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Transparency is essential for today’s complex B2B sales, especially those with many players on both sides. Reps who are on their game and keep their deal information up-to-date can hit the ball back, and even add some spin. Join Colin Lau, RVP, General Business Sales at Salesforce, as he explains the massive importance of deal rigor, and how deal transparency holds the door open for higher values and more wins.

If all the notes are filled out, they understand the customer, they know what their budget cycle is like, then it shows this person is really running their business and owning their territory.”

Colin Lau | RVP, General Business Sales at Salesforce

Kevin Micalizzi: Today, we'll be discussing opportunity management with Colin Lau, RVP of General Business at Salesforce. Welcome, Colin.

Colin Lau: Thanks, Kevin.

Micalizzi: Colin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Lau: Yeah, sure. It's great to be here today. I've been in sales my whole career. I didn't know if anyone can pick this up in my accent, but I am Australian. I moved here about 4 years ago. I spent 6 years in sales at Dell in Australia, and I moved here 2013 in March. I started at Salesforce in April in 2013. Back then, there was probably only 50 people in our office. And now, we're sitting in this lovely Salesforce Tower at Bryant Park. There's probably 1,200 people in New York, and it's pretty amazing. Always humbled at how much this company has grown since I've been here.

Micalizzi: That's fantastic. I'm Kevin Micalizzi, Senior Manager of Product Marketing at Salesforce, and I'm joined today by my co-host Colin Nanka, Senior Director of Enablement at Salesforce. Welcome, Colin.

Colin Nanka: Good morning, guys.

Micalizzi: Colin Lau, you obviously started your career as an AE, and then moved into management, and then took on a senior AE role. As you're looking at opportunity management, what did things look like from both sides of the fence?

Lau: Yeah, that's a great question. It has been a fairly unique career path. I think when you're carrying a bag or when you're an AE, it's very different. We talk to our customers; they don't want to be holding a leash to the account executives. That's how some people view it when you're an account executive. You think that you're putting all the information in there, you're updating your activity, you're making sure your stage and your amount is correct. That's not for yourself; it's just for other people and it's for management.

But as you're here a little bit longer and when I moved into management, you found that it was very different. It's so important that people keep this up-to-date. It's not so much just to keep tabs on people, but it's more for visibility and transparency across the company to make sure that other people can actually help in these deals.

Moving into a management role, it was the top priority for me for my team. I was a manager in small business at first, and there were many, many, many deals. I was working 40 to 50 deals every month. If I had to go to every AE to ask them about every single deal, I wouldn't get anything done.

So, I understood the importance of opportunity management. We call Salesforce "the app," and that's what we call it. If the app rig is not up tight, then sometimes it also shows that an AE doesn't really know what's going on in their deals and things like that. So, moving back into an AE role again after being in management, I made sure that everything I did was squeaky clean. I've got some good examples to share about that later as well.

Nanka: Colin, when you were managing, was there a point in time or a specific person or story on your team that you remember that really crystallized for you the importance of opportunity management as a manager or helped other AEs understand why it was important?

Lau: I think that's a great question, because we need to enable our account executives or our people carrying the bag out in the field to really understand why it's important for them themselves to do this. We don't ask them to do it for us. I think there's a lot of moments, especially for the newer people that come into the business. They're not used to using Salesforce. They're not used to using a CRM. But what, I think, was the key moment for a few people was that when people higher up could see what was going on in their opportunities, whether good or bad.

Say someone had an opportunity and they had left a lot of fields blank. They have someone like Tony Rodoni, who is many levels up and manages a huge part of the business here at Salesforce, @mentioning them in Chatter and saying, "What's going on with this deal? Why aren’t these next steps up-to-date?" That, to them, is kind of a career-limiting move. If Tony is @mentioning you in many, many deals, he probably thinks this guy doesn't know what he's doing. That's from a negative side.

Then from a positive side, we obviously see some great things coming out from this transparency where the deal management is really good. They have all the next steps there. They have who the decision makers are, who the competitive people are in this deal. There's people reaching out, and they've searched in Chatter and they found this opportunity, and they just want to reach out and help. And unless you're able to keep all that information up-to-date and it's very clear, then these people wouldn't have even been able to help you.

We've seen situations, for sure, when we always talk about working as a team and winning as a team where people have come out of the blue and helped someone with an opportunity, whether it be a connection, whether it be competitive information, and that's all come out from just keeping your opportunity management up-to-date.

Nanka: A couple of the things I heard you say was one, on the exposure or the transparency side, — I think maybe for new AEs it's important — is senior management doesn't have a view of you when you're younger and with younger tenure in the company, and it gives you an opportunity to build your brand. That's one of the only ways you can build your brand is through good opportunity rigor. But if it goes to the negative, you're starting in the hole a little bit. Was that something that you saw in your tenure as a manager?

Lau: This is something I figured out when I joined as an AE as well, and it's something that I try and teach anyone that's working for me. As a side point, outside of opportunity management, just using Salesforce very well and logging your activities, it's not easy to close business. We close ACV here. Everyone has roughly a million dollar a year target. But when you join, it's not like these opportunities are there and they fall in your lap.

The easiest thing to do if you want to show off and make sure people higher up know what you're doing is crush activity. That's in your control. You can go and hit the phones and make lots of calls, get in touch with as many people as possible, and it's noticed. If you're the top person in activity week after week after week and the area vice president is calling out your name because of your performance, it doesn't matter how much you've closed, how much pipeline you've built at that point. They just see your name out there, and they see that you're working really hard.

It cascades over to opportunity management and things like that because as we drill in, we look at the activity. "Okay, this person is working really hard. They're creating pipeline. Let's look at what kind of pipeline they're creating." If all the notes are filled out — they understand the customer, they know what their budget cycle is like — then it shows that this person is really running their business and owning their territory.

Micalizzi: I'm curious. From a lot of conversations I've had with AEs, I think some don't have a strong grasp on how important managing your pipeline is and really having the metrics there. They think "all right, I'm reporting this so that my management can see it." From your perspective and experience, how important was that to you? How were you really leveraging that to make sure that your sales were the best possible?

Lau: Great question, Kevin. I think going back to talking about enabling the AEs to understand why it's important for themselves to keep their opportunity management up-to-date and things like that is about empowering with the knowledge of why it's important to the business and why it's important to them. As a manager, if the numbers are not right, if the stages are not right, it's very hard for us to forecast correctly. Forecasting is one of the key roles of a manager at Salesforce. Whether you're an RVP, or an AVP, or an SVP, it all rolls up.

It all starts at the AE level, however. So, if the AEs are getting this wrong — it could by a small percent — it all cascades, it all rolls up, and it can be very catastrophic to a SVP when all the AEs have a small discrepancy. Ultimately, I think opportunity management from a management level is dictated by how well the AEs are forecasting their opportunities with stages and values and things like that.

Nanka: Colin, you've really outlined why opportunity management is so critical for us here at Salesforce and any company. Can you give me a little bit on your mindset of going to be the AE the second time versus what your mindset was around opportunity management the first time?

Lau: Yeah, so this is something I've definitely thought about a lot. I think having been through management and understanding how important it was to have my AEs keep their app rigor up-to-date and things like that. I knew when I went back to an AE, I had to basically do as I was teaching, if that makes sense. So, I pushed myself very hard to make sure that I was doing all these things correctly. But it was a lot simpler for me to do because I understood how important it was for my manager.

Being an AE to begin with, it was more me trying to stand out and do things — like do really well with activity and make sure that I was doing a good job — but now it was at a different level. I'm thinking at a different level. I'm understanding why it's important for my manager.

As a team member, it was good because I could explain to the other people in my team why it was important to keep all these numbers up-to-date. As an AE, it's pretty difficult because you get stuck in your own little world. But when you open up the blinds and see the whole picture, it becomes a much clearer story.

I had a very good example last year. As an AE, I closed a fairly large deal at the end of Q1. I think in my presentation when we did a deal-of-the-month presentation to the rest of the team at Salesforce, I had over 40 people from Salesforce involved in this deal. I made sure I kept everything up-to-date because I didn't want to explain the deal 40 different times to 40 different people and have to go through everything. It was much easier for them to go through my opportunity, understand what was going on, and then we could have a conversation.

Just from a time-savings point alone, like that happens. I think with a lot of larger deals that are more complex in this space in general business and maybe in enterprise, there's a lot of people involved in these deals. You don't want to be sitting there spending 2 or 3 days of your life explaining why this deal is important, because all the information is there. And if it's there, it's transparent, it helps others to help out, and ultimately, it's saving me time.

Nanka: How did you operationalize keeping your data up-to-date on a daily or weekly basis? That's a question we get from account executives a lot. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Lau: I think it's all about building a muscle, getting used to it. I think everyone is capable of doing this. I don't think anyone is not capable of keeping their opportunity up-to-date or logging their activity. It's just a best practice that you have to believe in your head that it's the right thing to do. We definitely see a lot of people that try and get it done, and then they kind of slacken off.

I think the biggest thing is not to let it cascade and turn into something that is a chore. If you're using a notebook, like a pen and pad on your desk, and you're making seven to eight calls that day and you've written them all down, at the end of the day, you're like, "I have to now put this all into Salesforce." That feels like admin.

If you're smart about it and you have the [call] box open and you're logging the activity while you're making the phone call, then it's part of your day. You're logging the notes anyway. Why not log it in Salesforce? You save it, and then it's not a chore, and you're keeping everything up-to-date in real time. That's absolutely what we want people to be doing.

Micalizzi: I'm curious. From your perspective, for listeners that we have who are in environments where that isn't necessarily integral to the culture, what advice would you give? I know obviously keeping your opportunity up-to-date is a great way to give visibility to others on the team, but I'm just curious about your thoughts on team selling and what other folks can do to encourage it in their space.

Lau: I think it's very frustrating when I'm trying to sell, say, into a specific vertical or a competitor of mine. I go and look at other people's opportunities, their account records, and things like that, and there's nothing there even though I know they're a big customer and there's nothing to learn there. I think team selling is capable at any company. Team selling just means that, as a company, you help each other out. When the data's there, that's what makes it possible.

A great example is we're selling to a company on the East Coast. We have no line of sight of who the reps are on the West Coast, who their managers are, anything like that. But we're able to leverage their information to help us sell because it's a similar vertical, and that's team selling, but the teams didn't even talk to each other. And I think that's just a byproduct of keeping all the information up-to-date, your data is correct. The information is there that —

I teach my team this year that deals are like a book. They start off with a problem and they end up with us asking the customer to sign off on the deal. But there's a lot of steps in between. If you can fill out an opportunity that writes out that book, that's what we want.

Because your opportunity should read like a book. It should explain the steps that were involved, what the red flags were, what the obstacles were, and things like that. And that when you have all these little books in Salesforce, that's when you can ultimately just pick one up and help someone with a deal, or go and read someone else's deal and find out how they did it.

Nanka: I love that analogy of the book, Colin. A lot of the big deals that get done, and obviously you've done a few recently, they have some big obstacles in them. How does opportunity management help you overcome those obstacles?

Lau: I think by being transparent and putting as much as you know into a deal allows other people to interject. I might not see an obstacle in a deal. But the more eyes that you get on a deal, the more obstacles that people will open up and look at and suggest to you.

We are currently working on a fairly large seven-figure deal, and we brought in one of our AVPs who is working specifically on large deals, David Gilbert. We didn't even see the holes that he saw. But by running through the deal, by going through the opportunity, by going through the steps, he said to us, he's like, "Maybe this is going to be an obstacle, or maybe that's going to be an obstacle." He was right. We then were able to look at that ahead of time before going to the customer, and making sure that if they did become obstacles, we were ready and prepared for it.

I think that's what opportunity management allows, for someone like David Gilbert to come in and understand, and read that book and understand what was going on that he may bring this book to other people, too. The more eyes you can get on something, the better it is. If that book is not written there, then it's just not possible to get it in front of as many people as possible.

Nanka: Colin, one of the things that you shared with me previously — we've worked together for a few years on some of the large deals that you've done — is the ability to be creative. Can you talk to us a little bit about when you're using the extended team, how you have thought about being creative and maybe a couple of examples that you've done?

Lau: Yeah, that's a great question, Colin, and that's definitely something I push my team to think about — is being creative. It's funny you mention that. I had dinner with a previous Quotable speaker, David Priemer, last night. He is now a VP at another company. He told us he strictly doesn't take [BDR] calls. He doesn't want to get bothered.

But I asked him, I'm like, "If I sent you a custom hockey stick with your name on it, would you reply to me?" He says, "Absolutely, and that's because it's different. Someone has done some research about me and things like that." I think being creative is ultimately what we need nowadays. Everyone is getting hit up by emails and phone calls, and it's just the same medium over and over again. But if someone sends you something different and it's thoughtful, then that's going to allow you to get in the door.

I think using Salesforce and understanding what they've been hit up with in the past and what's been tried before, it gives you that ability to change it up. That's something that ultimately is going to make some salespeople be far more effective rather than just using the same old same old.

Micalizzi: I know when we were talking about covering this topic area, you mentioned some of the folks you've pulled into deals are actually folks you would never even think of, or you wouldn't have thought of in the past. I'm curious. The creativity seems to extend also not only into how you reach that person and get through to them, but also who you're reaching out to. Do you have any great examples of that?

Lau: I think it's, again, back to using Salesforce, using the opportunity management, having all that information there.

I have a good example last year of a larger deal that I ran where we needed to get creative. We needed to open some doors into some senior people. I managed to meet with a CEO at a speaking event he was doing and understood that he was interested in Salesforce, but there were other people at this company that we couldn't get to. I knew that if I could get them to speak to some of our real estate people that it would open a lot of doors, but I didn't know how to get there.

By using Salesforce— I used Chatter — I mentioned them on these opportunities. Because we had quite a large deal on the run here, they were then far more interested.

Again, going back to the story and what the deal was about, just @mentioning them in Chatter in that opportunity, it's contextual, they understand what's going on. Everyone at Salesforce wants to help and sell. So straightaway, it was very easy for them to get excited and open up and be available. That's, I think, another good story to tell in terms of why it's important to have all the information up-to-date and in the app.

Nanka: Now that you have those examples for yourself, how do you stoke that creativity amongst your team, or how do you help them think differently so they might be able to mimic some of the examples that you've used?

Lau: I think that's a pretty difficult question to answer. I think having worked in small business and having worked now as an RVP in general business, when people are younger, I think it's easier to be far more impressionable. They're fresh out of college, pretty much, and they're wanting to learn and listen to you. So, if I asked them to be creative, they're probably going to be more creative.

I think as salespeople get older and more tenured, they think they know what they're doing. So, it's a harder task to get them to change their ways.

I think it goes back to how we sell. We use a lot of customer stories. I'll definitely relate back to cases where I have opened doors by being creative, I've closed big deals by being creative, and I've made a lot of money by being creative. If they want to replicate that and replicate success in terms of what I've done from a career path point of view or from a W-2 point of view, then I think they will understand that being creative is important.

Nanka: Colin, you've had a very unique career path. If you were to go back three to four years and give yourself at that time some career advice, what would it be?

Lau: I think if I was to go back in time and speak to myself when I'd been here for roughly a year and I was a midmarket AE, it would definitely be not to discount small business and how important it is to this company and growth of myself as a salesperson or you as a salesperson.

It's a great space. I think a lot of struggles that people have in midcommercial or in general business, some of the larger companies they work with, you don't get a lot of at bats. It's very hard to learn at this company when you're only working a small handful of deals a year. You don't get to go through all the cycles. But for me, taking a year off, going back and being a manager in small business, I was working on so many deals. Even though they were small, they were important to the customers we were working with.

I was often dealing with CEOs and CFOs on the second or third call, getting to hear what their issues were with signing with Salesforce, going through so many different deal cycles about different products, different industries. I learned so much in that year. Even though it was only small business, it really enabled me to become a much better salesperson.

Last year, when I moved back to an account executive role in this general business space, I was far better than I was as a rep, as a salesperson, than I was when I left. To be honest, I don't think I would've been as successful last year had I not applied those skills that I learned in small business and applied them in general business. Ultimately, that's what has allowed me to get promoted and be an RVP in general business today.

Nanka: That's really great advice. For those sales reps that often think career trajectory is just a straight line to the right, what would you tell them?

Lau: I think that there's a lot of opportunity, especially at Salesforce, and I would definitely think that that is a negative statement. There's a lot of different roles at Salesforce, even moving into sales engineering, seeing that perspective or managing in that world, you learn a lot of different things about sales.

I think personally for me and my career, I always want to be learning. Whatever I'm doing year to year, I want to be successful, but I want to be learning. Even if my year is not as great as it might've been previously, if I come out of it learning, then I'm becoming a better salesperson, a better professional.

It's not just the sales role, it's not just an AE role here that allows you to do that. There's enablement roles like you're doing, Colin, that maybe taking a couple of years and really teaching people how to sell might make you a better salesperson. And if you want to come back and sell, no one is going to say no to you.

I think broadening your horizons, speaking to a lot of different departments. A big company at Salesforce, there's so many different roles to do. You probably don't even know what might be a good fit. I think if you're concentrating on learning and becoming better, that's ultimately what's going to get you to where you want to go eventually.

Micalizzi: Any closing thoughts for the folks who have been listening in? We've talked about deal app rigor. We're talked about career progression. What would you like to leave them with, what advice?

Lau: I think if there's any advice to leave — this Quotable is definitely about opportunity management — is that you should always strive to do your best in whatever it is. If it's opportunity management, if you strive to do your best and keep everything up-to-date, it is absolutely noticed by people around you.

I tell people in my teams that I've managed before that your brand is what people say behind your back. It's not what people say in front of you to your face, but when you leave the room. Absolutely, if I don't even know who this account executive is and I go through the opportunities and I see that he's filled every single thing out, he knows his deals like the back of his hand, every single one, I'm going to want to hire that guy because I think he's a rock star.

And so, there' a lot of stuff that you do that you don't think about day-to-day and that's one of them. By just keeping your opportunity management up-to-date in real time, it's going to allow other people to realize how good you actually are.

Micalizzi: Awesome. Colin Lau, thank you for joining us today.

Lau: You're welcome. It was great to be here. I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun.

Micalizzi: Awesome. Colin Nanka, thank you for joining me as a co-host today.

Nanka: It was a great experience. I really enjoyed it today, guys.

Micalizzi: For those of you listening in, remember, the best way to keep up with all things Quotable is by subscribing at Quotable.com/subscribe.

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