-revenue to ~$300M, has helped raise over $400M in institutional capital, and has helped companies of all sizes achieve an average annualized revenue growth rate of 48% over the last 15 years.