I remember the moment this project became real quite vividly; it was just after my interview with Lars. After kindly giving me his time, he asked what the goal was of this project. I felt like I had to say something grand. “I’ll do 100 interviews, and hope they’re all this good,” I said, and the rest is history.
After almost 20 years leading a successful sales consultancy, Lars has recently become a Director in Clean Living International, which is currently fundraising. Given Lars’ track record, I’ve jumped at the chance to invest.
Jamie: Lars, what have you found most fulfilling about your sales career thus far?
Lars: If I had to pick a word that has summed up my sales career to date, I would say it has to be “resilience.” Having entered sales whilst studying for my business degree, I had no clue as to what the sales profession was going to be about. I was definitely not prepared for the huge highs and lows and very quickly had to become “resilient.” This trait has been such a bonus for everything else I have done since.
Jamie: Have there been specific moments that tested that resilience?
Lars: That is core to a sales career. Every sale, every meeting, and every loss is a test. It is the biggest difference between a career in sales and many others. In one of my early 1-2-1 sessions with my first sales manager – which was via the phone as we were 3,000 miles apart.
I was very down and I said, “Pete, I am bored of sales!” To this day, I will never forget his reply, “Lars, if you are bored then you are boring!”.
Luckily, we were not face-to-face because if he had been in front of me, I think I would have probably lost my temper.
However, he said it in a really endearing way and followed up with, “Lars.. you can say you hate sales, feel rejected and feel alone, but one thing you can’t say about sales is that it is boring. Today, I want you to take off any pressure on yourself to sell and just go and have fun with prospects. I know you can do that.” This is one of the reasons why I have stayed in sales all my life because, at the age of 19, I learnt that you choose how to react to your circumstances, and not the other way around.
Jamie: How did you go about choosing the products that you wanted to sell?
Lars: I am going to say that it was less about a product and more about what motivated me. If I go back to the time when we set up a Headhunting/Search firm, I chose to search because it felt like the most challenging type of recruitment. I would tell prospects that I would not start a search unless we were retained (paid and upfront % of the fee). This meant that most people initially said they would not work with us and try the contingency approach first. But I would keep in touch and ask, “Have you found the right person yet? If not, perhaps we could help you.” It did mean we would win only the toughest searches but that’s when we would get the retainer. I chose that particular sales environment because it was much more challenging but extremely rewarding.
Another interesting example is when we set up one of the original dedicated Sales Consultancies, most people advised us to focus on one industry or one sector.
“Become pure sales trainers or sales consultants in one sector such as finance, pharmaceuticals, or in tech.” For me, it would have been strange and did not sit well to work closely with clients’ direct competitors to similarly improve their sales. Whose side would you be on when working with the sales teams? I actually enjoyed working cross-sector because we continually learnt new ideas and added real value by sharing these across different sectors. The answer to your question seems to be that my choices have been more about making sure that the role is challenging and provides continued learning.
Jamie: Would you recommend that a salesperson start with the most challenging thing they can find?
Lars: No. I would recommend the 1st step is to start out selling something that they really believe in, whether it is a service or a product. Too many people start out in sales because someone says they will be good in sales, and they end up not really having a lot of conviction in the product, and therefore they have a bad experience. The second step, find a company where they have a strong training programme so that you can gain a solid sales foundation.
Jamie: What is the best thing about being in sales?
Lars: If the question is comparing it to other careers, the best thing about sales is that there really is not a ceiling as to how high you can go and what you can achieve. You can keep rising and rising as you get better and better. You can also potentially earn more. Many careers have a ceiling, whereas sales does not have one.
Jamie: You looked across a lot of companies and industries. Did you see that sales was becoming increasingly prioritized, both in terms of company leadership as well as becoming more professional as a function?
Lars: There is a lot of talk about becoming more professional, however, a lot of senior leaders have not come from the sales background, and they still don’t fully appreciate or understand the professionalism of the function and the level of skills required.
Jamie: What misconceptions do leaders have?
Lars: People have always debated about whether sales is an art or a science. Unfortunately, the most common opinion is that it is more of an art, based on personality and an apparent innate ability some are born with. I agree that an important attribute is that a salesperson does need to like communicating about things that they are passionate about. However, the actual sales skill starts off as a science and then you apply your own creative artistic style to your profession. Traditionally, there has been no clarity on what is needed for sales. Because there are no required qualifications – unlike accountants, doctors, and lawyers – most have entered using their personality and art to be successful. Professional salespeople, however, are a lot more analytic and scientific about their approach than you would expect.
Jamie: Is that improving?
Lars: Definitely. In fact, people do not have a choice these days because of technology. If you think about 20 years ago or even 10 years ago, Excel spreadsheets were about the best anyone would have, or bits of paper, or goal cards. Now, there are so many technical tools out there that all track what people do. I still do not feel most of them track the right things, but they do at least track data that can give a bit of analysis as to whether someone is following the right process.
One brilliant addition to the sales profession in the UK which firms could utilize more is offering government-backed sales apprenticeships. They have been receiving very positive feedback and I highly recommend them.
Jamie: If a salesperson wanted to track the most vital data, what data should they be tracking?
Lars: They should be looking to track somewhere between four and six key behaviours or activities, not just one or two. The most tracked activity is the proposal to win ratio; the conversion rate. Similarly, others end up being asked to track so much that it just becomes too complex. Whatever they are selling, they should be looking at what are the four, five, or six-core activities that will have the biggest impact on their performance. The second part is that they should be looking at how those activities are linked to the buyer’s activity.
For example, instead of tracking the ‘number of meetings set up,’ they could be tracking the ‘number of meetings accepted.’ That is a buyer-driven activity rather than a seller-driven activity. We could set up hundreds of meetings, and half of them do not happen. Another one is that instead of a ‘meeting held’ if they could track ‘needs identified and agreed by the buyer.’ That is really valuable. They should link to the buyer’s drivers as opposed to just the seller’s drivers.
Jamie: What is the most significant difference you see in successful persons vs. unsuccessful salespeople?
Lars: For many years, we have talked about the terms ‘skill’ and ‘will.’ There are a lot of highly skilled people, but they do not really want to do it anymore. Equally, a lot of people are highly motivated but do not have the right skill to ask the right questions, listen to what the prospect says nor able to recommend the right solution.
The biggest difference in a great salesperson is where someone has both the skill and the will, since having one or the other is not enough to succeed.
Jamie: How can you self-diagnose that?
Lars: From a ‘skill’ side, you need to map which activities are going to give you the most success, and then continually focus on those. For example, if you play tennis and you are losing matches because you are double-faulting a lot, then that is something you need to work on. If you are losing matches because whenever you come to the net, your volley goes in the net, then that’s your issue. Sales is the same – if you are getting lots of meetings, but they are not converting into proposals, you need to change something in your meeting or your follow-up. It goes back to knowing what specific area you are looking to improve. From the ‘will’ side, it really is about making sure you set the right goals and targets for yourself. If you are not feeling personally motivated, then revisit your goals.
Years ago, we were working with some new salespeople, selling educational products and we would ask, “What is your goal?”
One of them said, “I want to earn enough so that I can buy a new car.” When he started, they had a slower start than he had hoped for. He then said, “You know what? I do not really I need a new car. A second-hand car will be good enough for me because my friends don’t even have that.” Then a little bit further on down the sales journey and his activity was slowing, he said, “You know what, I do not really need a car at all. A good goal would be to buy a high spec bicycle.” Yes, you can see where this is going. He finally got to, “This is too hard, I do not need a top of the range bicycle. I just need a bicycle to get me from a to b!” You can tell that this person did not have the ‘will’ to achieve his potential in that role in the way others were. It is so important that people take time to put the right goals in place and stick to them, rather than just making up something they think will impress others.
Jamie: Do you have any advice on how to go about that goal-setting process?
Lars: Most companies talk about setting SMART goals, which is the most common global method to setting goals by making them: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. However, I have always felt that they were designed for the boardroom and for big corporations, because they do not tell the whole story of an individual. Human beings are motivated by logic and emotion. SMART goals are based around logic as they are all logical frameworks.
Our approach to goal-setting has been to help salespeople have logical goals but also understand their own emotion behind them. On top of the SMART elements, they also need to ask themselves 2 questions to see if it really motivates them.
“If I do achieve the goal, what will I gain? If I do not achieve the goal, what will happen?”
We call this “toward” motivation and “away” motivation. Ultimately, the toward motivation is, “I want to win,” and the away motivation is, “I do not want to lose.” A lot of our work with salespeople is more around understanding emotional goal setting rather than using a purely logical approach.
Jamie: If you were job hunting, what elements of a culture of an organization you were founding or joining would be non-negotiable for you?
Lars: I would be looking for a culture that is both highly value-based and optimistic. There are always going to be ups and downs, so it is important that you find a culture where the leadership has an optimistic mindset based on ethics and authenticity. I would be looking for one that has a high-performing team culture, where people are working together. Finally, I would want to be in a culture where failure is okay because it is impossible to be successful in sales without failing more than you succeed. There are so many sales cultures out there that are really not healthy. It is really essential that the culture is one of ethical authenticity and high integrity if good people are going to stay long term.
Jamie: Do those elements of culture tie into a companies life stage, and do they tie into compensation?
Lars: I do not think it ties into maturity stage, because what I described should be evident in all sizes of business. As for the compensation part, we will come on to that because that is a bigger topic. People have often asked me how do I define culture? To put it simply, I believe that culture is basically the behaviour of the people in that business. Ultimately, you need to look at the behaviour of the people in that business to know its culture. It is not about reading their website values and various statements. Culture is based on people’s behaviour, and you cannot hide that, from how you are greeted at reception through to dealing with the accounts payable department.
Jamie: How would you test a culture before joining an organization?
Lars: You could mystery shop them, and you could play a potential customer or client and see how you are treated. You could go to a company and just see how the receptionist treats you. Culture flows through from side to side and top to bottom. I would ask if I could shadow one of the top salespeople for a morning, or a day, just to see how they perform. I think that would be the best way to really understand whether the business is culturally aligned.
Jamie: What do you think is a healthy compensation model for a salesperson?
Lars: I definitely believe that there needs to be some form of individual reward for most sales roles. There has been a lot written about this, and a lot of people feel that commission elements, create the wrong behaviours and this could be true where compensation is 100% based on individual performance. The best commission or compensation plans I have seen have a combination of a healthy basic, a healthy individual reward or bonus, and equally a healthy team bonus.
A book that covers personal motivation really well is Daniel H. Pink called “Drive, The Truth About What Motivates Us.” He shows how most people are not motivated by money, instead, they are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I do agree, as money alone does not seem to motivate people long-term (there are exceptions!) but I would also add that having worked with salespeople for so many years, and knowing how much resilience, persistence, and acceptance of rejection is required, the added motivation of a financial bonus element is the icing on the cake.
Jamie: If you had the biggest piece of advice you would give to an aspiring salesperson, what would it be?
Lars: The biggest piece of advice to an aspiring salesperson would be to spend as much time as they can shadowing successful professional salespeople. Too many people who start out in sales, go through a bit of early training and then all too quickly are let loose to sell, rarely continuing their personal learning. There is not enough opportunity for young aspiring salespeople to learn from the good people who are on the field and not sharing their craft with others. I say this because personally when I started out in sales, I was lucky enough to be able to shadow the top performers who gave me the confidence that I could do it as well and how to sell in real-life scenarios.
Jamie: If you had your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Lars: I would take more notice of my activity and my IPA, Income-Producing Activity. I probably tried to rely too much on what I thought was my personal skill, and if I started again, I would want to understand my sales data better. I would understand how to not make the mistakes that I was making, rather than learning the hard way.
Jamie: Is there a particular time that you did not make a sale, and it was painful, but it taught you a lesson?
Lars: The one that sticks in my head the most. Whilst selling in America, there was a day when I had been told “no” and been rejected for eight hours continuously with no successes. I was so upset and when the next person to whom I demonstrated, did not want to buy from me either, I can remember being a little bit abrupt and rude to them. I do not think I swore, but I do remember not being very professional and storming away. I sat by a tree for ages deciding what to do. Do I quit sales or do I go on? I eventually decided on neither short term. I stood up, went and knocked on the door I had just left. They answered, probably thinking I was going to have another go, but were surprised when I just apologised for having being so rude. She really appreciated it. That has stuck with me for 30 years; it is okay to get frustrated internally, but prospects are nearly always good people. It was my attitude that was wrong and not show them to the customer who does not deserve it. That is one of the biggest lessons I learned in failing to make a sale.
Jamie: Is there an amazing sale you have made that shows off the skill and knowledge you have gained throughout your career?
Lars: It is more about the transition from one selling environment to another, which many said I would not be able to achieve. Having never been formally trained as a consultant, along with a few others, we decided to set up a sales consultancy to advise companies on their sales structure based on our practical sales knowledge and experiences. It was very humbling, putting together an amazing team over 19 years to help those companies. I suppose my biggest success was being able to prove that I could go from a B2C sale to a service driven B2B sales.
Jamie: In terms of switching between B2B and B2C like that, do you think that anyone can do that?
It goes back to a person’s skill, motivation, and discipline. They would need all three to succeed. A lot of people would be better in sales than they realize. I meet lots of people who say, “Oh, I could not do sales” and I personally feel they would be good at it. Being good in sales is more to do with someone’s motivation and drive and whether they really believe in the offering.