Commercial Interview: Melissa Di Donato, SAP

As part of our Insight Interview Series, we spoke to Melissa Di Donato, COO, and former Chief Commercial Officer, of SAP and winner of the 2018 Digital Masters Award for Excellence in Commercial Management, on disrupting a legacy business, moving fast, and implementing culture change.


UP: Tell us about your role at SAP and what you have done in your time there.

MDD: I’m here to be a disruptor - that is a vague term, so what does it mean? I’d summarise it as a real focus on the cloud mentality and the feeling SAP offers to it’s customers. I was told that when people thought about SAP, they thought ‘slow’ and the ‘inflexible’, in fact a few customers told me that; I came in to help change the image. This is about changing the way we sell the cloud, change the way we communicate with customers, change the way we support our customers, and created a customer relationship for life.

It’s a great story - you create a new business, you to go out and build a team and go to market completely organically, but feels like the most well-funded start-up ever. Over the course of two years, we built one of the fastest growing cloud businesses inside SAP, and by far the fastest growing cloud business in the industry.


UP: You make it sound simple, there must have been challenges, what were they?

MDD: Challenges involved in trying to create a fast growing, incubated business in a large, traditional on-premise company that’s been operating highly successfully for 45 years? No doubt!

First thing was hiring: where do you find DNA that’s not traditional to on-premise selling and attract them? It’s difficult. How do you attract a different kind of sales person? Innovative cloud-focused sales people who like moving fast and with pace, and who like to be thought leaders in the sales community are what I wanted, and that was the first cornerstone challenge.

Second thing, internally was to get SAP to act differently: how to get approval of deals quicker, how do we sell faster and smarter, how do we offer things like demos on your mobile phone? These are simple sales 101 tactics that cloud companies use but SAP had not created before. Getting the right sales tools, and the right behaviour around those tools was the next challenge.

Thirdly, how do we turn over and create a new brand for SAP and really begin to educate people on the inside whilst simultaneously educating people on the inside, and that really comes down to culture and brand. I’m fanatical about culture as a result of this role.

Fourth is pace. Responsiveness and support were key here, especially considering the cloud offering was a new product and SAP was still developing according to a set roadmap. With this new product also came the demands of a different type of customer, the cloud customer: They are faster, more responsive and more engaged - the last one being the most important.


UP: When you went in, how much did you inherit? And thinking of strategy, how much did you look at competitors?

MDD: I have had experience selling, implementing and managing ERP in a number of other roles. I was one of the first few hundred employees of Salesforce in the UK, and I took a lot of that with me to this. I learned a lot from organically building a cloud business in Europe. When I started, we literally sat down with a blank piece of paper and wrote out what a sales organisation looks like, what a pre-sales organisation looks like, what an end to end business should look like, and asked the questions like, “Do we create inside sales?”.

If I were to sum up the journey at SAP, I’d say we inherit people but not prophecy, we inherited product but not structure.


UP: How is this internal start-up that you have built changing the culture of SAP more broadly?

MDD: We have created an innovative team to work with, and people are interested and curious about what we are doing, and what can everyone else get from that. The way we sell is new, the way that we talk about renewals has already begun to change - They want to react better to customers, they want to augment their sales cycles and the best way to do that is to understand and interact with their customers on a much more frequent basis and understand their business needs and objectives.


UP: What change have you seen in your customers?

MDD: I think the change has resonated very strongly with a lot of our clients; I love to speak to customers who demand innovation and change, a cloud first mentality; to prove we at SAP are changing and forward thinking with cloud first. That is all part of the culture change, there is no stronger message than hearing what your clients want.


UP: As most people will know, SAP is very acquisitive. How have you seen it being done successfully - particularly when it comes to culture?

MDD: What I’ve seen work well, and early on, was integrate offices - and I do mean physical space across all main offices. Sales teams are integrated quickly; The best way to have expansive growth is to integrate as quickly as possible with your co-part / acquisition; For me, my teams become much stickier when I sell a map of integrated solutions - in terms of sales cycles, the customer need, the problem we are solving better together. The closer we are in sales cycles, the closer we are in managing the relationship lifetime with that customer. 


UP: To what degree do you, or do you not, worry about the competition?

MDD: I’m very confident in our strategy; Saying that, of course I think about my competitors! The thing is now, it’s not about competing against Oracle, it’s about competing with the small nimble start-ups who move incredibly fast. I am always keeping an eye on the founder community, the start ups, before companies even come to market. I stay very close to VC and PE funds and see what they are getting into; I need to think about where the money is going.

Do I change the strategy because of that? No. I may alter the way I pitch based on what the economy is doing, where the investments are going or what is happening in politics. If you have a great product, a great team and you solve real customer needs in a way few organisations can, you are in a great place.

James Burrows and Andrew Duncan are part of the Commercial practice at The Up Group. In order to provide our clients with insight, we regularly meet with Commercial leaders across industries to uncover trends and themes that can help all leaders improve their own business. 

The Commercial interview series spans B2B and B2C businesses, uncovering common themes and shifts in how organisations build brand, acquire and maintain customers and grow revenue. 

InterviewJames Burrows