Phil Burgess, Chief People and Operations Officer, CSpace

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Phil lives and breathes Southwestern door-to-door principles, though his job now is very different – as the Chief People and Operations Officer, Phil is responsible for the culture, hiring, and processes in one of the larger market research firms in CSpace.

Phil’s interview is a remarkable insight into what it’s like being at the strategic helm of an organization having come from a new business background. He tackles the tough strategic decisions, such as prioritizing new business vs. business retention, driving collaboration, and even changing the values of an organization while leveraging bottom-up input from the stakeholders.

You can read Phil’s full biography here


Jamie: Just to begin with, what have you found most fulfilling about your career thus far?

Phil: I think most fulfilling, to me, is always the impact that I can have on the people I work with. It started with Southwestern days, building and leading teams, and that is probably the common theme through all of the roles that I have really enjoyed – building teams and getting them to do more than they think they can do, and then growing into building businesses, and shaping businesses, shaping cultures. It feels like that has allowed me to do lots of different roles, starting off as a sales manager at Southwestern, building teams, through to working at FreshMinds- which was a market research consultancy, and then running CSpace in London, where we won Best Agency of the Year two years in a row.


Jamie: Would you say you are in sales currently?

Phil: I would say I’m in sales, but it’s the Southwestern cliché – you are always selling. I came out of Southwestern straight into sales, and my job at FreshMinds, going into it was cold-calling public sector clients to break down doors. My job was to sell to in-site teams, and cold-call them.

No one at the company really did much cold-calling, and I thought “Well, I think it can work” so I would pick up the phone, and book a meeting with someone, and their response was “Oh, this is different”, and then you would win work. I moved into FMCG, breaking down doors to people like Starbucks, and then Jaguar Land Rover, and then moved into the consultancy side, and ended up building teams selling directly to clients, but in more of a consultancy model. I found it frustrating simply making the sale and then passing over to the research team, so I learned how to do the market research element and when at one point, they moved from selling to a different model, to people who could sell and deliver consultancy. I got kept, and then ran the team, and then became head of the consumer research team there. I guess I am not in sales, but I feel like that because I am in a people function and HR is always seen as a bit secondary to the commercials. I feel like I am constantly selling to people on the value of why we should invest in diversity and inclusion.

Jamie: You mentioned there are different models out there – hunter and farmer model, and the prioritisation in your company of people who can do both. How important do you think being able to do both is in getting to the highest level within a company?

Phil: In the companies that I have been part of, I think the people that get to the top, typically, can hunt and farm. If you are running a business, particularly the kind of businesses I have been part of, which have been client services businesses, where revenue growth is king; to get to the top, you do need to be on the hunt for new business, both for the health of the business but also to set an example to people in the business. It is important to always be hungry.

If you get too complacent and things get too good, we used to talk about the danger of becoming a house cat, and the need to remember that you need to be a bit more like a wild cat.

During COVID, right now, you need to still be able to go out and hunt, and you need to be able to go out and pitch and win clients. I also think that you can get overly-obsessed with the excitement of bringing in new logos and winning new business. Most people I know at tops of organisations, they are good at both. You sometimes get a bit more kudos for bringing the new brand, than growing the existing one, and that is probably something culturally that companies could celebrate more.


Jamie: Is that something you are focused on now; the developing of existing accounts?

Phil:  I think we tend to pendulum swing a bit between celebrating new business and then building accounts, but during COVID, particularly as companies right now have been probably less responsive picking out new projects, has helped us refocus our sales team on growing existing business, and it is helping us. Culturally, we are doing a lot more work to celebrate the importance of client teams, and then winning projects, and saying, “we have a hundred and fifty existing clients but have a tiny proportion of the budgets that they spend, but we should be building builder relationships.” It is helping us change the culture actually because I think we were a bit obsessed with having to be out finding new business all the time. In the end, you need both.


Jamie: What would you recommend that organisations do in terms of the compensation of those roles?

Phil: It is really hard. We have typically rewarded new business with a higher commission structure than account business. Over the last couple of years, we have brought down our new business percentages and increased our account ones, because it’s linked to the idea that new business is harder.

If they are breaking down doors, you have to incentivise them, but not sure I agree with that paradigm because if you’re a good new business salesperson and you like the thrill of the hunt, it is not necessarily harder.

I actually like to praise when they are delivering the work at the end of an exhausting project, to be like, “oh and now like let us talk about something else” is actually harder sometimes, than someone who has the luxury of only having to focus on your business. We have gradually broken down our new business percentages, increased some of our farming ones, we pivoted our sales team to focus a little bit more on expanding an existing business. I do not know what the right structure is.

We have tried to introduce different targets to actually encourage salespeople to collaborate, so our salespeople this year have had a goal based on a team target, and there are various kickers that they can get. We aim for the entire team to work together, as I think at times, our individual incentives drive less productive behaviours. People want a captain, they want to get rewarded for winning the sale, but then they do not bring in a colleague who might have a different perspective on a sector or a different perspective on how we might pitch.

So, we have actually rewritten our company values over the last couple of years to drive collaboration and celebrate people who ask for help; promoting the idea of “better together” so that even our sales teams bring people in the sale, instead of trying to be the individual hero and go for the big bucks. Some of the sales team are more resistant to that than others, because perhaps if you are making highly individual sales for twenty years – the collaborative aspect is more challenging for them than for some of the client teams. They want to be able to say, “I am a hero, and I got this deal.”


Jamie: Do you think that it is related to company life stage as well?

Phil: Yes, and we are a subscription business as well. We sell online communities with twelve to eighteen to twenty-four-month contracts. We are embedded in the client business, and if we sell in a cut-price subscription, there is an opportunity for us to farm additional projects on top. We have a base of around one-hundred-and-fifty clients, and we work with amazing brands, and we can just farm and renew and explore them.

When I started, running a forty-person business looking to be acquired, we were all out hunting for business and pitching for new business. It was all about winning logos, building pride and swagger, and breaking some of our own belief barriers around how we price more effectively.

Jamie: You mentioned changing the organisational values recently. How long does it take to see those top-down values permeating an organisation?

Phil: We have tried not to be top-down about it. 4-5 years ago, we were in the middle of a challenging period. It was the first time in a few years we had plateaued in terms of growth. We were sick of hearing everyone moaning about leadership and being ineffective, and we needed to turn the company around. Our approach was not top-down, it was more bottom-up with the team. We looked at one of the negative behaviours in the company that were holding us back from growth, and people talked about like we are not collaborating like we are not celebrating successes; we are not looking out for each other. We came up with a set of company values and worked on them. It was easier because people were all into them rather than the big imposed top-down. About four years later, we were living those values pretty strongly, but any values lived too strongly can have a negative impact. One of our values was previous, “I got this”, and that was all about people having initiative, stepping up, owning the problem. But if you are too “I got this,” it leads to burnout, being overwhelmed, not being able to ask for help. If you translate that into future sales, “I got this” means a lead comes in from Google, you jump on it, you try and get the sale, and you do not ask for help, which means you might mess it up. We went through an exercise recently, where we said, “What are the dark sides of our values?” And “How do we correct the, and say okay, ‘I got this’ does mean ownership but it doesn’t mean not asking people for help.”

A lot of it is actually about driving more collaborative behaviour, celebrating people who draw others into the solution and helping people see that ultimately, we want to go for the bigger win for the company.

We tried to use our leaders as our values for cultural change, as we go through these ups and downs of growing business.


Jamie: And as an aspiring salesperson, specifically, if you are looking into sales function, what corporate values might you look for to prioritise that company?


I would say, “think about your own personal values, and go for a company that has values that reflect your own” because as a salesperson, my head goes to something like integrity; either as a salesperson, if your personal values are around integrity and you work for a company where everything is done to get the sale at no cost, you are not going to be successful.

But if you are hyper-competitive and there is a company that has values that mirror that, I would go for that, so I am not sure I would say there are values that are right for salespeople, so much as people just checking that they align with their own use, and if you are motivated by the thrill of the wind, and the building, that is one thing, you are motivated by the financial gain, that is a different thing. When I was selling, I know I would always struggle with the money, and being motivated by what that money was going to help you do, but I know for others, that really helps them. I was much more motivated by “who I was going to be” and getting better than I was last time. It is more about the alignment of values more than anything.


Jamie: What specific characteristics or skills do you most value in hiring salespeople?

Phil: The most effective salespeople I have hired have often not come from a sales background. Some of them have been MBA grads who have three jobs to pay their way through an MBA, and just have a real hunger; as our current head of growth director in the UK right now, was a political intern working with Twitter, but we gave him the job because in his interview, he talked about how he had fought for that role and been turned down, and he kept fighting. So, I do not know. I sometimes feel like people that have been in a very entrenched rigid sales role, do not make the most effective salespeople for us. We are highly consultative selling; it is not a product sale.

I look for confidence, but I also look for humility, and I look for people who are teachable and demonstrate that they can learn and change things. I tend to focus a lot less on “show me the results” and focus a lot more on “what are you going to do”, and I think we have been more effective at hiring up more at the junior- to mid-level. I think hiring senior-level salespeople, that is harder. I have not had as much success bring in senior people. I find them more set in their ways so I gravitate more towards high potential talent that is teachable, than people who think they know it all, and that is again probably more for the humility, teachability. You need to be able to come in and learn, and probably unlearn some bad techniques as well.


Jamie: Okay, regardless of age, if you take that out of the equation, that flexibility, willingness, and self-reflection is something that you are finding to be key?

Phil: Yes. I look for people who can demonstrate that, and also when they come in, can demonstrate they are learning and changing because I do think if you are doing consultative selling you are creating highly-tailored proposals where it is not just the case of cutting and pasting Powerpoints, I think every sale is different. You need to be able to go in, you need to do a post-mortem, and reflect, and learn, and go and go at it again. For our salespeople, they have to have collaboration skills. It is back to the values. It is great if you have a salesperson that can just do it by themselves, but the reality is in our business, they need to be able to pull in someone from the team who is going to help them have a sector perspective. They need to pull in someone else that is going to design the data solution. They need to pull in something else from the creative team to help the proposal to look great.

Some of our most successful salespeople are not necessarily the best salespeople with clients, but they are amazing internal collaborators. People want to help them, and some of our least successful salespeople, particular in a complex cell, where it might be half a million, a million dollars’ worth of consulting, they are people who are not very good at collaborating internally.

If they brought people up the wrong way, and they cannot figure out how to get help with the proposal or have to tie in with someone to think for a solution, people are not really that interested in helping them. I think selling, the way I see it, is actually a lot more collaborative and a lot less individualistic than maybe historically. Maybe that’s an industry thing, but certainly in our business that’s the case.

Jamie: What advice do you have for salespeople on internal collaboration?

Phil: We talk about relationships being the source of results, I usually say, “right, you guys need to get in a room, and you need to get to know each other, and you need to try and figure out about a bit of their relationship and have a bit of empathy for the different roles you have”. It is not my job to mediate between the two of you, so I tend to say “it starts with relationships and you have to invest time in relationships” because some people can still say, “well, I know the salespeople are only motivated about the commission, salespeople want to sell something and then throw it over the fence to the delivery team”; that is not in their interest, they need to sell it and move on. Those people get found out by the delivery team further down the line. 

If you are a salesperson, and you do not scope the work properly, you just throw it over the fence, and the delivery team pick up the pieces, they are not going to want to work with you next time. I think that the people who collaborate and build relationships that might be a little bit slower, to begin with, and the ones that build trust and have people want to lean in to help them be successful, ultimately they then sell more, make more money, hit their targets, the teams are happier to bring them into conversations with clients. They see that their motives are not just “I want to flog them more stuff” and more, “I am going to work by your side and not make you look stupid in front of your client.”

Again, It might be different in a product call where you just need to sell like equipment or something, but ours is a relationship, and if the salespeople do not set up trust, it unravels very quickly.

Jamie: So you recommend people invest time internally, as well as externally, at the beginning of a role?

Phil: Yes, I do think the internal relationships are important, and investing in them is as important as investing in clients. I cannot think of many pitches where it is a solo effort. It usually involves five or six people, and the salesperson can choreograph all that. It is worth putting in the time when people go to those relationships internally, as well as clients, and sharing the relationships, I think, and some salespeople get a little territorial over their contacts. There are a lot of salespeople who want to top and tail the call, but they do not add a whole lot of value.

Sometimes, give away a little bit of power; do they need to open the call as the salesperson, or can they just be there listening really hard, asking amazing questions, moving the client on, getting to the need, but do they need to be the hero on the call? If their end goal is “how do I help this client, and how do I sell them something they need?” That goes back to my humility point; the salesperson does not have to be the hero. They will become the hero over time, but they do not need to be the hero in the moment, and sometimes they might want to give it away to other people.

Jamie: Are there any sort of extracurriculars or things outside of the workplace that you would weigh heavily in employing a salesperson, or you think will be particularly advantageous?


Phil: Some of the clichès certainly, I can think of hiring someone in the UK who ran Ironman. If it’s implicit in that it shows you can persist and persevere and some of your extracurricular activities show me that you do not give up, and you do not get put off by rejection, that goes a long way. I think if you are doing things that require discipline; rowers are great people that have to get up early in the morning and take part in individual sports pursuits, that’s always was a positive for me. Some for me is less extracurricular activities and more examples they can tell me when they persevered.

I do like it if someone is going to be a great salesperson when I turn them down for an interview, and they come back at me with another approach and say actually “no” to me. That is well worth it; then I will give them the time of day and say, “Okay, this person has a bit of spark to them.” I would consider interviewing them, and I might hire them. I certainly interview people whom I have said “no” to, and they come back again because I think that is what I would want you to do if you are selling to our clients. I am always drawn to that.

I am also drawn to people that may have experienced a bit of hardship, where they genuinely had to fight and been turned down for something, and they came back fighting because I do think that sort of attitude is important, particularly for junior salespeople that have not got a ton of experience. That may be influenced by my Southwestern experience.

Jamie: What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to aspiring salespeople?

Phil: I think people that invest in their own education become better salespeople, as well as people who read and people that ask for feedback. When I think of great salespeople I have worked with, post-Southwestern, they are usually people who come out of the pitch, whether we have won it or not, and they think: what are three things we could do better. People that are constantly – not beating themselves up, or in pursuit of perfection – but instead focussed on learning and improvement. I do think it is investing the time. I think some people are more naturally gifted; CEOs need to naturally good at this stuff and put in the hard yards. I do think you can become a great salesperson. I think most people could become great salespeople. The other thing I would say is to listen hard. Ask three questions, but really listen, and again, they say just keep digging, and listen, and listen, and listen because that is what helps you sell.

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

Phil: I think I would talk less and listen more, on a general level, and I do not think I would make different career choices. I would talk less, ask more questions, listen harder, and I think that is where I continue to learn and develop.

Jamie: Could tell me about a time when you did not make a sale, and it hurt but taught you something?

Phil: There have been various examples of where we have built a relationship with the client but not sold. We were pitching an online retail brand, and the sales team thought they had amazing rapport with people, you build the perfect solution, you put together the great team, and then someone just comes in, and swipes it out from under you, and they award the business to someone else, and it hurts, because it might have been a four-month process, and the clients say, “Oh we love you, and the chemistry is good,” but someone else just got in there. There are always things that you can do to be better, and I think it is in many of our natures to analyse and learn from it, but you can also beat yourself up, and it can knock your confidence for the next one if you obsess about it.

So, learning to learn from the messes, but not carrying it with you too heavily to the next project. Sales is a skill and a numbers game, and you can influence it, and accepting that sometimes something happens and it is beyond your control. The reality of B2B is sometimes you can do pretty much everything right, and it will still go the other way. If you have more irons in the fire, you get better, but sometimes you will just have to let yourself off the hook; otherwise, you can take that bitterness forward with you to the next one, and then you look miserable, and you do not have that mojo going forward.


Jamie: What’s the best interview you have seen, and how people have really shown you they were going to be amazing salespeople in your organisation?

Phil: When I am interviewing salespeople, I do not necessarily want it to feel like an interview, so I do not do the, “sell me a pen” type stuff. A lot of that I am assessing, like “how do I feel at the end of this exchange,” how they made me feel –  the whole interview mirrors the sales process. Do I feel like I have interviewed them, or do I feel like they have interviewed me, and got me talking? Because that is what I want them to do with the client who I put them in front of. I think at the end of an interview, it is about having chemistry with this person – have they asked me intelligent questions? I hold them to a higher standard than I might someone else, in terms of whether they create a rapport with me at the start, and not just using, “Ah, this is a nice room” and like “What is the weather like today?.” Instead, have they shown a genuine interest in me? For example, in their written comments to me afterwards, have they followed up with a thank-you note?

I’m still amazed at how few people follow up with a thank-you note, and if it is in a sales role, and someone does not follow up, I think that is crazy, because what would they do with their clients?

It needs to be, “This is why I think I am great, and this is what I enjoyed about our conversation;” have they got some specifics?

Again, none of this really feels like rocket science stuff, in many ways, I do not feel like sales is rocket science. It is about building relationships. It is about transferring feeling, it is about understanding needs; in an hour, you can do that with someone in an interview.

I tend to make a decision fairly quickly, in the first couple of minutes. I think like that first impression is hard to undo if they do not make a good impression to begin with, whether that is right or wrong.


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