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Quotable Podcast Episode #95: Accelerate Growth with a Tightly Aligned CRM, with Brian Vass

Host: Kevin Micalizzi
Every growing company faces the choice to continue “business as usual” or shake things up to accelerate growth. Find out what it takes to punch the accelerator. Join Brian Vass, VP of Sales and Marketing Technology at Paycor, as he explains why doubling down on CRM and sales and marketing alignment can take sales teams to the next level. By working closely with his sales teams and designing a simple, mobile-friendly CRM process, Vass increased CRM adoption and reduced the overall number of tools reps need to do their jobs.

Data is super important and you shouldn’t invest in other sales and marketing enablement technologies unless you have your data house in order.”

Brian Vass | VP of Sales and Marketing Technology at Paycor
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Episode Transcript

Kevin Micalizzi: Welcome to the Quotable podcast. I’m Kevin Micalizzi. We’re talking with Brian Vass. He’s the VP of Sales and Marketing Technology at Paycor. We’re going to talk about their experience implementing Salesforce and the challenges they needed to overcome as well as the importance of involving your reps, your executives, and getting alignment from everyone.

Brian paints a great picture for us of the entire experience implementing new technologies. Let’s jump into it. Brian, thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Brian Vass: Absolutely, a pleasure to be here.

Micalizzi: Brian, for our listeners who aren’t familiar with you, would you share just a little bit about yourself?

Vass: Yeah. So, I am the VP of Sales and Marketing Technology for Paycor. I’ve been with the company for about four and a half years and really been in the high tech industry for about 20 years. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is where Paycor is headquartered. My team is responsible for the tools and technologies at Paycor — so our technology stack, which includes Salesforce, of course, and then our sales territory design, data quality, reports, analytics, sales support desk, things like that.

Micalizzi: So, Brian, I know Paycor has been around for 20 years and things more recently have changed and you’re working on a new project that involves the CRM. Would you share a little bit of background on what you guys are doing?

Vass: Yeah, sure. So, to give you a little bit of history on the company, Paycor has been around for actually about 25 years. Great company, it’s grown, revenue-wise, every single year. About four or five years ago the company made a strategic decision to really accelerate growth.

So, they wanted to go from, you know, single-digit, more conservative growth, to, you know, 20, 30, 40% annual year-over-year growth. At the time, we said, that’s great, that’s awesome, we were ready to go but we had a few obstacles that were in our way of achieving those growth goals. One of which is we didn’t have a good CRM system, right, a good technology infrastructure at the time. We were using a CRM system that was not well-deployed, was not well-adopted by salespeople.

Everything that was important was done outside of the system in Excel. And, you know, if you’re going to grow and scale a business at those kinds of rates, you have to have a CRM systems that’s firing on all cylinders. So, that’s really what led us to deploy Salesforce and that was about four years ago, like I said, and we’ve been off and running ever since.

Micalizzi: When you look at the state things were in when you had the realization that you were going to have to change the technology to really accelerate your growth, were the processes relatively good, just, you know, people weren’t using a centralized system and that was creating the challenges? Or, were you finding you didn’t even have consistency in the actual selling process across the board?

Vass: Yeah, I mean, we’re an activity-driven sales organization. We have relatively short sales cycles, small deal sizes. So, creating that insistent cadence of activity is really important. Daily, weekly, monthly.

And, I think at the time we had a pretty good cadence of activity but there was no real way to measure it and track it in real time, right? There were no reports dashboards the sales managers or sellers could look at to see how they’re performing.

We had a sales process, but again, if your CRM system is not well adopted and is not performing on all cylinders, then you’re not going to see consistent, effective use of the process. So, we had some processes but we knew that, again, in order to scale the organization — because we had 100 and some salespeople at the time, right, we’re up to close to 400 salespeople today — you can’t grow and scale an organization that fast without having one consistent way to track and manage your forecast, and one consistent place to manage activity, and be able to see real-time results in how the business is performing and what’s working well and what isn’t working well. So, that’s where we are today.

Micalizzi: It must have been incredibly hard for you at your level to even plan for the organization and plan for growth.

Vass: Yeah, I mean it was certainly a challenge. It was a fun challenge because, again, you’re starting with a system that really wasn’t performing well at all so we almost started as a clean slate with CRM and marketing automation. We’re able to design and deploy a system the way that we’ve always wanted to, the way that it should be from the very beginning, and that was a lot of fun.

You know, I’ll say, another thing at the time, too, that was not performing well was, you know, we had a marketing organization but they were much more focused on, you know, sort of — we joke around with them today — sort of the arts and crafts stuff, right? They were creating the color brochures, they were ordering the coffee mugs with our logo on it, they were planning the parties, but they weren’t focused on demand generation or revenue generation.

They had no ability to measure the impact that they were having on the business. They had no idea, no way to measure which campaigns were working, which ones weren’t. Again, a really important part of our strategy going forward was to turn marketing into a more revenue-focused organization where they could drive demand, create leads for sales, and then that we could measure the impact on the business.

We knew we needed to have a really good CRM system to do that, and a strong, complementary marketing automation system.

Micalizzi: Did you find you had to adapt your processes, or were there things you took advantage of when moving to a centralized CRM?

Vass: Well, I think we took the processes that were working well. Like, we did have an effective sales process and we reinforced those with the CRM system. Then, I think at the time, we took advantage of the opportunity to create new processes, right, and streamline some existing processes whether it’s lead handoff process between marketing and sales, or developing some new processes to submit our deals and make that process more streamlined than it was in the past. You know, it was a little bit of both.

Micalizzi: Now, I know adoption is often a huge challenge. Like you said before, some folks were using the CRM you had, some folks were using Excel. Was it difficult to get everyone kind of rallied behind this transition and into the new system, or was it pretty straightforward for you guys?

Vass: Well, at the time there was a lot of excitement for Salesforce because we had generated a lot of buzz we had built this up to be a big deal. And our old CRM system was so bad that the salespeople were really excited to reap the benefits.

So, we had a user base that was excited and eager to use it, but we also still had to really focus on doing things the right way for adoption. There’s a lot of things that we did back then, and we continue to do today, to reinforce adoption. I’m happy to go into more detail on that if you want.

Micalizzi: I would love it because I honestly think it’s just something so many companies struggle with.

Vass: Well, when it comes to adoption one of the first things that we wanted to make sure we did is really sit down with the users and find out what they need. It sounds simple, but a lot of times, as sales ops people, or even IT people, we sometimes think we know what our users need, but there’s really no substitute for sitting down, talking with them, understanding how they think, how they work.

So, we identified the different user groups, whether it was an inside salesperson or a field seller or a manager or whatever the case is. And, you know, we would do ride-alongs with them, we’d sit down with them, we’d ask them questions, we’d identify requirements and use cases.

And we built out this team of peer champions that ended up being part of a beta program for us. It was great because they gave us a lot of great feedback about whether we were on track or off track with what we were building. And then we also, at the same time, were building up this group of evangelists that were starting to spread the word internally and ultimately became a really valuable group for us as we were rolling out the live training.

So, getting the feedback is obviously really important. We still do that today anytime we’re looking to build something new. Then, you know, we want to take advantage of the functionality and the technology that Salesforce provides so we’re adding features that really ad value for reps. I’m a strong believer that CRM can’t just be a tool that management uses to track your activity, right? If that’s the case, users [unintelligible] do the bare minimum to get by.

So, we’ve done a lot to add features that really add value for our salespeople and our users, right, to help make them more productive, save them time, make their life easier. And that’s everything from putting in AppExchange apps to automate and improve their productivity. We have a very mobile sales organization so we use a mapping and routing system called Geopointe that lets them plan their day, map out the companies they’re going to go visit, give them driving directions to optimize their route, things like that.

We bring in technographic data. We like to know, we’re in the payroll and HR business, so we like to know who our prospects are using for payroll today. So, use an AppExchange app to help us identify that. But, even just out of the box stuff like, you know, making sure we have really valuable, easy-to-use dashboards for our salespeople. Whether it’s a QVR style dashboard or something to help them understand their territory, we make sure that we have value throughout the system for our salespeople.

Micalizzi: Talking about that data, I’m assuming when you launched the new CRM you were coming in with, let’s say, some challenging data and, I’m assuming, a lot of what was in spreadsheets is still out there somewhere. What did you have to do to get the data to a point where you really could deliver that value for your reps?

Vass: Yeah, data was a real problem for us. With our old CRM system our data was a mess. We had incomplete data, we had tons of duplicates, we had companies that were no longer in business, and it was a real problem.

We spent a lot of time cleaning and scrubbing our data before we brought it into Salesforce because we didn’t want to bring dirty data in. But even ongoing, this is a journey that will never end, but I believe that data is super important and you shouldn’t invest in other sales or marketing enablement technologies unless you have your data house in order.

We’re fortunate to have somebody on our team who is really full-time dedicated to data quality to and data hygiene. It’s everything from making sure that we have good quality accounts and contacts with phone numbers and email addresses, right, so that we can market to people electronically and that our salespeople know what’s in their territory and they feel like they have an accurate, complete understanding of their territory, to more specialized data like technographic data or, you know, we get business from insurance brokers and banks, and we’ll bring in data for those specific partners.

Intent data is becoming more relevant and more popular these days so we’re starting to look at that. So, we do a lot to de-duplicate our database on a regular basis, normalize it, and just make sure that it’s as clean as possible.

Micalizzi: Right. Now, when you started this process, you talked about the benefits you’re delivering to the reps themselves to really help get them on board. Was everyone else on board for this, or did you have any struggles with the executive team trying to get buy in and really make them a part of this process?

Vass: Well, I think another key to adoption is to have executive support and executive alignment.

Micalizzi: Definitely.

Vass: We were fortunate that our chief sales officer was and continues to be one of our biggest evangelists of the technology. So, that certainly helps, right? It makes it a lot easier when you have someone at the top who’s using and adopting the system very strongly.

We had users within our organization who have been with the company for a long time and were a little more old school that took a longer to adopt and appreciate some of the things we were doing and some of the changes. It’s change management — it’s natural that some people are going to be slower than others.

But, I think once we really sat down and made sure that they understood the value — and we did a lot to make the system easy to use, simple things like page layouts and leveraging the mobile application and decluttering the system —

I think once people took the time to understand it and use it, they certainly turned around. I have our salespeople come up to me on a regular basis who have come from other companies and used Salesforce there who say, you know, gosh, Brian, you guys do such a better job at Paycor. We do such a better job of leveraging Salesforce and CRM in general than my last company.

That’s always nice to hear. I think that’s a compliment to our team here that we’re doing somethings the right way. Because a lot of these folks are coming from large, well-respected companies in the industry.

Micalizzi: In this process did you find there were any things that you were doing process-wise or capability-wise that you decided really either weren’t worth doing or you needed to kind of back away from and look at again? Either things process-wise that you found you could do better or differently, or are there things that, since you started planning it out, you decided you were going to pull out? So, kind of that ruthless focus on keeping it efficient, keeping it clean. Were there things you thought you would need to implement that you ended up not?

Vass: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I’m sure there are, I’m just trying to think of a couple examples. One example might be we used to have all of our pricing and quoting outside of Salesforce in an in-house system. That was not very efficient to have salespeople creating opportunities in Salesforce but then having all the pricing and quoting done in another system that really wasn’t connected to Salesforce.

So, from a process standpoint, that wasn’t efficient and we decided to actually build a CPQ engine right in the Salesforce Platform. So, now, everything from pricing and quoting, to deal submission, to recognizing and reporting on those bookings is all done in Salesforce real time. So, that’s something that we did to certainly streamline a process and make things more efficient.

Micalizzi: Are there any things you’ve done in terms of moving to the new CRM that if you could go back you’d have done differently?

Vass: Yeah, let me think about that one for second because I’m sure there are probably a ton. You know, one of the things that we did, we rolled out CRM and marketing automation at the same time. We did Salesforce for CRM and Marketo for marketing automation.

We actually deployed both of these applications in parallel. So, we were deploying the CRM system, implementing that. We were implementing the marketing automation system, and that was tough. I think if we could go back and do that again, we probably would have done one first and then shifted and focused a little more on the other.

We were able to pull it off, but bringing the data into both systems, making sure the processes synced, was certainly difficult at the time.

Micalizzi: Definitely resource intensive.

Vass: Yeah, it was definitely very, very resource intensive. You know, something else, I guess, that I would have done differently had we had the chance to go all over it again, I mentioned a second ago that we built a CPQ system in Salesforce on the Salesforce Platform.

At the time, we looked at some third-party CPQ systems that were on the market and we made a decision to not go with one of those and instead build something in-house. I think if we could go back in time we probably would have bought a commercial one. Because any time you build something in-house, there’s challenges around maintaining that from a development standpoint, enhancing it, keeping it fresh and current, and user interface and usability and all those kinds of things, right?

So, we’re likely going to be in a position in the future to buy some commercial product and I sort of wish we would have done that from the beginning.

Micalizzi: That’s always tough because no matter how wonderful it is when you build it, you now own the maintenance of it and the growth of it over time.

Vass: Mm-hmm, yep. For sure.

Micalizzi: Always nicer when you find that package that covers what you need and somebody else is fixing bugs and adding functionality for you.

Vass: Yeah. Just a couple other things on adoption that we found to be successful. We definitely take advantage of the mobile application. So, we have a lot of users who are not in front of their laptop at their desk during the day. They’re out in the field selling. So, we’ve done a lot to configure the Salesforce mobile app with things like quick action so that they can perform the everyday tasks that they need to do while they’re out in the field.

Micalizzi: Were you surprised at the focus on mobile?

Vass: That was something from the very beginning that we wanted from our CRM system because we did not have that from the old system. This was something our salespeople were excited about and that we were promoting was coming. So, I’m not surprised that we had such a need for mobile and that it was popular, but it’s certainly something, again, to continue to drive adoption.

And we position it as, you know, use this as a tool, again, to save you time and make your life easier. Because a lot of salespeople get in the habit of, you know, they enter their activity, they update their opportunities at the end of the day or on the weekends. And it’s like, you don’t need to do that, right?

It’s easy to do on the mobile app when you’re out in the field, when you’re walking back to your car from an appointment, sitting at a red light, whatever. You know, just take a few minutes, a few seconds, to update that information, then you don’t have to do it later.

Micalizzi: Right. You’re not duplicating effort, you’re really keeping it in line. And you also don’t have to go back and remember what you discussed at the end of the day or on the weekend. It’s fresher.

Vass: Mm-hmm, yeah. You know, that’s important. And another key to adoption, we talked about data, but adoption will increase if users have confidence in the data, right, the accuracy of the data. And, if Salesforce is the single source of truth for data that’s also going the help drive adoption.

So, if logging activity is optional then people won’t have confidence in the activity reports. If you don’t have an airtight process to change the opportunity status to the closed one and lock things down, you won’t have accurate sales results.

So, a lot of times I’ll hear somebody say, at other companies, right, that they’re struggling with adoption with Salesforce, and a lot of times it comes down to, well, we don’t have confidence in the data. We don’t trust the data. So, when we tell our salespeople that they need to put their data in the CRM and we adopt that mantra, if it’s not in Salesforce it doesn’t exist, it’s important that we explain the why, right? You’ve got to start with why.

And salespeople, you know, Salesforce can provide a tremendous amount of value to salespeople and managers if the data is great in the system. Salespeople can mine their territories for opportunities, they can look for trends, they can see their win rate and their average deal size and what industries are they performing well in and not.

Managers can see great data to help zero in on opportunities and train and coach their users. So, while we do ask salespeople to enter data into the system, we also try to do a lot to explain why that’s important, how it helps the business, but also how it can help them individually be successful.

Micalizzi: Right. So, Brian, I want to go back to what you said earlier. Your term was marketing was in the arts and crafts mode.

Vass: Yeah.

Micalizzi: I want to talk a little bit more about this because I think many companies still struggle with sales and marketing alignment. It sounds like as you were implementing the new CRM you were actively working to bring both into alignment. I think too often it’s an afterthought, it’s not part of the core plan.

So, I’m curious, both how you approached it and what you’re seeing is working?

Vass: Mm-hmm, yeah. You know, I mentioned that Paycor is a fast-growing company. When we decided that we were really going to really accelerate our growth and get to 20, 30, 40% annual growth, we knew that we had to change some things in a big way. One of the things that we did was we transformed our marketing organization into a revenue center of excellence, into a revenue-focused team, right, demand-gen strategy.

We came up with new job titles, we challenged the team to think differently, gave them quantifiable goals, things like that. But, we knew that that new revenue focused marketing organization was only going to work if we had really strong sales and marketing alignment. So, from the beginning we said, you know, look, sales and marketing need to have shared goals, they need to be reading off the same page, and that was going to be super critical for us to achieve success.

And, you know, there’s tons of data out there that everybody’s seeing that talks about how important sales and marketing alignment is. Look at any analyst firm, and company in the space is going to have data that says, if your teams are strongly aligned you’re going to have higher win rates, you’re going to sell more, you’re going to grow faster, your customers are going to be more satisfied. Yet, those companies suck at it.

Very few companies have strong sales and marketing alignment and the typical story is salespeople say that marketing doesn’t understand them and that the leads are crap. And marketing says that salespeople are lazy and they don’t follow up with their amazing leads. So, we said, you know what, we’ve got to make sure this is strong out of the gate.

For us there are several things that we do to focus on this, but it really starts with developing our go-to-market strategy that’s jointly developed by sales and marketing so they both have a seat at the table, are putting together the strategy.

You know, this year we happen to have five pillars in our go-to-market strategy and sales and marketing developed them jointly, and every pillar has sales goals, initiatives, metrics, and marketing goals, initiatives, and metrics. We view our funnel as an integrated revenue funnel, right? So, it’s not like we have a marketing funnel over here that marketing looks at, and a sales funnel over here that sales looks at.

We have one, integrated sales and marketing funnel, or revenue funnel, and we’re tracking leads throughout the entire marketing process to the hand off with sales through our opportunity sales process to, hopefully, a client and measuring, you know, how effective are we at each of those stages, how are the handoff points, things like that.

Something else we’re doing at Paycor that I think is somewhat unique is that we have combined our sales and marketing operations team, right? My job title is somewhat unique, Sales and Marketing Technology, and I lead this operations team.

It’s common for companies to have a marketing operations team and a sales operations team, but it’s not very common for them to be combined into one team. For us, it just makes a lot of sense. I feel like if you’re committed to strong sales and marketing alignment it makes sense to have that integrated team because we’re responsible for our entire technology stack for both sales and marketing.

We’re responsible for measurement and reporting and analytics for sales and marketing, and the data quality — data quality for salespeople, data quality for marketing. So, we’re helping marketing teams with their demand-gen strategy, and generate leads at the top of the funnel and convert those leads and measure what’s working and what isn’t and the impact they’re having on the business.

We’re helping sales improve productivity through tools, and technology, and process, and again, more reports and analytics. I feel like as a result of having these teams combined there’s less politics, there’s less me versus you, or us versus them. There’s less duplication of effort where you’ve got two different teams trying to solve the same challenge different ways, and there’s more communication, more collaboration, more teamwork. Just easier to close the loop.

Micalizzi: Virtually impossible for you to do something in a silo because the team that are building it, or the team that is building it, is building for both sides of the house.

Vass: Yeah. And it’s hard, and you have to be committed to it, and you have to make sure you have strong communication and you involve marketing and sales in the same meetings, and your chief sales officer and your chief marketing officer, they have to be besties. They have to be best friends. It’s sometimes tough for folks at that level to set the ego aside and focus on the broader goal. But, if you can do that, boy, it’s a lot of fun and you can make a lot of progress.

Micalizzi: It sounds like you guys are doing pretty well. How often do you revisit? Obviously you’re watching your metrics, but how often do you revisit the choices you made when you were implementing the CRM and the marketing automation system? How often do you take a look at it to make sure you’re on track?

Vass: Well, we’re looking — let me put it this way. We’re enhancing our Salesforce org all the time. So, we have various communication vehicles where our users can provide us feedback and enhancement requests.

We have a backlog of enhancements that we’re managing on a regular basis and prioritizing. And every day, every week, every month, we’re doing a lot to make Salesforce better and smarter for our business. So, you know, I don’t usually go back and say, hey, did the stuff that we did four years ago, is that still working or not? Because, you know, we so iterative and our Salesforce org today has a lot of the fundamentals that we put into place four years ago, but, boy, it’s a lot different as well and we continue to change and evolve.

One of the things that we’re focused on right now it trying to do a better job of leveraging Salesforce on the service side of our organization. We actually have more service cloud users than sales users. We have about 12 hundred some users total. We know there’s a lot we can do on the service side of the business to improve the overall customer experience, and we know if we do that, that’s going to benefit the sales side of the business as well.

Micalizzi: If they’re interacting with your company they don’t care if you’re sales or marketing, they want to be helped.

Vass: Yeah. Nobody wants to feel like an MQL. Nobody wants a clunky handoff between marketing and sales, nobody wants a clunky handoff between sales and, you know, service implementation, they just want that seamless customer experience throughout the entire lifecycle.

Micalizzi: Cool. So, I want to ask you our lightning-round question, which is, if you could take all the knowledge and experience you have now, go back to the beginning of your career, and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?

Vass: I think that the one piece of advice would be that sales and marketing alignment is extremely important and everything that you can do to focus on making that great will pay dividends in the future. Because if your sales and marketing teams are out of whack it’s going to be tough for you to grow at aggressive rates and there’s just going to be too many silos and too much politics.

So, one of the things that I’ve been fortunate to do here at Paycor and in the past is just really make sure we have strong alignment there. So, yeah, I think anyone fresh in their career should focus on that. I was just going to say also, maybe some advice to a young Brian or anyone else that is in school or coming out of school, is to get involved in this kind of technology.

Because strong Salesforce resources and marketing automation resources, and everything else, they are extremely specialized, they’re hard to find. So, if I ever talk to someone in school, I’m like, man, do whatever you can to get involved in Salesforce or Marketo or any of these other technologies because you can write your own ticket in the job market.

It’s so hard for us to find good talent to help run these systems. The people we do find, they’re making more money and they’re doing bigger and better things than other people their age. So, I think that’s good advice for folks as well.

Micalizzi: Definitely a strong career option. Brian, thank you so much for joining me.

Vass: My pleasure.




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