Sydney Sloan on Inside Intercom

SalesLoft’s Sydney Sloan on championing the customer experience

There was a time when marketing and sales paid little attention to the customer experience. Marketing would drum up leads, sales would close them, and the process would repeat, with no concern for how the customer might fare.

That’s unthinkable today in Sydney Sloan’s universe. An early pioneer of customer marketing, Sydney knows that at the heart of every high growth business are loyal, satisfied customers. It’s a philosophy that’s propelled her 25-year marketing career forward – at Adobe, Alfresco and now SalesLoft as their chief marketing officer.

I hosted Sydney on the podcast, where we chatted about everything from mapping the customer journey to how marketers can break through the noise and take the company’s revenue to new levels. Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. What gets you to $50 million in revenue isn’t what will get you to $100 million. If you discover that your market is changing, be ready to pivot like Sydney had to do when she adapted to the emergence of the cloud while working at Alfresco. By seeing the change on the horizon early, she and her team were able to redefine their story on their own terms.
  2. Marketing is the steward of the brand. If you can figure out what the “moment of truth” is at each stage of the buying journey and over-deliver, that’s where you develop a strong relationship with the customer and differentiate yourselves.
  3. Smart, happy customers buy more. So talk to them! Find out what they’re looking for, what they need and what makes them tick. If you can send right message through the right channels at the right time, you have a terrific shot at turning prospects into buyers.
  4. The marketing team who gets to the customer first has the ability to influence the buyer’s decision. Finding the customer and educating them – instead of waiting for them to do the research – is the key to unlocking higher conversions.
  5. Chat and AI are big trends in marketing today, and they should be implemented. But when you boil it all down, people still buy from people. Figuring out how automation and humans work together is key, and Sydney sums it up with a simple mantra: “science and security at scale.”

If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Alexandra Shapiro: Sydney, welcome to Inside Intercom. We’re happy to have you on our podcast. You recently joined SalesLoft as their first CMO—congratulations! Can you tell us your background and what led you to join SalesLoft?

Sydney Sloan: I’ve always been in marketing, and I now can say it’s been over 25 years and embrace that. For a while I was like, “Oh my god, 25 years!” It’s been a journey, and so much has changed during that 25 years in the industry, which makes it always dynamic and exciting. But I started back in the day, doing event marketing for a small technology company and creating their first customer conference, first sales kickoff, trade shows.

This was before CRMs even existed. You were capturing business cards and entering them into spreadsheets. But what I loved about it was the opportunity to talk to customers and work with sales people day-to-day and really get an appreciation for how hard it is. I’ve always been a sales-oriented and customer-oriented marketer, and that’s progressed through my career.

In terms of the experiences I’ve had, I really grew up at Adobe as they were going into the enterprise business back in the early 2000s. I spent about 15 years there in various divisions doing product marketing, for the most part. At the very end, we started a function called customer marketing, which we were selling to our customers. When it was time to leave Adobe, I wanted to go do that. I wanted to be a practitioner of this idea we were putting out there. I built and ran customer marketing functions at some SaaS companies and finally got the opportunity to be a CMO at Alfresco and put all that experience under one umbrella, and it was fantastic.

Getting to $100 million in revenue

Alexandra: You had a pretty incredible career at Alfresco, and you took the company to $100 million in revenue, which is a pretty major milestone for any business. Can you share with us some of the biggest challenges you tackled along the way and some of the lessons you learned?

Sydney: I definitely learned that what gets you to $50 million is not what’s going to get you to $100 million. Those milestones are real, and you have to continue to challenge yourself to evaluate how you think about your go-to market. How does that go-to market change? For us at Alfresco, it was really maturing from a developer-centric market to a top-down market selling to the C-level. We had to change the perception of our brand, and we had to change the story we were telling.

“What gets you to $50 million is not what’s going to get you to $100 million”

At the same time, the adoption of cloud was real, and our market was shifting. For us, we successfully saw that coming, and we were able to recast our our market category. We went from being enterprise content management software (which was a $6 billion industry) to a content services and cloud product. Making that transition was how we got into a leadership position. It was a challenge, and it was hard doing it globally where cloud adoption was different between the Americas and EMEA, which were our two main markets. Then we had to balance that along with the sales organization.

Alexandra: It sounds like it was actually two different challenges: You were moving from developer to enterprise and also moving to cloud.

Sydney: Yes. Our customers’ environment was changing. People weren’t doing things the same way they had done them before, and so we had an opportunity recast what that was and tell that story.

Alexandra: As you were making some of the changes, you got to a point where your customer renewal rate was over 90%. What was the work that you did around customer experience that got you to this milestone?

Sydney: I’ve always believed that marketing owns the voice of the customer, and we need to understand our customers, their needs, their insights and their challenges better than anybody else in the company. But you still have to partner with every part of the company to help bring that outside view to reality. I have a mantra that I’ve used for quite a few years, which is that smart, happy customers buy more. You change from a motion of selling where you’re trying to capture prospects to a motion of teaching and inspiring people once they become customers.

“Marketing owns the voice of the customer, and we need to understand our customers better than anybody else”

Customers don’t want to be sold to anymore. They’ve already chosen your company, so how do you teach them how to use your product better, how to adopt new things you might be bringing to market, how services can be consumed, how partners play a role? If you do it from a point of education and teaching where you’re trying to empower them to get the most out of the investment they’ve made, that resonates better with customers.

It’s shocking a lot of times if you actually spend the time to be a customer and look what the experiences are. Are you making customers sign into multiple parts of your website to get support? Can they call one number and get the answer? Can they get the service they want in the way they want? It’s actually hard to design for that, especially as you get into larger and larger companies. Always keep that in mind and ensure that you’re asking customers, “Are you getting what you need?”

Shepherding the brand

Alexandra: Customer experience is such a broad term, and we in marketing focus on so much, from customer acquisition to activation to retention. When you think about the pieces you drive in marketing, where do you feel like you have the most opportunity to make a change?

Sydney: Marketing is the steward of our brand. We are stewards of customer experience and bringing that to life. We have to work alongside our counterparts to ensure the experience is seamless and consistent, and we have to look for opportunities to gather the feedback and always improve. As I said, the first project I actually took on at SalesLoft was to actually define the customer journey.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with Jeanne Bliss, who helped create the idea of customer experience. I took that learning and brought it to SalesLoft and ran a couple of workshops. She taught me to bring in the people who have relationships with the customers – the frontline folks – and talk about each stage of the customer journey. You write down inspirational quotes. What would you like the customer to say and think when they’re having interactions with you? Every company has different customer journey stages. You want to document what the customer’s trying to accomplish and the ideal sentiment or action they’ll have. Then you identify these things called “moments of truth”. If you can figure out what that moment of truth is at each stage of the customer journey and over-deliver, that’s where you really can build out the relationship with the customer and differentiate yourselves.

“Figure out what the moment of truth is at each stage of the customer journey and over-deliver on it”

We’re actually still in the process of doing this. We’re at the step where we need to validate that with the customer. Our view of what the customer thinks is important should be the same view that our customers have. A lot of times, you’ll see the divide there and can make course corrections. Through that, you identify the programs you can partner on with other people inside the organization to continuously improve. We’re in the midst of doing that as we speak. This is all from Jeanne’s process, called Customer Bliss.

Alexandra: We have done something similar, where we look at the customer’s buying journey at a segment level and try to map out the key stages in the journey and use that information to make sure we’re providing the right message through the right channels to the right decision makers at the right time. The insights we get from talking to our customers and to prospects are incredible.

Partnering with sales and support

Alexandra: What about your partnership experience with sales? Can you talk a little bit about how you work with the support and sales teams at SalesLoft?

Sydney: SalesLoft has been different than any company I’ve ever worked at before, and that’s one of the things that drew me there. The company is committed to putting customers first. One of our other cultural values is “team over self,” and we truly have an account-based strategy for the company. The questions we ask are: who are our target accounts, how are we engaging them, what can marketing do and what can sales do?

It is a true partnership, where myself and our chief revenue officer, Sean Murray, talk about the factors that categorize or quantify who our target accounts are. Marketing owns target accounts and the selection of the list. Then, we work with sales to prioritize those lists and define the segments we want go after and the methodologies for going after them. Then, we tier the accounts, and we invest more resources in the top tiers than the at-scale activities for the lower tier. That partnership is in place.

We also have a great partnership with the sales enablement team as they look to gather feedback, build messages and train. We use the insights from our product as to what messages are resonating with the customers. That’s been quite different than my previous experiences, where it was more on the traditional side, where sales is asking marketing, “Where are my leads?” Then marketing would say to sales, “Why don’t you follow up on my leads?” We’ve definitely heard that story before. It’s a true partnership.

I’ve only been at SalesLoft for four months, and a lot of the leaders are relatively new. What I love on the support side is that we identify best practices and benchmarks. There are two facets to that. One is that we have a roadmap, and we have a structure we can recommend customers follow, and we can help them evaluate where they are according to best practices. Customers can see, “Okay, I’m strong here. I’m weak here.” And we can work together with them on getting to the levels that they need to succeed. Those kinds of benchmarks and frameworks are a great partnership between marketing and the customer success team to leverage and help with customer acquisition. Data and benchmarks really help the customer see where they fit.

The other part to the customer success organization at SalesLoft is that they’re also our education team. It goes back to that idea that smart, happy customers buy more. We want to be the company that sales leaders come to for insights and advice on how to modernize their sales organization. The more we can partner with the education team on bringing those lessons to not only our customers but also non-customers, the more we will grow our awareness and our reach of SalesLoft.

How to measure marketing’s impact

Alexandra: How do you measure performance? You said that marketing is looking at the entire customer lifecycle, but what are the things you track as a CMO?

Sydney: On the high level of the dashboard, there are a couple of things. We track pipeline and impact on closed-won deals. That’s so important for marketing to do, to show the impact on the business. We want to see how much pipeline we are jointly developing on our target accounts and how much influence on those target accounts marketing is driving. Then we also look at inbound as a separate function. We are still tracking – even though it’s not in our target account – how much we are naturally drawing in. That’s a separate segment, but we’re not investing in that. That’s just coming to us. And we’re seeing how those trend over time as well as looking at the closed ratios and the conversions between the different stages at a cohort level. We look into our funnel and the performance of the funnel to continue to make improvements.

The other thing that I always look at is the opposite side of the coin. Am I investing the company’s dollars wisely in marketing? We look at our return on investment, and what I’ve learned over time is not to make it overly scientific. So, generalized feedback is sufficient in that we want to understand how much it takes to book a meeting. How much investment do we need on large enterprise accounts versus our commercial accounts that deliver different returns on our investment?

“I always look at the opposite side of the coin – am I investing the company’s dollars wisely in marketing?”

I look at the differences between channels: which channels are performing? I know they’re going to be different, and that’s okay. It’s about setting expectations of what the return should be through those different channels, because we know that you have to have a mix. A field event might cost more, but I know what the return on that is going to be. We look at our overall return on spend and consider, for every dollar, how much are we returning to the business? The head of sales and I also keep our eyes on customer acquisition cost (CAC) for sales and marketing combined.

Alexandra: It’s very smart to look at blended CAC, because it’s really a combination of sales and marketing efforts getting you there. We share many of the same metrics. One of the things we try to do is build the alignment at the most senior level on the overarching metric. Sales and marketing share the revenue number, and that means we may control different types of inputs that go into the number one. We may be driving some of the leads and conversion rates, but it’s really sales helping with conversion rates, especially for larger customers. It’s a combination of both teams driving the output metric, but we share the same output metric.

Sydney: One thing I could just never get comfortable with is when the marketing team would be excited about all the marketing qualified leads (MQL) they were getting, while the sales teams are struggling to make the number. It just always felt wrong to me. MQLs can be manipulated, and so we can open them up and close them down. I really do think it’s more important to look at the pipeline and how you’re contributing to it – and then figuring out together how to make sure you’re converting as much pipeline as possible.

It’s important to do mid-stage metrics and mid-funnel marketing activities to continue to improve across all the stages. That’s the other key lesson. If there are other marketers out there who are still working with sales teams that say, “Marketing, don’t touch my deal now that I’m working on it…” That’s wrong. There’s so much marketing do to continue to keep the accounts warm and to bring new contacts into the equation. Hopefully sales teams are realizing that marketing can add value across all stages and beyond.

Alexandra: I agree with that. It depends to some degree on your business, but there’s a segment of customers that may never be touched by sales. It could be that the value of that segment on the average is primarily marketing-led, and marketing is driving a disproportionate share of both of attracting that segment and closing that segment. Or maybe sales is playing the assistant and it’s very important to figure out those two segments and the go-to market strategy across them.

At Intercom, we definitely have a two-tier strategy, and the metrics across those segments are very different. Again, marketing and sales play different metrics, but we are aligning at the top. In some cases, marketing maybe the only channel or the only team that actually touches some leads, and that’s okay.

Sydney: I was at Houston Exponential, and we were talking about how you can have a blended strategy, and you can have a target account or account-based marketing strategy, but if you’ve got a commercial, high-volume business as well, those things can run independently. You need to make sure you’ve got your team segmented and sorted and that you’re giving them the right resources for both, but it’s absolutely possible.

An evolving buyer journey

Alexandra: As go-to-market leaders, we talk a lot about how the buyer’s journey has changed. What are some of the changes you have seen in both buyer behavior and seller behavior in the last 10 years?

Sydney: In buyer and seller behaviors in the last 10 years, the biggest shift is the move to committee-based buying, especially in B2B in the larger enterprise. The number of people involved that you have to coordinate as part of the overall selling experience is very complex. For a long time, the stats said that the buyer had already done 60% or 70% of the research before even engaging with sellers. Then SiriusDecisions debunked that myth a couple of years ago, which I was pleased to see.

My belief is that the first one who gets the buyer before they are in the buying process is the one who has the ability to influence. You always want to be educating and getting to the buyer and not waiting for them to do all of the research, because you want to help influence them and consult them. Then you start mixing that with 10 or 15 people who might be involved in a particular buying process. Those are the complexities we face as B2B marketers today on enterprise. And it’s not easy to figure out how to orchestrate all those relationships, track all the engagement that’s going on and give the different personas what they need, depending on which stage they’re in.

“The marketing team who gets to the buyer before they are in the buying process is the one who has the ability to influence”

Alexandra: How do you actually break through the noise? Is there a campaign you’re really proud of where you feel like you were able to do that?

Sydney: Understanding the different roles and the orchestration between the roles is step one, and then step two is simply evaluating whether we have the content that’s needed for those roles at that stage. One of the things we did at my previous company was identifying that there were two primary personas who were coming to our website but weren’t the actual decision-makers. They were important, but we were treating them as the same person and really pushing a trial.

We separated them out and we created a resource. Marketers call it a resource, but we called it the learn site. We started studying where people were going on the site and what information they were looking for. We added a feedback loop and we said, “Are you getting what you’re looking for?” We figured out who the roles were and started building content based on what people were looking for. If they didn’t find it, they would let us know, and we would add that. We created that open communication loop with folks.

We knew they didn’t want to fill out a form to get content, so we had to open up our content and allow them to access it. But there’s enough technology out there you can use to track IP addresses and know when people from different accounts are on your site without asking people for their name and all their details before you give them the information they’re actually looking for. That addressed a couple of our buyer persons and the segmentation between the different roles.

Alexandra: I think it’s great insight, and it’s something that we at Intercom are also going through right now. We recently redesigned our blog, and we’re known for our content and the great work the team has been doing around thought leadership. But as we were going through our blog redesign, we had to reflect on the next stage of our growth while trying to make sure we provide valuable insights to founders.

A lot of times for larger companies, we’re talking to the head of sales, head of marketing, head of support – and we actually had to restructure our content to reflect those different types of personas who may be interacting with our blog and coming to our blog and completely redesign how we provide relevant information. It’s quite a journey, and we’ll be doing that on our website next.

Sydney: We’re in the same state. What got you here is not what’s going to get you there. You have to continuously reevaluate.

Building a partner ecosystem

Alexandra: Let’s switch gears and talk about partners. How important are partners to your acquisition strategy?

Sydney: Partners are an absolutely critical part of our equation, and there are two ways to answer this. One is personal: when I was evaluating what company I wanted to go to next, I actually talked to their partners. I wanted to know if they were a partner-friendly company, because I truly believe that strong companies foster strong partnerships and that there are enough to go around. I loved that the partners I talked to spoke so highly of SalesLoft and our orientation towards partners and how we work with them on solving customers’ problems. If you’re good at partnering, and customers are coming to SalesLoft plus using our partners, it’ll make our product stickier. If we can surface information – if we can connect with all the systems they’re putting in place or make recommendations of things they should put in place because we know they’re going to get more value out of SalesLoft – that’s a great strategy to have.

“I truly believe that strong companies foster strong partnerships”

The SalesLoft App Directory has been great. In terms of acquisition, I was just talking to our head of partners today, and he was very excited about how many incremental visits we were having to our partner site. So, it’s working and continuing to grow as we continue to build out our ecosystem. It’s been important to see how APIs have evolved over the past few years and how companies are really working to make it easier for people to connect systems. They’ll get more use and more value out of the technology they’re investing in, so that’s critical.

SalesLoft App Directory

You’re not asking the technology teams to build the integrations. You just turn them on. You connect them, and it should work. Now when you get into bigger companies, it gets more complex, but to get started you shouldn’t spend six to nine months building integrations and customizations if the partner ecosystem has been well designed.

The future of sales and marketing

Alexandra: As we wrap up, what are the big trends you see emerging in sales and marketing?

Sydney: In the short-term, it still amazes me how marketers can leverage data and how hard it is to get good data and to get your data clean. But once you have it, you can use it to help with your account selection and prioritization. Right now I’m researching the use of intent data and how it helps with prioritization and even looking into it how we think about our territories and our models and the companies we’re going after.

Chat is definitely a current trend right now. I remember back in the 1990s and 2000s, chat meant one thing. It means something totally different now. It’s bringing the conversation forward and trying to engage people in conversation as soon as you possibly can. That’s important throughout the entire customer lifecycle. If they want to chat, you should be able to chat. If you want to call, you should be able to call. I love Intercom’s Answer Bot (now called Resolution Bot): the right information should be available to the customer, so their question can get answered right away.

Long-term, the reason I got into this space is because I’d love to see sales and marketing continue to get more aligned. Account-based marketing is just the start of that, and it’s where you really are bringing all your resources to bear on the customers that are your greatest opportunity. You’re bringing everybody together to try and give those customers the best possible service while still remaining human. I know everybody wants to say AI – and it will change the game in terms of what can be learned – but at the end of the day it’s still people who are buying from people. Figuring out how those blend in a meaningful way will be probably in the next two-year window, I would imagine. One of our mantras is “science and sincerity at scale.”

Alexandra: Our mission is very similar, in a way. It’s thinking about how we can make the internet more personal. We believe communication tools will continue to evolve, and automation going to be a big part of that, but humans going to have to be part of that too. Sydney, thank you for your time. Really appreciate it.

Sydney: I had such a good time. Thank you.

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