Rich Williams, Director, Straight Line Communications

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Rich has a beautiful way of (i) keeping complex concepts simple, (ii) working hard to make things happen, and (iii) being candid and straightforward in his views. After selling books for 6 years, Rich then went into a corporate career with Orbitsound, a new music technology venture. Rich’s perspective in this interview – when Orbitsound, at the time, lacked a sales-centric culture – is useful in informing what you should look for and not look for in corporate jobs.


Since leaving Orbitsound, Rich has moving industries and roles, working as a consultant the director at telecommunications firms, and becoming a social media savant in record time, all whilst raising a family and started a business. His storytelling at the end is especially powerful.


You can read Rich’s full biography here


Jamie: What have you found most fulfilling about your career so far?

Rich: I think one of the biggest things for me is seeing a business grow from nothing to something. When I started in the business where I am working at the moment, they were selling nothing a week. When you see that you have an impact on selling 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 units a week from your blood, sweat, and tears – that is so powerful to me. You evolve from going, “Okay. Well, that seems a really big number,” to “That’s great. What’s the next one?” Now, we’re looking at selling into multiple countries and into more premium opportunities.

It’s that ever-evolving chain of events that you don’t think it’s possible at the start, and then you achieve it. Then you go, “Okay, what’s the next opportunity?” It’s that ever-evolving, “What’s next? Who’s next? What’s the next opportunity?”


Jamie: What’s the best thing about being in sales?

Rich: It’s the best and the worst – that January starts on zero. That is the scariest thing in the world, but almost the biggest motivator for me. I hate it, but I also love it, because the minute I get that first sale under my belt, it just drives you on from there to move forward. Being scared but also being excited at the same time is really powerful for me.


Jamie: Would you say that generally, you’re more away or towards motivated?

Rich: I’ve been asked this question a lot. I’d say when I look at the fear of being on zero, I’m probably away motivated. I hate being on zero, so I want to move away from that.


Jamie: Do you think that it matters whether salespeople are away or towards motivated? Do you have a preference for either on your team?

Rich: No, I don’t. Over the years, I’m not necessarily focused on that. I think the lines blur, and especially having worked with probably more and more millennials, I think it’s possible that someone can be both, and perhaps, they don’t even recognise it. I think people, salespeople or young individuals now have evolved so much that I don’t actually think that’s as important.


Jamie: What is important instead?

Rich: Everyone has characteristics that enable them to know what they want at that time. I think we live in such a society now that some people you’ll see have a 12-month goal, some people have a 24-month goal, but I actually think a lot more people have a goal for that week or even that day. I think people live by shorter-term goals than they have done before. That’s something that I don’t necessarily think is right. But I think after working with salespeople over the last couple of years, I’ve started to think about the here and now, the one-month, three-month, and six-month goals.


Jamie: Can you talk about the importance of goal setting in general?

Rich: Yeah, I think my focus is being aware of what that five-year goal is and what you’re working towards, but really breaking it down and crystallising it down to what do you have to do today to move towards that, and not just goal setting in terms of financials. You have to set goals on the real substance, the development, the learning, and the other skills that you need. When I got taught about goal setting, it was, “Let’s make it SMART. Let’s make sure we’re working towards it, and let’s write it down.” I never focused on what do I need to learn or develop or understand to get to that goal.


Jamie: How do you feel the salespeople in your organisation are treated and compensated when compared to their normal sale peers?

Rich: I would say that the salespeople in our organisation are ostracised, and I think that they do not appreciate us. In my particular organisation, I think they’re misunderstood. I think they rank quite lowly if you were to rank the important people within our organisation.


Jamie: Who has those higher positions; people more of a technical background?

Rich: We’re talking about acoustic design or web development or photography and marketing. Those may be educated, and maybe some of the more technical roles would look down on someone in sales.


Jamie: What effect does that dynamic have on working there as a salesperson?

Rich: Unfortunately, this may well be a cultural thing, because salespeople are often good at talking and asking a lot of questions, and that is sometimes to the detriment of the influence that salesperson has on the whole of an organisation. I would say part of that

success I’ve had, going from a salesperson to an MD, is because I’ve listened a lot more than a lot of my peers. I’ve learned to be sensitive to other people’s needs to sell to 100% of people, rather than 25% of people.

Whereas, unfortunately, I think some other non-sales people have a technical mindset and don’t like to be told or encouraged on their part of the business by someone who isn’t educated in that area but has an opinion. I think the learning and educated opinion of a salesperson is less regarded than ever before.


Jamie: It sounds like you believe that salespeople can do a very good job of those leadership roles?

Rich: Yes. I think that the core skills of a great salesperson, in my opinion, is the ability to listen, the ability to adapt, and the ability to understand from all sides to provide a solution for that customer.

I often find the way a salesperson thinks is broader and more “outside the box” than most of the technical individuals.  


Jamie: If a salesperson were looking for a specific industry or company to join, would you then recommend they look for a company that has salespeople in leadership positions?

Rich: I think so. Yes, definitely.


Jamie: What skills do you think that people should have naturally to want to go into sales?


Rich: An openness to learning. I think you have to understand that you’re never going to be the finished article. You have to want to learn. I personally feel as though you have to be extremely self-motivated. Also, more these days than ever before, with the flexible working hours, working from home, all of these are common things that can be supremely affected if you don’t have that self-motivation; the ability to do that one more call or that one more meeting.


Jamie: Would you recommend that anyone goes into direct B2C sales specifically?

Rich: Yeah. I think from my experience, I’ve known a lot of individuals who moved from a sales role to sales role because it’s not quite what they had in mind. I imagine what a lot of people have in mind is; they get told that it’s not going to be 30 hours a week on the phone, and then they get into it, and it’s 30 hours a week on the phone.

The expectations aren’t often in line with what an actual sales role is. There has to be an understanding of how bad it can be. Therefore, it can only be better when you actually get into it and can you actually succeed while you’re learning and developing.


Jamie: How can you ensure your employer or potential employer is telling you the truth and is being realistic with you?

Rich: I think there is that ability to interview and understand. It’s catching up with a couple of members of the team that you’re going to be working with, together with real insights into the business, and asking for shadow days to physically see what a day looks like before you accept a job. These would be all things that I’d be a big advocate of, though I haven’t always seen them offered or asked for.


Jamie: You mentioned earlier that the whole 30 hours a week on the phone. Would that be typical of the industry you’re currently in?

Rich: No, not typical. That would be typical of individuals who I’ve seen go into sales roles, probably maybe an IT sales area or doing something else. My area of sales is either long term, setting up distribution channels or training in sales, or actually being in day to day roles within a retail sales environment or events.


Jamie: In terms of what you’ve seen in your industry, have you seen any particular advantage or preferential treatment to make sales results based on age, gender, and physical appearance?

Rich:  No, I think I’ve seen every type of person be extremely successful. I’ve also seen every type of person fail miserably. Unfortunately, and I think still to this day that there’s the old 80/20 rule that applies; 20% of them in my industry make it, and 80% don’t. That 20% is made up of every type of person, though.


Jamie: Let’s talk about that 80/20. What skills are needed to succeed?

Rich: It goes back to that open-mindedness, so that willingness to know that you’re never going to be the finished product. I think open-mindedness is really key, coming back to that self-motivation I mentioned before. I think beyond that is that competitiveness; whether you call it “away” or “towards,” whether it’s competitive with someone else or competitive with yourself, there has to be that air of “I want to be successful regardless.” I think that really comes down to pride.

If I strip it back, I think the individuals that succeed work to have a large element of pride. So when they go to bed at night, and they look at themselves in the mirror, and they think,

“Okay, I’ve reached two out of three, and I’ve done everything in my power to reach the third one and it just wasn’t possible. Tomorrow’s a new day, and I’m confident I can hit three out of three tomorrow.”

Another big part is being a conversationalist. I don’t think that can be taught. I don’t think it needs to be a requirement of those individuals going into sales, but I think that has to be a level of intellect that enables people to get on a level with other people really helps.


Jamie: What are the specific skills that you need to succeed in B2C consumer goods sales?

Rich: The one that I probably haven’t mentioned before is passion. I look at many sales roles that I would find it hard to do it myself because I find it hard to get passionate about a deep fat fryer or something like that. I think that’s the other area in my industry where going above and beyond the skills needed, the best addition would be passion.

I’m quite fortunate that I work in the music industry, that is perceived as having a coolness to it.  It’s associated with emotions, and it’s associated with things people really enjoy. It allows you to impart your passion to others who are willing to listen. I’d say that passion is probably a key one. I think the other one is probably patience. In the industry that I work within, there are lots of myths and lots of nuances that will lead you down the garden path.

So, I think you’ve got to be patient and listen to other people’s opinions. You’ve got to be willing to listen, and you’ve got to be willing to bite your tongue at times when you definitely know that what they are saying is not true. You have to hold back and be patient enough to allow for your opinion and be able to provide service in the right way, regardless.


Jamie: Now, what are the biggest challenges in winning business in your industry and in direct sales?

Rich: Getting in front of a buyer.

Getting in front of a buyer with an open mind. This doesn’t necessarily apply to everything, but the business that we work within is full of some extremely big brands that sponsor the Olympics, sponsor the World Cup, sponsor the FA Cup, and the Premiership, all of these sorts of things that are associated with some humongous marketing giants. So, getting in front of a buyer with an open mind, who is willing to listen to an alternative brand.


Jamie: Can you just run me through your products? What are their unique selling points that you’re leveraging to get them from this far?

Rich: The cool one is that the way we produce sound differently. For 60 years now, not everyone’s listened to two-speaker stereo, which means that it sounds the best in the middle of the room. What we enable customers to do is hear the best sound wherever you are in the room, so, therefore, changing the way that people have listened to the sound for 60 years. Then beyond that, we try to add features and benefits that we think are useful to consumers and also create things from a smaller footprint than most of our competition.


Jamie: How do you deal with organisational complexity? I think you’ve touched on it, but how do you deal with that organisational complexity in those businesses that you’re selling into and get them to try your product on the shelves?

Rich: I think fundamentally, the biggest thing for us in the way we’ve been most successful in finding the gap in the organisations, where they have a way in and we can create a way in. There are some stores that we work with, and let’s say someone sells a speaker at £300 and £500. The gap would be that they don’t have a product of £400. It’s almost analysing in the world that generally the sales that we do if we’re looking at selling into retail and B2B, is what gaps do they have? What products do we have to offer that we can support them with and then once we’re, you can then invest, create, develop, and nurture that relationship and go above and beyond what your competition is doing to enable you to put multiple products in, regardless of whether they’ve got competition at that price point or not.

It’s finding the chinks in other people’s armour, developing and then sometimes potentially even looking at it the other way around, is creating products for that sales process. So maybe the sales process is to say, “Look, this is what we’re very good at. But actually, there’s an opportunity here to sell 1,000 speakers here if we change it. Let’s build something new,” and go back to the whole operation, manufacturing and supply chain, and go, “Yeah, you’re really great at doing this, but the sales opportunity is here and let’s change what we’re doing to cultivate that sales opportunity.”’

That really comes back to what I said at the start – listening to the guy on the shop floor, who’s in the trenches, to filter down into all those processes and decisions. Otherwise, you’re building products that people in a factory or an ivory tower love, but that doesn’t filter down to the market.


Jamie: Talk to me about what happens when that connection isn’t there and when salespeople aren’t being listened to in an organisation?

Rich:  I think nowadays, with millennials, I think it’s important to note that more people nowadays want to be part of something larger than themselves. So, when the connection isn’t there, I think people become demotivated, they believe they don’t have a voice, and they get detached from the vision of the business. Therefore, their performance level is poor, and salespeople start doing a job to exist rather than thrive. 


Jamie: Would you recommend B2C and/or consumer goods or pharmaceuticals to any salesperson?

Rich: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s one of the more fun ones to get into because most people are a buyer. So, getting in front of buyers who like audio or like movies or entertainment is quite satisfying. You can have a conversation, and you can build your skills, you can develop your skills, you can understand more objections, and you do more demos daily than a lot of other roles. A lot of other roles are cramming the phone just to get to someone who will listen. In my industry, most people will listen; however, most have been marketed to, most people have a preference, and most people already have the desired outcome. That’s where you’ve got to hone your skills to be able to sell to different types of people.


Jamie: What do you like and dislike the most about being a challenger brand as opposed to a market leader?


Rich: Yeah. Over the years, I have had individuals who leave our business not because they get paid more money daily, but because they want an easier job. Nobody who’s really successful leaves our business because they ultimately get paid more than everyone else. It’s the ones who want the easy job who move to a bigger business. But generally, the ones who are successful have honed all their skills learned, they always stay around because they never stopped learning. Whereas some of our competition, the market leaders don’t see learning as important, and don’t necessarily prioritise their staff and really build upon their goals and potential and therefore, they only allow them to maintain rather than thrive. 


Jamie: How is the sales training in your organisation? 

Rich:  We’re always getting better, always improving, and I think it’s always ongoing. It happens almost daily. In my opinion, every conversation should have a training slant to it, whether that’s how are you doing or what are you up to? How can we move things forward and improve right away to really structure sit-down events? Unfortunately, we are a geographically dispersed organisation. There’s a lot more sort of conference calls and Face-Timing rather than personal get-togethers, but nothing still replaces getting people on Face-Time and getting in front of people. It’s far-and-away the most powerful part. 


Jamie: So, your organisation does a good job of providing formalised face-to-face coaching?

Rich: Yeah, and in terms of that, we’ve just created and bought into a new

HR software, which is a structured piece of software that you can focus on people, milestones, development reviews, and to make sure people are listened to every month.

I’ve just actually activated it last week with my regional sales team, asking them the five biggest wins that they had last year, and also the five biggest questions I had asked last year, that they often haven’t followed up on this year, which I’ve actually found quite interesting to see. The good thing is that we asked the question again in February, instead of waiting for December.


Jamie: How does that compare to the industry?

Rich: I would imagine, in lots of different industries, a lot of reviews get put in a drawer and never get looked at. Often, very few people are asked their opinion on things that can actually affect and benefit the business. I think that we do well in my job, for example, but I’m always willing to listen to see how we can do more.


Jamie: How are your staff up on the shop floor? Are they well compensated?

Rich: They’re probably given slightly less than the competition in terms of base salary. But I’ve always believed in this approach- that everyone who works in a daily job for us wins their own business. So, whether you work one day a week or five days a week for us, you get paid on everything that goes through your business. When I talk about their businesses, if they work in Oxford Street, John Lewis, they would get paid on every single sale that goes to Oxford Street, John Lewis, whether they’re in there or not, whether they work one day or five days, so it’s telling them to treat it as their own sales business. Therefore, they get paid on every single unit, every single bit of business that goes through that store, however, big or small it is.


Jamie: Do you have a sense of what percentage of the overall revenue of the business goes back to the sales team and sales managers?

Rich: Revenue wise, I think as we move from a sales business more to a branded marketing business, I think it’s probably reducing. I think previously, at one stage it would be 10% to 15%, that will be reducing as we move into a more sort of traditional marketing business as we build a brand. 


Jamie: How would you describe that dynamic between sales and marketing or in the organisation currently?

Rich: Massively intertwined. I have come from a school of thinking that marketing is just another strand of sales, or actually sales is just another strand of marketing, and I haven’t really changed that opinion, as you look at marketing and sales as an umbrella. You’ve got social media and all of these different forms that probably form that umbrella of marketing.

We have a marketing agency, and we have a PR agency, we have someone who takes care of social media, digital online, and our digital spend. Then we have 25 people who work in sales. I think the difference with sales is, it’s always going to be the highest on the headcount, which means that it’s been the highest on the management radar and it’s highest in terms of the fixed costs.

Whereas, at this moment in time, it probably returns the most consistent ROI and is the number that everyone knows that it returns. You can probably say how you spend “X” this month, I’m going to get “Y”, whereas all of the other areas in PR and all the other forms of marketing, I get a blank look on my face when I get ask about ROI. Everyone just looked at me and went, “You know that you’re not going to get that figure off anyone.” Well, why do we spend it then?


Jamie: How do you get into direct sales and the B2C industry?

Rich: Personally, I think my story’s a weird one when someone walked into a lecture and said, “do you want to sell books in America,” but that’s one for another day. I think I get 10 emails a week with people asking me if they can get into direct sales. I always enjoy trying to go back to all of those and asking why. One of the biggest things for me is that if you want to get into direct sales, you go directly to the company that you want to get into, and you sell them on why you should get into it.

Because in principle, if you can sell me on why I should hire you, then, you’re probably not far away from being good in the business. I’d argue that that’s a very uncommon thing, and I’d say that people don’t think of it like that way. But if someone comes to me telling me why I should give them a job, I’m going to give them a chance.


Jamie: What advice would you give to aspiring salespeople?

Rich: I think being willing to work for nothing. Back yourself and because if you don’t back yourself no one else will, and you will become a sponge. Learn from every single person who has been there longer than you, who’s seen it, done it, and who’s got the T-shirt. Learn from everything. Everyone’s got something, no matter how good or bad they are at a job, they’ve always got something to impart to you. You’d be too naive enough to think that they can’t help you out in some way or another.


Jamie: What training would you suggest that an aspiring salesperson look for?

Rich: I think knowing your product. If you said, for instance, that by selling TVs or selling cars, I’ve become a professional or I am now very knowledgeable in that area, I think you need to know 10% more than your customers but I’d argue that that’s probably incorrect or you need to know 20, 30, 40% more than your customers to be passionate and comfortable about selling something.

I’d say learn your industry. I see people who try and sell charity knocking on doors, and I think door-to-door sales is worth doing, regardless of how good you are, I think the principles that you learn are to knock on one more door, have one more opportunity and have an ability to deal with rejection and overcoming that are just things that you cannot learn in everyday life, or in education, or anywhere else.


Jamie: If you were starting your sales career again, what would you do differently?

Rich: I think I would probably look at working in a couple of different types of industry- again, coming back to that learning process. I’ve been very fortunate that I got into a job where I worked for very little money for a couple of years, worked my way up, and a few things figured themselves out. I think if I was doing this differently, I would look at working for a couple of different industries at that very early stage – £20,000, £30,000k earnings sort of stage. I’d look at options, whether that be IT sales for a year and then maybe recruitment for another year. I’d enjoy learning and understanding how different industries work and build my little black book of contacts across different industries. Because I’ll always feel as though you’ll get far better job opportunities from who you know rather than what you know.


Jamie: Can you tell me about a time when you failed, but it taught you something?

Rich: Man, my first three days in real sales in Portland, Oregon. This is the most talked-about story that any person who’s ever known me or works with me will know. The three days that I worked 13 and a half hour days, a hundred-degree heat and humidity like I’ve never seen before. Three whole days. I sold absolutely nothing, zip, zippo. Man, did I want to give up?

Looking back now, I can see it. Now I can see the first person who bought on day 4, 4:15pm in the afternoon, they spent $40 with me, and it meant the absolute world to me at that moment in time. It was important to me because during those three days, plus four and a quarter hours that I sold absolutely nothing, and wanting to quit, and being at the bottom of the pile in terms of where I wanted to be then. But the benefit has enabled me to move forward every single day.

Every single day, where I feel as though I’m negative or I’m not happy with things, or I’m dissatisfied, having sold door-to-door enables me to look back at really the lowest point of my sales career to know that it does get better.


Jamie: Can you tell me about the flip side of success you’ve had in selling, which shows the skills that you’ve learned throughout your career? 

Rich: We went to one of those big design shows to sell soundbars, and that was hugely successful. But when good times roll, you learn to not let your foot off the gas.

I remember once when we worked hard; it was an 18-day show. It got to the last day, and people were visiting, and buying in nice amounts, and that was great. Maybe, our best day before this was, I don’t know, 100 units? That’s probably about £35,000-pound a day. That’s okay.

Then this last day of just putting in all of the hard work, having all those conversations, not compromising, and not go to lunch during the day, because you fear if you’ve missed an opportunity. During the last hour, I think people weren’t even asking for a demonstration, and they were just buying. It was almost as if everyone was walking out with a speaker and people were buying because everyone else was buying. It was a remarkable day – the day you live for as a salesperson.






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