Nazma is an impressive lady, and her poise in this interview matched her exceptional track record.
Nazma’s career is a fantastic example of starting as an individual contributor (and first employee) in a startup, and building an efficient, effective sales organization which can scale fast. Read on to read this insight-packed and practical interview.
You can read Nazma’s full biography here
Jamie: Nazma, what have you found most fulfilling about your sales career thus far?
Nazma: I have had a lot of different feelings of fulfilment throughout my journey. I started as somebody who was cold calling. I find that incredibly fulfilling, knowing that I could knock down the door and have a conversation and get that to the next stage, and being able to help prospects understand the value of a proposition and get the most value out of it. But I think for me, where I am right now, the most fulfilling has been helping other individuals as they find the first career in sales, helping them progress, and developing their skills. Seeing them feel fulfilled has definitely been fulfilling. It does change over time.
Jamie: How much experience does an individual contributor need to transition successfully into a mentorship and coaching role?
Nazma: At Cognism, even if it was a cold calling role or an individual closing role, we put into them a mentoring role of some sort within three months. I do not think there is a timeline for that transition. I have accelerated my career faster than that. It is also about executing your role to the best of your abilities. I do not put a timeline on it at all. Some people will take two years to get to that point. For some people, it might take seven years. Those who pick things up really quickly could potentially be in a mentoring position within six months.
Jamie: What characteristics do you see in those individuals that made mentors more quickly?
Nazma: Definitely being coachable themselves. I think coachability is probably one of the most fundamental skills that you need to be successful because the thing in sales is it is not just about learning a skill which is communicating with somebody or just delivering at that value proposition. Your competitors are always evolving. The different processes are also evolving within organizations. The way that you are communicating in the different personas in your outreach is constantly evolving.
I think those that are successful are the ones who are coachable, open to learning and evolving. I had definitely seen that because I learned early on in my career when I was an individual contributor, my role changed constantly. It is not just a textbook role where you could just learn something, and you will be successful. You always constantly need to be learning and evolving.
Jamie: What is the best thing about being in sales?
Nazma: The way that we talk about sales is that it is a roller coaster. When it is high, it is amazing. Everyone is buzzing. Then when it is not so great, there is a low. The best thing about being in sales is that you are actually in control of your destiny, so to speak. Whatever work that you put in, you will be able to see the results after a bit. You would hope that it is completely based on merit. I think that for me that’s the best thing.
If you go into any other career, usually, you are not really in control of what your progression will look like. Most of the time, you will go into a graduate or intern role. You are there for two years. Then you get to progress into another role, and you are there for five years. There is not as much control as you can gain from being in sales if you are a high performer. You would expect to be promoted a lot more quickly because you actually have the results to prove that you have the ability and capability to step up.
Jamie: How do you handle those low points?
Nazma: Just being positive. I think that is definitely a really important skill; to be optimistic and constantly believe that you put in the work, you will see the results. If you have that mentality, then regardless of the highs and the lows, you will always work at that optimum level. You see this a lot with those sales individuals who have highs and lows consistently, and those are the ones where they get themselves into a bit of a dip. Then they start trying to get out of that dip through overthinking, which will never work. If you are consistent in your attitude and want to get a positive outcome, you should see a lot more consistency.
Jamie: How did you choose SaaS sales?
Nazma: It kind of chooses you. There was not any real process that I went into, “Oh, I want to be in Software as a Service.” I started in recruitment, so that is definitely not SaaS. I just wanted a career in sales. Tech was booming, so it seemed this was trending and maybe something I should explore.
Jamie: Is selling SaaS something you would recommend to any salesperson?
Nazma: Yeah, I do not see any reason not to go into software sales, depending on what an organization says and how they structure their contracts. Some software companies will expect a three-year agreement. Some software is a monthly rolling deal. It depends on whether you want to go for the long sales cycle or whether you want to go for the short sale cycle. You choose the best salespeople who can sell the value regardless of SaaS or any other industry.
Jamie: For the organizations that offer longer contracts and have longer sales cycles, do they have more strenuous interview processes?
Nazma: Yeah, I would say so. I have had experiences where we went from a very short sale cycle and commitment to a much longer one while growing the team. Looking at other organizations, they would have an expectation that somebody has a certain skill set.
If it is a long term contract, the best salespeople are really good at creating relationships, they are consultative, and they have a lot more patience. Perhaps the skill set would be different in high-volume sales; how they actually communicate and deliver the value proposition becomes more important.
I would say that there are definitely two ends of the spectrum, and it’s not necessarily true that a transactional salesperson would be able to do enterprise sales. There are different personality types that organizations are going to be looking for.
Jamie: What are the biggest differences in personality type for long-cycle as opposed to short-cycle firms?
Nazma: If you think about a long sales cycle and a larger commitment, as a salesperson, you are engaging with multiple stakeholders. Having to adjust and build relationships with multiple different stakeholders while understanding that all of them are different, and you have to challenge and deliver that proposition to all the different stakeholders, and then push that sale cycle, however long it is, over the line. Then when it comes to transactional sales, you tend to only have one or two individual stakeholders. Ultimately, you need to engage with all the different stakeholders and really think about their points of difference. You have got to be a lot more patient. You need to think outside of the box and understand all the different personas. It definitely takes a lot more work to engage with different stakeholders. Sometimes, you are not able to. It is not as linear as a transactional sales process.
Jamie: Which one do you prefer?
I would say I am a lot more inclined to transactions. You know that you are going to have contracts coming in every month. You have that consistent high. I think some people can be patient and enjoy that relationship. After nine months, getting a deal over the line is a lot more satisfying to certain individuals, whereas I am definitely more inclined to enjoy consistently closing deals.
Jamie: What is the biggest difference you see between people who really excel in sales and those who do not?
Nazma: Successful people tend to be coachable. They listen really well. They are really willing to spend that time to learn and evolve and just work really hard. In my experience, it is really good if you actually don’t hit your target first month, or you really struggle, and it’s more challenging because then you put in more effort into learning your craft. If you feel you have nailed it, then you are less inclined to put in the effort to learn and to evolve your skills. The people that are successful read books and listen to podcasts. They never feel they know everything. Having that mentality of learning is crucial. The ones that are not successful are the know-it-alls. I do not know everything, even now. I still go back to the drawing board to really work on improving my skill set.
Jamie: If you are debating between different potential career paths, what characteristics do you think that a person should have to go into sales?
Nazma: I left University and then decided to go to recruitment, and the reason I went into recruitment was that it was probably the highest paying entry graduate job. I had some experience in sales. I knew that it would be hard, and it was really pressurized, and I remember encouraging my friends to go into recruitment and go through an interview process.
One friend in particular really struggled with the interview process, and she was like, “I just do not enjoy the pressure.”
I believe that these kinds of skill sets are nurtured; they are not natural. I don’t believe that it takes a certain personality type. If I think about those individuals that I have encouraged in the past, those who have not or do not want to pursue it, or have not been able to, they just do not deal very well with pressure. Those are the ones that might end up getting into a negative headspace because it is not working at first, or there is too much pressure, and it is keeping them up at night.
You can improve on these things, though. In one of my first sales roles, I remember the highest performer, and he was the same age as me; twenty-two. He was making a quarter of a million in a year. I mean, it was insane. He was not your typical salesperson – he was very reserved. He was not in your face. He was very quiet, probably not as social as the rest. But he was very good at listening and delivering to prospects. I do not think that there is a certain personality type, but I think that you need to deal with the pressure that comes with being in a sales organization.
Jamie: What elements of culture make a sales organization successful?
Nazma: High performance is what I would look for when I look at a culture. I am very big on culture. I think it is what drives people in and into the organization. It actually drives the performance of an organization. When I think about where I have seen companies do really well, and in my own experience, at Cognism, we had a culture of high performance. Everyone is high-performing, everyone is used to being around success, and people feed off that. Even when I talk about having personalities that are maybe a bit more reserved, it is really important to understand the different dynamics that different personalities bring. Those dynamics need to equate to high performance, and that people feel they are on a winning team and that they are all going to be driving towards high performance because of its inevitability. It is a culture of success.
Jamie: How do you test for a high-performance culture?
Nazma: It depends. There are two things because I have got experience in a startup and also in a small organization. What I would do is that I would look at the technology itself, at the value of it to the market. Because at the end of the day, you cannot just rely on other people to actually build that culture. That is another thing about culture. Every time you bring in somebody new to the organization, it shifts that team’s dynamics. So if it is a small team, but you believe the product, you believe that there is a market for it, then as long as you have the confidence, it is not really as much as testing the culture or the personalities. If it is a larger organization, the way that you can test that is by talking to those who are in that role.
If I were interviewing for a team for a sales role, I would always message people on LinkedIn, talk to people, openly ask to have these conversations, and ask those questions like, “What does your high performer make? Do you hit your targets? What are your targets? What is the reality of the performance of the team? How do the other reps perform?” I think that is a huge tell-tale sign because if you are a sales professional and apply for a role, someone will say to you, “You can make £100k.” Great. What is my target? If you have a certain target, but nobody has achieved that target, and you just do not know how to achieve it, then that’s pointless. I think that is probably the best way of understanding whether it is a high performing culture and a high-performing team.
Jamie: If you are looking to go to a new company, what are the things that are non-negotiable for you?
Nazma: Having an open and transparent culture is really important. When I ask questions, I expect complete honesty and transparency. That should be encouraged throughout the entire sales organization. You could do that by just asking questions and seeing exactly how open and transparent they are, being very specific about how much commission people are making, what the targets are, and what are the things that they do not enjoy about the role. I think that is really important. Culture is so important because I think that basically means whether or not you are happy or unhappy at work. You can find a job anywhere, but if you are not really happy with it and are not enjoying the people you work with, that’s a waste of time. That is really non-negotiable for me.
I think that if you are interviewing during the interview process and you meet your potential peers and your leaders, if they are not being as open and transparent or they are not even responding to you, then you know that it might not be the right company because I want to work with people that are helpful, willing to go out their way into giving me advice and tell me about the reality of the company.
Jamie: What advice do you have for people to get their foot in the door and get a job in software and SaaS?
Nazma: What tends to happen – and it certainly happened with me when I was looking at moving into tech sales – was that I already had experience through the years in recruitment, so I applied for individual contributor roles. I soon had to check myself and admit, “Right. I am not really getting these roles.” I then started applying for SDR roles, which were a huge hit in terms of earnings. I was going from a closing role, closing business, talking to clients, to just cold calling.
I would say you really have to start from the beginning of the sales process, which is prospecting and reaching out to businesses. I think my advice would be you should be willing to do that hard work, because then you will understand through your role exactly what it means to be in a sales role with that company, even if you are not an individual contributor, to begin with.
My advice would be to apply for the SDR roles because you spend all your time on the phone, and you have got to get really good at that part. Then test it out and see if it is the right role and company for you.
Jamie: What is the single biggest piece of advice you would give to aspiring salespeople?
Nasma: Okay, the single biggest advice is: just focus on very short-term goals.
What you achieve daily? What you achieve weekly? Do not stretch to monthly because it is very easy to get lax and defer activity. What made me successful was that I had these mini-goals and benchmarks that I had to achieve daily because you just break everything down to that level. It is a lot easier to achieve those mini-goals than the entire larger picture, which really helped me.
I look at what I achieve daily, which I achieved weekly, and I still did that as an individual contributor when I was closing deals. How many demos am I doing? What am I converting? I think one of the biggest issues that salespeople have is that they are always thinking ahead. They are thinking, “Okay. I want to get to the next step, and I will be there in a year. I want to close this deal.” That is all going to come with time, right?
If you are focused on the future, you will neglect the present, and it’s your activity in the present that will get you there.
I would say take a step back and just focus on what you can control, which you can do today.
Jamie: If you had your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Nazma: I guess I would not do anything differently. This is the same way anyone would answer it. What would you do differently in your life? No regrets, because this has got to be the way I’ve got to be.
With that said, I think I would have a bit more belief in myself. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself, “Put in the hard work because you are going to see the results. You will always see the results, just give it a hundred percent.” I would not do anything specific differently. I think I would probably have a lot more enjoyment in my day-to-day life because I believed that my day-to-day will get me to where I need to be. Perhaps I may not have enjoyed a day or week in the past because I did not know that eventual outcome. You’ve just got to believe, give it a hundred percent, no regrets, but I think enjoying the journey is far more important than getting to the next milestone.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a sale you made which shows off your skill and experience?
Nazma: One of my proudest accomplishments was being in a tech startup; it is very interesting because people do not really see or understand how different the challenges are because you do not have a finished product. You cannot show or demonstrate the value and the products even when a product may not be ready, right?
You also have to perceive yourself as not being a startup because I think one of the biggest misconceptions that I had is when I started off was, “People love to buy for startups.” No. Nobody loves buying from startups. It is such a huge risk. Why would somebody do that?
I think I had to develop this mentality or perception when I was having conversations that, ” We are established,” and hoping no-one asked how long you have been around, but just carrying myself with this positivity and this confidence in the product. I had this deal that I had been engaging with this prospect for quite a while; it must have been one month back and forth. The day that we were meant to be signing the contract, I was going to actually show the product because the product was finally ready to show– but ironically, we had tech issues.
That is one of the first deals that I closed at Cognism; that day, we had a blackout which means that the product could not be shown. When I got to the demo call; I remained focussed and described the product vividly. I then had to provide feedback to the organization about what I had said and what the client had liked, and we had to create the product closer to that vision.