Amplify10 was formerly known as Featurewave

Fireside Chat: How AI Helps Planning & Forecasting w/ Barnali Bagchi (Freshworks)

When it comes to sales planning and forecasting, what is the role of AI, what are successful companies doing to leverage AI, and how does this impact the day-to-day of sales reps?

Joe Parlett:
Hey, everyone. Thank you for joining. I’m Joe Parlett with Featurewave, and this is our Featurewave Fireside Chat Series where we meet with various thought leaders on a variety of sales ops, rev ops, sales, and marketing topics. Today, I’m joined by Barnali Bagchi. She is a very accomplished revenue operations leader and is currently running rev ops at Freshworks. You can see here she’s an investor, an advisor, a supermom, and part of Women in Tech. Today with Barnali, we’re going to talk about how AI helps with planning and forecasting. Barnali, thank you very much for joining. Super pleased to have you here with us.

Barnali Bagchi:
Thank you so much, Joe. Really excited to be part of this chat series.

Joe Parlett:
Yeah. With your experience, I’m super excited to hear about what you have to say on this topic. We’re all going to learn a lot.

Barnali Bagchi:
Absolutely. Looking forward to it.

What is Featurewave?

Joe Parlett:
Great, us too. First, I’ll spend 15 seconds on this commercial letting everybody know what I’ve been up to, which is I’m a Co-Founder of Featurewave. What is Featurewave? Well, it’s an AI-driven sales co-pilot. There are a ton of co-pilots out there right now.

This one is different. Featurewave addresses this challenge, which is prevalent in so many enterprises. Sales teams are just overwhelmed with what they’re expected to know about their products, their customers, their competition, the industries they’re selling into, and all these wonderful systems that our employers are surrounding us with. It’s a lot to remember. We help folks make sense of all that.

AI: The Solution to Overwhelm

With that much information, the only way you can turn all of that data into intelligence and insights is with AI, and so that’s what we created.

We, Featurewave, is an AI-powered sales co-pilot that takes all the information that’s otherwise getting trapped in these systems and turns it into intelligent guidance wherever you are in your selling journey. Enough about Featurewave.

How Does AI Help With Planning and Forecasting?

Today, we’re here to talk to Barnali about AI and how it helps with planning and forecasting. AI is everywhere, of course. It definitely helps when it comes to planning and forecasting, but not everybody has that luxury.

Barnali, when it comes to planning and forecasting, what are most companies doing today without AI or automation?

Barnali Bagchi:
I think, Joe, the most important piece of planning and forecasting is gathering the right data, collecting them, analyzing them, and then finally coming up with the final plans that would be consumed by the sales leaders to make that right revenue strategy and decisions.

I think the critical challenge that most companies have here are data accuracy. Dealing with the data accuracy, lack of realtime insights, and of course, huge operational overhead associated with managing this data, this unstructured data that the ops team have to deal with.

Without tools, data collection and analysis is time-consuming. We all know that. Sales team have to rely on manual data entries which are more prone to errors. Of course, inaccurate data can lead to inaccurate forecast and planning decisions, and we don’t want that.

That’s the reason why, I think, we need tools and automations that would be more workflow-heavy and not people-heavy to go to that next level in forecasting and accuracy.

Reducing Operational Overhead

I want to talk through some of the operational overhead that I have experienced in my previous company and currently, is we are used to sharing or circulating these input files, input files as in Google sheets across global teams. All they do is they fill in their forecast numbers and the opportunities, the names of the deals that they’re working on, that would make up for the numbers.

And then it’s the rev ops team, the field ops team who are responsible for capturing all of that raw data, the operational data, and crunch those gigantic files in various forms, in different sales motions, by product, by regions, and make it more reportable and more executive review kind of dashboards. It’s super time-consuming. Most of the times, we end up messing up the spreadsheets. There could be changes every now and then that fields would want to make based on several human insights that they get from various deals.

Hygiene Challenges in Data

I think, overall, that leads to inaccuracy of the data and unreliable data, which is a major hygiene challenge that I have been noticing in the last few years that I have been in this role. Some of the risks associated with these challenges are the sales team may have to spend significant amount of time in doing these administrative work of entering manual data.

Maybe they don’t have effective reporting, so they might have to build their own reports by themselves from CRM, or other paperwork they might have to fill in, which obviously reduces their focus time, which is their day job that is selling.

This has a huge impact on the sales performance. Of course, we might be at a disadvantage to our competitors in this regard.

Maybe the competitors that they are dealing with have technology and automation and better sales processes, which is helping them improvise on viewing their own activity, the engagements, which these guys without a technology without automation are not able to. Obviously, they are at disadvantage.

Managing Data Manually Cuts Into Selling Time, Affecting Morale

In turn, this leads to impacting the morale, which ultimately leads to high burnout and attrition within the company, and which is what we don’t want in any companies. That’s the reason I feel AI, or basic automation, or basic analytics, or CRM is super critical for performing our planning and forecasting.

Joe Parlett:
Yeah. You bring up a really good point about morale and the frustration. Especially this day and age, the more things we’re doing manually, obviously, it puts everything at risk, more prone to errors, and it is frustrating.

Any moments or tasks that we give to selling teams where it’s taking time away from their selling activities, it can be frustrating. Like you said, that can kill morale as well, especially if I’m spending so much time on administrative tasks, taking me away from putting time into selling, which puts me even further from the number one thing that the seller is getting measured on, and that’s sales performance. Yeah. The more time I’ve got to do on these other administrative activities, it just puts everything at risk, including morale and sales success. Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. I didn’t even have to ask the question about the risks associated. You gave us the response on that. Thank you very much.

Importance of Having a CRM

Barnali Bagchi:
Yeah. I think in addition to the morale in an overall performance, I think another risk that comes to my mind is just not having… I see a lot of companies, specifically the ones who are growing out of the SMB and getting into that whole commercial segment, I feel like those categories of companies, they probably don’t even have a CRM.

I’m glad that there are tools like HubSpot and other smaller CRM are coming up, which are more affordable for this commercial segment so they could start leveraging A CRM for basic view of your accounts and opportunities, and having better insight into what deals they should be focusing on and which ones they shouldn’t be focusing. I think that’s also one of the risks that I have been noticing, that having no CRM at all, which is the basic.

Joe Parlett:
Yeah. Yeah. All super important for foundational sales success, even for small companies as well. We need data to drive decisions, for sure. As far as upleveling sales, how would AI level up sales forecasting and analytics, and who do you see as some of the top players in the space? There are many. Who do you look at?

How Does AI Level Up Sales Forecasting and Analytics?

Barnali Bagchi:
I think incorporating AI in basic sales planning not only improves the accuracy of forecast, but also enables the sales team to work more efficiently, and focus on more enterprise deals, uplevel the game and better customer experience. That’s just the basic foundation of AI, in my opinion.

But in addition to that, I feel AI can help analyze historical data, which obviously by running numbers on spreadsheets, running historical data on spreadsheets is impossible. It can help analyze sales historical data, historical win loss, the orders, the products that have been doing well, that have not been doing well, the spending capacity, or just in general, what are our targeted segments that we should be focusing on or where should be the resources targeted? Which territory should we target? Which products should be target?

I think, manually, it’s just impossible to do that, and AI can very conveniently enable more accurate sales forecasting when we are able to crunch the data, when AI is able to crunch the data and make things so easy with running our revenue strategy.

Customer Segmentation for Targeting

The other area that comes to my mind is coming up with that customer segmentation. We have been rolling out Anaplan. One of the main challenging area that we have here, at FreshWorks, is how do we focus on the right targeted market? We have a total Addressable Market (TAM), a gigantic TAM, which is given to our sales team.

What would a rep do? How would they identify the top 50 or 60 accounts that they should be focusing on out of the, I don’t know, 200, 300 accounts that they are assigned? I think identifying the right customer segment, the right prospect based on various criterias like purchasing behavior, demographics, engagement history, it definitely allows sales team to tailor their marketing and sales effort to specific customer segments, and of course, helps with better win rates, with better conversion rates.

The other thing that comes to my mind, and for sure Anaplan has helped us in this area with their predictive insights, the account-based predictive insights and planning around that, the other thing that comes to my mind is lead scoring and prioritization.
The AI powered lead scoring models can access the likelihood of a lead converting and also focus more on better quality leads.

I think there are several tools in the market that helps get the leads, like ZoomInfo, Demandbase, even LinkedIn for that matter.

Leveraging AI for Finding Decision Makers

But how do we know who is that right lead who could help make the right decision? Who would be the decision maker, the ultimate decision maker that would help us get to the winds?

It’s super critical to leverage AI in understanding who is that lead, which kind of or category of lead that we should be prioritizing on, and which is that quality of lead. What is that criteria that should be assigned for improvising on the lead quality?

I think AI is the way to go in lead segmentation and lead prioritization. Similarly, there are several tools in the sales opportunity and identification that is basically identifying the kind of deals that are at risk and the kind of deals that we should be focusing on. It all boils down into the focusing on the right prospecting accounts.

I think AI is super critical in analyzing the historical behavior patterns which helps the reps maximize their revenue in the existing customer accounts. I think AI is super critical when we are trying to penetrate into our existing customer base. Not only just prospects, not only net new, but also in the existing accounts.

AI for Sales Forecasting

Of course, with forecasting, I think we already talked about there’s a wide range of factors like historical trend analysis, realtime snapshotting of, “How did my deals do in week one versus week eight versus week 12?” Getting that snapshot over the past few quarters helps us determine or have a better judgment over what should we bank on for this quarter per se.

I think, overall, I would say AI is super critical in terms of competitive analysis, in forecasting, in lead gen, in customer segmentation, in territory prioritization and optimization. It’s super critical.

Without AI, I don’t know, how would we be doing these analyses on Excel spreadsheets and Google sheets that most companies, in the beginning of their journey, start doing, and that’s when they realize that the pains associated with this manual analysis, and I guess everybody makes a decision on some point of time to switch to more automated and AI-driven tools.

Leaders in Sales Planning Tools

I think you brought up a question, what are some of the key players in this space? I would say that when it comes to… In my experience, again, for planning, sales planning, Anaplan is one of the leaders.

I know that there would be several people or folks in the sales operations zone might say it’s challenging. It’s a difficult tool to execute. It’s absolutely difficult, and so is Salesforce.

It’s difficult to implement, but it’s the most robust tool that I could think of when it comes to planning. The complex budget planning, sales planning, headcount capacity, prioritizing targeted addressable market, prioritizing territories, pipeline optimization, building comp plans, and coming up with the right absolute right plans for the different personas in the organizations.

I think Anaplan is that one robust tool for that end-to-end planning for folks who are trying to uplevel and get into that commercial enterprise zone. Other than that, I feel Clari and Aviso have been leaders in the revenue intelligence space.

Next Quarter is another tool that is upcoming, which could deal with complex forecasting and AI-driven challenges associated with persona-based reporting and opportunity management, realtime trend analysis, tracking activity, tracking engagements, and leveraging that for making that judgment on which deal to focus on, which one to not. I guess these are some of the tools that I have seen have been doing pretty well in this space.

From Cumbersome to Fun in Sales Data

Joe Parlett:
Yep, yep. Okay. Yeah. To try and do this manually, it’s just too much information. I don’t want to get carried away, but AI and automation can almost make it fun, enjoyable. It’s just too much data and then it’s too unreliable.

If you’ve got to churn through all of that information, all of that data manually to have reliable predictive insights, it’s just not going to happen. Not with the same reliability as we have now with the advent of AI, night and day difference. Finally, reps are notoriously not great at data hygiene.

The main focus, typically, there’s a big number hanging over their head and they oftentimes can’t connect the dots between getting data in the system and how that helps me to get to my number.

Hygiene isn’t always the greatest, but it is critically important. You need good data in there to get good insights out the other side. Rep hygiene is always an issue. What strategies though can be used to help ensure that hygiene is improved, and encourage better hygiene and or behavior when it comes to getting data and accurate data input into the system?

How to Get Cleaner Sales Data

Barnali Bagchi:
I think every company has this challenge associated with hygiene. May it be an SMB, a commercial, or an enterprise firm, everybody has some level of hygiene issue. I think the magnitude and structure associated with the data that we set differs as we grow and the complexity increases.

There’s no right or wrong, but I guess one of the challenges that I have come across at ServiceNow or at FreshWorks is reps hate to do admin work.

They hate to, on an ongoing basis, update their deals, update their accounts, because it’s like they probably are having, I don’t know, 50, 60 calls a week or maybe more. To go update every comment, every information and nuggets into the deal or into the account on CRM is just impossible.

I really empathize our reps, our fields team on doing this work. It’s super time-consuming.
I can completely get it.

But at the same time, they’re also dealing with a tool fatigue issue. They just have too many tools that they got to log in. On this call, we talked about Anaplan, where they got to update their plans. Then we talked about rev intelligence, where they would go update their forecast, input their forecast numbers on a week-over-week basis.

Then we’re talking about CRM, which is the source of truth of all accounts, opportunity, leads data. Imagine how many tools that they got to deal with.

Defining a Sales Rep’s Playbook

Obviously, we are going to have hygiene issues. But how do we simplify this problem is probably the secret recipe to success, in my opinion. I feel the best way to help our reps simplify this is by coming up with a playbook or simple steps. “Here are the 10 steps or 20 steps you got to do in this week.”

If we’re able to define that journey for a rep, for an AE, or an AM, or a CSM, and clearly map that into a process… I mean, process is too big for them.

Clearly define those top 10 steps and associate that to which tool that they need to go and update, and that’s it. I think that just makes life so much easy for them when their focus is on selling. I think that’s one of the ways that I could think about, but also enablement. I think that’s super critical in every company, and I feel most of the companies are struggling with leveling up the enablement and getting to that next gen that is AI on enablement. I know that’s not the topic for today, but I think some of the key areas that we got to help with improving upon rep hygiene and simple things that we could do is ongoing rep coaching, ongoing continuous training on sales processes or product feature.

Defining the Sales Pitch, Cross-sells or Upsells

How do we pitch? Or some new use cases, how do we tweak them and help with cross-sell or have that upsell conversation? Or maybe leverage conversational intelligence, so that reps don’t have to update notes on their opportunity on a day in, day out basis.

There are several tools that could help out, and that’s where AI for enablement comes in the picture. I’m learning about Featurewave. That’s one of the upcoming tool in this space.

I guess AI, on enablement, is that next gen, which is super critical in helping reps maintain the hygiene, the day in, day out hygiene issue, and streamlining our overall sales process for better performance and efficiency in the sales space.

Joe Parlett:
Yeah, I agree with you. Anything that we can do to take some of the administrative responsibilities off the plate of the rep, we’ll all be doing better. They’ll be happier. The data will be more reliable and less prone to error. That is something that we are trying to do here, is we’re trying to get to a point where from the revenue intelligent tools and other tools, where a rep doesn’t have to enter any data because some system is always listening, and some system knows what needs to make its sway into CRM or some other system.

For now, that’s great that it’s been reduced to maybe, or can be reduced to 10 steps. That’s better than 50, that’s better than 20.

Aiming for Full Automation with Sales Data

But eventually, at some point, the closer we can get that down to full automation, the better.
That’s our north star here, trying to get to that point, because it’s relying on rep discipline. That’s challenging. We know that. But this is so critically important. The data is important.

The predictive analytics for planning, so important, and it all starts with the data that’s getting put in the system. Thank goodness though, for AI, especially for the people who have to crunch these numbers and figure out from this data which direction do we go? What is going to happen next? Only with AI can we count on that reliably, I think.

Barnali Bagchi:
Yeah. Yeah, totally. I’m sure that’s going to help our ops the most in upleveling our game and focus on something else rather than crunching the day-to-day data, which can be done by these tools, these AI-driven tools.

Joe Parlett:
Yeah. Like I said, it almost makes it fun with AI. For some people, it probably is. For me, it’s almost fun, funner than without it for sure. Well, Barnali, this has been a great conversation. Really appreciate your insights. We do have one more question for you.

What we like to do is to show our appreciation for your time is make a donation to an organization that you’re fond of. Is there one that comes to mind for you that we can support on your behalf?

Barnali Bagchi:
I have been wanting to do things that would help with child education in Third World countries. I’ve been working with this NGO called Lily Foundation in Dallas. All they do is help sponsorship, help sponsoring education for underprivileged children back in India. I am a huge supporter of this cause, and I would be super grateful if we could do something for this organization, because we are always looking out for donations and sponsorship for upleveling children in India who are way in the village or in these zones where there’s no electricity, there’s no water. Their living conditions are really miserable for them to do anything, but they want to learn. They are excited and motivated about learning and doing something in life, so really want to support that cause.

Wrapping It Up

Joe Parlett:
Yeah. Great cause and we would love to make a donation on your behalf, and we will do so. Love that. Yeah. It’s only fair that everybody has a fair chance. Right out of the gate, we’re not all given the same opportunity. That’s for sure. Great cause for underprivileged children. Thank you for that.

Well folks, Barnali, thank you again for your insights and your time. This has been a great conversation. I learned from this conversation. I’m going to watch it back and I’ll learn even more. If you want to tune in to other discussions that we’ve had with other thought leaders folks, you can go to our website and there’s a spot there where you can replay some of these conversations. Barnali, thank you. It’s been a pleasure, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Barnali Bagchi:
Thank you so much. Really great talking today.

Joe Parlett:
Thank you.

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