It’s hard to overstate Dan’s pedigree in sales training – starting with his roles at Gartner, a company at the forefront of researching designing complex sales processes, to roles at AMEX, Impacta, Oracle, and New Relic, all of which have increased his body of expertise.
When I interviewed Dan, he was a Senior Director at Oracle, and now he provides services to Oracle (and other hugely significant companies, such as Oracle and Linkedin) as an entrepreneur.
Jamie: Dan, just to begin with, what have you found most fulfilling about your career in sales thus far?
Dan: The most fulfilling in my career in sales thus far is having customers and clients say thank you from the bottom of their hearts for solving a business problem. Also, in certain situations, helping them achieve the promotion they desired. That fulfillment is pretty cool.
Secondly, as I became a department head, having inexperienced people come through and learn about sales as a craft from me, and then become successful themselves has also been very fulfilling.
Jamie: Can you talk to me about the importance of mentorship in increasing your own abilities?
Dan: Perhaps a reason why I ended up doing what I do is the old adage that, “If you can explain it to someone else and help someone else, then you must be pretty good at it”. This is the exact opposite of the other phrase, “If you can, do, if you can’t, teach.” I’m obviously a fan of the former, that encapsulates your ability to get across not only the skill or knowledge required but also the attitude and motivational aspects of success in a sales role. If you can transmit that to others, that’s pretty satisfying. This is especially the case with people who are in a stage in their career or life where they might have fallen into a job or a new country, without English as their mother tongue – which are situations I’ve had with direct reports of mine.
Jamie: What is the best thing about being in sales, as opposed to other functions?
Dan: I suppose, at a very rudimentary level, having a great year, getting an enormous commission check, and then going on a magnificent holiday is pretty epic. The other good thing about being in sales is that you get to engage with other human beings an awful lot. I think these days, 21st-century selling does have more administration, tools, and systems than was the case five, ten, or fifteen years ago. However, to be able to interact with other people, versus how can you quickly and accurately get a calculation done in a spreadsheet, is still the most important aspect. If you’re wired in a certain way, then that’s what really works.
Jamie: As a result of the rise of systems or technology, do you feel that the skill set needed to be a top salesperson is changing?
Dan: I do, to an extent. It’s not that the systems are difficult to use; instead, the whole corporate sales function and discipline has matured to a degree.
There seems to be an answer for everything – it has an icon in a CRM or in Salesforce that is supposedly the answer to that issue. On the one hand, some salespeople come into the profession and think, “As long as I understand all the systems, all the tools, and all the functionality works across all the tools and systems I have at my disposal, then I can overcome anything!”
I think that’s something that salespeople are expected to do. Actually, it has a harmful effect because people then tend to think, “All I need to do is spend six hours during the night with no sleep searching and searching for an answer,” and that answer might not be there. Actually, the answer to this particular question isn’t in a tool or a system. It’s embedded somewhere in your psyche.
Jamie: How would you describe the skill set of the ideal salesperson in the modern world with this myriad of systems?
Dan: I think interpersonal skills are extremely important and they’ve also become enhanced. A good salesperson now needs not only to be good at in-person selling, but also the written follow-up and the social connections.
It is a skill to be able to hypothesize or identify what an industry issue might be, or an issue related to somebody’s job role, because of a certain type of KPI. We’ve all seen the research on how 56% of the decision is made before the client contacts a salesperson because they’ve done all the research online, with Google being their friend.
By that token, salespeople are expected to have done their homework as well and already understand the main industry issues. What are the main issues that a person in this job role is likely to be struggling with? The skill for a salesperson has increased in that respect.
Jamie: You mentioned written follow up as an area in which salespeople now need to excel. What advice would you give to a salesperson in terms of enhancing, practicing, and getting better at written follow-up?
Dan: That is quite a wide remit because, when some people go into sales, it’s because they’re frankly rubbish in practical English. There’s a pocket of very successful salespeople who are successful largely because they couldn’t be successful at much else. They were driven that way, as a result of their education and early career.
Usually these days, you’re writing to a busy executive who is, more often than not, looking at what you’re writing on a smaller screen than they once were. Therefore, you have got to be very succinct and very precise. That’s certainly a craft that’s developing. Years ago, it was writing a letter, ensuring that you put the stamp on straight, and writing with a fountain pen instead of a biro. Strangely, some of those techniques still work, I think, in some areas. There’s definitely an element of business etiquette involved now in writing that maintains politeness but is still very direct.
Jamie: Is there any substitute for practice, or do you just need to learn by trial and error?
Dan: Experience helps. I used to report to a team leader, and then eventually a vice president. Now, I either report to the vice president, or I am the vice president. These folks prefer communicating in five words or less.
You learn that as you go. There are definitely techniques and skills that you can learn in terms of being much more succinct. In the written form, I think there are a lot of tools out there that can help people.
Jamie: How do you coach people to do their research and hypothesize what might be important to an executive?
Dan: I find that some salespeople fall into the trap of too much research. You have to be credible and know both the KPIs and independent issues of the person and the company you’re going to contact. By the same token, if you spend six hours researching a company, and you go in for your first meeting, but find out they’ve just signed a 10-year deal with your competitor, you’ve just wasted six hours of research.
I think one must do enough research to advance the sale to the next stage. If you’re working in sales, running a pipeline with a certain number of deals of a certain average value, then that will make you successful. You’ve got to think of how many hours there are in a week. “How much time can I devote to researching this customer, based on the likelihood that when I call them for the first time, can I organize a meeting?”
Once I’ve got the meeting, I will do more research. I’ll move from my 15 minutes of research to doing three hours of research before that meeting. Should I get to my second meeting, I’m probably going to lock myself in a room with a couple of colleagues, and spend an entire day or more researching them.
Some salespeople are easily distracted and will find the path of least resistance to most things. That’s a typical trap into which they might fall.
Jamie: Could you talk a little bit about your decision to be in internal sales training, versus being an external salesperson?
Dan: When I was applying for mortgages, the financial lenders would not accept a commission as collateral, but they would accept a basic salary. In my company, having been successful, there were options to go into a manager role or trainer role. By training a bunch of people to do what I had just done that year, with a higher basic salary, it meant I could get a mortgage. I fell into sales training that way. I then had the chance to go backward and forward into management, and then back to training roles on three or four occasions.
Jamie: Outside of a salary, what are the other advantages and disadvantages of internal sales training versus being an external salesperson?
Dan: If you’re in a mentoring and coaching environment, as the trainer/facilitator, then that’s quite a privileged place to be. In that position, you can coach someone in a very genuine way, being very authentic, because you don’t have to coach them one minute and then beat them up over their forecast the next minute. You can coach them to be as successful as they can be. That’s a real privilege and opens up a very trusting relationship between the teacher and the student.
Jamie: What additional skills do you think someone needs to be an internal sales trainer, above and beyond the skills that are needed to be a salesperson?
Dan: First, one has to realize what it was that made oneself a successful salesperson.
That kind of self-realization is required. It needs a bit of analysis, and then being able to replicate it. It is nice to be replicated with other people replicating it in the same way as you. “Well, I did it this way, so you do that way, and you’ll be successful.” However, what works for me might not be the same technique for someone else.
Jamie: Are there aspects of analysis or empathy in understanding what’s different in others?
Dan: I think you have to break it down to the skills, the attitude, and the knowledge. It’s not necessarily immediately accepted by the receiving party. They might be skeptical about receiving a certain piece of information because they might have a different belief or a value that contradicts the message. Therefore, it’s a bit of a dance around that to make something work.
Jamie: How do you get people to really buy into internal sales training?
Dan: It’s different for directors, managers, and individuals. They’re all motivated in very different ways to embrace sales training. Some directors and managers just want to tick the box that says, “I’ve given my people development opportunities,” and say to me, “Come here and tick the box.” More and more salespeople come into training, and might not embrace it immediately. They think, “Well I already know this, as I’ve read Neil Rackham and I’ve read everyone else ever since. What are you going to tell me that I don’t already know?” It is sometimes very challenging to have people embrace and recognize what you can do for them. Generally, people do recognize that if you want to be okay at something, then you can know the same as everyone else and you still might be able to get a little better.
The analogy of the professional sportsperson is a good one. The very best athletes train six days of a week to play for 90 minutes, one day of the week. They train like hell on those six days; so in sales, why would you train for 10 minutes or 10 seconds before a call, if it’s one of your 5 or 10 most important meetings of the week?
Jamie: What makes internal sales training trainers invaluable to an organization?
Dan: Internal sales trainers need to be generous and selfless. They sacrificed the commission check because there’s something else that they value. It might start off simply as getting a mortgage and then end up being something they really enjoy, giving a huge amount of fulfillment – coaching and mentoring other people.
Experience is invaluable. Even if it’s a short amount of experience; it doesn’t have to be 20 years on the ground. But some relevant, relatively recent success in something that works. Then, their skills make them invaluable. Their ability to take a concept and explain that concept to make a piece of theory work in somebody’s exact situation is the key. This is because they understand their experience. We’re back to empathy and understanding, and then applying concepts to people’s situations. Those sorts of things make them invaluable.
Jamie: Let’s suppose I want to be an internal sales consultant; how do I go about getting the job?
Dan: It’s about credibility and the ability to transfer knowledge to others. It’s about modeling. It’s about being able to either tell stories that will resonate with people, or borrow other people’s stories, and make them your own and bring to life subjects. A sales methodology isn’t necessarily very exciting. However, it can be brought to life by somebody with some experience, some stories, and some ability, to make it more relevant for others.
Jamie: What advice would you generally give to aspiring salespeople?
Dan: I think it’s always been about tenacity. I do think that is paramount. Some people are just born to never give up. I truly believe that any person can be made into a great salesperson. I don’t necessarily think great salespeople are born. I think they’re coached and trained. There are certain traits, that, if you don’t have them naturally, you’ve got to go find somewhere – tenacity is one of those. To make that seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth call to someone when they’ve said “no” before; the statistics will bear that out as being worthwhile.
I’ve seen that persistence and coachability in my own son, for example. He used to listen to me coaching people in new business cold-calling styles, role-playing with them in my attic office when he was in bed, supposedly sleeping. Then when he got into sales himself, the first thing he said was, “Remind me, what’s that “pacing and leading” thing that you used to tell everyone about?”
He’d listened to it for about 50 hours of his life. He’s an example of somebody that will never give up. He’ll just keep going on and on.
Advice for salespeople: keep at it, don’t give up, and be confident in what you’re doing. Once you’ve developed a hypothesis, have the strength to carry that through.
Jamie: If you had your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Dan: There are certain companies where I would have used my sales team better. In some companies you can rely on a technical engineer, or an advisor, or a consultant. A company would help you out with sales and bring them to a certain pipeline stage.
If I was doing another sales role, I’d really focus on the team aspect – when to bring in the expert, and when to bring in the boss. I see a lot of salespeople wheeling in the expert without getting anything back, and the customer saying, “Thanks very much for educating me and giving me all that expertise, but I have no intention of ever buying anything from you.”
I think I’d value my own resources better. I would take my subject matter experts out for a nice coffee and get them to like me. Then I’d call them up a week later and say, “Could you help me out and come to this customer with me, please?” and they would, because we liked each other.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a specific time when you didn’t make a sale, and it stung, but you learned something?
Dan: I put together a proposal for a city council for their IT division. Quite a bit of effort and time went into that. I made the whole value proposal, including a return on investment calculation, and agreed with the CEO that it would save £10 million in the next financial year. At which point I said, “That’s fantastic. I’ll jump in my car and bring the order form around immediately” At which point, the CEO said, “I’m not going to buy it.” I was shocked, and said, “Well, what do you mean? We’ve just both agreed that it’s going to save you £10 million of your budget. Of course, you’re going to buy it!” He said, “No, I can’t possibly do that because, if I do that, it’s going to expose the weaknesses and the fact that I don’t actually need as many people in my team. As a result, I’d have to sack some of them. Some of them are my friends, and I’ve worked with them for years. I just can’t do that. I’d rather lose £10 million out of my organization’s and the taxpayers’ budget, and keep my mates in a job.”
I was absolutely amazed, and that taught me that there’s something called personal value, as well as business value. If you sell to business value, which everyone talks about – and you absolutely have to do – it’s not necessarily the only thing that matters. I kept experiencing it again and again. I had a sale that went the other way around, where the customer said, “Great, you can stop talking now. I’ll buy it.” This was a bit embarrassing, but I thought, “Excellent!” Then the customer said, “Oh, by the way, could you put together a little one-pager that just explains the likely return on investment? I’ll put that in the file, and if I’m ever asked why I bought it, I’ll bring out that piece of paper to justify the purchase.” That, again, taught me that the person buys it because they see the value: keeping them and their chums in a job or making their life easier; meaning they can go home earlier from work. There are all sorts of reasons why they might be buying it, and so finding those becomes really important.
Jamie: Would you be willing to tell me about another specific time where you did make a sale, and it showed off some of the skills you’ve developed throughout your career?
Dan: At the time, I think it was one of my bigger or biggest deals that I had done at that time, about which I was utterly delighted. Ironically, it all happened quite quickly to the point where I hadn’t forecast it properly. I dropped in a rather large deal, thinking my boss would think I was amazing. Instead, I was firmly told off for hugely under-forecasting. I’d come in 300% above target. I think that the skills I would’ve used there were selling in different ways to different individuals because the three of them that were involved didn’t really talk to each other. They didn’t agree on exactly the same outcome or rationale. I was selling the same thing to the same company but in three very, very different ways.
That was a big one, and a good one at the time, that had three very different people wanting to buy it for three very different reasons.
Jamie: Do you have a favourite story from your career that comes to mind, as simply an awesome sales story?
Dan: My friend, Steven, and I started a company at the same time- we sold together and became members of the management team. He’s very, very focused. When he puts his mind to work and sets himself goals, he’s going to do a certain amount of activity in the week. I remember that he won a deal with Rolls Royce – two- or three-hours’ drive away from our office. Anyway, the CFO phoned him and said, “We want to agree. We’re going to go ahead,” and Steve replied, “Fantastic, really, really pleased to hear that.”
At which point, the CFO of Rolls Royce said, “So look, when you come up, let’s have a nice long lunch, and we’ll bring the team out.” At which point, Steven, looked at his watch, looked at the calendar dates, looked at where he was in terms of his current forecast, and said, “Goodness me, I haven’t got four hours to jump in the car and drive all the way up there.” He didn’t say, “Send it through on a DocuSign,” as it didn’t exist then. He said, “You’ve got a fax machine. You could fax it through.”
He declined to sort out that meeting in person with the CFO and team at Rolls Royce, just for the speed of booking the deal so he could get onto his next sale. I could not believe it. That was a real demonstration of his attitude and focus on doing business.
Jamie: You mentioned Spin Selling (Neil Rackham) earlier. Are there any specific books or trainings you’d recommend for salespeople?
Dan: I dip in and out of books for lunchtime. I put them in some categories. It’s always good to keep abreast of the methodology books. “Spin” would be one category. Then you track through the ages up to “The Challenger Sale”. Certain bits of certain books work for certain people. You can get concepts like neuro-linguistic programming that are created and practiced in counseling, yet very much apply to sales. Every now and again, you get an author like Sue Knight, who wrote “NLP at Work.” She is a good example of somebody who’s applied human content into the business world. I like that sort of NLP.
Emotional intelligence is on that cusp at the moment. People are thinking, “Well, okay, I kind of get it, but how do you apply it in this environment?” That’s another thing to keep thinking about. In fact, what we’re doing right now, I think, this is a really interesting space. The evidence-based books or the evidence-based learning people can attain by swiftly assimilating information, data, and statistics. There’s one book called “The Salesperson’s Secret Code” (Mills, Ridley, Laker, and Chapman). It goes deep into the beliefs and values that an exemplary salesperson holds and picks apart what they really believe in as individuals. I like that kind of stuff; that challenges people to think in that way.
Connect with Dan on LINKEDIN