My good friend Rich’s father, Peter, was an excellent choice to interview. With a reputation for re-building businesses with enhanced sales process and teams, Peter is an expert on maximizing business value through sales.
Here we explore the subtleties of selling into different industries, how to change the culture of a sales organization, and how to sell big-ticket training packages through a consultative approach.
You can read Peter’s bio in full here
Jamie: Firstly, Peter, what have you found most fulfilling about your career thus far?
Peter: To me, it’s about proving that I can do it.
To have achieved what I wanted to achieve and to have done it in an environment like this is very satisfying, because when you get forty thousand people a year writing back to you saying we have changed their lives or it was a wonderful experience, then it is fulfilling.
To receive forty thousand sets of feedback a year and to receive great feedback is very unusual. Most people do not get feedback. I do not know how I got from one to the other, other than just chance, luck, and a bit of bravado. It has been a fulfilling career to move from no qualifications to being accredited by all sorts of professional institutions, high-level qualifications, and have a business that employs hundreds of people, and with great feedback all the way through, I find that very satisfying.
Jamie: In front-line sales specifically, did that bravado help you in that role?
Peter: Yes. There are all sorts of different salespeople and bravado can help, but it can also be a hindrance as well because it can turn some people off. Specifically, the customers that do not like the flashy little lad that has got all the chat, it can alienate many potential customers. There are two types of salespeople – there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones fall into two different categories; you are either into product sales or more sophisticated selling, and that could be called consultative selling.
I have been in consultative selling where you have to be a little brave because you are going to see a customer and you have no idea what they are going to want, you start with a plain sheet of paper and say, “Okay. What is your pain? What are your problems? What are the issues you are facing?” You could say anything, but you have got to have a pretty good grip on what the product ranges are that you can present as a solution, and more importantly, how you change each of those products to something that fits the need that you have identified.
Consultative selling is much more complex. It does not matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. For example, you could have the gift of the gab and be an extrovert, or you could be what might be described as an “expert.” A buyer is probably more inclined to work with the experts than they are with the mouthy salesperson.
If you are really clever – and this is where I think selling is an art – when you go in to meet a customer, you do neither of them, you are neither the expert nor the mouthy salesperson, but you ask a few questions, sit back, weigh up the individual, and then mirror the style of that individual.
If they are a bit of a go-getting flamboyant individual, then so are you. If they are more technically oriented, then so are you. I have found that by adapting your style and mirroring the individual, it gets much better results and therefore any questions around who is the best type of salesperson or what the background should be, I think, is irrelevant. It is instead, “Can you adapt?”
Jamie: Is adapting a skill something that any salesperson can learn or is it restricted to natural ability?
Peter: I believe that some people should never be salespeople, and they are the bad ones if they ever become one. I think all these things can be learned. Product knowledge, for example, can be learnt. Mirroring can be learnt. Techniques for emotional intelligence can also be learnt. The skills do not necessarily have to be in place right at the beginning because they can be developed. There are plenty of firms that offer training, and they are very good.
But I would always train my own salespeople personally because I manage to combine product training with sales training. I would have some workshop or activity where we go through the different products and services that could be offered and then at the same time we would work through how we were getting to consultative selling, what we would do, and what the interpersonal skills required would be to make that successful.
Jamie: Was that necessary due to the complexity of the product? Or do it you believe that it is the right amount of time to train any salesperson in a new role?
Peter: It varies by industry. In professional training services, it is more complex, and you do have to know what you are talking about in terms of a wide range of subject matter. It takes time. The sort of people who I am referring to would become account managers that would go out and pick up hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not millions of pounds, worth of deals. These are reasonably experienced people. They would all probably be over forty years of age. However, if I was recruiting a telephone salesperson, I would not deal with that individual, but the sales manager that looks after the telephone salespeople would give them training then listening in on their calls, then offer feedback, and ease them in probably only over a couple of weeks or so.
I think it all goes wrong when you think that you have got a good salesperson for whatever reason, and then you throw them out in the field, you give them nothing else to help them, no support, no feedback, and no coaching. They do not understand why they fail.
It happens all the time, and you see these firms failing. They are hiring and firing all the time, and the churn is ridiculous. It costs a fortune, and it does not get results. Worse than anything else, it really ‘hacks off’ many of your customers.
Jamie: You mentioned that you would have taken a lot of businesses where for various reasons, sales was not in any great shape either over or under-investing. Would you be willing to talk about the mistakes you have seen and the way it affects an organisation?
Peter: My experience is that salespeople are very often lazy. They are not lazy when they first start because they are trying to prove something and they are a little bit more active. It is very difficult to measure how much effort a salesperson is putting into the role. Therefore, it is very easy for them to be around for a long time underperforming with the promise of that big deal just around the corner. Then another deal is just around the corner, but strangely enough, they never materialised either. I think getting the recruitment right, then training, and developing is more likely to give you a good sales results in the end, although it may need a bit more investment upfront to get it right.
If you are lucky, you have got a business that has done very well for many years. The one that I bought a couple of years ago has been trading for twenty-five years. If you can get your sales effort right, you get the recruitment and training right, if you’ve got the motivation and the incentives right then, you should be able to keep salespeople long-term, but more importantly, keep the good ones long-term.
I remember, for example, recruiting an account manager. He came from a technical sales background. He had worked in the training industry for a short time. I did not have this strategy of upfront support and coaching, so I brought him in. I thought he was okay, threw him into the field and off he went. For six months, I had the promises, but nothing materialised. I did not accept that as being his fault. I realised at the time that it was my fault because I did not do anything. I just left him to fend for himself. I then spent some months with him. He quickly realised how to be successful in the training industry.
Later, he grew to become the very best salesperson I have ever seen. He then became the sales director of that firm. He became managing director of that firm and is now the owner of that firm. He went from underperforming in a sales role, through to performing extremely well bringing in multimillion-pound contracts, and to eventually owning the business that he joined twenty-five years series.
Jamie: What characteristics were you looking for in someone who you would either mentor or hire or both?
Peter: There was a high degree of subjectivity in all of these decisions that we make. One of the first things that I consider is – would I buy from that person? Because if they are any good, they will be mirroring me because that is the key criteria that I believe is necessary for consultative selling sales success.
If I do not feel that, it is unlikely that I would recruit that person. I believe that everyone should be able to adapt to meet the needs of whoever they are selling to. At an interview, you are selling us. The second thing I try and find in terms of evidence is the level of determination. In a sales job, it is quite difficult to keep going at times, especially if you have had a few knockbacks, you have not secured a contract for a few weeks or even a few months. You get a bit despondent potentially, you are going to have that inner drive that says I will keep going and I will be successful. I will keep this sale alive. I will not sound as if I am dying on my feet when I talk to the next customer. I think that determination has to be there. I think the emotional intelligence bit needs to be fairly sophisticated.
I would always look for somebody hungry for money. I have never employed a salesperson on a capped income. I have never employed somebody as a salesperson where they are not hungry. It is important to me because it always drove me, you can not just sit back and rely on your base salary. If you want to be driven by success, then let us have a bit of hunger out there.
Although interestingly, it only works for years. After that, you become so used to having a good income because the bonus and commissions that you are earning are always good. But the money motivation starts to go away, and it is replaced by achievement. Because you know you are going to do well anyway. It is just now how well are you going to do, and I want to be even better.
We used to run unofficial competitions for the salespeople who reported to me where I would challenge them to do better than me. That kept the pressure on me as well. Of course, they were always fighting to beat me. That meant that the sales revenue was good because of that.
As a leader of salespeople, I have always led from the front. I have never said, “I want you to achieve £2m worth of sales,” if I had not done it. That, I think, means that all of the typical, “I can’t, because…” statements don’t exist, because clearly it can be done.
Jamie: Do you not sometimes have the objection of turf or territory from a salesperson?
Well, I did not cherry-pick when I had a territory. Now, territories tend to be driven by where they live. If I was recruiting for the Manchester region, they could not complain about having the Manchester regions because that is what they wanted, and that is where they applied to work. I never changed regions because somebody was doing too well. I know some sales organisations were going to be anxious about people earning too much and they shuffle things around a bit to make sure that they do not earn quite so much. I have never done that, it is not fair. It is not right.
If they are earning a percentage commission, it would never work based on turnover because that ends up discounting just to get sales not profit, so it is always based on gross profit or profit before tax payments. They know that they are going to keep their territory. They know that it is going to be down to them. What I would do is if, for example, one territory got a bit too big for one person to handle, then rather than split it into two, I would put a more junior salesperson under the direction and control of the existing salesperson that has that territory. They would get a percentage of the commission payments that the junior person would achieve and they would not lose out in any way at all and if that team builds up to ten in that territory, then great!
Jamie: You mentioned that you have taken over companies where they have no sales function at all. At what stage does a business need a sales function?
From day one, unless you have got something very unusual. For example, if you have invented a product that everyone wants and nobody else can supply it, and your only problem is producing enough of it. Every business – especially small businesses – need a salesperson whether that be the owner entrepreneur or whether they recruit specifically.
Every company needs a salesperson in that role in a dedicated way, but also everybody else in the organisation should consider themselves as a salesperson looking for opportunities. You have got the accounts clerk who are talking to the equivalent in a client site somewhere, and they build a relationship because they are talking to each other all the time; they would be encouraged to see if they can pick up any opportunities. We would not expect them to close a deal. But we would expect them to identify opportunities and pass it on to a salesperson.
Jamie: What elements of culture have you identified as being in businesses that you are coming into as being especially toxic and something that a salesperson should avoid?
Peter: There are so many different ingredients to making something toxic.
Typically a toxic culture starts with either the owner or the managing director; whoever is in direct day-to-day control of that business. Sometimes, I have gone into organisations where the owner would literally scream at people all day. You could hear him screaming at different members of the staff, and they would tremble when it was their turn to go into his office.
That applied to a recent acquisition. The owner had been like that for probably ten years, so he was able to run a business, but he was very aggressive, critical, and blaming. He would demolish people. He would be rude. He would be intimidating, and the staff were all caught up with it for one reason only; they were paid far too much to go anywhere else. That was one of the reasons why the business was going ‘down the pan’ because the staff payroll costs were so ridiculous that it could not be sustained.
So the first answer is I think toxic culture starts from the top. But if that toxic culture is not at the top, it could be at the departmental level, and the rest of the organisation could be fine. If you get a sales manager that is particularly appalling in the behaviours that I have described, then it is going to stay there, and it is not going to go away. It’s demotivational. People would not necessarily do an ounce more than they have to do, just enough to get away with it. They go home, they moan to their partner about what a terrible place it is – but they have a big mortgage and cannot afford to leave. People take leave for stress. When they do eventually go, looking on websites such as glass door etc., you will find all the horrible comments in there. For that reason, it tends to be owner operational managers or department managers who create that negative culture.
If I was going to apply to work at another organisation, I would specifically want to spend some time at the place of work – not in a hotel having an interview, which is typically the way it is done if it is regional recruiting. I would want to go to the place that I am going to be working and to spend a day in there talking to the real people, seeing what goes on, see what happens so I can get my own view. It is very interesting how quickly, once you have been around for a couple of hours, people start opening up to you and telling you the most intimate details of what goes wrong in that place, you have to take it with a pinch of salt, you have to balance it with the positives because they may have just been through the disciplinary process last week or something you do not know.
But I think by doing some research on Glassdoor, by asking the right questions to the recruiter and then spending time in the place that they work, you can start to understand what that culture might be like.
Jamie: Is that day in the business something that you find a lot of organisations now offer, and it is easy to ask for?
Peter: It would be very difficult for them to say no. Why are they saying that? You are not asking to be paid, you are not asking to take away lots of time of existing staff, you are asking to understand more about the job that you are being asked to do, to understand the business more and I would take it positively. If somebody asked me to do that, I would always say yes. I would say, “Yes, go and spend the day with David. He is visiting two clients next Tuesday. Do not say anything because you might ‘drop us in it’ but just observe, and watch while you are with the client. See what he gets up to.”
If it was a telephone sales job, I would say, “Go into the telephone sales team to be sure it is for you and we’ll introduce you to your manager. We do not want you to get on the phones or anything like that because you are not ready, but you can spend time seeing what goes on and how we do things here.” I think it is a very positive thing. But most applicants are not brave enough to do it.
Jamie: What advice would you generally give to aspiring salespeople?
Peter: First of all, if you think it is an easy option because anyone can sit down and talk to others and that is why you are thinking about getting into sales – forget it. It is a tough job. It can be very financially rewarding. You can be rewarded for what you do. Equally, you could earn very little if you do not pull in the sales that are required. If it is something that you think you would enjoy if it is something you think you could be motivated by and put all the effort in – give it a go. What have you got to lose? If you are only there for a week, it does not even end up on your CV normally, because that is too short a period.
If it is something that you think you are going to be good at, if it is something you have spoken to lots of people about, got feedback from people you work with, talked with previous bosses, with your neighbour, get feedback from everybody to see what they think about you in a potential sales role, then make a decision based on data.
I would always suggest that you spend some time with somebody that is in a sales job, in the same industry, that you’re looking to go into and try to understand more about what it really involves. If you are relatively young, you may not understand what a salesperson even does, especially if it is in consultative sales. It is important to try and do that research. But ultimately you have just got to give it a go.
Jamie: If you had your sales career specifically again, what would you do differently?
Peter: I do not think I would change my career path because it has been good. I should have understood a lot earlier that I was a salesperson and why I should have put more effort into it.
It took a while to realise that I was a salesperson and not somebody just talking to customers. Order takers and those that do not understand how to close can have lots of meetings with lots of people, and it can all be very friendly, but they do not achieve anything. I was in that category, then I would be helpful, pleasant, and let lots of people walk away without buying.
When I was a regional manager for a recruitment business, I let people be very nice to our customers and our applicants. I did not realise that closing is what it is all about. I think if I had my time again, I would have had more help in training in terms of what selling is about, specifically closing so that I would have brought more in sales earlier.
Once I realised that and once I taught myself and got a bit of help, it became very easy and I would, for example, go and visit a client, and the brief was to talk to the client about a one-day time management course for six people. Most of my colleagues would go in and talk to the client about that time management course for six people, they would come away, book it and would consider themselves a successful salesperson.
For this particular call, I went in for the one-day time management course and came away with twenty-four different courses for five hundred people. The difference was that I am not an order taker anymore. I am a consultative salesperson that found out what the real issues were at that business.
Time management was not the issue for them at all. It was that none of those managers or leaders had had any training in the entire management and leadership arena. Once I realised what consultative selling means and what closing was all about, I picked up hundreds of thousands of pounds on each call.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you didn’t make a sale, but you learnt something valuable?
Peter: In my earlier days, I believed that all I had to do is to get out there in my car and visit as many customers as possible. I was ‘on a roll’, and it seemed that almost everywhere I went, they said yes. So I thought if I get more visits, that will be more ‘yes’s and success. I went travelling around all over the place, and whilst I was with clients they were saying yes. But then it did not materialise. I closed, they said yes, but it did not seem to materialise. What I learned from it is that getting the sale confirmed at the time is great, but you have got to see it through. I did not, and I left it too late because I was so busy and by the time I managed to get time to give them a call to sort out the next stage, two weeks had gone by, and some other competitor had been there in the meantime and snatched it away from me. What I learned from that is that you have got to have a balance between good upfront sales activity and then securing it and bedding it in.
I was good at the face-to-face bit, so I recruited, in essence, a telephone salesperson, but she was much more than that. Every time, I did a visit, I would call up this person, give her a debrief as to what had happened, what was going on, what we needed to do and she would then speak to the client and see it through. When it came to interacting with that client, I did not have to talk to them every day, every week, or every month. My salesperson would do that, and she would nurture and build a relationship at a distance to find out when the next opportunity was. Then she got me back in again to see the client. I would then pass it back to her, and the process would roll over again. I learned that my skill is at the upfront face-to-face meeting, and I can close. But I was not so good at seeing it through, and that is why I was losing business hand over fist. When my salesperson came in and we starting seeing those deals through together, we played to both of our strengths. She was not so good at visiting clients. I was pretty poor at seeing the business through the other end, but between us, what a great partnership. Between us, we were booking millions of pounds a year of training at a 60% profit margin, and she’s still there in that same job thirty years later, by the way, in the same organisation, still doing brilliantly.