Alexei was a recommendation from the great Connie Smith, who was generous with her network of former clients. As a high-end tech and research salesperson with a view over a large portion of the emerging technologies market, Alexei was and is a great fit for the project.
There’s lots of insight into how to design and cultivate a process, product and sales organization below.
You can read Alexei’s full biography here
Jamie: Just to start with, if we look at your career in sales or sales consultancy or leading sales teams, what have you found most fulfilling so far?
Alexei: For me personally, I’ve actually most enjoyed really helping people get what they want, working with teams and helping them to achieve sales excellence – not only in terms of training and coaching people but also in providing the environment and creating a space for that to happen. I personally enjoy watching people excel and be brilliant; that’s probably the biggest thing for me.
Jamie: Do you think that that sort of altruism, and helping people develop and grow, has helped you to excel in your personal sales as well?
Alexei: Yes, I wouldn’t actually call it altruistic, but yes, it has helped me be more successful now. First of all, I’ve learned from all the people I’ve worked with. I’ve learned from my managers and my leaders, but also I learned from the people I’ve trained. And it’s really my stepping into their world, when I’m coaching or training them, I get their questions, I get their objections, I get their examples, and that’s helped me to grow.
Even now with my colleagues; I’m not coaching or training or leading anybody, I’m just a contributor at this point, but I have conversations with my colleagues in which I asked them about their experiences, and I’ve really tried to understand – what makes them good? I think that through having repeated conversations and those kinds of exchanges, I learn ideas for my own approaches on how to be successful.
Jamie: Would you approach all of your colleagues at various times, or would you focus on those who are performing the best?
Alexei: I generally focus on people that are doing well. In my current job, we’ve got two people who are clearly meeting their targets, and one of them is a new business hunter, and the other is an account manager. Both of them have their own strengths which are very different.
I was speaking with the account manager, and he’s very good at understanding his client, really getting in deep, studying the organization and understanding what the dynamics are, what the challenges are, and therefore where the opportunities are.
He’s able to identify the needs and strategic opportunities for us to come in and offer things in a way that delivers value.
Whereas with my new business colleague, he’s really good at challenging and getting people’s attention; these are qualities which you need in a new business role. You need to get through the noise, you need to be able to really demonstrate that you are someone that you should pay attention to, and really engage with the conversation.
He has a similar ability to come up with a hypothesis and challenging question; and ideas about what would really be valuable to the prospect. He shares this trait with the account manager, but there may be a little bit more aggressiveness, a little bit more persistence, a little bit more not taking ‘no’ for an answer.
Jamie: Do you believe there should be a distinction between people who go into the hunter vs gatherer roles in an organization?
Alexei: I think that there is a lot of benefit to having people focus. Being able to focus on one kind of scenario is a benefit, and also because it comes with a different workflow. Like with hunters, it’s all about the volume you need to go after. You have to turn people quickly, and it’s a bit more repetitive. Whereas, being an account manager, you really go deep and take time to understand the client and their workflows. You need to work on and build the relationship a lot more. It’s really proved to me that account managers are very much the base of the business. If an account manager leaves, that’s a really disruptive thing to the company.
I think in that sense, it works quite differently, but I would say there’s also a lot of benefit from having people do a little bit of both, especially in the beginning. What I do right now in our company, what we sell is quite complex; we are selling research into emerging technologies.
But really what we’re selling is investment opportunities. We’re selling new strategies; we’re selling new perspectives that can help you or the clients get out of their own world and see things differently. Ultimately, we’re selling more revenue and more profit.
The thing about what we’re selling is that’s it’s not just logical; it’s not like it’s actually the strategy itself you’re selling; it’s a tool they use to get there. I have to understand my prospect to be able to position my product in the right way. I would say that there is a benefit in having access to those people, and those existing accounts, who have already bought. I can get insights. Whereas as a hunter, when I first heard of the business, I was locked out of selling for a long time because I really had a hard time figuring out, okay, “What is relevant? Who are the right people? How do I have those deeper conversations?”
Jamie: Would you recommend that someone new coming into the sales workforce find an organization that is going to give them some of both – that is, new business and account management experience?
Alexei: The issue I have with the way that most sales organizations are set up today, especially in the world of software, is that their setup is to be specialized. The first role you get as a salesperson in a software sales organization is as a business development rep, and you’re just going out, and you’re getting leads, and then you’re qualifying leads. That’s what you’re doing. Then you’re handing those over to an Account Executive. The problem with that is that you’re not fully developing; you’re only developing part of the skill set that way. And of course, it takes time, and maybe it makes sense to block you’re being a part of the skillset at first and then move into the other parts later. But I think that if you’re new salesperson, I do think there’s a value in spending some time as an Account Manager.
The other option is the onboarding process. It doesn’t have to be a part of your job but as part of your onboarding, going to have a deeper look into the world of the existing clients.
Jamie: We talked a little bit earlier about the importance of research in advance of an extremely complex sale. What research and processes are involved?
Alexei: Essentially, we use an account-based strategy. We select those accounts based on several criteria. We’ve identified several criteria that make sense for our business. And then from there we dig in and try to find the people. So I use Sales Navigator a lot to identify those people, typically I look for, four or five roles, and they’re usually my buyers and my users. In our case, it’s a lot of innovation managers, CTOs, R&D managers, directors, that sort of thing. Once I’ve got a sense of who those people are, and I have learned about the business, and have read their annual reports, I look at their website – whatever is publicly available – and read some news about them.
Where is their innovation activity focusing? What are the strategic areas that they have articulated as the ones that they’re really betting on? What is the CEO saying? Then from there, I have a sense of the topics that they’re likely to be interested in. I have some ideas and something to ask them about, and then I formulate the hypothesis, together with a member of our research team. It’s often quite collaborative because especially our senior leaders in the research team understand the strategic issues that our prospects are dealing with and can link those issues to the recent research.
Jamie: And how have you found the difference in sales meetings where you’ve had that level of preparation versus the ones where you haven’t been as prepared as you would have liked?
Alexei: Yeah, it’s a good question. I don’t prepare that way for every meeting.
I prefer that level of preparation, especially where people were a bit more senior.
Typically, what I see is that when I’ve prepared that way, even if I don’t use any of the things that I’ve prepared, it gives me really good confidence and I can speak about the things that are relevant to them.
I walk into pretty much all sales conversations with a very open approach where I ask very open questions about what are the technology interests that you have right now, and what are the goals associated with those? Why are they important? That typically gets the conversation going, but then when I have that level of preparation, that triggers ideas and allows me to take the conversation to a deeper level.
Jamie: What additional skills or innate qualities are required for the salesperson to sell a complex solution?
Alexei: I think the mentality of selling a complex sale is at its core very similar. I think it starts with the intention. In my view, I would like to deliver some value; I want to contribute to my client. I always want to understand their world and then together find a way, so that the product I’m selling creates value.
I think that fundamentally, all sales are similar, but the difference is that in a complex sale, you’re dealing with multiple stakeholders. You’re dealing with gatekeepers; you’re dealing with a complex set of information that you need to try and sift through and understand what people need. You’re also dealing with things like somebody might be a user, but they’re not the buyer.
I think that there are elements involved around the way that you position things and the way you communicate. It’s really important to level with people as well and find that it’s when you’re selling into a corporation and you’re dealing with senior leadership, they really need to respect you. Walking into that conversation in a way that generates respect; I think it’s going to be a bit different from selling to an individual or selling to a smaller organization.
You can’t take any shortcuts. You really need to do your research and prepare well and really be able to grapple with the prospect’s situation, and that often takes a lot longer.
Jamie: What advice do you have for getting up to speed in and being able to sell relatively quickly to people who are senior and older than yourself?
Alexei: I think it’s really important to break past the attention barrier. My usual way of selling is very problem-led, it’s very much a Socratic conversation where it takes a long time, and the problem is that you don’t have that amount of time with a big company, with the decision-maker; you need to make an impression fast. Let’s say I am delivering a punchy message and that’s been working very well; just by delivering a punchy message in the beginning of the call – and then really getting to what it means to them.
Jamie: If you were an aspiring salesperson trying to figure out how complex the product you want to sell is, what factors would you consider when making that choice?
I think every sale should be as simple as possible. So, I think the starting point is really, how can I make this as straightforward as possible? It can be a little bit difficult for me personally because I’m a bit of a thinker and sometimes I get in my own way.
I think a really important question to ask is okay, in all of this possible complexity, what are the real key issues? What are the real key things you can grab on to and build on? So, for instance, I have one prospect right now, we’ve talked about a whole bunch of different things, talked about the start-ups to work with, learning about these adjacent markets and the new, completely new markets that have nothing to do with what they’re in right now. Out of all those things, I found, “Okay, the thing that is resonating here is related to start-ups and is related to market forecasts.” If I really zero-in on those things and show the value that they’re going to get from working with me; at least that’s something they can clearly see, “Okay, yeah, this makes sense. I can, this is a great resource, I think this can be valuable.” And then from there you can build and hook them in on the reasons they should really buy.
Jamie: Do you believe that you need to find someone’s biggest need to properly sell and service?
Alexei: I think that it’s not always necessary that way. You do need to strike a chord with them; something’s got to click. I don’t know if it has to necessarily be the biggest, of course, but you need to hit on something really important. I think that generally if you haven’t got something that you will be resonating with – I’d rather focus my efforts on prospects where there is a real click, rather than go after a whole bunch who are only kind-of clicking. But then if you’ve got somebody really engaged, you can build something. One of my colleagues right now, he’s got this really complex deal which he’s constructing with one of his prospects, and the reason he’s able to do that is that they’re super engaged.
Jamie: With various sales roles you’ve held, what elements do you believe make for a successful sales culture?
Alexei: I think one thing that does not work first of all is an environment of cutthroat competition. If you have cutthroat competition between your sales reps that just breeds contempt and just kills the whole vibe. You’ve got a couple of people who are excelling, they’re better than everybody else, they have massive egos, and then you have real difficulty bringing new people into that organization, onboarding them and helping them to succeed. I think the flip side of that is I peer coaching, peer relationships, and also team incentives. If everybody performs, everybody celebrates as a team. Then everybody gets a kicker, so I think those are really good.
It’s also dangerous when it feels like kind of a culture very much focusing on just results, results, and more results. For a manager, they’re reporting to someone else, and they’re probably kicking their ass about the results, and therefore they kick the asses of their reports. That’s a really unproductive approach because you know if somebody says to me as a salesperson, “Where are the results; where are more results?” Of course, I know that there are no new results there. Do you think that I don’t feel like shit that I’m not getting the results? Of course I do.
It’s better if you can empower your salespeople and help them, and coach them, and find out what they need, and support them that way. That’s where you start to see that people are on the same side, and then you build a collaborative culture, and that gets everyone to succeed. I think the very thing I’ve found that works really well is regular team conversations where you talk about specific deals, and looking at the process and results together, celebrating success. It is about celebrating people’s results, sure, but also their pipeline and activity; the things that you need to generate those results.
I think all those things work well and obviously, financial incentives as well; salespeople are motivated by money. I think having the right mix of performance compensation is important but at the same time, the flip side of that is, it’s not all about the money. I think that’s a common misconception that people make about salespeople that all they care about is money.
Frankly, I don’t care that much about money. I care a lot more about making a difference, and I think a lot of people, especially millennials, are going to agree with me on that.
Jamie: What advice would you give to an aspiring salesperson just starting their career?
I would say, first of all, get ready to fail. It’s all part of the process, and you’re going get your ass kicked, and that’s great. That’s exactly how it should be.
You need to really understand, play around in your head with what you’re selling and how it’s relevant to your customers. Really try to understand how they buy instead of focusing on how you sell. What are the steps they need to take to buy, and how can you help them take those steps? The intention should be to focus on them and how they can benefit, rather than how you can benefit from it.
Another thing I would say is that there are lots and lots of great books out there. It’s great to read them because it really helps you to put together the work you’re doing every day with other people’s experiences and concepts. Some books that I like are Predictable Revenue (Aaron Ross and Marylou Tyler); I like The Challenger Sale (Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon), Start with Why (Simon Sinek) – I would say those are great ones – there are lots of good ones but don’t waste your time reading too many books.
I mean those have stood the test of time and have been well-reviewed. There are lots of others like Spin Selling (Neil Rackham) and “The Sandler Method.” But yes, do read some books and then ask for help as well; ask your colleagues, ask your peers, ask your management, don’t just sit there by yourself – really ask for what you need.
I would say just go for it, I mean, at the end of the day selling is about human connections, human relationships and you learn it by doing it. It’s important to remember to be human as you do it.
Anyway, one last thing; you can learn like all the skills, all of the wonderful tools that are out there, read all the books, but I think everything sits on a foundation of your own mindset.
You’ve got to learn to manage your own mindset, and understand how you can earn to bounce back from failures and use those as opportunities to grow.
Jamie: If you had your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Alexei: Yes, you know, it’s funny, I don’t really think of myself having a sales career.
I’ve been doing sales right now for some time, and I’m exploring it and learning from it, and it’s great. I’m certainly not going to be a salesperson for the rest of my career. And I think that I might have maybe been a little picky in terms of the companies that I work with simply based on the product. For me, the product is really important, and at the end of the day, you have to believe in what you’re selling.
I’ve definitely taken on some challenges in my career, selling things that are hard to sell, and that hasn’t clicked for me very easily. I might have, in the beginning, started with things that had a little bit more traction in the market, had a little bit more where I could at least trust that there’s product-market fit.
At least if you work in an environment where it’s not just a start-up, but instead something that is proven, then you can build your sales skills there. I instead took a really hard path of like trying to sell new things, new markets, new this, new that. That’s been tough.
Jamie: Would you be willing to talk about a time when you didn’t make a sale, but it taught you something valuable, and you have changed your behaviour?
Alexei: This year, I’ve been going after certain companies and certain industries. One is a South African energy company, and I was almost at the finish line of the sale. Towards the end of the last quarter, we had great conversations, great calls, I really saw an alignment between what they needed and what we had. We were just on waiting for the signature on the contract, and then at the last minute, it turned out that they had a massive, massive problem. They’d basically got a huge project that was going south and was way behind schedule, way over budget. Their stock price crashed, and so they had to freeze all their spending. They pulled out, and a couple of lessons from that – first of all, I could have seen that coming more, because I could have checked their stock price and I could have seen what was going on. I could have read everything that was in the news, and I didn’t do those things. As a result of me not doing those things, I’d banged on a lot about that deal internally and externally. I think in terms of lessons learned; do more research and really understand the situation of the client.
The other key is: just have a bigger pipeline, just have more deals available to you.
Jamie: On the flip side of that, what’s a really good sale you closed that really showed off all the skills and capabilities you’ve developed?
Alexei: There was a great deal with one of my past clients in my consulting practice, where it went really well. It ended up being the single largest deal that I brought in for the company, and that they’ve maybe ever had. Some of the things that went really well there; first of all, really listening to the prospects and understanding and hearing that they were aware of certain things and certain problems, but they definitely were not aware of some other glaringly obvious problems. What we did was that we split the deal into smaller chunks, as it’s easier to sell smaller contracts, especially in the beginning. We started out with a smaller contract that allowed us to get the foot in the door, understand deeply what the situation was, and help educate them. We then built on that. We ended up having four contracts in total over the year we worked with them.
We were addressing different issues with each contract, with a really natural flow to the whole thing. It was consulting work, so we were able to guide them a lot as well; informing them about the next steps that we were recommended. Just listening to the client, adapting to them but also pushing them a little bit, allows them to find the balance rather than overwhelming them. Then, working with them at their pace, in collaboration with a lot with my colleagues, so that was just not just me creating that deal. I worked with multiple people, putting our heads together and thinking through things. It’s always helpful to collaborate rather than just being alone on a deal.