Sales Director Ken Rahn on Learning and...
What does the Medallia Sales team have in common with a Navy aircraft carrier’s nuclear power plant? Ken Rahn says there are more similarities than you might think. In this...
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Scott Aronson, who joined Medallia as Chief Revenue Officer in November, could go on all day about the things that excite him in the company’s current momentum—especially the Sales team’s new direction. In this interview, Christy Lake, VP of People and Culture, asked him about why he joined Medallia in the first place, how it’s different from anywhere he’s been before, and what he looks for when he’s hiring new team members.
First, for someone unfamiliar with Medallia, give us your elevator pitch.
Medallia® is at its core a data platform that systematizes the process of helping companies understand their customers’ point of view. We are enabling companies to collect data about how customers experience their brand from a wide variety of sources, including social media, surveys—you name it. Our clients then use the insights we provide to inform critical changes in how they do business. We’re a pioneer in the customer experience space, enabling large-scale organizations to act on data at every level, in real-time, which is one of the things that sets us apart.
Tell us about the opportunity you saw in this role. Why did you decide to take it?
Some of the folks at one of Medallia’s investors, Sequoia, brought it to my attention. To be honest, I didn’t know much about the space, but I trusted Sequoia, so I met with Borge and Amy, Medallia’s co-founders. And it was fun. Our conversation was easy and I felt like we were a good fit culturally, in terms of our personalities and our worldviews. Then, as we started to unpack the important questions—the future of the sector and Medallia’s position within it, defining the Medallia client—my interest skyrocketed. After years selling to IT teams, this was a chance to use that experience to sell directly to C-level decision-makers. It also felt like an indispensable product; if you put Medallia in front of any CEO, they’re going to want what we’re offering.
I also felt like my skillset was well-suited to the issues Medallia was facing as it grew. I saw opportunities to enhance productivity, to repackage offerings, to improve messaging. We needed to better enable the field organization and redefine the sales roles. I knew if Medallia could meet those challenges, we’d be an essential player in a growing market. There’s been a major migration in just the last couple of years of companies transitioning from market research-based customer experience to a more holistic, operational approach backed by customer data. I knew Medallia had the ability to lead that movement.
Tell us more about what you were doing prior to joining Medallia.
I started my career selling fiber cable, and worked my way up the stack, from cable to networking, storage to applications. That was intentional; I wanted a comprehensive understanding of the tech industry. And I did the same on the sales side—I’ve worked across indirect, direct, SMB, mid-market, commercial, and enterprise sales. I’ve operated at scale, going from 300 employees to 10,000, and I’ve been involved in dismantling two companies—not my favorite job. I’ve also worked all over the world. So at Medallia, I function as sort of a utility player.
What stands out about the Sales team at Medallia, compared to all the other places you’ve worked?
There’s a sense of community here that informs how we operate and make decisions. Everyone has a voice, and ideas aren’t filtered through a hierarchy. We are a feedback company, after all; it’s ingrained in the culture. We’re open to any idea that can help us get closer to where we want to be. And we’re at a great size. We have significant market presence and expertise, but we’re still small enough that people feel comfortable knocking on their manager’s door with suggestions—and nimble enough to implement good suggestions quickly.
Just today, I saw feedback from the field that wasn’t great, so I invited our field reps to get on a call and talk about it. I think it’s important to act in the moment and give people the opportunity to be candid; I told them, “No one’s getting in trouble, this is a safe space; I just want to learn more.” At a lot of companies, it’s whoever’s politically connected that has the voice, but that’s not what I want. There’s a refreshing lack of office politics here—no hidden agendas or warring factions.
Are there any recent milestones you’re particularly excited about?
There’s so much going on right now! Number one, we’ve had a major change in our sales strategy; we’re starting to segment our approach to the market, with large, global, strategic clients and then a general territory team. We’re adjusting our offerings to better meet clients where they are, and the collaboration between our Sales and Product teams is better than ever, especially our self-service functionality, which is a big shot in the arm for us competitively.
On the people side, we’ve increased our investment in marketing and brought in some great talent to give Sales fresh tools to use in the field. We’re also kicking off a leadership training program that’s unlike anything we’ve done before. It will encourage a new level of camaraderie and shared responsibility and goals. We also recently acquired a digital company called Kampyle—now Medallia Digital—which makes our platform more comprehensive than ever.
Can you elaborate on how Sales collaborates with other teams?
We have a leader now on the product side, Krish, who has a background in enterprise; he understands inherently what we do in Sales. We’ve worked together to create cross-functional teams that include people from Marketing, Field Sales, Product, and Training and Enablement. They’re coming up with cohesive plans for six months to a year down the line, agreeing on functionalities and feature sets that are aligned with our marketing message, then working together to bring them to the field. So we’re creating an environment that avoids the disorganization and last-minute requests that can come from just building things and throwing them over the wall. There’s a renewed sense of collaboration overall, which gives our salespeople essential confidence in the field.
Can you tell us about any challenges Medallia is facing right now?
Our growth is exciting, of course, but it also presents a challenge; going from 250 people to 500 to 1,000 is a huge shift. We’ve had to change how we think about communications, for example, now that we’re operating on an international scale. We’re also streamlining our training and enablement programs to help new hires maximize their contributions. I hope that if someone was considering joining us, they’d look not just at the challenges we face, but how we address those challenges—we accept them, we own them, and then we act.
Tell us about your leadership approach. What does being a leader mean to you?
Fundamentally, I work for the field, so I’m constantly searching for ways I can make their lives easier. It’s not about, “What can you deliver for me today? Can you hit my forecast?” It’s looking for ways to empower people and help them be successful. I think good leaders should model decisiveness and resiliency. We also need to give others credit when things go well and own it when we make mistakes. It might be cliché at this point in the Valley, but we really are transparent with our team about where we’re doing well and where we aren’t.
What do you look for in a candidate? What characteristics do successful team members have in common?
We’re looking for people whose backgrounds show they’re always striving to be better and always learning, whether personally or professionally. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it restlessness, but we like people who aren’t done searching, who don’t feel like they’ve already arrived. They should be excited about a job where they can soak up us much knowledge as possible.
Empathy is also key. In order to see clearly how our platform can best help our clients, we need to put ourselves in their shoes—and in their customers’ shoes. We talk everyday about what a given feature looks like to a marketing director versus a customer operations person.
Ideally, we want candidates who are a little scrappy. We’re still small enough that we don’t strictly adhere to a formal playbook, which I think is a good thing. We give people the necessary guidance, of course, but we also give them space to be creative. So we’re looking for people who don’t necessarily need to check every box, and who are eager to innovate.
This story was created in conjunction with Job Portraits, a San Francisco-based creative agency that helps teams scale using culture-focused content.