Ep. 9 Amit Bendov on Making Sales Smarter

Decoding Revenue Intelligence: Amit Bendov on Making Sales Smarter


26 min

Ep. 9 Amit Bendov on Making Sales Smarter

26 min

Amit Bendov has spent nearly two decades leading hyper-growth software startups. He’s scaled three “unicorn” companies worth a billion dollars or more, proving he has the unique ability to make business ideas become wildly successful. In this episode, hear Amit explain how to spot opportunities in the market, and how to improve the sales process by listening to customers.

Read transcript

"I think it's an addiction. I'll continue to work from the grave probably. I like to create stuff, that's what I am. Building a company is a great experience, especially when it's super successful."

Quick takes on...

Failure and Success

"Make sure that, if you're planning to work for a few good years, 16, 17 hours a day, you accept that you might not be successful. But if you are successful, then there is a very nice upside. There's nothing wrong with a small business, but with VC money, the expectation of a multibillion-dollar outcome is the standard today."

Customer Feedback

"Some feedback, you just decide you're going to ignore. I mean, it's a tough call. And some of the things it's, you know, you use your judgment and you say what's true and what's not. You make a bet on what your customers are actually trying to say."

The Importance of Listening

"When I started my career, my mentor taught me, 'you have two ears and one mouth. That's about the right ratio.' It turns out that actually science shows that's not far from reality. It really is better to listen than to speak."

Meet your guest, Amit Bendov


Amit Bendov Spotlight

Amit Bendov has more than 20 years of leadership experience in hyper-growth enterprise software startups. Currently, he is the co-founder and CEO of Gong.io, a revenue intelligence platform. Before Gong, he was the CEO of SiSense, and also held the role of CMO for Panaya.

Listen to the next episode

Ep. 10 Clara Shih headshot on Decoding Digital

Decoding Social Business: Clara Shih on Fostering Trust


33 min

Social media has changed the way we interact with friends and family, but can it build more trust in businesses? It's a question that Clara Shih has spent a lot of time thinking about. The co-founder of Hearsay Systems, Clara broke new ground using the social graph for business, and in this episode, she talks about the promise—and problems—that social media brings.

Episode transcript

Amit Bendov: [0:06] Maybe it's an addiction. I'll continue to…

Amit Bendov: [0:06] Maybe it's an addiction. I'll continue to work from my grave probably. I like to create stuff. That's what I am. I'm a creator in nature. Building a company is a great experience, especially when it's super successful.

Dan Saks: [0:23] That's Amit Bendov, CEO of gong.io, an AI‑powered revenue intelligence platform which he's grown into a $2.2 billion enterprise. Amit has spent nearly two decades leading hypergrowth software startups and has scaled three unicorn companies worth a billion dollars or more.

With a background in sales, marketing, and technology, Amit has a unique understanding of how to launch and scale businesses. I've always admired Amit's ability to spot gaps in the market and make a business idea blow up and become wildly successful. He's also seen the other side and has some great insights into an entrepreneur's least favorite words, rejection.

This is Daniel Saks, co‑CEO of AppDirect, and it's time to decode revenue intelligence. Welcome to "Decoding Digital," a podcast for innovators looking to thrive in the digital economy. I'm your host, Daniel Saks, and I'll sit down with other founders, CEOs, and

Dan: [1:48] So happy to have you on the show today.

Amit: [1:50] Hey, thanks for having me, Daniel. I'm excited to be here.

Dan: [1:53] Excellent. Let's take it back to the beginning. I know you have a background in computer science. When you started in your career, did you know you wanted to be a tech entrepreneur?

Amit: [2:03] Not even close. Do you want to know what I really wanted to be?

Dan: [2:07] Of course.

Amit: [2:07] I wanted to be a guitarist in a rock band. I actually hated computers in high school. I was pretty good in math, but I didn't really like it. My first gig trying to get close to the music industry was I've started selling recording equipment for recording studios, for rock concerts.

That's the first time, it was in early '90s, where things started to shift from hardware to software. I saw, "Oh, this computer's pretty cool." and then I signed up for computer science. That was the start.

Dan: [2:43] The world is obviously digitally transformed. Overnight, you have tons of salespeople that are operating remote. They have a greater need, and companies essentially have a better need for understanding their efficiency, their productivity. What you're working on with gong.io helps turbocharge sales teams. Do you want to explain a little bit more about that?

Amit: [3:04] For sure. I actually started a company similar to the way you presented it. I started because I was frustrated with how little we know about what's happening with our customers. I was a CEO of a company called SiSense in the business intelligence. We were doing lots of customer interactions.

I never really knew why we're losing some deals, winning some others, why some salespeople were better than the others, what's happening in the market, what is the competition doing better, what are we doing better, fundamental questions. It dawned on me that that information is in people's heads. It's in a conversation, but never makes its way through the CRM system.

If we want to know as leadership what's going on, we have to go and ask. It's hard to pull the information. It will be anecdotal and subjective at best. That seemed pretty obvious to me, because CRM systems were built for the leadership team, they were not built for the reps.

I said, "Can we think about a system that rather than relying on what the reps put in in forms, actually understand what customers say?" That was the understanding, that was where the intelligence...it captures the reality versus the opinions of the customer‑facing people. That's what we're doing.

Today, even more so, we have teams that have sold inside sales. They're sold remotely. They used to work together in the bullpen, and now they're remote. They're scattered. That's number one challenge. There's another group that used to sell in‑person, and now they need to learn a whole lot of new skills, how to sell remotely, how to create rapport, how to engage customers, and how to do it.

That's what Gong does. Gong taps into conversations directly, emails, calls, texts, and other types of messages. Understands what's being said, and compiles that information in a way it's useful both for the customer‑facing people so they could improve their skills, but also for the leadership teams that understand the productivity and what's going on.

Dan: [5:13] Obviously, the core of any business is sales and revenue. You articulated while there's tools like Salesforce to help track the sales in the pipeline and give leadership visibility, what made you realize that there was such a gap in the market of enabling reps to be more productive? Was the initial idea what materialized today or were there some learnings along the way?

Amit: [5:36] It's a pretty simple story. I still did back of the napkin presentation in 2015 in sales problem. Most of their information never makes it to the CRM. It's in the conversations. That was the problem. When I started, I thought, "Hey, I need something like that."

I wasn't looking to start a company, but as I couldn't find any, I started asking around and interviewed some 50 leaders that I know and some that I don't know, just total strangers. I said, "Hey, if we can build a system that you could know what's going on with your customers and your customer‑facing people without anybody having to do anything, would you buy?"

At the time, not everybody was eager to invest in Gong. There were a lot of people who thought that it will never fly, the technology will not work, or people will hate it. I fortunately found a few investors that gave us money. Since that point, we've taken off pretty fast.

Dan: [6:46] It's fascinating. On Decoding Digital, we like to really decode the story behind the founder. You articulated a pattern of what makes incredible companies and incredible founders, which is having this clarity of purpose initially, setting up the vision, testing it in a lean way.

For a lot of entrepreneurs out there, getting investment is a big hump. Can you walk us through the challenges you had?

Amit: [7:12] This is my fourth company. My first company, I was one of the founding people of ClickSoftware. It was sold to Salesforce for $1.3 billion. Another company called Panaya, worth a quarter billion, smaller outcome. I was a turnaround CEO of a company called SiSense, now also a unicorn.

That worked in my favor. People say maybe we don't believe in the horse, but let's bet on the jockey. I do believe in the horse more than the jockey. At that time, interestingly because we're in sales industry, the partner investing, a total sell was one of the toughest of deal to pass the partnership.

The interesting thing about sales is that everybody think that they understand sales. If you pass some obscure hypervisor technology that nobody knows anything about because, "Hey, this is a great entrepreneur, and people are strong technical folks and they'll invest." Here's some of the common things that, first, salespeople will hate it. They'll see it as a big brother.

There hasn't been any company in sales that took off. There are lots of sales tools, that the big companies will eat us for breakfast, lots of reasons. It's our track record that allows us to finally get the funds. With that, we built the first product. From that point, we got the product market fit within, I would say, three or four months. We had 12 paying customers. That's helped from that point.

Dan: [8:45] We're hearing from the Triple Crown or the hat‑trick unicorn leader, there's not many people who have built and scaled three times over. You must have some really interesting insights from scaling. What do you see is the difference between the big outcomes and the small ones? Is it early and easy to identify early or do you have to try it and then see what the outcome looks like?

Amit: [9:07] There are a lot of little things. There are two big things that are impacting. The first is the market that you're in. That defines the potential, how big this could get. The market to me is market and product. It's like how many people would be interested in buying your product and willing to pay the money that you need to make it a viable business. That's number one.

If you're in a good market and an OK team, you'll do fine. You can make a few mistakes. If you're in a bad market, it means you can become a king of the hill, but it will be a hill. Make sure that if you're planning to work for a few good years, 16, 17 hours a day, you might not be successful, but if you are successful, that there is a very nice upside.

If you could build a big company, especially if you've raised venture money, this is like they're betting big. There's nothing wrong with a small business. If you raise VC money, the expectation this is a multibillion‑dollar outcome, this is the standard today.

Dan: [10:18] What drives you about the work you do? Obviously, you've had a couple successful outcomes. You could be on the beach right now. Why start again? What drives you?

Amit: [10:27] I think it's an addiction. I'll continue to work from my grave probably. I like to create stuff. That's what I am. I'm a creator in nature. Building a company is a great experience, especially when it's super successful.

Dan: [10:42] It's incredible. We have a lot of intrapreneurs on the show, so people who are working in large organizations but innovating and building their own businesses within Fortune 500 companies. What advice would you give them? How do the patterns of starting your own business independently versus internally within an enterprise play out?

Amit: [11:01] It's a good question. Two things that I would say, first, it is quite different. Building your own company it's a totally different game. If I look at even our company, these are Fortune 500, but I look at things that succeed.

First, it has to be something that's overall aligned with a company goal. Whatever you're doing, it can't take the company sideways. You can do that, but it will not get the support. It will not get people excited. Something that is aligned with the key goal of the company and key direction is more likely to get supported and take off.

Second, if you could bootstrap it or if you could show success early and take an initiative, don't ask for permission. Go for forgiveness. Just try something and say, "Hey, I already got something working." Build a business case, because just coming up and asking for budget and all that is always a tougher sale than showing some success iterating quickly.

Dan: [12:05] One observation I have from you describing the intrapreneur story and your entrepreneur story is that in both cases, there's a lot of people who are going to reject your idea, who are going to think it's not going to work. Tell me about the psyche of pushing through. How do your neurons fire when you get rejected? Are you impermeable to it or what happens?

Amit: [12:26] Of course. It's a great question. It's a very delicate balance, because sometimes you do need to listen to people. You need to listen and ignore at the same time. First, all the people that thought that Gong wouldn't take off are not stupid people. They're super smart, some of the smartest in the industry. That, I know.

We took some of the objections and we knew if they, "OK, what can we address?" Instead of just ignoring them, we say, "OK, let's see what we can do." For example, a lot of people thought that the reps are going to object, they're going to see this big brother, which it's not a stupid thought.

We actually took that feedback and built a lot of functionality for the salespeople themselves. We said, "Can we make their product that they'll be willing to pay out their own credit cards if the companies don't buy the product?" Our net promoter score is 80, eight‑zero, which is higher than the iPhone in 2008. It's pretty crazy for an enterprise software product, because we built off that.

That's actually good feedback. Some of it, you just decide that you're going to ignore. It's a tough call. You do listen. Some of the things, you use your judgment and you say what's true and what's not. You make a bet.

Dan: [13:44] Were there ever moments where you're just so beat down from working so hard and having so many challenges, that you wanted to give up or that you thought maybe it wouldn't work?

Amit: [13:53] No, there's never a moment when I wanted to give up. No, we never got that bad. This is my fourth company. I'd been through really tough times. Think about dotcom, really dark days. I know that there are ups and downs. Definitely, when you hear no, that's very frustrating. That drives you nuts.

You shouldn't give up as long as you have the runway, unless you're convinced that this is a dead end. I never got to the point where I thought it's dead end.

Dan: [14:24] You seem to me like a sage veteran that's been through the wringer, and now come out with more wisdom. Take us back to your first company. When you were in it for the first time, what was different about managing your focus from now?

Amit: [14:39] The IPO, the NASDAQ, and everybody was super excited. Then the market crashed, the stock starts taking a beating, and business starts to slow down. I had to personally lay off 50 people. This is different for people that don't perform. Great people, they're your friends. You know the worst thing, you're sending them home, and they'll have a really hard time finding a job.

You communicated with the company and you say, "OK, we've done this. From now on, this is probably last time." Three months later, you have to send, again, "Oops, we're sorry. There's additional 50 people that will have to go home." It was very tough times.

The learning from that, and I see how we communicated during February and March when we start getting hit by COVID is just transparency and clarity of communication with the team, and trust in difficult times is super important.

Dan: [15:41] Let's shift a little bit to really decoding revenue intelligence. Obviously, every company's life blood is revenue. The way to do that often is sales. What's your lessons learned as a leader on how to cultivate a sales culture and make those salespeople productive?

Amit: [15:58] That's a very big topic. I'll say we try to help. It's a very lonely and frustrating job. Very exhilarating at times when it works and very nerve‑wracking. Culture plays a huge role in that. One thing that I've learned, hitting the numbers is super important. We've taken that super seriously, but not at all costs.

If our goal for this year is 10 million and we hit 9, that's OK. We're not a public company yet. That can de‑stress the organization. Where Gong helped, and we see the transformation and we see internally, is it connects people.

Traditionally, you're selling to a customer and you'll have a conversation. Potentially, the customer doesn't like your product. It could be that your product isn't competitive, that it's overpriced. Maybe you didn't explain it well. Maybe you didn't have cover value. You go back to your manager and try to explain.

People are suspicious. They don't know what was going on. Is it you? Is it the customer? You're trying to speak with a product team. There's a lot of finger pointing. The leads quality and sales is where the [inaudible] between a rock and a hard place.

With revenue intelligence, they're not alone in the trenches because, all of a sudden, everybody can see what's going on. You as the CEO, you can hear exactly what the customer is saying and understand if there's a product issues you need to fix.

The engineering, they're aligned. The sales team itself has a lot more collaboration, because if one rep had a particularly great response to an objection, within 30 seconds, the entire team can copy that practice. It removes a lot of their frustration.

It's still hard work, don't get me wrong. A lot of the frustration spans in finger pointing from the salespeople. That's something super important to building a great sales culture.

Dan: [18:08] Let's talk about the technology. Obviously, Gong is AI‑powered. Can you explain that for everyone? What's your secret sauce?

Amit: [18:14] AI is a broad term. It is in a lot of things. First, at the very core is understanding what's being said. If you look at the customer is sending an email, "Hey, I'm going to have to speak about the budget with my CFO," or "I do not believe this is a good fit for us at this point in time." you need to understand natural language.

If there is a Zoom call or a phone call, you need to transcribe it in a single speed set. They seem like easy problems. They're not at all. Written conversation and spoken conversation are totally different languages. It's like English and French almost. You need to write different languages.

Even things like texting or Slacking. Slack is very short messages, emojis, email, proper English, and spoken conversation. People don't use correct grammar. They open parenthesis the middle of sentence. Questions may not sound like questions. Just understanding that is a pretty big task. That's one level of AI. Just understand what's being said.

Second, try to create insights from that. The questions, once you look at a lot of conversations, trying to understand conversation patterns actually are better, in the sense that they lead to closing more deals. For that, AI now looks at a large number of conversations and outcomes. It's telling you, "OK, if you say this and not that, you can increase your win rate by eight percent."

One of our customers is selling a point‑of‑sale solution to small businesses. Their solution has an iPads component and an application component. Gong recommended that when they call a customer, they present the iPads before the software. That increased sales by 15 percent, one‑five, just that small change.

The cool thing, Gong doesn't even understand what an iPad is, or it doesn't say anything about their business, but it recognized that pattern from the top five percent salespeople. This is something that they consistently do, and it leads to better outcomes.

Dan: [20:40] You always have super‑unique insights based on huge data sets of what makes an incredible sales rep. What are your top three pieces of advice?

Amit: [20:50] There's no universal thing. It depends who your buyer persona. If you're selling to an HR manager, it might be different if you're selling to very senior leaders of large organization. It does matter. Being a good listener is universal. We find that the optimal pattern is very interactive. You can say duh, but it's amazing how many people just don't do that.

People talk too much. They speak in very long sentences. They interact. They don't ask a lot of questions. That's the vast majority of salespeople, especially like the younger ones. That's a skill that can be learned, being a good listener.

Dan: [21:31] Let's double‑click on listening, because that's an incredible skillset. You mentioned it can be learned. What do you see in the data? Do you have any unique insights to say most salespeople talk 90 percent of the time, but the top salespeople talk 80 percent of the time? Can you share some of those unique insights?

Amit: [21:49] A lot of them are on our blog, by the way. Every couple of weeks, there are some new datasets research. I think the most recent one, if you use Zoom and you turn a camera on or off, what's the impact on win rate. The answer is yes, opening the camera does help so make it happen.

In listening skills, there is an optimal number, it turns out, between listening to talking. That's 46 percent. In early conversations, 46 percent is an average. That's good. It's not that if you speak for 55, you're not going to sell, but that's the ideal.

Number of questions is another interesting parameter. It's good to ask questions. Too little isn't good. Asking 30 also isn't good. There's a sweet spot in it. Please don't take this literally, but it's around like 13. In an average of 45‑minute convo, 13 is around a sweet spot.

Dan: [22:58] The idea is you should be listening more than talking?

Amit: [23:03] When I started my career, my mentor taught me to give two ears and one mouth. That's about the right ratio. Turns out that actually science shows it's not far from reality.

Dan: [23:13] That's incredible. Obviously, you have had really good news to share recently.

Amit: [23:19] We've recently announced our funding announcement of $200 million, $2.2 post‑valuation. Before that, in December, we announced our series C. We're pretty excited about it now, that we have bigger reserves to go and do some strategic moves and double down on product development.

Dan: [23:39] It's amazing. What are you going to do with all the capital?

Amit: [23:42] This is a very volatile world these days. As a responsible CEO, you want to make sure that you always have enough, that you don't have to fly just above the tree level. If you have more altitudes and more runway, you can execute your vision.

We're definitely not going to spend it on nonsense. We're going to invest in developers, acquiring more customers, on commissions, and building a great company.

Dan: [24:12] That's great. Last question, why the name Gong?

Amit [24:17] Gong is the sound of winning. When you close a deal, that's what happens in the bullpen. That's what people do. They hit the gong.

Dan: [24:28] Amit, thank you so much. This was so insightful. Really incredible, great lessons on turbocharging your sales, your revenue, lessons learned from a veteran unicorn entrepreneur. Thank you so much.

Amit: [24:38] My pleasure. Thanks, Daniel. Thanks for having me.

Dan: [24:44] On the next episode of Decoding Digital…

Clara Shih: [24:47] All these consumer online platforms were optimized for one thing and one thing alone. They weren't actually even optimized for human connection. They were optimized for sales, because the entire consumer Internet is funded by advertising.

What we're seeing with the polarizing disinformation and fake news spreading, that wasn't an intention. That wasn't someone's goal. It's just that's the unintended consequence of when you prize clicks above all else, and you don't have checks and balances.

Dan: [25:16] Founder of Hearsay Systems and board member at Starbucks, Clara Shih.

Thanks for listening to Decoding Digital. Make sure you never miss an episode by subscribing to the show in your favorite podcast player. To learn more, visit decodingdigital.com. Until next time.