Neil Barman shares his experiences and learnings from Yellow.ai growth in the conversational AI and chatbots industry in conversation with Vartika Verma.
Vartika: Welcome to the third episode of the Yellow.ai Lounge. Today, we’re in talks with Neil who is the Chief Growth Officer for Yellow.ai. And he leads operations across countries for all sales-related conversations for us. So here we go.
So, Neil, tell us. It’s such a new industry AI in itself. How do you figure out what should be our goals for the sales team?
Neil: So, the way the Consumption of content happens that has drastically changed over the years. I mean if you think about it, 3-4 years back we would finish work go home and pick up economic times today. Now, you probably go home and you ask Alexa “How’s the world been faring how the world been faring in terms of markets?” And that’s how you interact.
So this is suggested that we wanted to bring in front of different countries and different customers from different domains that we work with so the understanding was there in certain pockets. But it wasn’t. It was completely new in certain territories. Don’t shy away from the fact that in certain places, we had to shout from the rooftop in terms of how this is going to make their business conversations more effective.
Both from an internal customer, internal employee perspective as well as external market or customer strategy set that you have.
So that kind of took off very fast too in our tech sector. Once there was the adoption in a certain domain in a certain country, then it moves.
Vartika: So, Neil tell us when the conversational ai industry itself is so nascent, how do you go about figuring out which goal is good enough? How do you set the goals for the team across the globe?
Neil: So, in terms of goal setting, there are two aspects. One is the internal aspiration of the organization and second, of course, is where we would want to see ourselves in the region.
So we started off definitely with an Indian story. Then it became in Asia story and now we are trying to our aspiration, of course, is to conquer the world. So, now we are even going to the mature economies. We have crossed Atlantic.
While goal setting for the sales team, factors that we’ve kept in mind is, how strong the market is in terms of the adoption or the responsiveness to similar business process automation technology companies that has happened so far.
That played a strong part in how we set goals for ourselves versus what we wanted to do this year versus next year and the years to come.
Global Aspirations & Challenges
Vartika: And with so much growth happening every year in conversational AI space, do you somewhere feel that you know the market sort of oversteps our rule, goal sometimes? Do you see that happening in many markets?
Neil: Yeah, of course. Of course, sometimes, I mean just to tell you when we entered the Southeast Asian market, Malaysia being the first, we never expected the kind of response we will receive from the market. Anybody expands to Southeast Asia, the aspiration is, of course, Singapore will be my headquarter, and I’m gonna be flying out of the region and doing business in all the other countries.
But when we went to Malaysia the kind of responses we got from Malaysia, Indonesia, it was more than what we had expected. Those were of course two setups that we did and now even expanding to Singapore maybe we’re in for a surprise.
Vartika: Interesting! So you talked about, setting up your teams across the globe from Southeast Asia to the US and Europe. So, you know, how do you actually end up managing the team from one location, which is so diverse?
Neil: See in a way, but we were lucky with the kind of few dynamics we had. Of course, everybody was handpicked in the team. It took us time to build the team and grow the team. However, we groomed the team in India. We had a thorough understanding of their potential and we understood the accountability that each of them can bring in when we position them in two different regions. That way from a team dynamic standpoint, we were lucky.
However, in order to do that, the strategy was to actually implemented and monitor them. Without micromanaging, how do you manage at somebody?
So bringing in, just drive it by numbers and that’s one mantra we had with the team from day one that the organization believes in God and the rest is data. So whatever you do has to come out there in data. It has to reflect on the data. That rest is on you and the team responded.
Vartika: But let’s say your team is selling a new solution to a company that has never heard of something like this. The sales cycle is, of course, as I understand would be long, but what could also happen is that a lot of new products might need to be developed?
So do you think your sales team is taking a very consultative approach? Or is it something that is handed off from the sales team to the pre-sales and delivery team? How do you work around that challenge?
Neil: So, I’ll tell you, the challenge is actually larger than that the initial challenge when what you rightly spoke is the number of instances when you have approached companies, we’ve not heard of.
They’ve never heard of the use cases that we have done for some of the companies in our home ground and when we went there the initial challenge was, of course, you’re not present here, you’re a foreign company. How do we trust you, do you have a delivery center out of here, who’s going to be working on my product? So that initially, of course, was there.
But then, the consultative selling piece, we tweaked it a little. We said, We’ are gone be doing it on user base, usabilities. So what we did there was a two-point penetration that we tried doing.
Understanding their problems or their goals. And every organization irrespective of their size or the kind of business they’re in. Would have some aspiration which would be their goal and they would, of course, be dealing with certain problems or loopholes within the organization.
How we could fix the solution, that is what took us off.
Growth & Challenges
Vartika: So, from 2016 to 2020 now. What do you think have been the major shifts in the market from a sales perspective especially in the conversational process automation domain?
Neil: So, there are two answers to it. The first is, the market has of course like any new technology, It has shifted its course ever. There were waves of changes that came one after the other. What made Yellow.ai or the growth engine of Yellow.ai stand out was, we adopted very quickly any change that came to our way or came in the technology spectrum that we deal with.
In order to do that, we have to be very agile and dynamic, the team responded not only growth even supporting functions, alongside, let it be tech, let it be the marketing arm, let it be the after-sales support, the customer success. Everyone supported the change very rapidly. And that gave us the tailwind for us to be there on the field and actually demonstrate.
I mean, seeing is believing and every time we were able to show it to the customer in terms of how we are responding to the market changes that are there. And that again gave us space where we wanted to be.
Vartika: So Neil, from 2016 to 2020 a lot has changed In the market and so has the competition. So, what do you think are the key ingredients that kept Yellow.ai not just afloat but flying?
Neil: I’m still betting big on the competition that’s still doing SMS automation in juxtaposition to their bot strategy. I’m betting big that they continue doing that.
But I’ll take that question. So what kept Yellow.ai or Yellow flag flying high is that I’m not saying this because I’m a part of Yellow.ai. But, how would you categorize a successful startup is the effective way startup caters to both its pillars. The two pillars being Innovation and distribution.
A start-up can actually grow fast or scale faster if you bring in innovation in this push. So, we have brought that innovation in distribution very early in our inception or our evolution. I remember even when we were a five-member growth team, we had clear demarcation of who’s gonna go out on the field and sale, who’s gonna be there giving the cover fire from the back office, who’s going to manage and take care of partners.
So, we gave equal importance to all the functions within the growth trajectory. And what happened from there was only replicating that and growing and scaling.
Partner Program and Challenges
Vartika: So, Neil, a lot of growth you say comes at the back of partnerships. So, tell us a little about how you went about building these partnerships, and what is the future for partnerships at Yellow.ai?
Neil: So, we have gone on and off with our partnership strategy. We’ve bolded it multiple times. If you see our 2018 growth strategy was very heavily dependent on the partner. Where in 2020, we went down to go on our direct acquisitions. When we’ve expanded it to a new geography, we’ve tested what is primarily with our STR function and our partner strategy.
We have cleared the categorization of the partners that work with us. We categorize them who’s enabled who we need to manage closely, how much of hand-holding is needed, and even after that partners can pickle jar that’s the sad aspect of this function. But They have given a lot of development in order to establish masses in newer markets, newer geographies.
And going forward also even with the direct sales team growing the acquisition trend growing and strong, we would maintain a strong partner strategy. We will onboard multiple partners with the new geographies we are growing. And that’s an integral part of our distribution channel.
Vartika: So Neil, you have customers from all verticals and all geographies, from a sales perspective, which ones would you say is most challenging to crack and why?
Neil: Of course, the most difficult one would be doing deals when you’re doing it with your partners. I mean, when you have partners who are representing you in certain markets because you do a two-stage negotiation there. Primarily, with your partner and then you go forward and you actually do your final negotiation with your customer. So, there the understanding is we have to keep the sales cycle similar to the sales cycle that is happening in the other domains and other verticals. At the same time, we will have to at least be at the expected revenue that we expect from that. Trust me that that’s not very easy for us to do.
But we have worked on strategies, molded our strategies, gone on and off on our strategies, and done it. The best part is we’ve never let any of especially from that domain. We have not let any deal die. I mean we’ve gone till the end win or loss that’s a different story not in our hands, but we’ve not left any deal mid-way and shied away from it.
Vartika: So, Neil, tell us a little bit about working on really large deals, which are maybe of, you know, government companies or really large international companies like Schlumberger. So, you know what really changes in the organization when large deals such as those come in?
Neil: The happiness quotient, of course, the sales guy who closes that gets a fat paycheck for him at the end of the quarter. Apart from that a lot of confidence!
It feels a lot of confidence and that’s actually the way we present ourselves in the market today. So, we don’t only position that we have domain expertise. So, our product has color or flavor from the domain that we are working with. So, if I’m talking to an insurance customer, first, my product wears the flavor of the color of the insurance domain. And second, our sales guys go with that skin. They go there, they talk about how conversations in the insurance domain happen.
So the use case synchronization both from a product standpoint as well as from a business use case standpoint, makes us a more compulsive use case in front of the customer.
Training the Team
Vartika: And when you talk about your sales team really wearing the skin, how do you go about making sure that our sales rep are abreast of all the latest happenings in the conversational AI industry, and I’m sure it’s like a very busy job to handle as well. So, is there something formally that we do to train the sales team members?
Neil: So, our internal sync happens, we do have certain small gatherings like one, of course, that would be an “Adda” that we do on a weekly basis, where no matter which pocket of the world you are in, for an hour, we kind of exchange notes and it’s very informal and exchanges our learnings and experiences.
Traits of Good Sales Person
Vartika: So, Neil, a lot of people say that salespeople are wired differently. So what is that differently?
Neil: Differently wired, okay! It’s a very invisible wire that they really wear. But, some of the traits that a sales guy should wear is, of course, is that “Sales guy never takes his paycheck, he earns his paycheck”. Till the time of sales guy makes this mantra and delivers, I think that they’d be successful. And never stop learning. I mean, a sales guy probably is exposed to maximum learning that an organization can give him or can offer him. Because he learns back home in terms of what you’ve built and he goes out and he is trying to position that in the market and understand the market’s expectation. So, he probably can come home and give any organization the learning that, an organization shouldn’t build it what he cannot sell and he shouldn’t sell what the organization cannot build.
With all this 360-degree learning, of course, he is a little differently wired than the rest of the organization.
Hiring Sales Team
Vartika: You’re talking about “He”, but the HR team told me that, your team has the most number of women. So, is that like a conscious call or is it just that you find better women out there?
Neil: I have had the experience of working with brilliant minds and skills from both the genders. I don’t want to be gender bias on camera. And, yes. I mean it was not a conscious call. But, definitely, we would be lucky to have the talents. I mean, leadership is like parenting. You hate all the kids equally. So that’s how it was. I mean, we were just lucky to get the best of the talents that we have to take.
Vartika: And in terms of hiring cross country and within as well, what kind of talent do you look for? What are the three things that you look for in a person to ensure that 80% of what I want?
Neil: 80% would be a far stretch number. You often don’t get to that eighty percent, but even if it is 60% and the person has the aspiration to grow and learn I think that remaining 40 percent or 20 percent, whatever is there can be embedded in him.
The first and the foremost thing is when you are onboarding somebody we have to understand whether the lack of whatever he’s missing out from your aspiration, is that a skill issue or will issue? So if there is a skill issue, that person can be coached and mentored.
But if there is no will to learn and grow, he’s not the right fit.
Success Mantra for Sales Person
Vartika: You know, just for all the audience out there, What would you say are the three top success mantras for any salesperson to survive in 2020?
Neil: Be data-driven. Like I said
- Believe in God, rest is data.
- Keep learning and be a good listener
- Never take your eye off the money.
Vartika: Thank you so much for being a part of the YM Lounge, Neil. It was great catching up with you and I think with leadership like this, 2020 or 2025 looks like an easy breeze for us. So, thank you so much for your time! and we’ll catch you next month with a new guest. Thank you so much.