Shopify’s Hana Abaza on sales and marketing

Hana Abaza is not only an expert in using marketing as a growth tool for business, but has helped build product to actually complete the Job-to-be-Done.

Hana is Head of Marketing for Shopify Plus, the ecommerce platform’s upmarket offering for high-volume, fast growing businesses, which include household names like Red Bull, Nestle and Unilever, as well as companies who simply started small and grew alongside Shopify over the years. Prior to that, she spent several years in leadership roles at Uberflip, a platform that helps manage and personalize content experiences at every stage of the buyer journey.

A huge part of Hana’s success at Shopify has been improving the coordination and collaboration between sales and marketing, and I recently hosted her on our podcast to learn more about it. Our chat covers the tools and workflows she’s put in place, why you can’t view the marketing funnel as a linear process, the value of marketing operations, and much more.

If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe to it on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our chat.

Adam: Hana, welcome to Inside Intercom. To get us started, can you walk us through your career to date and what you’re doing today at Shopify Plus?

Hana: Before I got into the tech marketing world, I ran a chain of martial arts studios. I did the collective marketing for all seven locations, and I was general manager for two of the locations.

That was around the time Twitter was becoming a thing, and local, small businesses were starting to develop an online presence and build websites. That’s really the direction we started to go in, and we were really starting from scratch. Doing things like gaming local search on Google was much, much easier than it is these days. We did simple things like starting to build out a CRM, so we had better customer data. That’s what got me sucked into the tech side of things. I started doing consulting from there and started working on startups. A few years down the road, I made my way to Toronto, where I worked at a company called Uberflip, which is essentially marketing technology. After that I ended up at Shopify Plus.

Adam: Are there any marketing quirks you learned in the martial arts world that lend themselves to tech? Any principles you learned there that you still lean on today?

It’s funny when you look at the business model for [martial arts], it’s essentially SaaS

Hana: Tons of them. It’s funny because when you look at the model for that type of a business, it’s essentially SaaS. You’re looking at recurring revenue and very similar metrics around retention and upgrades. You’re trying to move people into different programs within the martial arts style that you’re using. That was probably the most valuable experience I’ve had. There are so many transferable skills in terms of how you look at the business, and how you think of growth moving forward.

Joining a company at scale

Adam: How does Shopify Plus differ from the core platform, and what’s your role like there?

Hana: Historically, Shopify has been focused on small business or that individual entrepreneur that wants to start a company. We began to see a lot of these small businesses that started on Shopify grow, and get really, really big on Shopify, which was a little bit surprising at first. A lot of people expected they’d start on Shopify, get to a certain size, and then they would graduate to some sort of enterprise e-commerce platform.

We started to see a lot of those merchants stay on Shopify, and that got us asking, “Is there an opportunity here to create something that’s tailored towards them, that meets their needs, that’s for that upper tier of the market that’s a little bit bigger, a little bit more complex, and making a little bit more revenue?” That’s how Plus started.
As we started looking at the alternatives in the landscape, and as we started looking at that model, we realized there was a huge opportunity for somebody to come in and provide a really great experience, and at the end of the day a great platform, for those types of merchants. Shopify Plus really focuses upmarket – mid-market to enterprise – you’ll see a lot of our customers are very high growth. You’ve got some Fortune 500s in there.

Adam: Shopify was already a large and successful company when you arrived. What tips would you have for someone that is making a similar jump, from a smaller but established company like Uberflip, to a place like Shopify?

Hana: When you’re looking at moving from a company that’s in the hundreds, to a company that’s in the thousands there is definitely a mental shift that needs to happen. For me, it was an interesting scenario because my focus was specifically on Shopify Plus. And while Shopify, as a whole, had a built out growth team that’s been focused on marketing for a little while, Plus specifically hadn’t really done anything. We didn’t have much infrastructure and we didn’t have much of a team at the time. All of the marketing 101 stuff you have to do at B2B SaaS, we had to go back and start to build out, because it was primarily focused on sales in the early days. So coming in, for me, it was a lot about gaining context. Everybody says this to you when you start any new position, but take the time to understand what’s happening, and learn the market, and learn the audience.

This isn’t necessarily specific to Shopify, but any time you’re going into a new environment there are two ways people struggle and can sometimes lead to failure. If you don’t wait and ask questions, and build context, and you come in guns blazing right off the bat that tends to be problematic. If you skew too far in the other direction, where you get there and you sit back and watch, but then you wait too long to do stuff, that’s also problematic. Try to find the balance.

A revenue playbook for sales and marketing

Adam: Your customers include major enterprises, and I imagine a big part of being upmarket like this is working closely with an enterprise sales team. How do your two teams support each other? What do you have in place to help make sure that’s a successful, smooth, and ongoing conversation and relationship?

We need shared objectives and targets, and we all need to be looking at the same numbers.

Hana: Number one, we need shared objectives and targets, and we all need to be looking at the same numbers. That’s key. One thing that has been hugely helpful is we’ve created this thing called a revenue playbook. If you think of what’s traditionally an SLA between marketing and sales, I’ve never liked the term SLA in that context because it implies an us versus them mentality. I actually hate it and I’ve always tried to get away with not doing an SLA because I much prefer to think of it as a cohesive revenue team. Regardless of org structure, functionally it really is one team.

We’ve created this revenue playbook in partnership with sales, and we’ve gone beyond the parameters of what you would traditionally look at as an SLA. We’ve tried to map out goals, objectives and rules of engagement, like how are we going to follow up with leads? What are the different things that we’re going to do? Who’s responsible for what? What are contingency plans if something goes wrong? Who has inputs into changing the process at different stages? What are the high level conversion numbers that we’re trying to hit?

That conversion piece, in this type of a model, is a shared metric. Because when you look at conversion, it comes down to many different drivers. Some of them marketing is mostly accountable for, and some of them sales is mostly accountable for. Having that playbook has been key for us, and not only has it been awesome for those teams, but we’ve also distributed that throughout the organization at Plus. A lot of other teams have taken a look at it, and it’s provided context to what our funnel is and how it works. The next step for us is to extend that beyond that presale and map out that entire experience, and think of it more as merchant or customer experience playbook rather than just focus on the revenue side.

Adam: What was it like to create this, or was it already in place when you arrived?

Hana: This was started from scratch, and it was kind of fascinating to see it come to life. It started with a simple Google Doc, and we pulled in key people from all of the different stakeholder teams. We have a shared business operations team here, so we pulled in the person responsible for rev ops, we pulled in sales leads, we pulled in marketing leads. Over the course of four or five days all of those people were adding and commenting, and it was the most dynamic Google Doc I’ve seen in a really long time. The team really came together on it. Everybody had input so everybody was invested in the success of rolling this out.

Rolling it out to the broader team is an ongoing process. It’s a bit of a challenge initially because old processes are pretty ingrained in people, and it takes time to train people and change behavior. But this has become key, not only in keeping the existing team pointed in the right direction, but also in onboarding new members of the team.

It was also a forcing function to dig a bit deeper into some of the metrics that we were using. Service level metrics around your funnel tell one story. But when you start to segment things a little bit more, and when somebody pokes in one spot that you didn’t necessarily think of, it really opens up some insights. I would highly recommend startups that are starting to build out and scale those teams go through a similar process, but it has to be done in partnership.

Tightening the marketing-sales feedback loop

Adam: You’re a big proponent of marketing operations. When is a startup ready for that type of investment, and what are the problems they’ll be seeing that this type of position can solve?

Hana: Obviously, size is a factor, but the complexity piece is where the problems start to come up. Some of those problems are, for example, leads aren’t getting routed properly to sales reps. Or they are getting routed, but they’re missing data. Or the data that you’re collecting on your marketing automation forms, or your landing pages isn’t necessarily going to the right place. Or you don’t have the bandwidth to properly implement those pages, and forms, and the tracking around them. It’s really a combination of the actual executional stuff when it comes to campaigns, and lead management specifically, but there’s also an infrastructure piece to that as well. You want to make sure you have the right infrastructure to track and extract that information, because as you start to scale you’ll be way ahead of the curve.

Make sure you have the right infrastructure

Adam: What does a healthy feedback loop look like between sales and marketing? What parts of the funnel should you continually be optimizing and having conversations around?

Hana: The conversion rate between a marketing qualified lead and a deal opened, that feedback loop has to be really tight. For example, do you have sales reps filling out disqualification fields with reason around why they’re disqualifying leads? Is that happening on a regular basis every single time they actually are working a lead?

There definitely ongoing feedback that you’re getting from the CRM directly, but there’s also the qualitative feedback that you’re getting from talking to sales reps, which I think is incredibly important. You really need that mix of both quantitative and qualitative.

The other piece that I would say is incredibly important is doing some sort of win/loss analysis, so you can dig into why you are winning deals. What is the thing that’s tipping people over the edge? And why are you losing deals? That kind of data can come directly from conversations with sales reps, but also from conversations with customers that you’re losing directly. That’s a hugely valuable thing that I’ve done in the past.

Adam: What does that analysis look like in practice? Is it a regular face-to-face check-in? Is it a living doc?

Hana: There is a living doc. Depending on the cadence of your sales cycle, it might make sense to do a monthly review of win/loss analysis or it might make more sense to do a quarterly review. The other thing that it depends on is the volume of deals that you’re doing. If you’re super enterprise-focused and you’re doing a few deals a month, but they’re really high value, it’s really easy to go through those one-by-one. Once you start getting into higher volume, you want to take the time to synthesize that information and bucket it a little bit and pull out the common threads.

This is also super valuable for product. If you see specific product reasons starting to trend in that win/loss analysis, that’s also really good feedback for product. That’s another input that can help guide your roadmap.

Adam: What types of content are you finding the most success with when it comes to equipping your sales team?

Hana: There’s a variety of content that helps a sales team, and we think of content across a few different buckets. We have that top of the funnel content – the things that are really topical, that are very relevant to our audience. We have lead-gen-focused content, which is the more meaty pieces of content that are generally gated. And then we have content that is very product-specific, which is literally written for the sales team. A lot of the ideas for that type of content come from a list of objections that they’ve handed us.
A gif explaining use of Shopify Flow an automation tool only available to Shopify Plus customers
A gif explaining use of Shopify Flow an automation tool only available to Shopify Plus customers

One great example is when we talk to bigger businesses about Shopify. Sometimes we talk to these bigger businesses and they’re like, “Oh, Shopify? Shopify is for small business.” They don’t even know that Shopify Plus exists. With all of these misconceptions around what it is, and what it can do, and the level of scale that it can handle, a piece of content that addresses that, that’s open to the world to see, is really effective when the sales team sends that to a specific prospect in order to battle that objection. Slowly but surely you start to see them work through that objection a little bit quicker because they don’t have to think through it on their own. They’ve got all of the information in front of them.

The marketing funnel is messier than it looks

Adam: Speaking of the marketing funnel, one thing I’ve heard you mention time after time in your talks is that the marketing funnel is not linear. In reality, what does this messy process look like, and why is this something marketers need to consider carefully?

Hana: I keep beating that drum because it’s detrimental to just look at the funnel and assume that people are passing through this beautifully laid out, stage after stage journey. At most B2B companies the funnel looks something like a lead to some sort of MQL to some sort of sales qualified lead, to maybe an opportunity. Eventually it’s a close win or a close loss deal. You can also look at the funnel for small business models, where it’s self serve, low touch, and they’re maybe doing a free trial and an upgrade, and something along those lines. The reality is people don’t always just flow through that. Those stages exist for us as marketers, operationally so we know what’s going on. That’s not actually the experience for the person that’s going through this.

The reality is, people go up and down that funnel all the time.

The reality is, people go up and down that funnel all the time. They go down a little bit, dabble, and then decide they’re not interested. They disappear for a little while, and maybe re-engage where we would consider them lower in the funnel. Maybe that’s when it takes and they actually convert to be a customer.

Don’t get me wrong, the funnel’s important. You need to know how many people you have in each stage, and you need to have an understanding of your conversion rates, but you also need to take a broader view of what’s the experience that people are actually going through and what is the thing that they’re doing.

Taking Shopify as an example, you’ll see people coming in and maybe they start a free trial, maybe they start an online store, maybe that business isn’t the thing that they want to do long term, or maybe it doesn’t work out, so they leave for a little while and maybe they come back. That’s just one example of one individual’s experience, which if you just looked at the funnel it would tell you a very different story.

It’s hard to do that, but it’s starting to get a little bit easier. People are starting to dabble a little bit more with multi touch attribution, which helps map out that story. But just looking at the funnel, in and of itself, definitely doesn’t help. Understanding that people move up and down also forces your behavior to really looking at how to re-engage people. As people drop off the funnel, maybe they’re a little higher up now, maybe you need to change the way you’re engaging with them to get them to convert down the road. That’s how I’ve been looking at it.

I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to expect our customers to conform to our operational processes, which is basically what we’re doing when we say, “Here’s the funnel and everybody goes through it.”

Adam: In the past year or two we’ve seen messengers become a big new tool for marketing and sales, how does that play into that process? Do you think it helps, or is it more of a fad?

Hana: I think it’s huge, but I also think it’s early. You’re seeing the idea of becoming more conversational happening in a lot of different industries and across the board in SaaS and B2B. It’s still early days, and there’s very few companies that I see implementing it really well.

The automation piece scares me a little bit. I think we have a tendency sometimes to over automate things. I see this in marketing automation, for example, all the time. You see companies implementing marketing automation, but they actually haven’t done the work before that to really get down what their processes where, what their marketing was, what they were trying to do. The problem is, if you automate bad marketing, it’s still bad marketing. It’s worse, it’s automated.

There’s that same danger when you’re starting to play around with the messenger piece. If you over-automate there is the potential for a really terrible customer experience. That would be my lens on it moving forward, how do we figure out how to strike that balance?

Correcting common startup marketing mistakes

Adam: Looking at some of the other apps you use in your personal life, what are the common mistakes you see startup marketers making that rub you the wrong way?

Hana: There’s a lot, and I’ve made these mistakes, too. That infrastructure piece is really important. I don’t want you to get over-complicated, but I want to make sure that everybody thinks about at least having the basics. It shocks me how many people launch without Google Analytics. That’s pretty standard 101 type stuff. At least think at a high level on what your data infrastructure is so you have some understanding, and some insight into what’s actually happening with your customers.

The other thing that I see startups do really often is chase the growth hack. Maybe short term you get a bit of payoff, but long term you usually don’t and you’re constantly in this cycle of searching for the next growth hack. Rather than that, think about the sustainable layers of growth that are going work for the people that you want to get in front of. That’s going to be different for every company, but chasing growth hacks can get you into a dangerous cycle.

If you haven’t heard of the law of shitty click throughs, Google it.

If you haven’t heard of the law of shitty click throughs, Google it. It was written by Andrew Chen, and it’s a very real thing. Think about that.

Another piece that’s related is prioritizing where to start and what to do, and then executing in a very systematic way. Usually the same people that are chasing growth hacks are doing a whole bunch of different things without having a process or a system in place to make sure they’re measuring it, and understanding where they should double down and what they should kill. That prioritization piece is incredibly important.

One other thing: marketing doesn’t start when you launch your product. Ideally you’re starting before that. To give you an example, I don’t think I could do my job without really tight alignment with the product team because they give so much insight into not just what they’re building, but what customers need and want, and the direction of the product and how it serves them. It’s really important.

The last piece of advice is about brand, which is a really misunderstood term. There’s a really big difference between brand, branding, and brand marketing. Brand is the promise of the thing that you’re going to deliver and how people think about you. Branding is the expression of that, so voice, tone, visuals, etc. Brand marketing is all of the things that you do to reinforce that. Framing it in that lens forces us to understand that you can’t just ignore brand if you’re a startup.

Adam: Hana this has been a great chat. Where can our listeners go to learn more from you? Any upcoming speaking engagements?

Hana: It’s super easy to find me online, I’m on all the socials. Just Google my name and you find my website and email. Coming up in March of 2018 I’ll be speaking at ConversionXL. I’ll also be at CTA Conf, which is Unbounce’s conference. There’s a lot of really great speakers, so it should be a lot of fun, and if you’re there come say hi.

Watch the Intercom webinar on how to increase sales through live chat