Modern Performance Deep Dive: Mike Haylon, VP of Sales at Care Message, Discusses Smart Goal Setting, Key Metrics, Candid Feedback and More
Mike Haylon (LinkedIn, Twitter) chalks his sales career up to equal parts intent and fate. Growing up, his father had always encouraged him towards selling. In college, Mike participated in cold-calling efforts to raise money for his school’s endowment. He demonstrated his intent by taking the script, throwing it out the window and rewording it in a way that he felt would be more compelling. He had discovered that how you frame a pitch deeply impacts people’s interest in buying. But his real-world sales career would be kicked off by fate. He applied for and accepted his first sales job at cloud platform OpenAir largely because the company’s founder was also an alumnus of Holy Cross. That led to several years with the company, including after its acquisition by Netsuite, where he grew into roles of increasing responsibility. But Haylon wanted to be in a high-growth company with a focus on social impact. That led him to the healthcare industry, and Care Message in particular. In our interview, we discuss the benefits of over-communication, telling compelling stories around metrics, and the importance of nipping prima donna behavior in the bud.
“One way I ensure the team is communicating well is, ironically, by treating them as individuals.”
It helps to build trust, and convince them that they are not a cog in the wheel or just a means to get to a goal. I acknowledge that each of them has their own unique needs and communication style. But I also ask them to commit to some standard processes. There’s a balance in highlighting individuality and having some standardization to help accurately benchmark performance. If I build up the trust that I value them as individuals, they in turn are willing to sign up for an objective process—capturing data in Salesforce, rigorously qualifying initial call prospects, telling the story in a consistent way, etc. As long as they can approach these things with their own style, I’ve found it fosters an effective team.
Lastly, we do things outside of the office or I give them the autonomy to do that themselves. Planning dinners, happy hours, or team events allows us to interact without necessarily talking about work.
New teams often expect that I want to get straight to the nuts and bolts of the work. But by temporarily putting those concerns to the side at first, I show them that I care about more than just getting them to their number.
“I try to over-communicate, even if some of it seems irrelevant. Keeping them in the loop helps build trust, so they feel part of the process, not just held to task on the end result.”
Listening intently is also important. I’m there to help them be successful, whatever that means. I want them to buy into what we’re doing. I don’t want them to feel like they’re just being dictated to. Lastly, I give them the opportunity to actively participate in the process. Take over team meetings, go meet with the VP of sales or the CEO if you have a topic you’re interested in talking about. Make your voice heard.
“As a starting point, establish a simple but objective performance measure and make sure everyone buys into it. Then you can get into the context of why they think that they’re good or bad at it.”
Whatever the metric, it’s important to have a conversation and build a better understanding of what that data point is telling you and why. For example, a rep might believe that his or her ACV is low because we don’t measure how quickly deals get closed, and they believe that they close deals quicker than most. My perspective might be that they just aren’t asking for enough, or they’re relenting too quickly on negotiations. Until we have a conversation about that, we’re both going to have different perspectives on why that data point is what it is.
Mike Gamson of Linkedin says something to the effect of ‘Criticize privately and praise publicly.’
“When you share praise with everyone, it feels great for the recipient, but it also provides behavior modeling for the rest of the team.”
You’ll find that they do pick up on it. Let them lead team meetings. Show them that they’ve earned the right to lead the team in some way, shape, or form. Don’t just dole that out to anybody, though. Try to continually find ways to loosen the reins on high performers. Demonstrating trust in them and giving them more autonomy is a quiet way to pass on praise. Find opportunities for rewards, including outside team functions that have nothing to do with work. I’ve found that people really like those, especially millennials. They want to get a little bit of time off and go hang out with their coworkers in a non-work setting. I try to praise people by saying, “Hey take Friday afternoon off. You guys did an incredible job hitting this number.”
The traditional thinking on this is tell them something nice and fluffy, and then hit them with the hard news. I don’t buy into that. Everyone in Silicon Valley has now either heard about or tried to adopt the concept of radical candor. There’s a lot of merit to that approach.
“I don’t like to beat around the bush. It’s my general preference to be very direct, and I ask for direct feedback in return.”
But I do so in a way that reinforces the idea that I’m out for their best interests. If someone lost a deal, I’d first let them know that I’m okay in general with them losing deals and I’m giving feedback so they can take it and apply it to their next opportunity. That way, people feel more comfortable sharing what happened. Then, I’d just be very direct and detailed on the feedback. For example, “I heard you say this on this particular call. The metrics are telling me this. All of this builds up a story that suggests that you need to improve on x.”
Also, afford them the opportunity to share their perspective on it. Feedback is not just about dictating what you think needs to be improved, but about being open to their perspective. People are often self-aware enough that they might make some of the same points you intended to with your feedback. Lastly, make it actionable. What specific actions are you going to take to fix this thing? How are you going to measure your progress? Where do you need my help? Be very specific and make it clear the onus is not exclusively on them to improve, that you want to help them figure out how.
How do you do feedback where the answer is measurable (“fewer bugs in the code please”) versus less measurable (“You come off as aggressive, Pete.”)?
For me, the approach is the same.
“Whether there’s a metric to back your feedback up or it’s something more subjective, I always want to challenge my own perspective on their performance.”
I develop a deeper understanding by giving them an opportunity to share their thoughts. Then we try to come to an agreement on what happened and how to improve upon it. If it’s qualitative, then I might provide an example of something I heard on a call. If it’s quantitative, it’d be a particular metric. Either way, I give my initial thoughts and ask an open-ended question to give them an opportunity to speak on it. Then we open a dialogue about it and hopefully agree on a plan for fixing it.
Ask yourself what type of salesperson you need based on your existing team and your needs within the sales cycle.
“I create a candidate profile by immersing myself in the sales process, and closing some deals myself alongside the existing sales team.”
Are we looking for a candidate that excels in a high-volume, smaller-deal-size environment, or are we looking for someone who can cultivate the big deal? The first profile requires urgency and persistence, so I look for someone with an athletic background who has shown hypercompetitiveness.
You want a candidate who’s willing to work really hard, can work well in a team environment, and is able to close deals in a rapid cycle. I’m also looking for operational efficiency, organization, and an ability to pitch succinctly and effectively. These attributes lend themselves nicely to high-volume, repetitive sales. A large-deal, enterprise salesperson may not be as adept at those skills, but would be really good on the phone, at moving the conversation along and building relationships. For large deals with long sales cycles, I’d look for someone with experience in that particular industry who might already have preexisting relationships. They should be able to talk about specific deals they’ve worked that were complex and how they navigated them. This person has a real sales aptitude, and more sales experience.
What exercises, tests, and interview questions have you found useful in identifying high performers during hiring?
We’ve found panel interviews to be very effective. I have one person ask open-ended questions, and a second person do fact finding. The first interviewer might ask, “Tell me about a big deal that you worked on,” and as the candidate cites specifics about the deal, the second person on the panel would ask follow-up questions like, “Tell me more about working with the CIO on that project.” Everyone should know their role going into the panel interview, and think about how they’re going to capture information on the candidate’s approach in a structured way, so you can drive consistency across your interviews and be able to benchmark people fairly. It’s about applying as much objectivity as you can to a generally very subjective process.
“I have candidates pitch a third-party product, something that both the interviewer and interviewee would understand. The goal is not to show their level of knowledge or understanding of that platform, but rather to see how they think about delivering a really succinct, compelling pitch.”
I give them some advance time to come up with a pitch to deliver in the interview, as if I were a prospect. I had candidates pitch Slack, but you could use any number of products that would be familiar to the typical salesperson. We invite people in for lunch, after an initial phone screen with them. We did, what we call “career trajectory,” where after the first interview, we’d deep dive into their background and how it might line up with their ability to be successful. From these approaches we’d uncover things that you wouldn’t necessarily get from a one-hour interview.
The job description should do some of this work for you. Give the new hire a detailed explanation of what will be expected of them. Not just that they’ll be an account executive, but what being an account executive for your specific company means in terms of culture, buyer profile, product-specific challenges and responsibilities.
“We set expectations for their specific role with a 30-60-90-day sales plan, and by using the information in the job description to inform and structure onboarding.”
We have a one-week company-wide onboarding where new hires are exposed to the leadership team, to the industry, and to the products in various ways. Then there’s a sales-specific onboarding where we take those lessons and go through role playing to see how the new hire would qualify or set up a first mock demo. We also start to get them on sales calls, whether by participating or listening in.
It starts with expectation setting. Make sure your brand and your website explicitly communicate your company values and culture, so you attract the right kind of people to the interview. Once they’re there, from day one, you should be very clear about what the mission is, and why you set up your structure or sales process the way you have.
“Give new hires an opportunity to ask questions, and potentially even shape aspects of the culture based on their experience.”
You’re right to expect new hires to buy into your culture, but it can also benefit the team if they can influence it. I’ve assigned starter projects to give new hires an opportunity to work on a particular problem we were having. They would go have one-on-ones with people across the company and do proper research. We don’t make decisions in a vacuum, and a project like that demonstrates how we work together. One starter project we used was “How would you improve onboarding?” They’re going through the onboarding process obviously, so we’d have them capture, document, and contribute feedback on what their experience was like. This serves two purposes. One, they would have an opportunity to influence a very important part of sales. And two, it had us onboarding people more quickly as a result.
Depending on the size of the team, I try to do one-on-ones every week for thirty minutes. Or, at a minimum, every other week for forty-five minutes or an hour. Team members should know that the one-on-one is a safe place to communicate anything that’s on their mind, good, bad, or ugly. That requires building trust with that person first. To do that, I use early one-on-ones to have conversations about topics they’d like to discuss. After that, they know that when they come into that meeting, they have an opportunity to talk about whatever’s on their mind, whether it’s personal, professional or otherwise. Let them know that they’ve been heard, but push back on ideas that you think they can look at another way. Offer alternative perspectives they might not have considered.
“If a team member wants to see an aspect of their job improve, ask for specific ways to measure that improvement. That way, they know that it’s not just as easy as throwing out the idea.”
Let’s go do it. But if we’re going to make change, it has to be measurable.
Team meetings should be team-led. I designate one person each week to address important topics that they’ve raised in their one-on-one. They get an opportunity to lead by owning the discussion and being accountable for overseeing follow-up. I rotate that across people, assigning topics to team members strong in certain areas, like competitive landscape, objection handling, negotiating, or storytelling. We also have training-oriented team meetings. Each person talks about how their deals are going, but we try to remove the subjectivity from it. We create a structured process and require questions to be captured in Salesforce.
“In team meetings, subjective discussion of deals often means wasted time and tangents and unfocused anecdotes. Targeted questions bring reps back to a more structured, objective way of looking at their deals.”
We’d have three or four people out of a team of eight present their deals. They’d talk about the deal for five minutes or so, and then the rest of the team would pepper them with questions or feedback.
“I say use as many data points as you can reasonably capture and trust.”
But no matter what sales organization I’ve been part of, there are always problems in getting salespeople to capture that data, and then trusting that whatever metric we’re using is accurate. I try to keep it very simple with numbers we know we can trust, like revenue, success in converting leads to opportunities, number of quality meetings, overall pipeline, and ratio of pipeline to closed revenue. We keep a benchmark for what a healthy number looks like. Ideally you have a lot more than that, but even the things I have mentioned are hard to get to. We constantly re-architect Salesforce and our CRM in the interest of getting reliable metrics. It seems like a never-ending process, where we make baby steps if we are lucky.
Team members should have clear expectations. They should know how they’re being measured, and on what basis their performance will be reviewed.
“If a team member has shown a consistent ability to meet or exceed goals, then they’ve said through their work that they’re ready to take on a new challenge.”
They’ve opened up the door to be able to be trusted to see tasks through. You can comfortably give them a project that might be of interest to them, and also would benefit the business or the team. Build checkpoints. Don’t ask them just to produce the end result, but to produce a version of it first. Don’t feel like is has to be perfect the first time around. Know that this will be a process, we’ll work through it together, and I’ll help you get to the end result. Make sure you are clear on a date that they need to have it done by, or that they should hit a specific milestone by. Then leave it alone, because you’ve picked the type of person who’s already shown their ability to drive themselves and achieve.
I remind myself to keep it simple. I think about what the end goals are that I’m pushing for. With those goals in mind, do these tasks really needs to be prioritized at this particular time? That requires looking at the weeks ahead and ensuring whatever plan you have makes sense.
“I remind myself that it’s okay to put tasks off that are not critically important. You’re not being lazy. You’re being more efficient.”
For items that are not as critical to get done immediately, is there someone with time to take on this project? If it’s something that definitely needs to get done, but I can’t take it on, who has the kind of skill set to take it on successfully? I try to find people who have shown that they’d be able to deliver a project on time and on target. If I’ve built up trust already, I can assign it, let them know how important it is to our efforts, and establish a timeline with checkpoints to help them get it done.
I’ve done some reading on this topic, and the best advice I’ve heard is to establish a larger mission or a theme, so team members can easily grasp what we’re all working towards. At Care Message, it’s to grow the number of patients whose health could be impacted by use of our platform.
“Everyone should have a clear understanding that every goal or metric we establish is tied very specifically to our overarching goal.”
Then we decide how we can track results. For us, it’s scalability and data integrity. Within that, there are two or three key objectives that each team or person signs up for. In the case of data integrity, for example, it might be capturing certain data on every single deal that you work going forward. We’ll measure you against that. For scalability, it might be increasing the annual contract value (ACV) by $5,000 this year. Give them some ways to think about how they would go about doing that, and then measure their ability to actually increase the dollar amount of deals. The goal-setting process we built at Care Message is a collaborative one. Everyone gives their thoughts on a goal, how it should manifest, and what specifically they will contribute. That way, the goal is one that they’ve helped create, signed off on, and will be ready to execute.
Team members should contribute their thoughts on goals, but my job as the leader is to point the team toward specific things that need to improve, and make sure our goals aren’t arbitrary. I might look at the business and know that we need to grow our customers by x amount over the course of the quarter, and I know that we’re short by 50% on the leads we’ll need to reach that goal. So our goal would be to close that gap on leads. Define the ways you can achieve that—do more outbound, define a referral strategy, whatever else. And finally, decide how progress will be measured.
Goals should be visible to the team at all times. We have a dashboard that everyone in the company can access that reflects our patient count, so that we have it constantly on our minds, and try to help grow it.
“Instead of just using Salesforce dashboards to keep the CEO apprised of key team metrics, have a dashboard for each salesperson that reflects those same metrics.”
That way, everyone is on the same page about how you’re being measured, what you’re measured on and where it stands every day and every week. You don’t want goals only to come up during a review at the end of a quarter or year. Regularly communicate goals and progress toward goals through a standard set of metrics, whether it be on dashboards or in consistent emails.
I’m a big fan of any tool that salespeople can use without data entry, as long as it can help them capture data and perform better. For example, email plug-ins that gather open and response rates can be very useful. You can also use them to automatically capture interactions and activity into Salesforce. That way, reps aren’t having to spend additional time entering that information manually. There are phone systems that do similar things.
For high performers, I look toward two metrics, presuming they can be properly and accurately captured. One would be quality meetings.
“Rather than simply tracking the number of meetings, define what a quality meeting looks like, and track those.”
Some attributes of a quality meeting might involve the role and level of influence of the person with whom they’re meeting. These are all things that would be captured in a CRM. Was there more than one person in that initial discussion? Could you properly articulate their pains beyond just future needs? Do they have specific business challenges tied directly to their need for a platform like ours?
Second would be conversion in any way, shape, or form. If I can look at their ability to convert leads to opportunities through quality conversations, great. If I can get bottom-of-the-funnel data, even better. Of all the deals they bring to stage three or stage four, how many actually close? Because the mistake we often make is to take too broad or too holistic of a view of improving salespeople. For example, on my last team, I had a guy who was tremendous at getting people bought into the concept of Lever, but he was terrible at closing. Without conversion data at each stage of the funnel, I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly where he was having an issue, and really properly assess what’s how to fix it.
“Tomasz Tunguz of Redpoint Ventures has a very actionable approach: Establish a funnel and then measure your ability to convert at each stage of the funnel.”
Key team metrics for this approach include size of pipeline, total in terms of revenue, and the likelihood of reaching quota based on the size of your pipeline at each stage. For example, if the team knows we have a $50,000 target for the month, and our close rate for qualified opportunities is 25%, then we have to have $200,000 in the early stage of the funnel. I would measure team revenue at each stage against those benchmarks. That way, we could more proactively assess whether someone is going to hit quota instead of just waiting to see if the deals come through. Same with leads. Do you have enough leads? How many leads of a certain quality do you need to convert a lead to a qualified opportunity?
Some metrics are relevant to our task, but are hard to capture and reliably trust. Take numbers around conversion at each stage of the funnel as an example.
“If you have five stages in the sales process, the challenge is to decide what it means objectively to be in phase one versus two versus three, and so on.”
I standardize that across the team so everyone has a very deep understanding of it, and we apply that rigor to Salesforce. When Rep A has a 50% conversion rate of leads to opportunities at a certain point in the pipeline, and Rep B is at 15%, you need to know that those numbers correlate and tell you something. If you haven’t built an objective way to capture what it means for a lead to become an opportunity, then reps can spin their numbers any way they like. One metric we had some difficulty tracking was a regression analysis we did to try to bring some objectivity into the interview process. It was very challenging to try to come up with a way to score outcomes, how often candidates went on to become high performers, and what were the specific reasons they did not.
We use the third-party product pitch in the interview process to gauge someone’s ability to deliver a compelling story and connect with the buyer. It’s a good way to see how well people prepare and how much attention they pay to formatting and other details. Do they ask interesting questions? Are they just pitching the benefits of the product without showing an understanding of the buyer’s specific needs? You can get a feel for someone’s innate curiosity.
“If you can witness someone asking pointed questions or repeating back key words and ideas to you, that’s as good as any metric in measuring curiosity, a great skill that a lot of salespeople don’t have.”
Passion is another key attribute. That word is used pretty loosely. But there are ways to tell if someone is genuinely excited about the space. In the healthcare space, do they have someone close to them that has impacted by a chronic disease? Do they have a personal connection to the space that they can describe in any way, shape, or form? When they wake up in the morning tired, hung over, or just unmotivated, will they have some extra motivation to keep them on task? Intrinsic passion and innate curiosity are two really important qualitative measures.
“Big or small, every company and every team struggles with this. For sales teams, it’s a little easier because the picture is clearer. Over time, you’ve either been able to successfully hit your number or you haven’t.”
Some managers develop very clear career paths and progressions with team members, mapping how you get from one rung to the next. I both like and dislike that. It’s effective in that everyone has an understanding of how they get to the next level. But, particularly in startups, it’s difficult to predict what the company itself will look like in three, six, and twelve months. So I’ve tried to find evidence of skills they’d be using at the next level in tasks they’re already performing.
I also look for opportunities to insert an SCR into AE-type tasks in a way that’s not disruptive. You can pair them with AEs by territory or industry type, so they gain a more complete understanding of a particular space. The salesperson could have them qualify deals or leads on their own, or at the very least have them participate in the call. Not just listen in, but perhaps even kick off the call to get a sense for what it’s like. Basically put them in the role before they’re actually in it, and get feedback from their peers.
The first conversation centers around their assessment of what is happening. You’ll get a good understanding of whether that person assumes responsibility, holds themselves accountable to metrics, or points to external factors that are hampering them.
“When assessing performance, find ways to separate the issues they can control from those they can’t.”
Let’s say all your teammates are making the grade. They’ve seemingly faced similar issues. Can we perhaps agree that x, y, z reasons aren’t necessarily contributing directly to your ability to hit your number, given that others are having success in the same conditions? If they’re self-aware, understand the situation, and are willing to accept responsibility for metrics that they have control over, then we put together a plan for them to show improvement going forward. Within a week or so, you can tell if it’s going to work out with that person or not. Unfortunately, some have to be let go. Others in the past have been able to turn it around.
It should be pretty clear. They shouldn’t have to tell you and you shouldn’t have to ask. They’ve done the kind of things over time that qualitatively or quantitatively you’ve asked them to.
“If you’ve set up expectations from the beginning on milestones they need to hit and associated timelines, then promotion timing becomes very natural.”
Hopefully if you set up the system well enough and you have a tight-knit, manageably sized team, you’ve been able to witness tasks that they’ve taken on themselves, and done really effectively. You’ve had enough chances to listen to them on calls. You’ve had enough chances to see their impact on the team. You can even surprise them with a promotion that they might not have expected.
I’ve encountered this situation with a number of people. The best thing we did was let them go.
“The impact that prima donna behavior has on team morale and performance is remarkable. In the end, you’re usually left with the feeling that you should have done something sooner.”
There’s a book called The Score Takes Care of Itself. It’s an autobiography of Bill Walsh when he took over the 49ers. He talks about this topic ad nauseum. There were players he couldn’t even fathom getting rid of, but when he finally did, the impact on the rest of the team was profound. To me, it’s pretty straightforward. I’m more than happy to give someone an opportunity to prove to me that their first three months of being a prima donna was an aberration, but my experience is that it rarely is. You can try to understand their situation, determine what they’re willing to be accountable for, give them some ways to show that they care about improving. But if they don’t do those things very quickly, let them go.
In my experience, there’s usually something they feel has happened to them. Often something that you couldn’t have appreciated, something personal or that they deem to be personal. For example, it might be a feeling that you’ve been over-hiring, or there was a promotion for which they were overlooked. That conversation tends to be less about performance and metrics because you know they’re capable. It’s more about diagnosing what has affected their work. Then trying to find a way to right that wrong if it makes sense to do so.
“Having a conversation about what changed for a disgruntled team member allows you to create a path toward improvement, and to help them decide if they’re willing to see it through.”
You can offer ways that you’re willing to support them. They may decide that they’ve lost all motivation, in which case, you can agree to part ways. I’d probably be more open to hearing this type of person out and potentially keeping them on, given their past performance and history as a good team player. It’s more likely to have been the result of a perceived wrong that can potentially be fixed versus an ingrained personality trait that’s harder to change.
I’d take intrinsic motivation and drive any day of the week over skill. I’d obviously love to have both. But I’d prefer the former to the latter. That’s because skill can be honed, developed or trained, but intrinsic motivation and effort really can’t.
“I believe strongly in regular and intensive training for sales teams, regardless of experience, so I lean even more towards someone with intrinsic motivation.”
If drive becomes an issue, there might be a personal issue that’s affected their motivation. If it’s not reparable, then I’d say the best is to agree to part ways. If it is, then helping that person who has a strong skillset to get it right can only be to your benefit.
In one instance, a guy really wanted to become a manager. He was going around to the rest of the team and dictating to them what they should be doing, where we should be improving processes, and so on. The other team members were not having it. The way I approached this issue with him was to point out that a key part of being a successful manager is having the trust of your team. I asked him to go ask for one-on-one time from each and every person that he had pissed off, apologize to them directly, and ask how he could make it right. I told him that to be on the path to become a manager, you have to have that kind of trust from your team. And I told him that having heard their description of him, they don’t trust him.
“By taking a direct, transparent approach about where he was falling short on his career development goals, and giving him exposure to feedback he wasn’t getting, I could ask him to take action and improve.”
Perhaps he’ll come to a self-realization that he wasn’t as far along as he thought. In this case, he did step up and try and work on that trust, to show that he was capable.
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