John Willis is a seemingly always on the go. Even doing this interview, he was out and about, hitting the sales trail outside his native Aberdeen, ensuring his top-line sales numbers led to bottom-line success.
Tales of John’s daily sales training and motivation at 2Circles are legendary. As you can see here, the theory behind the hype is real.
Jamie: John, what have you found most fulfilling about your career thus far?
John: Personal growth, in short. The various forms of sales, sales management, and sales leadership that I’ve been involved in; every single lesson that you learn in the field of selling. Whether you’re selling solutions, whether you’re selling directly to end-users, whether you’re selling to businesses or you’re selling your vision to colleagues, teammates, and employees, all of these things can apply directly to every other part of everyday life. Everything you learned in your day-to-day business can be directly applied to your private life, your sports life, your social life, and the way you deal with challenges. There is no other role that offers that richness of experience.
Jamie: What is the best thing about being in sales?
John: I mean sales is the oldest profession in the world, and other people might say something else. But being a part of the oldest profession in the world is great, nothing happens without what we do.
Nothing happens without an idea being sold, without a solution being found for a particular problem, and that is what selling essentially is; it’s being a professional problem solver, and that has been a requirement since the dawn of time.
It’s not about arguing, it’s not about going to war; these things aren’t a part of everyday life. What we do is more part of everyday life, and finding a mutually beneficial outcome to a problem, and finding a way through it; it’s the deal that makes it happen. You have to find that while making sure that you can add value to all those you are doing and make a living for yourself and for others in the process.
Jamie: How would you say sales employees are recognized and compensated in your telecoms when you compare them to their non-sales peers?
John: It’s a solution-based sales role and being a very technical sales role, so the ability to solve problems is extremely important. The ability to put together solutions that avoid problems or solve problems is extremely important as well. So as a result, it is an important and valuable part of the industry because of how intricate it is. It’s not a commoditized sale – it’s very specific to each individual client, very specific to each individual sales cycle, and each individual decision-making process, and each individual has different requirements and all the factors go together.
Therefore, you typically have salespeople within our industry who have to be of above-average intelligence and technical background. They can learn and acquire that knowledge, and once they do, they have to be constantly feeding themselves. The lifetime value of every client that you bring onboard is huge, because a lot of the services are repeat revenue-based, and there are lots of different solutions within the same overall solution, whether it’s a software-driven solution, whether it’s the hardware, a combination of all of the above. That it makes clients very sticky as well. Getting it right is extremely important, and the value of a client is very high, which means that you need to compensate salespeople accordingly. A good salesperson, salesman, or sales director in our industry would earn as much as a senior technical officer.
Jamie: What skills do you believe that someone should possess naturally to want to go into sales?
John: A common assumption would be that they need to be naturally capable when it comes to their personal situations. You have to have that initial confidence, but what’s more important is the ability to apply a process and stick to that process whether you feel like it or not. That character and effort are a lot more important than personality. Personality only gets you so far. There are certain personality traits that you can and ought to learn, and that aid and abet you and help you on a day-to-day basis, but the reality is that character sooner or later wins over personality.
Character is extremely important in sales because it’s not only about doing things right, but also doing the right thing, and being absolutely committed to the activities that get you where you need to go.
Jamie: Based on your experience and what you have seen, are there personality types that are more suited to sales?
John: That can be industry-specific. I think that in our industry in technical sales, definitely, a driver/analytic type is likely to be good in a solution-driven sale. But I’ve seen the entire spectrum work. Yes, obviously in other industries, a very expressive person would probably be a better salesperson if they were selling advertising space or something like that. They might need to sell somebody’s big ideas rather than being detail-oriented.
In our industry, it definitely requires a level of attention to detail and technical ability or at least a tendency towards understanding technical concepts. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to that. I mean, some people are very fast-paced, some people are very slow-paced. But driver-types tend to be quite dominant in B2B sales because they have a “let’s get things done” mentality about them. So that tends to be the go-to category as a driver/analytic type in our industry.
Jamie: Would you recommend that anyone goes into telecommunications sales?
John: No, not at all. In telecom and IT, typically people are approached into that role, for the most part, they fall into it because they have been on the solution-providing side and then get shifted across into being an IT salesperson. Those people often make the best salespeople in the industry because they are solution-first, people-first, and selling targets second. That shines through if they have a real service-minded approach to the industry first and foremost.
People just keep coming back to them because they know they’ve got their best interests at heart. Like in any industry, the money that you earn can be good if you are good at sales. But if you focus solely on the money aspect, and that’s the only reason for doing it, then that’s really not the right focus to have. If you have a general interest in the technical side, how the Internet of Things works, how that piecing together of fairly complex solutions works, but also keeping it simple and being able to pitch that to different stakeholders, then you’ll do well. Having the numbers if you’re dealing with a finance guy, or the focus on the IT staff in dealing with an IT guy, or the focus on the big picture if you’re dealing with an MD. That part is fun, and if you have an interest in selling technical solutions, then yes, IT and telecoms is a great business to be in.
Jamie: Is there any advantage in terms of age, gender, or physical appearance that you’re aware of in your industry?
John: The good thing about IT is that, if you are, for example, selling financial instruments, if you’re a financial planner, an ISA, it could probably come across better if you were slightly older and had a proven financial status that would probably hold a bit more credibility with high net worth clients. IT and telecoms are very different. You can be fresh out of school and still come across credibly to an MD in his mid-50s, as long as you know your stuff then they can’t really tell what age you are. It’s a different industry where age is not an advantage. It’s definitely more male-driven and male populated because of its technical complexities that tend to have attracted males over the years, but that’s definitely changing, and it’s definitely changing for the good as well. It’s definitely not a gender-specific industry, but it has historically attracted men.
Jamie: What skills need to be developed to really succeed in sales?
John: Nothing takes the place of tenacity and grit. If you really want to get on and succeed, you’ll do it. Everything else is adaptable and learnable. Honesty is a key component, and then a sincere and genuine desire to be of service to people. Do you actually give off the impression that you care about the person that you’re speaking to, and that their success is important to you – whatever success is within that context?
When you have their best interests at heart, then you’ll be successful. But if you’re not self-aware or you’re too self-interested to be able to do that, then you’ll get burned out pretty quickly.
Jamie: Above and beyond the skills that you mentioned already, what else is required to succeed in telecommunications and IT sales?
John: A willingness to learn new stuff. You have to treat every day and everything as schooling. You don’t become a doctor and then give up reading medical journals and medical discoveries and medical approaches. You can’t do that. And it’s the same in any profession, and especially in something as fast-paced as IT, you have to be willing to learn daily.
Jamie: What are the biggest challenges that you’ve faced in winning business in telecoms?
John: The ignorance of the market is our number one competitor. That is the mis-selling by large corporates who will remain nameless in this conversation. It doesn’t take long to think of who they might be though, and they really have muddied the waters of the industry. These are organizations that might be household names, but last year, for example, one of them was fined £240 million by OFCOM for misrepresentation on a grand scale. You couple that along with the fact that it’s not a regulated industry such that anybody could set up an IT company one day and say “I’m an IT provider. Come buy from me,” and if they have a bit of IT background some may well truly believe that. But as soon as they start trying to scale that business up, do they really have what it takes to provide a service to a large number of clients?
Potentially yes, but there is no regulation for that. I can’t go to that client and say I’m a doctor because pretty quickly they’ll find out that I’m not and I would face some serious trouble if I was to misrepresent myself like that. But you would be able to get away with it in IT and telecom, so that’s a big factor in that it’s an industry where the ignorance of the market is such that people need to be educated daily. Every sit-down that we have with existing clients and new clients coming on board, it’s a chance to educate them on how the services that we provide in them fit within the context of their business and how it works in the industry, and what their expectations ought to be. More often than not, their expectations have been pretty skewed by advertising and the sharing of misinformation that has happened across the industry.
Jamie: Please can you go briefly into why you believe that telecoms and IT shouldn’t be commoditized and ideally isn’t?
John: The individual products within them typically are commoditized. Licensing for Microsoft 365, for example, to promoting mobile networks, for example; they are pretty commoditized products.
However, the service wrapped around that and the gluing together of all of those solutions to deliver a complete service is a very bespoke thing. What’s the right fit for them in terms of what they require? That is challenging. You could just give them a menu of options and then say, “Go and do your own shopping,” and 9 times out of 10, they’ll get it wrong unless they have a fully paid-up IT department. Even then, an IT department within a business, 50 employees or 50,000 employees, that the IT department is there for day-to-day IT support. They’re not necessarily going to be up on what the latest and greatest services there are in the market.
Being a good consultant is all about knowing what’s out there on the market, knowing where you stand and what is the pricing for those various products. Being able to put them together and recommend whatever the right one that fits best is the non-commoditized product that is very much a bespoke service.
Jamie: How do you deal with organizational complexity when you’re selling into businesses?
John: I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible, really, which is more difficult than it sounds. Yes, it all depends on who you’re talking to. If I was selling to an IT manager, he probably wants a degree of complexity to understanding what it is that they’re getting from a technical perspective. But if you’re selling to an MD that doesn’t have a technical background, they’re not interested in certain technical specs. They just want to know that what you’re providing them is suitable for their requirement and being able to put together a proposal for both is a skill.
You can’t always get it right, and then usually have to share a bit more information with people than you’d prefer. But you need to be able to demonstrate that you have shared it with them. Otherwise, they could come back and claim that you didn’t share that information with them, so you kind of have to. It’s a bit like buying a car. You just still have to get the full specs written down on whatever receipt that you get from the finance company, or the car broker that you buy it from, even though most of the specs in there won’t mean a thing to you and you don’t really care what they mean. You still have to have pages and pages of terms and conditions. The overall summary proposal should always be kept simple so that people can make essential decisions and get on with their lives.
Jamie: Do you believe that there should be a division between the people who sell to accounts and people who serve them?
John: Yes, salespeople need to be a slave to the targets and the goals that they set themselves. They have to be willing to do what it takes to reach them. Then they have to want to do it in a service-minded way. So, at that level, if you have a very pro-active account manager versus a very pro-active salesperson, they ought to be one and the same in a lot of ways. Maybe their job role is just dressed up slightly differently, but a good performing dedicated person within either role had and ought to be able to interchange between those roles effectively. A good account manager is a good salesperson. A good salesperson is a good account manager. I don’t think there is much distinction between the top performers in either category.
If someone said, “I don’t like having targets,” as an account manager, they’re the wrong person for the account manager role. Someone could also say, “I don’t like account management, I just want to sell,” they’re the wrong guy for the sales because sooner or later they will piss people off and lose clients.
Jamie: How much can you make in telecommunications sales and IT?
John: Depends if you’re a self-employed contractor, what your experience level is, what it is you’re doing, the service you’re providing, and then your overall ability to go the extra mile. But I know people have made – if you’re brand new but hungry, they’ll maybe get out there, and they’ll make £35,000 in their first year. But then they’ll quickly increase and some of the high performers that will be making a quarter-of-a-million-plus. It’s an area where you can do well.
You wouldn’t be doing that quickly unless you were self-employed. Yes, I mean the top performers and salespeople, if you were employed by a company, would be at a quarter-of-million-type earnings eventually; few people do that.
Jamie: Is there a balance between sales and marketing in your organization?
John: Yes, this industry is definitely a proactive selling-based industry. Marketing is there for reinforcement, and it’s still important because that’s the material that you’re putting out there, the reinforcement on LinkedIn, etc. That kind of thing is definitely important. Social media is key, and then the reinforcement that brings to your contact base in your social media sphere. However, that rarely leads to inbound leads. It’s a proactive selling-based industry.
Jamie: How does the industry treat its salespeople?
John: I’ve got a general thought that the UK doesn’t respect the profession of selling as well as it ought to do, but it’s definitely of higher respect in the IT-based industries because of the fact that it’s so salesperson-dependent. Because a lot of software of large companies are based out in the United States, and they have set the expectation levels of salespeople to be top-paying professionals, and that has trickled down into the UK and in other countries as well because it’s a truly a national space. That gives more emphasis and respect, I think, for salespeople, a bit like in the recruitment industry that will reward its salespeople well because it has to. I think that there is still a bit of a disconnect between the UK and the US in terms of the ability to value your salespeople on what they can bring to an organization, and train them accordingly.
Jamie: What is the sales training like in IT?
John: It’s pretty continual and very good, but there is no one size fits all for that either. But I mean it’s all there if you want it. There is so much good stuff available for free. There are podcasts and so on. Salespeople have to be willing to do that daily, I think, and it’s dangerous to rely on just the training that your company gives you.
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