A keen attention to the numbers is a through line in Karen Rhorer’s career. She started out in consulting and finance, and then moved into sales operations (previously at LinkedIn and currently as the Head of Customer Success and Sales Strategy at Atrium). And as she shared on the Review last year, she’s put those experiences to work, advising sales teams and developing a disciplined, metrics-driven framework for growing sales sustainably.
So it comes as no surprise then that Rhorer firmly believes sales managers have an unprecedented opportunity to lean into the numbers in order to level up as coaches for their reps. But in her experience, most are leaving that potential untapped.
Take this cautionary tale from the sales floor of a startup: A sales manager reported to the Head of Sales that one of his reports was underperforming. When the company brought in Atrium’s analytics software to help dig into the numbers, the data told a different story about the “underperforming” report. It turned out that she was diligently working her own opportunities and closing business, while others who appeared more successful were in fact beneficiaries of profitable “bluebird” deals handed down from more senior outside reps. Faced with the data, the sales manager later admitted why his concern was piqued: When he walked around the sales floor, he didn’t hear the “struggling” rep making calls, so he assumed she was falling behind.
The story underscores a deep-seated problem that Rhorer’s seen afflict startup sales teams: Managers place too much importance on coarse rules of thumb, passing observations and lagging indicators, instead of digging deeper to uncover the real drivers of their team’s performance. “Many sales managers default to assessing reps based on one metric: whether or not they’re hitting their quotas. But one metric doesn’t tell the whole story — you need to unpack the why behind whether or not your reps are making quota, to help them do more of what’s working or figure out where things are going awry,” she says.
In other words, sales managers need to put in the legwork to offer more targeted coaching to their reps in order to end the endless churn-and-burn hiring cycle that plagues many sales teams. “As a function, we too often present distant goal posts in the form of ambitious quotas, don’t give reps any direction on how to get there, and then put them on a PIP or fire them when they don’t reach their targets. That’s a fundamentally broken approach,” says Rhorer. “Sales leaders have a responsibility to proactively probe and diagnose performance issues, before they become a problem.”
But all too often, most sales managers (especially first-timers) aren’t equipped for that challenge. “Sales is a sink or swim environment. There aren’t many coaching opportunities at most startups, and the skills that earned you a promotion up from AE don't map over to what you’ll take on as a team lead,” says Rhorer. “So many wind up just riding along on every call, thinking that’s the most effective way to help their team improve. But that limits both your wingspan and your effectiveness as a manager.”
Ride-alongs are a valuable coaching tool. But if it’s the only one in your arsenal, then things will crack as you start to scale.
To help managers get more comfortable with the “sales math” and level up as managers, Rhorer and her team at Atrium have been hosting workshops that offer a crash course in a more quantitatively-driven approach to sales management. In addition to seriously digging into the mechanics of sales math, she covers everything from structuring stellar 1:1 conversations to tips for doing PIPs the right way.
In this exclusive interview, Rhorer shares those lessons and gets tactical on how sales managers should be using data — not for data’s own sake, but to drive winning performance on their teams. She outlines how to keep a steady thumb on the pulse of performance while cultivating the chops leaders need to support reps who aren’t quite there yet. Whether you’re an early-stage founder trying to diagnose where sales is going wrong, a newly promoted sales manager looking to learn the ropes or a seasoned leader with sights set on scaling sales, her advice is essential for course-correcting performance problems before they’re fatal — and investing in the habits that build high-performing sales teams. Let’s dive in.
THE SUPERPOWERS OF DATA-DRIVEN MANAGERS
Rhorer emphasizes that leadership is only strengthened by a sales math bootcamp. Data gives sales leaders the opportunity to become more effective and meaningful coaches to their teams. “With an eye for the data, managers can make a clear-eyed assessment of individual strengths and development areas. Then, they can use that insight to elevate the trajectory of their reps’ performance,” says Rhorer.
According to Rhorer, brushing up on their data chops helps sales leaders fulfill the three things that all managers owe to their teams:
Candid, clear expectations: “Frequent feedback, grounded in data, helps strong performers prepare for success in their next role; it gives those who are struggling an opportunity to improve.”
Proactive, rather than reactive, performance management: “Data lets you see into the future. It gives you the ability to understand who is likely to hit or miss quota in advance, so that you can take action — and give that struggling rep an opportunity to catch up before you need to issue a performance improvement plan.”
Opportunity for mastery: “According to Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, mastery is one of the main drivers of our professional lives. Your reps want to feel accomplished in the work that they’re doing. If you’re smart with data, you can deliver feedback and performance conversations that empower your reps to attain mastery in their roles.”
Leading a sales team is about more than just checking whether reps hit their numbers. Set fair expectations — and make sure reps have a clear pathway to hitting those goals.
And data is a powerful tool to help sales leaders deliver on these responsibilities. Of course, the problem isn’t that startups don’t want to take advantage of sales data. Rhorer breaks down three challenges that often hinder companies, especially startups, from taking full advantage of the tools in their arsenal — and how even the scrappiest startup can overcome them, today:
Not having enough time to gather and review data. “Especially at fast-paced startups, taking a microscope to the data isn’t usually a top priority. But if you can only keep track of a handful of metrics, that’s still progress. Even limited data can tell you something.”
Data overload. “Some orgs gather data for the sake of gathering data, without knowing how to make sense of it. Data overload doesn’t lead anywhere productive — and it leads to a lot of wasted time and resources. These organizations need to take a more structured approach to identifying which metrics are most important, for each discipline or segment within the sales organization, to understand and take action on.”
Leaving data on the back-burner. “I’ve seen some cases where a company has found product/market fit with strong inbound lead flow, so they don’t feel the need to worry about tracking sales metrics yet because the sales team is successful on the strength of those inbound leads. That’s a great position to be in right now — but that’s seldom a permanent state. What if those inbound leads don’t scale, and you need to add outbound later? If you haven’t been tracking metrics that whole time, you’ll quickly find yourself in stormy skies, flying blind.”
In other words, sales leaders of companies at all stages can and should be digging into the numbers — and the earlier you get started, the better. In the sections that follow, Rhorer gets down to brass tacks about how managers can use data to incorporate the three elements of data-driven management into their routine practices: setting targeted goals for reps, leading high-value performance check-ins, and designing proactive performance conversations and interventions that empower reports and deliver results.
DEFINE TARGETED EXPECTATIONS — AND CHART A CLEAR PATH TO SUCCESS
Data gives sales leaders a clear blueprint for how to coach individual reps. “Using data as a coaching tool is especially useful for early-stage companies that don’t have a well-developed sales enablement function,” says Rhorer.
“Because startups are strapped for resources, sales training often only covers broadly applicable topic areas. That broad training doesn’t help when an individual rep struggles with a more specific challenge,” she says. “On the other hand, if managers have a strong grasp on the data, they can use it to diagnose issues and set targeted performance goals that help reps grow over the long-term.”
For sales leaders ready to flex their data muscles, Rhorer outlines the basic steps for starting to orient your team around data:
1. Identify your priority points. “Determine which metrics are most important to care about, by discipline and potentially customer segment.”
2. Create a crystal-clear reporting system. “Ensure that you’re capturing the data to report on those metrics in an accessible, digestible way. Build metrics reviews into an operational cadence to make sure you’re reviewing them with reps regularly.”
3. Monitor for deviations. “Once you’ve established a readable reporting system, those metrics need to be monitored for deviations. Who’s hitting goals? Who’s missing them? How is someone’s performance changing over time?”
4. Use insights to drive action. “Finally, managers should decide on a course of action to respond to the trends they’re seeing.”
Once you’ve begun spotting trends in the data, start using it to hone precise goals for your team. “If you can ground a rep’s performance goals in numbers and drivers, then expectations are as clear and objective as possible,” she says.
But it isn’t enough to simply quantify goals — the metrics you choose to focus on matter. To help managers zero in on the metrics they should monitor, Rhorer illustrates the four variables that affect her sales reps’ velocity:
“This formula points out the four levers that AEs can pull to impact bookings: Opportunities Worked, Win Rate, Average Selling Price, and Average Sales Cycle,” says Rhorer. “The levers work together to create appropriate bookings expectations according to the customer segment being sold to.”
For example, while SMB AEs close smaller details (with a lower Average Selling Price), they generally work more deals at a time (higher number of Opps Worked) because of a simpler sales process and a shorter sales cycle time, compared with enterprise AEs selling to fewer companies at higher prices.
“If one of these metrics declines, an AE needs to ‘make up’ the magnitude of that impact from one of the other drivers,” she says, “which they can only do if they understand how each one impacts their overall performance.”
When it comes to articulating goals for AEs, managers need to look past those four drivers. “Metrics like average cycle time and win rate are metrics that reps may not feel they have as much direct control over or a clear understanding of how to impact,” says Rhorer. Consider two goals that managers might articulate to their reps:
Goal A: You need to increase your win rate 10%.
Goal B: You need to have a next meeting scheduled for each of your open opportunities and be in touch with at least 3 contacts at each account where you have an active opportunity.
“Goal A is the kind of goal that we more commonly see in sales — it presents this distant goalpost and doesn’t give reps any direction on how to get there,” says Rhorer. “Contrast that with Goal B, which is based on the up-funnel metrics that still positively impact win rate. The latter is far more tactical, because it’s based on skills and actions that are directly within your rep’s control.”
If an AE is struggling, it’s not enough to know what their win rate needs to be, but how they can get there. Data gives AEs a detailed map of the road to improvement.
All too often, sales reps are evaluated against metrics they have limited control over. If you truly want to see your reports level up, give them goals that explicitly state what they can do to improve.
Each of the four levers that impact sales velocity have up-funnel drivers that impact them, and it’s those up-funnel metrics that managers need to train their reps toward. Rhorer expands on the four metrics that impact bookings and drills deeper into the drivers that reps can act up to improve them:
“For example, a lower win rate may be driven by single-threading deals that require multiple stakeholders, which would show up as fewer contacts engaged per account. It could also be caused by an AE struggling to communicate value or set next steps in an initial meeting, which would show up in the data as a lower ratio of follow-up meetings for each initial meeting that they take,” she says.
“There are a couple of approaches you could use to effectively set goals for these up-funnel drivers and triangulate success,” says Rhorer. For example, if you want to set a goal for the number of meetings an AE needs to have each week to be successful, you might ask these questions:
If the sales process is being followed rigorously, what does that mean for how many meetings an AE needs per closed won deal? What does that imply for total meetings across closed won and closed lost deals in order to hit quota at a given win rate?
How efficiently are AEs converting meetings into bookings? At the team’s average bookings per meeting, how many meetings would they need to have to hit quota?
What are the most successful AEs doing? What would emulating their process look like?
“Asking a question in multiple ways should result in a reasonable range of what a metric ‘should’ be in order for your reps to be successful. Then, you can decide how conservative or aggressive you want to be with the targets you give your team,” says Rhorer.
Moreover, incorporating data into coaching helps managers invest in their reports’ long-term development — rather than simply burning and churning them out. She shares a story of a rep who was newly promoted from SDR to AE: “This rep was struggling to get from that first meeting to subsequent meetings,” she says. “It showed up in her follow-up meeting ratio and in the number of opportunities she advanced down the pipeline.”
Given the data, the SDR’s manager focused on coaching the communication skills that come to bear on that critical first call. “While it look longer for the impact of that coaching to show up in her bookings, you could see her follow-up meeting ratio and conversion rate of opportunities start to improve almost immediately,” says Rhorer.
Better to coach the employee who shows a willingness to learn than turn to external hiring, where you have less context and might even hire someone who just has a different set of improvement areas.
Of course, diagnosing performance issues using data takes practice. “It’s easiest to reverse-engineer success: Start with areas where you already know what the outcomes were, then work your way backwards,” says Rhorer. Then, start to identify patterns within your organizational sales motion:
What are the most common drivers of low win rate for your team?
What does an attrition pattern look like when a rep starts disengaging from their role and interviewing elsewhere?
What are the behavioral patterns of your most successful reps that you can identify in their leading indicator metrics?
“Once you start to see those patterns, then you can diagnose performance issues without needing to wait for lagging indicators like results metrics,” says Rhorer.
Rather than waiting for lagging indicators, spotting patterns in the data lets you see past the horizon of what’s immediately perceptible. It gives you the opportunity to right the course before you run aground.
Expand your managerial span
Not only does drilling into precise metrics set up your reps for success — it helps managers become more focused in their coaching. “If a rep is struggling, then you’ll already know exactly and immediately where to focus your efforts,” she says.
The focused approach makes managers more efficient, too. Historically, sales managers have used ride-alongs as a primary training tool. “Don’t get me wrong, ride-alongs are useful. But sitting in on every call is only sustainable when a manager has six or fewer reps,” says Rhorer. “But if you can use data to pinpoint where your reps are struggling, then you can target your efforts. There’s no longer the need to devote so much time to broad, unfocused ride-alongs.”
A data-driven approach helps managers focus their energies and maximize the reps that they manage. “If you’re using your data effectively, you can significantly widen your managerial span. A seasoned, data-fluent sales manager could manage a team of eight to ten reps,” says Rhorer. She notes, though, that this is a team load to work up to, not a starting point for unseasoned, newly promoted managers.
The effects of more methodical coaching carry over into onboarding new hires. “If you can give new reps clear, quantified guidelines for what success looks like, you can shorten their ramp time and free up more of your bandwidth,” says Rhorer.
LEAD STANDUPS AND 1:1S THAT MAXIMIZE EVERY MINUTE
In addition to more efficiently coaching reps, managers can also take advantage of data to design meetings that maximize everyone’s time. “If you orient your meetings around a set agenda that includes reviewing the relevant numbers, you’ll structure your time in a far more focused way,” she says. “On top of that, metrics reviews help to pinpoint goals and reinforce them on a daily, weekly and quarterly cadence.”
Unstructured meetings are a waste of time. Remember, time is your most precious resource as a manager — and wasted time harms yourself and your team.
Whether it’s for a daily standup, a weekly team meeting or a 1:1, Rhorer provides a prep checklist to set up metrics reviews that help managers and teams make the most of every minute.
1. Identify a success metric for the meeting, and create an agenda that will allow you to meet that purpose. Complete the statements The reason for this meeting is… or This meeting will be successful if…
2. Craft the items on your agenda and the questions that need to be answered in order to successfully execute on each of those agenda items.
3. Build appropriate reporting and dashboards to answer those questions.
4. Review relevant data beforehand. Come to the meeting prepared with targeted points of discussion, based on the relevant metrics.
She gives a detailed breakdown of this checklist, using an example from a manager’s most common meeting: the 1:1.
“One of the biggest problems I see in sales leadership is that, more often than not, sales managers poorly manage the time spent on their 1:1s,” says Rhorer. “Managers say that they want to loosen the reins because they want the rep to take ownership of the meeting. But how can you expect your report to maximize their 1:1 if you don’t set them up for success?”
While it’s important to foster reports’ feelings of ownership, managers are ultimately accountable for making sure the meeting is as useful to their report as possible. Rhorer specifies how managers and reports ought to divide the responsibility of a 1:1 meeting: “You prep and set the agenda. Your reps fill in part of the content.”
Your reps want to succeed. Data-driven goals give them a clearly marked runway toward attaining, even exceeding, your expectations.
1. Identify a success metric
“First, on your own calendar, schedule a regular meeting time and a prep period before each meeting,” she says. The prep period should be dedicated to reviewing the dashboard and notes from the prior meeting. “During this time, you should be defining: What does success look like for this particular meeting?”
Rhorer gives an example of how managers might outline success metrics. Start with the statement This meeting is successful if…
1. Manager is aware of the status of deals in a rep’s pipeline.
2. Manager is aware of any challenges or roadblocks the rep is encountering.
3. Rep receives targeted coaching, guidance and performance feedback.
2. Craft the agenda and related questions
“Managers should set an agenda for 1:1s with reps and work with sales ops to create a dashboard that matches up with that agenda,” says Rhorer. For example, an agenda for an AE 1:1 may involve discussing the rep’s concerns, completing a pipeline review and identifying next steps.
The questions you prepare should help you dig deeper into each of the agenda items. “During the pipeline review, you might want to ask: Which deals look like they might be going sideways? Which deals have progressed? What does the overall pipeline look like compared to peers?” says Rhorer.
3. Build appropriate reporting
Build reporting and dashboards that will help you answer the key questions you identified in your agenda. For example, for the pipeline review discussion, a manager might have built a dashboard that illustrates these metrics:
Untouched and stuck opportunities
Average age of open opportunities
Days between sale rep touches on open opportunities
Contact engagement rate
Opportunities advanced at least a stage
Total pipeline and total open opportunity count
4. Review the relevant data
This is your time to dig into the why behind certain metrics. “You might infer that a deal’s going sideways if it’s been open for an especially long time, or has a high average number of days between touches,” says Rhorer. “Those are strong indicators that either the rep isn’t actively working on the opportunity, or the prospect isn’t engaging in a way that’s conducive to getting a deal closed.”
Let the data inform your next steps. “If you have those indicators handy, you have a much clearer idea of how your rep is doing and how you might offer support,” she says.
HOLD CRYSTAL-CLEAR PERFORMANCE CONVERSATIONS AND INTERVENTIONS
While 1:1s are useful for setting short-term goals and areas of improvement, a rigorous focus on data can help managers craft bi-annual performance conversations that boost a rep’s long-term development — and, when needed, data can help guide effective performance improvement plans, or PIPs.
During performance reviews, let the data do the talking
“Robust performance conversations are the key to helping reps perform to the top of their abilities,” says Rhorer. “You can ensure that top performers are engaged and recognized, and that skill or will gaps in struggling reps are resolved. Corroborating these conversations with data orients reps toward what’s expected of them, and how they can get there.”
Below, she walks through how you might structure a performance conversation with an AE. “If you’ve done the work to set goals and understand which metrics are most important to your sales motion, then this because a much more straightforward exercise,” she says. In this case, Rhorer is evaluating the AE on the following areas:
Effectiveness in Capturing Prospect Interest
Effectiveness in Qualifying
Effectiveness in Closing
Effort: Is the rep putting significant effort into sales activities?
“The first piece of the evaluation is whether the rep is carrying carrying out the right actions to try to be successful. It focuses on those metrics most directly within the rep’s control,” says Rhorer. “Does the rep have any untouched opportunities in his pipeline? Is he reaching out to a number of contacts at each account touched that is consistent with your expectations and sales approach?”
Investigate the dashboard to fully answer these questions. “If those numbers aren’t being hit, what’s causing low activity numbers? Is it lack of will, or are there blockers that you, as the manager, need to remove, like insufficient accounts in his name?”
Effectiveness in Capturing Prospect Interest: Is the quality of top-of-funnel activity sufficient to convert prospecting work to opportunities that reach the middle of the sales funnel?
Next, address whether that effort is effectively filling the top of the AE’s pipeline. “Look at the conversion rate on email and call activity,” says Rhorer. “Are those activities generating the expected number of initial meetings with new prospects? That number of initial meetings scheduled is a function of how effectively the rep is communicating the value proposition and handling objections while they’re setting up the initial meeting.”
Effectiveness in Qualifying: Is the rep’s effort being focused in a productive direction?
“This is a question of whether the AE is efficient and effective or whether he’s spending too much time on unproductive activities,” says Rhorer. “This is either because he’s working deals that he never properly qualified or because he takes an overly optimistic approach to his pipeline and continues to chase deals that should have been Closed Lost.”
To diagnose this performance area, there are a few metrics you can turn to. “You might look at opportunity conversation rates by stage to see where in the funnel opportunities are dropping off, or review other efficiency metrics like follow-up meeting ratio, which will indicate how effectively the rep is able to convert an initial meeting with an account into a real shot at a deal,” she says. “For example, if a rep is inefficient because of a ‘happy ears’ problem, it’ll show up as Closed Lost opportunities with multiple meetings against them.”
Effectiveness in Closing: Is the quality of bottom-of-funnel activity sufficient to turn opportunities into bookings?
The most immediate drivings of bookings will shed light on this question. “If bookings are soft, but the rep is doing the right things to fill the top of the pipeline and working a commensurate number of opportunities to the rest of the team, then he will either have a lower average deal size or lower win rates than the rest of the team,” says Rhorer.
“These may show up in the ‘mid-funnel’ precursor metrics, but may also be caused by behaviors that appear at the end of the sales process. For example, smaller deal sizes may show up only in the ‘average selling price’ metric if the cause is overly aggressive discounting,” she says. “A lower win rate caused by late stage deals moving to Closed Lost may prompt a look into whether those opportunities properly hit the entry criteria for those stages or a look into how reps are running their closing meetings.”
Use data to make PIPs actionable and attainable.
A PIP is perhaps one of the most dread-inducing acronyms in management. Putting a report on a formal PIP spells a “last chance” for issues to be remedied. “A PIP should never come as a surprise,” says Rhorer. “If there were issues before, you should have been communicating about them on an ongoing basis.”
If you’ve reached the point where you need to pull out the PIP, it must be clear and attainable above all. “Structure the PIP with goals for specific metrics to improve, with associated timelines that make sense for each metric,” says Rhorer. “Get detailed here: Give your report the clearest idea of when you expect to see the changes and what the magnitude of change has to be.”
A rep successfully exiting a PIP requires commitment from both sides of the table. “Commit to what you’ll do as their manager to help them succeed. Give them an expectation of what feedback and interim check-ins will look like, and hold yourself to those.” For example, if a report was struggling under the “Effectiveness in Capturing Prospect Interest” area, you might write the following in their PIP:
“By the end of the PIP, Rep should increase win rate on closed opportunities from x% to y%. Progress between now and the end of the PIP will be tracked on the following metrics:
1. For each initial meeting held, at least x follow-up meetings should be generated, for a target ratio of y:z of initial meetings to follow-up meetings.
2. The total number of follow-up meeting should reach at least x by the third week of the PIP and should stay at that level for the duration of the PIP.
3. Beginning in the third week of the PIP, at least x% of the opportunities owned by Rep should meet the entry criteria to advance to the next stage of the sales funnel, which should result in y total opportunities advancing each [week/month] (depending on your own pipeline velocity) and a conversion rate from Stage x to Stage y of z%.
4. To support this goal, Manager will join at least x sales calls with open opportunities each week and will provide Rep with coaching and detailed feedback after those calls.”
PAVING THE WAY FOR A DATA-DRIVEN FUTURE
Using data as a resource is such a highly-valued practice at Atrium that it’s integrated into their interview process for sales and customer success managers. “In one part of the interview, we ask candidates for sales manager roles to evaluate a sales rep based on a given set of data,” says Rhorer. “We ask them why this hypothetical AE is successful, and where coaching opportunities are.”
The candidate doesn’t necessarily need to be trained in data analysis. “We’re looking for them to ask good questions. We want them to show curiosity and to unpack what’s going on,” she says. “When you’re hiring reps, or even promoting people in the sales org, look for people who are inclined to be thinking about data.” That way, you’re not only building out your team with talented operators, but building a culture around using data to catalyze goals and contribute to a progressively more robust sales org.
Above all, Rhorer emphasizes that no one is born with a knack for data-based management. “All of this is learnable,” she says. “Managers who are eager to learn how to wield data, and are willing to put in the hard work, have already accomplished the hardest part.”
“A data-driven sales org triggers a positive domino effect in the company,” she says. “The CEO and board can focus on other priorities rather than monitoring sales. Longer runway from the same amount of capital gives you more time to build the business before having to raise again; when you do raise, you’ll have higher revenue and better unit economics, resulting in equity that’s more valuable.”
Photography from Getty Images and Bonnie Rae Mills