Humphrey Bowles, CEO and Founder, Guardhog

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I met Humphrey in a café, just before he went in to be interviewed by the BBC. Needless to say, mine was the larger interview of the day, though hopefully not the only interview where he told stories about his dog Terry hampering his sales calls.

Humphrey was direct, irreverent, and eccentric in his sales beliefs, which made for a fantastic interview.

You can read Humphrey’s full biography here


Jamie: Humphrey, just to begin with, what have you found most fulfilling about your sales career? 

Humphrey: I think it is the benefits of the outcome. Sales is all about outcomes, and ultimately, it comes downs to personal outcomes for everyone involved. You’re helping to create a better life for someone, whether that be in terms of a better service, helping them and giving them a product which will improve their life. It is a beneficial outcome, which is most important for both sides.


Jamie: A big part of sales for you then is knowing that it benefits your clients?

Humphrey: I think it’s the benefits of the product and service, and the peace of mind you get. It’s the benefits of giving access to a market that might otherwise not have it.

Sales should be about opening up opportunities; enhancing people’s lives rather than closing them down and restricting them.


Jamie: So you’ll often help people to think about opportunities that they haven’t before or help them to see something new?

Humphrey:  I guess helping people to see the need they have. I think the most important thing, when it comes to sales, is being able to feel a connection and if you can feel the connection whether or not you actually sell them a product. In sales specifically, you might not even be speaking to the right person. You might have not speaking to someone who actually needs your product, but they might know ten people who do, or they might know that next-door neighbour that might. There might be a building a connection with that individual suddenly you are creating a connection which is going to potentially fill your sales funnel from a completely new independent source.


Jamie: You’ve started your business recently. Why did you make that decision, and how have you found your sales experience helps?

Humphrey:  My previous sales experience involved speaking to thousands and thousands of people with one issue. I was faced daily with the insurance conundrum. You have so many people to stay in your place your existing insurance can be invalidated or compromised. Looking at my previous sales experience and doing tons of market research and really understanding the uses that the market needed and then going and building it for your customers.

I believe it is not about just selling the products. Insurance is not sexy and is never going to be sexy. It’s about the benefits of a product, and being able to explain the benefits to your customers, and building a connection to help them understand how this is going to help them gain more from their insurance experiences, which will ultimately lead to better business.


Jamie:  What are the skills a person selling insurance might need that another salesperson might not?

Humphrey: I’ll admit I don’t love most salespeople. When we’re looking at everything for salespeople, we look for three things. We look for the ability to find the connection. It doesn’t have to be about selling; the chances are I will be trying to find some common ground to which you can then take your lead on a journey but also about woolly mammoths or children’s books or whatever happens on the weekend that gets you going. The next is emotional intelligence. Being able to understand where your customer is coming from and what they’re doing in their day, and understand the fact that they might be looking after three kids so it might not be the best moment is a really cool skill when it comes to getting people – when they have the time – to listen to you, and then the final one is determination. You have to meet rejection with open arms and embrace it and not get down by that at all, and be able to charm your way around to actually turning rejection into opportunities.

From our point of view, these are the core tendencies in any part of a team. If it is just about making money, then we think you cannot provide the right level of customer focus, and your customers just become a balance sheet, which can be good for some businesses, but ultimately when you’re looking at insurance, especially life insurance, it doesn’t work.

It’s actually looking at the customer’s lifetime value, and the way that you build a successful business is by increasing your customer’s lifetime value as much as possible, and that means being able to connect with them.


Jamie: So when you’re looking at the salespeople, how do you measure those characteristics – the emotional intelligence, the determination, and the ability to make a connection?

Humphrey: You can’t. There’s some bullshit – so there this way and another way – but there’s not a sensible benchmark. The way that we approach things is that we basically went out – that means we saw people – and we didn’t hire any of them. That gave us a benchmark and then we used it to measure the next set of prospective candidates, and anyone who we thought was connecting better than the first time that we interviewed we hired and then we gave them three months to prove that they could perform sales in our way. We don’t think that is going to maximize lifetime value, we think it’s much more a collaborative conversation with your customer to make sure that the service product whatever you are providing actually meets their needs and hopefully, it has a price which they are having to pay. You can hopefully build a relationship forward. 


Jamie: What do you think of the biggest challenges in terms of winning businesses in the B2C insurance industry?

Humphrey: The same as everyone else. In distribution, it’s finding your customer. It’s finding people who might buy your product and then converting them; making them aware that you exist, that you have a product consistent with their need, and then running that through to conversion. It’s very easy to spend a lot of money on Google and Facebook and all as you get going and take the opinion that they are going to magically create your customers for you.

You can burn a lot of cash trying for customers. We think the best way is to actually go and meet at the watering hole where customers are. Understand their needs, and start building affinity, in both B2B and B2C relationships. You can meet the business that they can use to see customers. If you’re able to solve a problem for the business instead, that gives them reasons to introduce you to their customers, then you have a pretty great grounding. After all, you can act maybe as revenue on what both of them, which means that they have a reason to introduce you to those customers because you are helping those customers also become their customer.

So building partnerships, I think it’s the most effective way of building a business from scratch. When it comes back to sales, building a partnership is also sales, because you were selling a partnership and it comes down to finding a connection, getting in tune with your clients and then having the determination to keep on going and all that keep the relationship moving forward. Get that first meeting. Get that first introduction by whatever means may be necessary.

Jamie: What advice would you have for salespeople on how to improve on those three characteristics – if we started with say, making a connection with people?

Humphrey: You hear it thousands of times, but the less talking you do and the more talking they do should give you all the clues that you need on how to build a connection.

You’re going to be good at sales if you want to be a naturally curious individual, being able to learn quickly, being able to ask questions and actually want to get to know your customers’ pain points. These are key to finding a connection which you can build on, both around the business, but also overall.

So, it could be that you’re both from Liverpool schools, it could be they’re both into modernist paintings. It could be a whole range of different things, so as their salesperson, you have to have more understanding of a wide range of cultures and interests to be able to hit and connect with someone. If you don’t know, you take it as an opportunity to ask those questions about that thing and learn about something, so next time you know something. For emotional intelligence, I think that general wisdom is the boys don’t become emotionally intelligent until they are about thirty. I think that’s complete nonsense.

It’s much more about being able to understand how your product or services are going to make the other person feel and then work out what other stuff is going on in that person’s life, with all the time you stand when the best to make your ask. It’s getting your lead to do that right time but is knowing what the right time is. For instance, if you’re chatting to a mom at 5:00pm in the evening, just don’t hang up the phone but you say, “Hey, I’m going to call you back tomorrow morning at 10am,” when she’s preparing for tomorrow.

Jamie: What makes salespeople really highly valued for you in your organization?

Humphrey: People who make things happen. When we’re looking at growth, which is the phase where businesses are looking for people to make things happen. There is a certain amount of realizing they won’t really know that they’re doing as we’re making things up as we go along.

You’re kind of putting the spaceship together whilst flying it and trying to invent rocket fuel all at the same time and therefore being able to problem solve, think outside the box, and thinking inside the box is really helpful.

Well, sometimes when stuff isn’t going as per the plan, you need to find the solutions for it in time. “I’m going to solve it, I going to make this work,” and if stuff gets broken, you say, “You know what, it’s going to be okay;” that kind of attitude, which I think the best sales guys have and there stands back that determination to make things work, and if you are met with rejection, you know it could be for our hundred and one reasons – we’re trying to find out what that reason is if that helps you improve and then take it forward. We will even go back and say, “Hey, look! We realized it wasn’t quite working, but we’ve come and made these changes, and now it is really working; please can we have another chance.”


Jamie: What is one of the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to aspiring salespeople?

Humphrey: Good question. Be yourself. I think that when it comes to sales, there’s a lot of stuff going around about how you should be a chameleon. How you should change who you are. To be honest, that is disingenuous, and ultimately, this is about the long-term relationships; you cannot sustain that forever, and it’s really important when you’re meeting someone to be yourself. You need to be yourself and be you. By being you, you should be able to find that attraction which comes from believing in yourself. Enjoying the process, enjoying that journey, which allows you to connect and build that relationship.


Jamie:  If you had your sales career again, what would you do differently?

Humphrey: I would start it 10 years earlier. 

I would have gone into the commercial side of the business a lot earlier. I’ve always loved talking to people. I love new stuff. I love listening to people and understanding what they’re doing, and their plans and then I like solving their problems, which is basically what sales is.

Jamie: You talked a little bit about that transition from consultancy into the commercial side. What have you found easy or difficult, and what would you look for if you were going to recommend that they should make that transition?

Humphrey: I think like a fish out of water, it’s the phrase that springs to mind. I was a mediocre consultant. But there were some sales skills involved in building new relationships, and when I moved into a commercial role, it felt like everything started to fit into place. If you are looking to do a career change, if you’re looking to make a move, just get on with it.

The worst thing that will happen is that you will have an experience where you’ll have to go back to your boss and say, “Hey I made a mistake, but I have learned a lot more, and now I am a better employee. I really want to work here,” and that’s not so bad at all.


Jamie: What advantages does working on the non-commercial side equip you with for the future?

Humphrey: I think that gaining the ACM qualification has now allowed me to sell with a bit more authority. Having a professional qualification behind you, especially as a business director, allows you to get a little bit more credibility. Again, when we’re talking about sales, we’re talking about building credibility and the whole aspect of being able to speak with authority and having a bit of paper with a few funny letters and a nice big logo helps. It goes quite a long way having achieved that, especially setting up a business.


Jamie: Could you tell me about a specific time when you didn’t make a sale, or a sales call didn’t go well, but you learned something from it?

Humphrey: I used to take my very well-behaved dog – Terry – with me when I went on my sales meetings. She was a good sales companion because she created something new, and it was a talking point, and I often managed to find that collection. We went to meet this lady in this incredible home in Bayswater – an apartment. She had an indoor pond with lots of fish going around, and this dog had never been in water before. We were chatting, having a meeting when “splash!” in went the dog into the pound chasing the fish and I had to grab the dog out of the water, and chucked her out the front door. The door was still open, and the dog went straight back into the home again, and then there was a massive splash, chasing the fish again. I picked her out again and chucked from the pond. The front door closed behind us.

We were locked out of the house. She hasn’t got the keys on her, so we then went around the corner – she had a family there – and she went on to become a customer partly because I think she hated the fish and they were her husband’s. She was quite keen to get them removed!

Another time, we turned up unannounced on someone’s doorstep and it went completely the other way around. She hated dogs. She had cats. I like to think that, if you are going to have strangers come and stay in your homes, then the very least you can do is to have a dog coming to greet you at the front door. I like to think it was quite a good balance in judging whether someone was a suitable lead or not. 



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