Robin was and is an inspiring individual. In every way – from leading a huge UK organization, starting a highly successful telecoms company, and editing this interview for The Exceptional Sales Career – he does what he says he’s going to do, and more.
I have fond memories of Robin’s conferences, motivation calls and even flying our to meet me in California during our time working together at Southwestern Advantage. There’s huge value in this highly candid interview.
You can read Robin’s biography in full here
Jamie: Robin, what have you found most fulfilling about your sales career thus far?
Robin: I would say that the most fulfilling part of my sales career has been the impact that one has on other people, their lives, and subsequently their family’s lives, as the years have passed; you really are teaching people skills for life, and teaching them a skill can allow them to be self-sufficient for the rest of their life. That has a massive impact and consequences for them and their families, their microeconomy, and the wider economy.
Jamie: So, the sales function is the biggest driver of the economy?
Yes, absolutely, no sales, no business, no jobs, no cash, and no cash flow. Sales is king for any business to get on its feet, to survive, and to thrive. Businesses can burn through a lot of cash. However, if they can raise their top line, then that allows them the room to operate. A productive sales function drives everything.
Jamie: What’s the best thing about being in sales?
Robin: The best thing about being in sales is that you get to work with some exceptional people. You meet great people, and I have challenging conversations with them, and that equips you to be able to deal with pretty much anyone you meet in any circumstance. That can be across the world and any part of society because you deal with so many different types of people.
Typically, salespeople love people, they’re gregarious, and they are trustworthy. They have a fascination with human nature and a desire to learn more about it.
Jamie: What’s the worst thing in about being in sales?
Robin: The worst thing about sales is getting older and not having the same amount of energy in your body as your brain now has. That is probably the most challenging part of sales. Nowadays, when I do an 18 hour day, I really feel it the day after. Luckily our culture at 2Circles Consulting doesn’t require too many 18 hour days!
Jamie: Does that mean you develop strategies to work smarter, and not harder, as you get older?
Robin: I’ve always endeavoured to work smart. I’ve always done things as well as I can however, within a reasonable time frame. I love working and have always thought that it’s a pleasure to do what I do – I still wake up with a burning desire to make things happen that day.
Jamie: You mentioned the curiosity about human nature and the adaptability to different conversations. Are there any other key natural skills that you think people should exhibit go into sales?
Yes. You’ve got to have the drive, you’ve got to be competitive, and you’ve got to be exceptionally disciplined, and you’ve got to have an innate positive mental attitude. You need to have a desire to better yourself, and you have to have belief in your own ability and to do things. You have to be gritty, resilient, and able and willing to go over through your mind any obstacle that comes in your path. You’ve got to be determined and to do all those things. It’s a combination lock.
Jamie: So only a certain percentage of people should go into sales and actually, that percentage might be relatively small. Is that fair?
Robin: Yes, I do believe that there’s a certain X factor that people need to have to be successful in a long-term sales career.
Jamie: How do you test for this combination lock when you’re interviewing and hiring?
Robin: I have every single person that I interview come to visit our office in person. I have them come in for a day and spend a day in the business. It may seem like a lot, but they spend at least a day, maybe a day and a half, in the business and I watch them quite closely with members of the team. I give them some numbers to call, and I watch how they respond to that. If I can, I try and play sport with people – that is the best way to figure someone out and to get to know each other. I think, having interviewed and trained 8,000 salespeople, I have a reasonable grasp of what I’m looking for.
I talk with people, and we have an interview process. I try to put people off, and I want them to exactly understand the job. People are usually expecting this to be tougher than it is, and which is the way you want it to be. It was always my goal, to recruit people and just come and say, “That wasn’t as hard as I supposed it was going to be.” Then I know I’ve done a good job of preparing them.
I think there are several things that you can do to alleviate the revolving door. There’s a lot of companies that spend a lot of money between salespeople, but they don’t necessarily get it right, and that can be really expensive. It is always the leader’s responsibility to empower their people to be successful once they have been hired.
Jamie: What elements of culture make a sales organisation really successful?
Robin: The number one thing that will make a sales organisation or sales team within an organisation successful, or anything really for that matter, is to run your organisation and run your team according to philosophies and beliefs, not feelings and emotions.
If you have philosophies that are a constant thread that runs through your businesses, then that is the concrete that keeps the bricks of the company together. That will lead to an enduring and positive culture.
First and foremost, you have got to have those principles, you have got to have philosophies – salespeople in particular, like all humans, have emotions and they sometimes get distracted, and they sometimes don’t remember their vision. The number one thing that helps a salesperson to be successful is to constantly remember their vision; a path that they feel good about and one where they know that they’re delivering a good service. It is one that develops that culture and culture get ingrained as you train people.
If you get the culture right with the first generation, then it passes on to the next generation. Getting the foundation right, the principles, the philosophies, the beliefs, the vision, and the mission; having all those things aligned and being consistent as a leader; that creates an enduring culture. Beyond that, for every small business, it’s having a real family feel about it, knowing what’s going on with your team – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That’s really true. That’s why it’s the main part of building a positive culture in a positive environment for people to thrive – recognition is important for any human in any role. That should be a fundamental principle that all companies should have and all salespeople should feel. You’ve got to feel appreciated and particularly, when you’re gone the extra mile, week after week, month after month, year after year. I really love our team and consider them very good friends. I think that we all look forward to seeing each other each day.
Jamie: What is some of the best recognition that you’ve experienced in your career?
Robin: Purely material reward, probably the best ones when I was at Southwestern and when we had the Trip of Legends; it was just a phenomenal $50,000 trip where there was absolutely no holds barred. We stayed in luxury resorts, did amazing activities and just had brilliant rewards. That was memorable for the family, and that builds loyalty and inspiration; motivation to win those trips in subsequent years. In terms of just a raw reward, that was good.
A lot of people will be motivated by recognition, particularly the generation that’s coming through, just constantly getting feedback, that’s a form of recognition as well. It’s just praising. Things change, times change. We’re not the Gen Xer’s that want a massive big monetary reward. The Millennials are used to a different type of reward. I think, being successful at recognition really depends on who you’re dealing with. That’s not a one-size-fits-all, safe answer. As leaders, we have to adapt.
Jamie: If you were now an aspiring salesperson looking for employment, what organisational philosophies and principles would be non-negotiable?
It’s a very personal thing. It’s a bit like a relationship, and you want to find an organisation, and life partner, that has got the same values as you do. When the values are aligned, then that’s when you have a really good match. Everyone’s values are different, they are a function of their upbringing, their genetics, and their environment, and that’s what forms your value system.
I think the best advice I can offer is to find an organisation that matches your values rather than just, “ABC, you must have this,” because everyone is different. If we were all the same, it would be a very boring world.
Jamie: You’ve always set big goals throughout your career. Would you talk about a little bit about how you go about setting those goals and the importance that’s had to your career?
Robin: I love setting big goals. I still do it to this day. They are probably more aligned to the business than previously; you reach a certain level of actualisation where you kind of stop striving to have material things or a certain amount of wealth because you’re in a position where that’s more comfortable. The greatest reward to me now is to see the team enjoy security, opportunity, income, ownership and great family times. That is life’s greatest reward – to see others enjoy the journey. Nothing makes me happier than when one of the team gets a £20k bonus in a month and being there to help when they are making significant decisions about what to do with that.
With my team and with myself when I was younger, I would always start setting my goals or in December of the previous year, but I would review what I’ve achieved in the previous eleven or twelve months, and what I had learned. I’d look at what I had done compared to what I wanted to do. I’d always think about the next one, three, five and ten years; where I wanted to be and how I wanted to develop and draw on the lessons learned.
Jamie: Would you say that salespeople are putting themselves at a disadvantage if they don’t think three or five years out?
Robin: I think most humans are.
Jamie: What’s the biggest single piece of advice you’d give to aspiring salespeople?
Robin: I would refer back to some great advice that I had from Spencer Hays (former Chairman of the Southwestern Group of Companies), who was a mentor and a great friend for many years, and that would be to set high goals. The first thing is to set high goals and decide what you want to do. Then, ensure that those high goals include doing more than was asked of you.
I’ve always done more than was asked of me. If I was asked to do 40 interviews, I’d do 50. I always set higher goals because I always figured that would give me an edge over all my competition. So, set really high goals. The second thing is to use good self-talk. Good self-talk is absolutely critical in every aspect of your life. You want to always use good self-talk. The third thing is to hold yourself accountable. How you hold yourself accountable is much more important than how anyone else holds you accountable because it means a lot and you can achieve everything if you hold yourself accountable because it forms a really strong discipline muscle. Set high goals, use good self-talk and hold yourself accountable. Those are my three best pieces of advice, and they came from Spencer!
Jamie: If you had your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Robin: I wish I’d known more about investment banking when I was younger. I was fairly naiive, and I came from a very loving and risk-averse medical family. My dad was a consultant surgeon, and my mum was a nurse. I didn’t really have a commercial upbringing. I have learned over the years about investing, and I have done it a lot for the Family Office. But I think that on an institutional level, that would have been quite exciting and quite fun; I would have ended up in a big corporate and who knows how that would have turned out. I am not a huge fan of the sycophancy and politics that accompany larger companies.
Jamie: Can you tell me about a really painful non-sale, but when it taught you something?
Robin: Yes, in 2014, I was about to broker a true win/win deal between Southwestern and 2Circles. Upon reflection, it would have been a hugely profitable opportunity for Southwestern, however, the CEO at Southwestern at the time was being unreasonable, in many (on our side of the deals) opinion, particularly my lawyer. He rapidly turned a win/win situation into a lose/lose situation. In short, I wasn’t willing to be treated like a replaceable asset or bullied. I could have made the sale, however, couldn’t in all fairness deliver what was being demanded, and the team on my side of the deal came up with come a very compelling alternative for us. It was one of the toughest periods of our life, and in the middle of it, we lost someone who was a very special person and long time colleague, and I will always reflect upon that.
At the time I felt like I had given up a lot, I had invested years of my life, missed so many events at home and spent a considerable amount of money building an organisation that I felt I had ownership in, with people that I truly cared for, and I was pretty good at it. It was most of what I had known. After we parted ways, and before my settlement payments kicked in, I got to ground zero, where I had assets but very little liquidity. I kept going however that December, I remember looking at our finances and telling Angie, my wife, that Christmas that year was going to be more about “the experience of being together” than presents. We were running on thin air, with three young boys, and needed every penny to make the business work. As ever, Angie was a tower of strength. Sadly, over those months, I lost contact with my business partner, mentor and close friend at Southwestern – he was not there in our hour of need, as we had been in his a few years earlier. That was a bit disappointing, although I forgave him, and we remain friends.
I learned a lot –
- And this is the most important advice I would give anyone reading this – the absolute Number One decision that you make in your life is who you marry. That will define almost every aspect of your life. I have made a lot of mistakes; however, I got that one spot on. That on its own made 22 years at Southwestern worth it.
- The second most important choice (in my opinion) is what you do every day, and who you do it with. Trust your instincts and if there is a change in leadership or direction, be prepared to hedge your bets. That’s why we even entertained the idea of starting 2Circles Consulting – during the period described above, we formed friendships and bonds that will last a lifetime. The team truly were amazing, and continue to be to this day. We would do anything for each other.
- You either learn, or you earn. Both are good outcomes.
- Things always work out in the end – After my departure from SW, our organisation, which I loved, greatly decreased in numbers and production – it was always a tough industry however losing a lot of intellectual capital over a few years made it even tougher. The strongest asset and the aspect that I loved about that business were the young people, whose energy and positivity was inspiring. The telecoms business went from strength to strength and after a couple of years became profitable, I have never worked a weekend since, love our team, and I see my friends, children and wife every night. In the end, I was the one who benefited most from the parting of ways despite the truly difficult experience. Things happen for a reason – keep your head to the sun and never ever stop believing in yourself or your philosophies. Always do the right thing, have fun, constantly improve and finish strong.
- Invest in people you trust and believe in. Literally in the space of a week, I had my whole life and career turned upside down.
Jamie: Could you tell me about when you did sell, and it was brilliant, and it showed off all the skills and experience you had throughout your career?
Robin: Yes. That is a good feeling, isn’t it?
When I was a salesperson, which was many years ago now in 1996 when I hit the Mort Utley club at Southwestern, and I think I was the first European to do that; which in that company was a pretty significant landmark. It’s an incredible moment physically, mentally, and emotionally. It was a culmination of five years of training, and when that actually came together, it was a pretty awesome feeling. Once you learn how to sell, you sell every single day of your life, subconsciously. It’s always good when you achieve those little wins.
But you have to be careful. I’ll give one last note on what you have to be really careful with.
Being great at sales is like driving a really fast race car. You have to treat it with a lot of respect; otherwise, you will end up in situations and conversations that are not taking you closer to your goals. Always be aware of your ability to sell, and counter it by listening and seeing things from the other side.
It’s really important that you keep those principles and those philosophies because that’s what allows you to be able to use the skills that you develop with respect. That’s what makes your career, long-term, healthy, and fulfilling. Sales is an amazing profession when it is done correctly.