"It's in customer conversations where business is done"

Veronika Traublinger
June 1, 2021

Ciara co-founder Martin Heibel shares his view on the future of sales tech and why now is the right time to invest in voice-enabled tech.

Martin is not only one of Ciara's co-founders, he also is an experienced SaaS entrepreneur and has already founded, grown, and advised numerous B2B SaaS companies. 


Martin believes in the boundless potential of talent-centric sales organizations, driven through great training, knowledge sharing, and leveraging latest technology.


In his interview he shares exclusive insights into the founding story of Ciara, thoughts on the future of sales tech, and why every sales org should invest into real-time, voice-enabled technology now. 


Don’t want to read? Watch the interview on YouTube!


Hi Martin, it's a pleasure to welcome you today as the founder of Ciara to In Conversation With. Maybe before we start, you can tell our listeners a bit about your background story, how you ended up in sales, and why you love being in sales. 


Yeah sure. So I've been an entrepreneur ever since I started my professional career. I'm a business guy by education but was always thrilled by the idea of building up my own businesses, and I would say if you want to be an entrepreneur, you'd better be in sales sooner rather than later. So I ended up in sales quite naturally. And I totally love it because I really think that for the success of an entrepreneur, as for any other business, sales is what really matters. At times I would say that the most important role in a tech company is sales. And not everyone would agree, but I really think sales is what makes it successful in the end. 


Great. At the moment, you're leading the sales and marketing team at your latest startup, Ciara. How did you come up with the idea of Ciara - was it a problem you discovered in a previous job, was it more like a passion that you followed... How was this idea of building this assistant born?


It's really both. It was very much driven out of my own experience in my prior company, where I was responsible for the sales team. While building out the sales team, I realized a bunch of problems. And talking to fellow entrepreneurs, I realized this is not a problem that only we had but pretty much everyone. And that was good sales training to make other people successful. At the same time, I realized how hard it is to transfer concepts into actual doing and how hard it is for everyone, not just for the team you build out but also for yourself as a sales leader, to deal with the tech stack. So from these observations, I thought that sales really needs an update on various levels, and as I said, given my belief that stealth is what really matters, I was intrigued to follow this opportunity. I basically realized that there is a huge opportunity with automation as a broader trend in business software and basically thought about how automation will affect sales not only today but if you think automation to an end, what does that actually mean. And from that, the idea of a sales assistant tool was born, and we started Ciara. 


Cool! So you mentioned several challenges that SaaS sales teams are facing every day. What would you say are the biggest mistakes the sales teams make when facing those challenges or in a general daily sales flow?


I wouldn't necessarily say mistakes but rather say or comment on what I observe as a common challenge, particularly in SaaS. 


Companies are all looking to build out a scalable sales organization. So everyone's basically looking at building out a marketing, sales, and customer success team that can be managed like any other operation. Like a machine, basically. And the biggest challenge here is that the parts of that machine that need to work together are all humans, and many outcomes in that machine are not deterministic. If you build a mechanical machine on a production floor, you can tell what will come out of the machine in the end. But that is totally different if you build a machine out of people. So I think that is the biggest overarching challenge for sales teams. Some companies are obviously doing that very well; others are just getting started. 


You just said some are already doing it pretty well - so what is what they're doing? 


So I think what you should really do very early on as you build out your sales team is thinking about the process you want to manage in terms of the customer journey. So think about the process from your customer's perspective and what this means for your organization. 

So, 


  • where do you generate leads? 
  • How do you score leads? 
  • How do you make sure to stay engaged with leads? 


Because obviously, you're ready to sell any time while customers are not ready to buy anytime. So that's step number one. 


Then it's about building dedicated teams. Having dedicated teams for certain customer groups, having dedicated roles on certain steps of the sales process - so breaking out sales development and account management - defining a good handover process from sales to customer success, having customer success not only for product support but also upsell management. 


And then measuring all this from start to end. 


This is what really allows people to build this machine. And if you basically miss one step of the chain, you will have a hard time. So, even if you're a small team, start measuring the stuff you do and build a hypothesis on what you're doing there and why things work and why they don't and basically change and improve on each step of the process. That will allow you to manage your revenue operations. 


And there is no blueprint, really. It is different for each and every company. The good news about this is that it can help you stand out from your competition if you get it right; it will help you win.


How does sales technology fit into this whole process that you just described? 


So I think if we look at where sales tech has taken us so far, the last big wave that everyone is familiar with is obviously CRM systems. Sales organizations started to be data-driven in terms of documenting what they were doing, making sure there's no crossfire from different reps with the same customer across different territories, and making sure you get some reports out of what you're doing. 


Currently, we're in a new wave of automation. So CRM per se is no automation; it's just data management. But this second wave of automation is very much looking at how to automate manual tasks with a strong focus on outreach. So we talk about automating tasks of reaching out to people on social networks, through email campaigns, through sequences, through content management... So it's a wave very much looking at different mundane tasks that you would otherwise do manually. Thinking this automation to an end and looking at where we're heading - this very much ties in with what we're doing at Ciara - there is a next step in this wave of automation focusing on the actual customer conversations that sales teams have. 


Why is that? 


Number one, it is important to make sure that when people talk to customers, they have the right support, and currently, they don't. Everything you've seen in terms of automation is actually outside of the customer conversation. But it's in customer conversations where deals are progressing, where business is done, and where you really understand your customers' problems. So automation on the level of real-time interaction is the next step. 


Number two, if you just look at where we are in terms of technology, having voice assistance in our private lives and interacting through voice has already become natural. To me, it is absolutely clear that if you are in a sales role and you're talking to customers all day long, it makes complete sense to leverage this technology and build assistance on top of your voice while you're having customer conversations. 


So this is the third wave of sales automation and tooling that is currently emerging. 


So I quickly summarize: you said real-time automation and voice intelligence are the two drivers of sales tech in the future, is that correct? 


Yeah, that is right. 


Currently, most sales organizations are built around their CRM systems. It's where customer data is stored, most sales activities are done, KPIs get tracked, and dashboards created. How does the classic CRM system, as we know it now, fit into this future of sales tech you just described?


So what does the CRM do today, and what are its strengths? It's certainly good at structuring certain information, and it is great to build reports based on that information. However, it comes with a tremendous weakness: someone has to enter all that information. And I haven't met a single sales professional telling me that they love putting their data into the CRM. 


So, what typically happens is that people are forced to input their data, and they just input some basic, often incomplete information, and the reports they get out of the CRM are incomplete. And that's mostly because they are not real-time. They are very subjective because there is a lot of guesswork involved - sales reps enter a probability, a state, or a certain scoring classification of a customer. There's a lack of precision in this data. 


And what I think is the biggest downside of this is that CRMs have really grown from something that would initially support decision making or work planning into something that is mostly in your way as a sales rep. It's mostly something that you have to do. Obviously, some tools help you do it faster, but it is disturbing your workflow. It has zero value. It doesn't get you anywhere; it doesn't get your customer anywhere. So this is where I see CRM today. 


And now, how does this wave of real-time assistance and voice-enabled technology combine with CRMs? So number one, it will not replace CRMs. There will always be a good reason for CRMs. But the most valuable customer interactions are conversations. It's when you meet with your customers in a video call or the like. And real-time, voice-enabled assistant tools are able to support these meetings, keep them on track, capture all the information, and basically make things like note-taking, reminders, and follow-up tasks unnecessary because they take this out of the CRM world and take it to a real-time flow. So assistants like Ciara, are adding to the CRM in a way that they help manage the deal as long as the deal is on. But the CRM will still be good for storing data and certain reporting. 


Why do you think now is the right time for sales teams to implement real-time voice-enabled software?


So first of all, I really think this emerging technology has come to a point where it is so powerful that you can reap the benefits. You know, there's been experimentation around voice technology probably for a decade, and if you remember the first voice-enabled tools, be it in your car or somewhere else, it was kind of fun checking them out, but you would usually get to the point of realizing they are just not getting the job done. This is different today. Today, voice technology is so strong that it really detects intent, it detects context, and transcribes on a basically perfect level. 


And with the advance of that technology, the window of opportunity has opened up, and we see how companies start embracing it and seeing an immediate effect. Implementing such technology is not a big thing. It's basically not changing any process. You just need to give it to your sales team and let them do the job they've done before. The assistant will automatically help them by listening to what they are doing, nudging them on taking a deal in a certain direction, answering a question in a certain way, helping them document calls without wasting time on note-taking, etc. So it just makes total sense, and now is the right time. 


What's next on the horizon for Ciara?


So we are launching an improved version of the assistant this month, covering not only individual meetings but the entire deal process. So we started the Ciara assistant for mostly the sales development role, and it now evolves to support both SDRs and AEs, particularly the handover process. Ciara will now allow SDRs to start qualifying a lead and then bring in an AE to the same deal map in the Ciara assistant and let them take over the deal. So that is a big step for us on the product side. 


On the market side, we see a growing interest of mainly software companies and other teams in this new kind of technology, and we're really busy working with them and getting them onboarded. 


So for us, it's mostly about growth. 


Thank you for the great insights! Do you have any tips and tricks as a closing remark you want to share?


My number one remark would be: ask the right questions! You've probably heard that before, and it seems to be easy, but it's actually really, really difficult. It even happens to me as someone who has been in sales for a long time- you lose a deal just because you missed asking a certain question, and you only realize when the deal is already lost. 

So, be clear on what you need to understand your prospect and make a proper proposal. In B2B sales, it's not really about pitching. Customers are not looking to be pitched; they are looking to be understood. And they are looking for someone who really knows what's going on and who's able to help them. So be that consultant. Be that partner more than someone trying to sell as fast as possible. 


Great, thank you so much, Martin! I guess that's a wrap! 


Thank you, Veronika.