[Interview] The Future of Sales Technology With Jim Benton of ClearSlide

Jim Benton is the COO at ClearSlide, a leading sales technology company that improves customer-facing interactions by providing real-time visibility and analytics for both salespeople and managers.  Base CEO, Uzi Shmilovici met Jim at a 2013 Techweek event in Chicago. Since launching The Forecast Club earlier this year, we thought Jim would be the perfect guest for our first San Francisco event. The two share a passion for helping sales organizations be effective and productive.

During the fireside chat, part 1 of which we’re publishing here today, Shmilovici and Benton chat about a wide range of topics including how to use technology effectively in sales organizations, and how ClearSlide built their sales team from the ground up.

Learning to Pivot

Uzi: You read a lot about companies in the media, and then when you meet the founders, you typically learn that the founding story was totally different than what you actually think, so it is a great opportunity to hear Jim tell the ClearSlide story firsthand. Why did you start ClearSlide, what does ClearSlide do and so forth?

Jim: I was in a real conundrum. I had a 30 MB Keynote file, and I had a 10-minute sales meeting with a very senior guy. I knew I would not get him to see the visuals I if had said, “Hey, let’s use one of the web conferencing tools.” And so we built something. Long story short, we did that for 5 months and people kept saying, “Hey, this media thing is okay, but look, the market just crashed, I’m not spending on marketing. How do we get that thing you showed me over the phone?”

And I said, “Hey, this is just for internal usage, stay focused!” And finally, many months later, someone called and said, “I’ll write you a check if you build that for our sales team.” And so I talked to my partner and said, “I think I’ve got our first deal! Problem is, it is not for the project we were working on for the last 5 months.”

We ended up deciding to look at challenges that sales had. As a sales rep myself, I was using a file sharing tool and a web conferencing tool, and I was having a lot of pain. We said, “Why don’t we build a platform that doesn’t do just the phone, but puts all the communication pieces in one place and removes a lot of pain for the sales reps?”

From that point forward, we’re trying to help sales reps better connect with their prospects and customers.

Uzi: Yeah, and I think that’s a great point. By the way, I think that sometimes leadership has the perception that they have full information but, in fact, there’s a lot of missing information. And, even worse, if the problem is the sales people themselves, you’re wasting so much time trying to get several tools to work together.

So it turns out that you’re not a media company anymore, you’re a software business. Tell us a bit about how you built a sales team and how you thought about scaling the sales team.

Scaling a sales team

Jim: My first emails went out to people saying, “I think we’re going to completely change the way you sell, I need 4 minutes.” And my partner said, “If you can get 5 people to give you their credit card, I can have this thing built.” So the original sales team was just me. Let’s make sure we have product-market fit. Will people pay for it?

We simply did not want to ‘play’ company. We wanted to get out there and make sure we were solving real problems. You figure that out fast when you ask for money. And so we went about 9 months of just working with partners like Expedia and Meebo, who was bought by Google. Those are some of our customers who said, “Yeah, you’re really solving a problem.”

And in about 9 months in we said, “I think we’re ready to go.” So we hired our first two sales guys in January of 2010, which was 4 years ago, and for us, it was really about making sure we could get the first couple of guys successful and then just keep building on that success.

And I think it is critical to scale the sales team. How do we get the system set up so that we can repeat the things that we did with the first reps, with the 5th, 6th, 20th, 200th sales rep? We’ve got 120 customer-facing sales people at ClearSlide today. We’ve had months where we’ve hired 42 people in one month, and you cannot train them just by sitting next to them. You need to have systems, and you need to have your metrics down. So we put a lot of time in trying to understand what those processes are, so we could institutionalize it.

Uzi: I think that every sales organization kind of finds the one thing that they do a little bit differently. Do you have any thoughts on that? Anything that you have already implemented, or some crazy ideas that you have?

Jim: I think that one unique tactic is really being high touch. We’re big fan of people. And we’ve been a big fan of leveraging a high touch sales focus since day one. I worked at the Gap in high school, and if you guys have been to the Gap, the retail store, when you walk in, they have a greeter. I haven’t been to the Gap in a long time, but back in the heyday, when you walk in, someone would say, “Hey, welcome to the Gap!”

When we started ClearSlide, I remember saying I wanted to be a greeter. It is a very lonely internet. I don’t know who’s coming to our site, and so we built just a simple thing where I could see who logged in, what their phone number and email address is, and I just called them. I would literally 10 seconds later say, “Hey Uzi, how’s it going? How’s the product working? Who are you going to be pitching and how can I help you?”

We’ve kept that up for 5 years. We love to be talking and engaging with people and helping them solve their problems. We use e-mail simply as a means to get them to the phone, get them to in-person meetings. I’m a huge advocate of getting people connected. That human touch – it is critical.

The convergence of inside and outside sales

Uzi: Let’s talk about sales. The growth of inside sales is much higher than the growth of outside. How do you see that? Did you actually see that in your business or are people much more receptive to the concept of ClearSlide today, not the company, because the brand is much stronger than it was 5 years ago, but just the concept of using such tools, do you see that happening?

Jim: I’ve never been in an inside sales guy, so I don’t think of it as inside sales. It’s always been a hybrid, and I think that the big deals are always done in person. You see these big deals, you know, 10 billion dollars, that’s not happening over the phone. But I do think that the phone is a key medium to moving that along. A lot of key phone calls happen to get that done. So, the way I see it is – the fear is never going to go away; it just has to be used in a real valuable way, at the right times. You’re not going to show up in the first meeting and say, “Hey, I want to tell you what we do.” You’re going to do that over the phone, and then you’re going to go in person once it’s qualified.

Fundamentally, we agree. Inside sales is growing, and lots of us are probably hiring a lot of inside guys. There is a lot more you can do with technology over the phone, but the field is an area where the leaders have zero insights. No one is in the room. There is no technology. You guys are getting closer to being in the room too, but everybody’s waiting outside of that conference room to say, “How did that meeting just go?” And that’s where we want to be as well.

The future of sales technology

Uzi: Let’s talk about sales technology and where it’s going. What’s the vision for ClearSlide? What do you think ClearSlide’s going to be doing 3, 5 years down the road in terms of what your ambitions are. And ClearSlide’s relationship to traditional CRM providers like Oracle, Microsoft, Salesforce?

Jim: It’s funny, as we’ve evolved the business, our vision is pretty simple. We want to power the most powerful, genuine conversations people have. This is it. We want to enable these conversations where sales reps and leaders will have the right content, the right videos. Our vision is just to focus on that conversation, the two-way intersection of how people connect.

And when we look at the space, we look at CRM as well as the data. That final frontier, when the sales rep picks up the phone and they send out an e-mail, that last mile is a big unknown and has not been solved yet. Our vision is to be that core platform that has every touch, every single thing a rep with a customer, and it is not about storing the data aspect, but to make those touches really valuable.

For example, [the sales person does] a presentation. It’s the wrong version, it’s got the wrong logo, she doesn’t have the success videos. A question might come up, “Do you integrate with this platform?” and she says, “I’ll get back to you,” and you’re disappointed that you’ve spent all that money and your marketing team has got all this remarkable content, yet that sales rep is just on and off, silent by herself.

Our vision is to solve that. They should be the voice of the company, and have the whole company behind them. And I think it is game changing once you get the sales reps to be the best advocate and not just the person in front of you.

Uzi: Yeah and I think what’s remarkable about it. Companies were spending so much money on systems and making sure that integrates with SAP or whatever, but nobody thought about this – the meeting. The rep in front of customer. It is probably the most important part of the entire sales process. I think it is going to transform how people are selling and that’s a great thing. And what’s interesting also is that we’re see companies spending $50 or $100 or $150 on the entire CRM stack platform integration, blah blah blah, and then spending another $300 to $500 – I’m talking per seat – for just productivity tools for the sales people. They’re spending more in productivity tools than they’re spending on the actual CRM implementation. But that makes sense, because ROI is really easy to prove.

Jim: That’s right. I think that when we look at the intelligence – as you guys are helping people understand who to call next, what that next meeting is, that’s necessary. Need to get in front of more people, be more efficient with time, and more evolution of that data, so we could get in front of more people.

Let us know if you have any followup questions for Jim or Uzi. You can leave a comment in the comments section or send us a Tweet to @getbase.

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