As part of this project, I was very keen to learn about the dynamics of long-cycle technology sales, and Gertjan was the perfect interview candidate to take my through the dynamics of new business, project delivery and client relations in the space.
Calm, professional, deliberate and thoughtful, Gertjan gives plenty of food for thought in this interview.
You can read Gertjan’s full biography here
Jamie: Gertjan, what have you found most fulfilling about your sales career thus far?
Gertjan: Getting to know a lot of people, understanding their issues, and their businesses. I like to understand situations. I like to understand the difficulties. I am a curious person. For me, these are the most fulfilling aspects of being in sales.
Jamie: Would you say that curiosity is a prerequisite for growing into sales?
Gertjan: Well, it has helped me a lot. When I am interested in you, and I start questioning, I am going to learn a lot about you. That is, for me, an important basis for being good in sales.
Jamie: What is the best thing about being in sales?
Gertjan: The kick of closing. That is a good thing. That is a really good thing.
Jamie: And what is the worst thing about being in sales?
I would say being neglected. You see an opportunity, but it is difficult to get the customer behind it, or you are getting good context, and you think you’re getting closer to closing but getting no answer. That is not fun. It is a part of it, and it is hard.
Jamie: What is the best thing about being in software as a service (SaaS) sales?
Gertjan: What I can say is that being in this technical environment helps me. Being in a challenging environment helps me. Being in solutions sales is a good background for me. When it is technical, when it is challenging, I am playing to my strengths.
Jamie: What drew you to the industry you now sell into?
Gertjan: I was a project manager in the past, and others sold solutions and projects for me. I was in a situation where I had to handle all the difficulties; the wrong scope, the wrong timing, et cetera. I thought to myself, “How is this possible, that the salespeople sell stuff and all I seem to do is fix their mistakes?” I thought I’d move to the other side and with my experience, I could do it better.
I learned that sales is a craft. It is something you need to learn, you need to improve, and that it is a real job. That was my conclusion: from the other side it might look easy, but it is not easy. Sales is a real job.
Jamie: What elements of it make it a real job as opposed to just talking to people, as some people might perceive?
Gertjan: I think it is about communication, and about analysis. I think it is about understanding businesses and understanding how people cooperate. You need to learn. I mean talking is one thing, but listening is far more important, and asking questions, trying to understand and analyze, etcetera. I am a technical salesperson. That is really important to me. That is also my strength, I would say. The more complex, the happier I am, to be honest.
Jamie: Do you think coming from the project manager insider background gives you an advantage if you compare yourself to other salespeople who did not have that background?
Gertjan: Yes, and no. I will see limitations, and I will explain the limitations, and this often does not speed up the sales process. On the other hand, when I am in a situation where they now trust me, it helps me a lot. It is a difference between acquisition and account management; these are different roles. I am familiar with both roles, but you can be more open in an account management relationship than in an acquisition situation. My strength is being open, honest, and also saying “no” when needed.
Jamie: There is a school of thought that salespeople should never say ‘no.’ You do not agree?
Gertjan: No, I definitely do not agree on that one.
I think if you say ‘no’ but can explain why, and if they trust in the explanation, their overall trust will increase. Whilst this will not necessarily be a winning strategy in the short term, you definitely will win in the long term.
Jamie: Can you tell me how you found the transition from project management to sales and what surprised you about moving?
Gertjan: When I am talking about the situation from becoming a project manager to a sales guy, I am talking about elastic. You know, like a rubber band. When you are a classic project manager, you focus on risks. That is good. As a sales guy, you need to encounter risks with elasticity, and you can grow your company because you are in the zone which is stretched, and therefore, a bit risky.
If you are aware of those risks and you manage them well, then you are in the perfect zone. I learned as a project manager to look at risks, and I learned in the sales job to look at risks, just in another way. Taking more risks, growing the group, growing the company, by stretching your limits.
Jamie: Does that mean that salespeople need to be optimistic or more optimistic than project managers?
Yes, definitely. If you are not optimistic, you do not get the job. If you have the projects, then you need to be more pessimistic, challenging the risks. You need to be an optimist while you’re winning the project.
It is a different phase, and it is a different mindset. But it helps if you can do both.
Jamie: Is it unusual that you have been able to do both successfully?
Gertjan: It is not typical for sales. A lot of salespeople are optimistic. That is a good thing, and I think a lot of sales need someone from delivery or from operations to put on the breaks. If you have a good team where you have a balance in both, you can bring brilliant projects. Saying yes is easy. Saying no is more difficult.
Jamie: You’re working in operations at the moment, how do you view and support the sales team?
Gertjan: From pre-sales perspective, we help with writing proposals and attending meetings with potential customers. We work very closely with the sales team.
Jamie: How do you find the best salespeople leverage the operations department to work with you successfully?
When they can describe the challenges and then very quickly align with operations to discuss potential scenarios. “What can we do? Is it better to go for scenario A or B?” What I don’t like is when they come to us with, “I already have the solution. That is A and B, please implement it, and this will be the price.”
That is not what I like. I like to cooperate and work with the customer or the prospect together. Then you can speak about roles. You can let the sales guy manage the customer, organize, facilitate, etc., and then play with different guys from operations or delivery to make it a winning team.
Jamie: What would you consider other than compensation when looking to join another company?
Gertjan: Thinking about, “What can you learn?” I think that is important. That is important for me as a person. What can I learn? How can I grow? Of course, the salary is also important; you do not want to be insulted by the end of the month.
Jamie: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to aspiring salespeople?
I would say it is very important that you can honestly and quickly explain why you want to work with a company. If you can’t explain it, I would say to your mother or your father, please think about it again.
I think that is important because if you like the company and their services, and if you really believe in it, it is easier to sell. And if you can’t explain it, try harder or don’t apply.
Jamie: If you had your career again, what would you do differently?
Gertjan: I would take more risks. I learned a lot from taking risks, putting myself in situations where I was out of my comfort zone. That helps you grow. If you are totally honest to yourself and not thinking about status or salary and you choose your direction on honesty, it is easier to perform, it is easier to grow. Take more risks; you’ll learn more. That is an agile mindset.
Jamie: Would you recommend that people treat their sales career with an agile mindset in the same way that businesses are using software development teams using agile strategies?
Yes, analysis is important. Trying, analyzing, improving, learning quickly, and also making mistakes. I think it is better to take the step, to commit mistakes and to learn from them rather than to sit at home, waiting and studying.
If you compare it with cold calling from the past, you could prepare the cold call for an hour only to find out that it is the wrong guy. You need a balance. Of course, you need a bit of preparation, but over-preparing is not good either. I think it is better to learn quickly.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you did not make a sale, and it was painful, but it taught you something?
I was starting work at a company in new business sales, and I had to learn to build up a new pipeline. The painful thing is, if you have people next to you who have an existing pipeline, existing customers, celebrating deals, you have to keep the faith and ensure that you find a way to interact multiple times with the same people to build up to something.
What we did at that time is to have groups of prospects combined with existing customers talking to others around certain topics, that helped me to interact with both existing customers from my colleagues, combining it with prospects, and they influenced each other. The painful thing is that you can believe in yourself, but it takes a long time. You have to find a way to redefine success for that time. That can be counting calls, counting proposals written, etc. The classic pipeline measurements; making those explicitly your measurements upon which you base your value.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you made a sale that other people might not have made, that shows off the skills and expertise that you have developed throughout your career?
Gertjan: One sale, we did not get off to a good start. We started hostile, to be honest, but we tried to focus on understanding each other. “Why do you want A? Why do you want B? How can we help each other?” We took the time to understand each other because we were forced to work together for a couple of months in an existing contract. It was a big turnaround, but it wasn’t about negotiating. It was about really wanting to help and to understand what the possibilities were; understanding the financial difficulties for the customer and because we understood them, we were open to each other. After a period of about six months, it ended in a good way with the award of a big maintenance contract that was a big win for us, and I was very proud.