Rhys is a military veteran, a top salesperson, a colleague at React News, and a good friend. He discipline and focus on hitting top line numbers serves him well in hitting punchy new business targets.
I wanted to get background on whether having been in the military helps a sales career, and how the transition to the corporate world plays out. This information is captured below. Please excuse the swearing, which is included for emphasis.
You can read Rhys’ full biography here
Jamie: Rhys, just to begin with, what have you found most fulfilling about, your sales career thus far?
Rhys: When I left the army to start my sales career, the one thing which I wanted from my new career was to have something which enabled me to spend a lot of time talking to people. You can only imagine how key that is to a sales career. I think the thing which I find most satisfying about the career is that it enables me to interact with other people and be client-facing.
Jamie: What’s the best thing about being in sales?
Rhys: I would say that the ability to interact with other people and talk to other people. Not necessarily solving other people’s problems, although that’s perhaps the ideal outcome, but certainly working through them and trying to offer a solution where possible. At the end of the day, you’re not going to be able to sell anything unless it’s solving someone else’s problem. I enjoy both solving the problem and working with someone in order to do so.
Jamie: What have you found the worst thing about being in sales?
Rhys: Oh, easy. When someone has a problem, you can solve the problem, and they’re just completely oblivious to it, and have no interest in exploring it. You can see that you can make a real difference to someone’s business; in fact, even in some instances, make a real difference to someone’s personal life, with the impact of their current job has on them, but they have no interest whatsoever.
It’s very frustrating for you because you know there’s a sale there, and you can get closer towards your target and make more commission. But it’s also frustrating because there’s a problem which can be solved, and through no other reason than someone else’s pig-headedness, it’s not being solved.
Jamie: What techniques do you use to get around that unwillingness to buy something where it seems obvious to you?
Rhys: Well, it depends on the level or the severity of that lack of willingness on the other person’s side. With law firms, for instance, because their numbers are very easy to acquire, they’re always inundated with calls from salespeople, and it gets to the point where it doesn’t matter what you have. They just shut down, and they don’t want to hear it.
In those situations, it’s nearly impossible to get through, if they don’t even allow you to start a conversation with them.
With other people, it’s just a case of being empathetic to the point of understanding that you are an annoying salesperson. Simply by virtue of 9 out of 10 sales calls not succeeding – the majority of salespeople are or selling something which isn’t required.
That is, by its very nature, irritating. You need to empathize with that, and then through that empathy, you need to understand the importance of succinctly getting your point across to them in order for them to see the potential benefit of taking on board what you have to offer. The way around it is to get your point across quickly and concisely.
Jamie: What skills do you believe that someone should exhibit naturally to want to go into sales?
Being able to articulate complex issues in a short, pithy manner is incredibly important. Some people I’ve come across relied very heavily on emails, which is fine, but your ability to verbalize what you’re trying to get across to the person you’re trying to sell to in that short, succinct manner is of the utmost importance.
In addition to that, I would say a reasonably high level of emotional intelligence.
You’ve got to pick up on a lot of cues, some of them are non-verbal, and some of them are verbal, such as if they say “fuck off.” Without picking up on that, then you’re just a sociopath or don’t care, which means sales is not good for you. I would say a decent level of emotional intelligence, a decent level of verbal intelligence, articulation, and how you wish to describe it.
Because your specific question was, what natural skills would someone require? I think those skills are quite hard to teach – certainly emotional intelligence. If anyone learns that, I think it would be quite easy to spot. You would come across as a bit of a robot. I think it’s not very easy to learn how to articulate points verbally – I think you can learn to do it across emails much more easily – but verbally, I think that’s probably more of a natural trait.
Jamie: Would you recommend that any personality type look to get into technology sales particularly?
Rhys: Tech sales, because of the commissions and the big salaries that go with it, seems to attract some unsavoury characters. I would imagine money has a tendency to do that.
In terms of what sort of characters should generally go into sales? I think sales is sales and the same traits that would make you good at selling a property as a realtor would make you good at selling tech. I think you need the same qualities and traits.
Jamie: What’s your biggest strength as a salesperson?
Rhys: Well, I’ve already named two, which came immediately to mind. I think you need a certain level of natural ability; an intrinsic kind of intelligence. I think I would, perhaps arrogantly, rank myself relatively highly on both of those – emotional intelligence and an ability to articulate.
I think confidence is something which people who have it take for granted and don’t really consider. If you’re confident, then you’re more than happy to talk to someone you’ve never met before, you’re more than happy to give a presentation in front of people, and it’s not something you worry about because you’re not getting that anxiety. Confidence is a pretty bloody important trait to have when it comes to selling.
Jamie: What skills have you found transferable from the military to sales?
Rhys: When I first started, I thought none. I thought in the city, people didn’t have a backbone and had no kind of moral compass. Having been in the industry for a tiny time, as more and more time goes by, I can see more and more parallels that can be drawn between lots of things that I was taught at Sandhurst during my military career, and which I can also apply in sales.
I can say a huge amount of being an officer when it comes to operations is coming with a plan, formulating a plan, and then executing that plan. To execute that plan, you need to convey the plan to the soldiers, who will be doing a lot of work on your behalf. You know you’re part of a team, and you’re the captain who comes up with the strategy or the tactics.
Then the team and you execute it, but you need to get the tactics aligned across to your team. These plans are quite lengthy and complex as you might imagine, and the only way of doing that is by standing up there and briefing the troops, and talking them through it and making sure everyone understands, making sure that everyone’s following and then make sure it’s executed.
I think that the ability to present to a large number of people with quite a lot of pressure and responsibility is relevant to sales. It develops character from quite a young age, whereas you would only have the same experience or similar experience in the commercial world at a much later date. The ability to present is key, and where I noticed a real difference between myself and other contemporaries when I first started.
Jamie: You mentioned the planning aspects; has that transferred over; the way that you plan for success in the military and now in sales?
Rhys: No, to be honest with you. People have asked me that before because they thought they’d be similar. I think what people mix up unknowingly is a routine, having a schedule, keeping to the schedule, discipline, and then planning. In a military sense, planning is complex planning, like solving very complex problems with a huge number of variables.
It’s trying to kind of put together a plan of action which takes into account all of these variables, some of which you don’t know even exist, and there’s a level of uncertainty as well, which adds massive complexity: that’s planning in a military sense.
Planning in a sales world, in my experience, is much simpler. It’s more a case of creating a schedule or a routine, which is not as complex as military planning.
Jamie: If planning for success in sales is so simple, why do people find it difficult?
Rhys: Discipline. That’s why.
Jamie: Can you talk a little bit about the discipline that’s needed to be good at sales?
Rhys: I think it’s hard to keep to a routine. It’s just human nature that we’re not very good at keeping to routines that well, especially hard routines, which require you to do things, which aren’t particularly enjoyable for periods.
It’s tough to stick to it, and it’s also tough to kind of have the discipline to hold yourself accountable, with honest self-evaluation.
Jamie: Do you feel like your military experience helped you with that honest self-evaluation as well?
Rhys: It certainly helped with the discipline. Realistic self-evaluation? No, I’m not sure if it did.
Jamie: You’ve recently sold those long sales cycle and short sales cycle products. What have you found to be the biggest difference between the two, and which do you prefer?
The biggest difference is risk. Long sales cycles inherently carry more risk because there’s more time that someone can drop out at any period. If you’re selling to someone and it’s a 12-month sales cycle, it’s much easier to not hit your target because of the length of the sales cycle, and you’re going to put in more time and more effort as that cycle progresses.
If something ends up falling through in the last few months or a few weeks or a few days, you might as well not have done any of the work at all. At times, you might have asked for help, and you just wasted a ton of help. There’s no getting that back. Risk is the biggest differentiator between the two. Which do I prefer – I think I prefer the shorter one.
Jamie: How do you recommend the organizations best compensate their salespeople?
Rhys: I suppose there’s really two ways of doing it: Individual and team. For a team, you can debate whether it’s a team as in the whole company, or a team as in a smaller contingent, like a specific sales team. There are pros and cons to both. The obvious pros and cons of individual commission are that you are directly responsible for exactly how well you do as in the individual basis one. The con is if you don’t do so well, then you’re stuck.
The pros and cons are reversed in the group situation. I think most of the time, it has to be individual. It wouldn’t work in a lot of environments if it wasn’t done individually, because salespeople come and go. There’s always going to be people who are consistently better than others. I think for simplicity, as well as for fairness, it’s probably best done individually.
Jamie: You’ve mentioned in our previous conversations, you’ve seen individual compensation lead to bad behaviour. Just wondering if you talk a little about that, and how individual compensation can sometimes have its downsides in larger organizations?
Rhys: There is an element of luck to sales. It depends if you’ve got some who wants to buy your product, you don’t even have to be a very good salesperson like that. Some people are just there and want to buy, and you’re like, “Cool.” They just don’t even care, and they’ll happily pay double, and that’s when you get lucky.
I’m not sure what the psychological term would be for it, but for some people, as they become more successful, they become less willing to admit the level of luck or chance involved. In fact,
Barack Obama said that one of his biggest hates was successful people refusing to attribute a proportion of their success to luck. That is completely right. I think one of the negative things with having big commissions for an individual basis for salespeople is that there are certainly some people out there who would bring out the very worst in them to get a big bonus.
That’s not very good for a team environment because, basically, it turns them into massive dicks. Who wants to be around that?
Jamie: What elements of culture make a sales organization successful?
Rhys: I’m a big believer in culture, it is probably the most important thing in a company or a business, primarily because it makes people want to stay and it makes people want to work. It’s not seen as so much of a chore necessarily, and ideally not at all. If the culture is that brilliant, then I really think it no longer seems like work. Even if you’re doing something, which is a bit of a shit task during the week, if it’s a great culture, it’s still fun in a weird way, because you’re just doing it around people that you like and get along with.
I think a better way of describing the importance of culture is to give an example that, if you’re working in a terrible culture, it’s kind of the antithesis of what I just described. If it’s a terrible culture, then Christ, no one wants to be there, and everyone’s looking on LinkedIn for the first opportunity to get out of there.
Your retainment is going to be shit, and it costs so much to recruit. That’s going to be a massive burden on the company. Training, that’s time-consuming. Ramping people up, that’s time-consuming.
You don’t want to be churning through people as it’s very pricey, and it’s a downward spiral because people see other people leaving, they question whether they should be leaving, that question is something that makes a recruiter who pops up on LinkedIn that bit more appealing.
Having a negative culture impacts not only a company’s balance sheet but also pretty much every aspect of work; it’s the worst possible thing. If the worst possible thing is having a terrible culture, then, surely it must be one of the most important things to have a good culture.
Jamie: That speaks about the symptoms and the importance, but what are the causes of a good culture?
Rhys: I think I would start at the opposite side again, and figure out what are the causes of a bad culture and then ensure that you don’t have those causes. I literally feel like I’m back at Sandhurst and I’m talking about leadership for like the hundredth time again. We always used to talk about leadership, unsurprisingly, at Sandhurst, and the importance of good leadership on organizations and in teams.
Toxic leadership was the worst kind of thing an organization or team could have when it came to kind of leadership, and the knock-on effects it could have. One of the biggest things toxic leadership does is it guarantees a shit culture. I would say that’s probably the number one thing, is to make sure you don’t have toxic leadership. There are so many things that can make it toxic, but it’s also quite easy, to sum up, to say it simply, just don’t be a dick.
The higher up you are, the more important it is to not be a dick. If you assume you get any level of responsibility, as in becoming a leader in any sense, then you have the power to create a shit culture, which also conversely means you have the power to make a good culture. I’d say culture all comes down to the leadership and the leaders. They create the culture because they’re the ones with the power.
Jamie: What advice would you have for an aspiring salesperson to find out in advance whether or not it’s a good culture?
Rhys: For your salesperson, right? A key part of your armoury is being able to PG into an account, well, PG into the job that you’re going into, just message some people, call them, and befriend them. Try and find a friend of a friend who works there, or knows someone who works there, try and find out for yourself what it’s like. If you’re interviewing for a sales job like that, the people interviewing you are not just trying to ascertain whether you’re good enough for the job, but they’re also trying to sell you the job as well.
You can ignore whatever they say about the job in terms of its culture because who in their right mind would tell you that the company has a bad culture. That’s just absurd. Anything they say about the culture is obviously going to be positive. It’s obviously only going to be positive, then you might as well just disregard it entirely because you would only ever get one side of it. Get an independent review, namely your own review. Do that through PG, and be creative. Find out for yourself.
Jamie: What advice would you give to aspiring salespeople generally?
Rhys: It would be the same advice I’ll give to anyone going into any career, have an honest and realistic self-evaluation. Some people think that they’re cleverer than they are, that they’re stronger than they are, that they’re more confident than they are. At least those are traits where it is clearly better to have more of that trait.
Some people keep to themselves but think they’re an extrovert, that they like being around people. They think that’s better when in reality it’s not better nor worse than being an introvert. It’s same in parts of Myers Briggs, such as agreeableness, as in being agreeable or being disagreeable – neither is inherently good for sales.
Be honest with yourself as to what you are. From that, hopefully, you’ll be able to accurately find your job which fits your character, because you can’t really deviate too far away from who are at your core.
You can to a certain degree, but the more you try and keep aligned to who you are naturally, at your deepest level, not only are you going to be more successful but you’ll be happier as well.
Jamie: If you had your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Rhys: I don’t know. I think primarily through luck. I’m pretty happy with it in hindsight. I went to Cisco first, or rather a company acquired by Cisco. I got some really good mentoring, good coaching, and development there. They sent me on some sales boot camps, which was brilliant to set things up. Then through nothing but luck and chance, I stumbled upon the next opportunity, and then I went for that. I think I wouldn’t change a thing to be honest with you, and it’s that rare you can say that. I think the only reason I can say that is because of sheer luck, and that’s it.
Jamie: Please can you tell me about a specific time when you failed to make a sale, but it taught you something really valuable?
Rhys: Let’s take a really simple example, with a bigger lesson there to be learned. The immediate lesson was that I set them up with a trial access to React News. We had a meeting after the trial, and they said they weren’t going to buy it because their decision-makers weren’t on trial. They weren’t really particularly bought into it.
They didn’t care enough. So essentially, I just needed to extend the trial for another week until the decision-makers on trial, and that’s fine. The quick learning point from that was: make sure you don’t even start a trial without decision-makers, and push really hard that there are significant and important decision-makers on that trial.
The bigger learning point was perhaps don’t kind of dive straight in. When you are new, take your time to embed yourself and to learn the process because, for all you know, that first opportunity that comes across your desk could be the biggest one, the biggest sale of your year. You don’t want to blow any opportunity because you don’t know which one is going be your Moby Dick.
You don’t know which one is going to be the one which sees you through half of your quota. When you first arrive somewhere, yes, you’re eager to please, eager to impress and all that shit, but maybe just kind of take a moment and just have a think, and make sure you’re fully prepared to begin any cycle or process.