The Conversation Operating System

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Death Valley National Park, California; photo by the author

One of the first things I did after assuming responsibility for Smartling’s sales team was adopt a sales methodology. Countless options exist; some of the more well known ones are The Challenger Sale, MEDDIC, Solution Selling, and SPIN Selling. I chose the Sandler Selling System, which is rooted in the belief that buyer and seller should invest equally in the sales process, and with which Smartling had prior exposure.

At the time I was laser-focused on how Sandler could help us to win more new customers. When I became responsible for Smartling’s post-sales teams a year later (customer success, account management, professional services, and technical support), I immediately saw Sandler in a different light: it could be the common language used by all of our market-facing teams. We began indoctrinating the post-sales teams in Sandler, too.

As I explained to our professional services team, Sandler wouldn’t help to fix bugs, ship product features, or stop salespeople from selling capabilities that didn’t exist (I may have used more colorful language at the time), but it would ensure that every team at Smartling spoke a common language. Preparing for conversations, handling difficult situations, and controlling outcomes would all be easier because every Smartling participant would be using the same framework to evaluate situations and communicate about them. I called Sandler our “conversation operating system.”

That was nearly three years ago. When I decided to write this blog post about my experience, I searched Google for “conversation operating system” and was surprised to find only 264 results. The first, a LinkedIn article by an executive coach named Amanda Ridings, appears to be the only relevant one, although it doesn’t define the term. So, here’s my definition:

A conversation operating system is a set of guidelines and techniques that guide how an organization’s employees communicate.

The benefits of having this communication commonality are significant, particularly for subscription businesses like Smartling where the customer journey is nonlinear. Creating one for your organization isn’t necessarily hard, but it requires focus and comes together over a period of months, not weeks. Here are the steps we followed:

  • Select a sales methodology. I like Sandler because it’s less sales-centric than most of the others. This is important because you want your non-sales team members to buy into it, too. It may be possible to build a conversation operating system around multiple methodologies, e.g., one for sales and another for post-sales, but I haven’t tried it.
  • Hire for prior experience. Candidates who have prior experience with your chosen methodology ramp faster and are more likely to stay for at least a year. We treat Sandler experience as a plus for individual contributors hires and a strong plus for management hires.
  • Incorporate it into onboarding. Every new hire is trained on Sandler. For example, there are six training streams for new customer success managers: Smartling core values, Sandler, translation and localization industry, Smartling products and services, Smartling customer success systems and processes, and the individual’s book of business.
  • Train and re-train. We have a Sandler expert come on site for two days each quarter for reinforcement training. We’ve worked with the same expert continuously for nearly four years; at this point he knows our business about as well as we do.
  • Use a conversation cloud. We use Chorus to systematize our conversation operating system. The platform identifies moments where we successfully use the framework, as well as moments where we lapse, making it easier to onboard new hires and upskill existing team members. Implementing Chorus was a watershed moment in fully instilling Sandler as our conversation operating system.

A conversation operating system begins with a sales methodology, but it goes far beyond it. Identifying the right one for your organization and embedding it deeply can yield meaningful cross-functional results.

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Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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