Ronald has a passion for sales teaching and learning, which he showed by asking to record and listen back to his own interview. His views on sales are educated, considered, and passionate, benefitting his situation at Gartner.
2020 was a hard year for many, and perhaps Ronald more than most from a health point of view, so I’m grateful for the time and effort he spend editing and adding value to this insight-laden text.
You can read Ronald’s full biography here
Jamie: Ronald, what have you found most fulfilling about your career in sales thus far?
Ronald: There are a lot of things, actually. The best thing is that you learn a lot about people in general, both internally and externally with your customers.
I think that sales is very worthwhile to pursue; you never stop learning. You can aim for perfection, but you will never achieve it.
You can work in different roles, areas, maturity of companies you work with, and things like that, and your team changes. There are so many different sales roles. There is new business, there is sales management, and there is global client management. Each role has different challenges and different successes. It is a continuous learning curve. As a salesperson, you have a lot of traits to become a CEO. However, you always need to develop yourself…read books! About your profession, psychology, philosophy etc. Be well-read. Your customers will notice this. And your peers or competition don’t read, so here is your advantage. It is about making time, with less TV, social media etc. Being successful is also about sacrifices. Everybody wants to have success, but are you willing to sacrifice something?
Jamie: Does that continuous learning differ from other more technical professions?
Ronald: I do not know. I’ve only done sales, for twenty years now, thirteen here at Gartner. But I read a lot as well. It is a continuous learning environment, and then you say, “Okay. Let’s focus all our attention and do that very well.” Then you try to make it perfect and say, “Okay, let us do some new business as well, and then combine those things better to understand and improve the closing rate, to improve proposals, and improve cold calling.”
There is always something to learn and perfect every step in the sales process, and you will never achieve that. When you do twenty years of sales, this saying resonates: “The more you know, the more you understand you do not know.”
Furthermore, a sales job never stops. Meaning, your thinking does not stop in the evening or the weekend, and your target does not stop. It is not 9-5. Many people cannot cope with this continuous stress about achieving your target or even overachieving. The more successful you are, the more money you make in bonus, or variable salary.
On the other hand, this differs from other jobs – when you do not make your target, you will be fired! And this is stressful. My solution is to focus on the sales process and not on the end result. When you do all the steps correctly and not skip one, you will succeed – even when the customer says they want to buy and ask for a proposal! My experience: if it’s too good to be true…it is. So yes, you can earn a lot of money but also can lose your job easily.
Jamie: What have you found the best thing about being in sales?
Ronald: I think it is a way of living. It is your DNA. It is about recognition. It is hard to explain and to understand the role, including constant pressure. It is a type of entrepreneurship, you are the CEO of your own territory. You have also got internal considerations. You have got your own opinion, but it is within the ecosystem. You need to own it. You need to manage that. It is a hell of a job. It is not for me to decide because even if the working hours are fixed, your targets still pop into your head in the evening, when you go to bed when you wake up, and in the weekend. But…when you are successful, the rewards and recognition are there for you! But…if you fail…it is also about you!
That is the moment you need to reflect and be honest to yourself. It is not about the others, but what should you have done differently? And make sure it does not happen again. Never fear to lose, but make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice and hope for a different outcome. Hope is not a strategy.
Jamie: Does that touch on the worst thing about sales?
Ronald: Yeah, but it is the flow and keeping up your energy; dealing with the “no’s” and then there are some deals coming in, and that keeps you driving, as well as the recognition and the high fives at the office. The recognition is important as your success is very measurable. You work hard, but the successes are very clear, unlike other jobs. You know when you are successful and when you are not.
Jamie: What is the worst bit about being in sales?
Ronald: The constant pressure. To deal with that is sometimes very hard because there are only so many things you can influence. Some things you cannot influence. So make sure the things you can influence, you do flawlessly. This means some simple things like polished shoes, an ironed shirt, being shaved, having nice non-logo pen and paper. Just be organized, and your customer will see that. But also being prepared, and knowing which questions to ask, and having a strategy. Sometimes it gets frustrating. You deal with the pressure, deal with the target every single day, every single year. Now, if you had a good year, perhaps you achieved the President’s Club, but then on the first of January, everything goes back to zero. You need to start over again. So, it never stops.
To be transparent, I always think, “What am I doing in sales? Why am I doing this? Why am I loving this?” Because it is a hard job, especially when you’ve done it for a while and you are getting older. Keeping the flow, keeping that energy, and keeping yourself fit so you can recover quickly becomes harder. The constant switch from hero to zero and back in a few months becomes harder, and then you are all over the place.
Yes, it is the pressure. So be sure you are in good health! Do sports, mind your food, don’t smoke etc. When you are in good shape, you have more energy and when you are tired, you will recover more quickly.
Jamie: When we look at complex advisory sales, what are the benefits and the downsides of going into that industry?
Ronald: I do not think it is really about the products or the services, but it is more like everything around it. Do you understand the company? Do you understand the people? How do they make decisions? Can you read people? Do you understand human psychology, and do you ask questions? As I said, you cannot influence everything, so all your basics should be absolutely perfect. It is always ultimately about informal decision-making which you cannot always predict. What I like about advisory compared to other products is: it’s more difficult to sell “air,” but you can be flexible and offer your customer what they want. A product is a product, and it is also hard to differentiate yourself with the competition. Personally, I believe that when selling advisory you as a salesperson can make the difference.
I do not have to sell internally, which is a big relief. In other companies, they spend 60% of their time internally getting all the processes, proposals, and pricing right. We do not have that at Gartner, which is good, but there are only so many things you can influence.
Now, with the economic downturn, you need to refocus and reset your initiatives with customers. Success is always a moving target.
Jamie: The lack of internal selling – is that something you would look for in a company?
Yes. One hundred per cent. Garner’s all about sales productivity and efficiency. The systems do all the internal reporting now. We measure things, but not too many, only four or five measurements should be discussed with your manager. I basically inform my manager every week, and I measure myself daily. Every stage is monitored efficiently.
It can be very frustrating in other companies, and time spent internally cannot be spent with your customers, and that is less time spent on achieving your goals. So yes, definitely, I would not choose a company which has a lot of internal meetings and wastes my time. But please note….I measure myself. Frank Bettger wrote a very good book and one sentence I always remembered: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Do you know how much time you really spent on your customers? What do you actually do daily? And do you know what success is? Do you measure your process so your manager can also help you improve, and coach you on that?
Jamie: When did you decide that you wanted to go into sales?
Ronald: I did marketing studies when I was younger, a long time ago. At some point in the third year, we had a professional skills class, and I was like, “That is very interesting.” It was about psychology; it was about people. At a certain point, I had to decide to move into either marketing or into the sales.
I felt that if you go into marketing, you are dependent on what the company. When things do not go so well, some jobs and budgets will be cut first, and marketing is one of them. I thought if I moved to sales, I would choose success for myself, and decide whether I will be successful and remain employed.
Then I combined it with a desire for entrepreneurship. My family are all entrepreneurs. When I was younger, I was already in sales. When I was studying, my parents had a shop selling TVs, refrigerators, and VCRs for students. When people bought new ones, my dad would take the old ones, throwing them away. There was a scheme where you had to pay twenty-five euros, and the government would pick the old ones up. I said to my dad, “You know what, give me the twenty-five euros, and I will make sure they disappear. The only thing I need is your car.” So on the weekends, I picked up refrigerators, TVs, and other things and I sold it to fellow students in the school and made a lot of money. It was actually perfect. My dad was happy because he did not have any inventory or second-hand stuff, and I made a net profit of a hundred per cent at low cost. So I think that that is how it all started, right? Entrepreneurship; selling stuff, and making money.
Jamie: So if you find yourself with an entrepreneurial spirit, then you should consider sales?
Ronald: Many of my friends are in consulting, and they do great stuff, the company pays 150 euros an hour, and they only get 50 or 60. What they typically try to do is start their own company and do it themselves. After a year or even a few months, their initial clients run out, and they need to sell themselves. They tend to go back to their previous company because they do not know how to sell themselves. Even if you have a good idea, if you cannot sell it, it is tough. It starts with selling. I think entrepreneurship is all about selling. It starts with selling until they need to scale; that is, of course, a different ball game, but I think in their DNA entrepreneurs are salespeople.
Entrepreneurs see opportunities, they see new markets. They see everything. They’re also good at dealing with disappointment, right? Some things do not go well. You hear “no’s” but you need to be resilient and keep going and believe in what you’re doing. So yes, sales could be a good basis for the next step. To understand processes, markets, people, what is needed to grow as a company.
On the other hand…if you have that one idea and you believe in it…go for it! Especially when you are young and have no kids and other responsibilities. Even if you fail, the learned lessons are priceless for the rest of your life. And who knows…you may try it again at a later stage with more experience.
Jamie: Do you think there is a certain personality type that does especially well at Gartner or a similar complex advisory firm?
Ronald: That is more of an HR question really. Personally, I have some mixed feelings. Some studies say that salespeople are born. Some say you can learn it. I think you can learn some skills to a certain extent. But if you took to companies, with billions in revenue, those who have got the C- level – like the CEO, CFO, CIOs, Chiefs of HR or whatever, it is a different ball game. I believe you need some sales DNA to do those roles.
It’s the same thing when I was a manager, of course, you would sometimes accompany people to sales conversations. The other thing is about resilience, determination, coping with a ‘no,’ and dealing with stress. It is hard to deal with that and then move on, but that is a part of the process.
Jamie: What are the biggest differences you see in successful versus unsuccessful salespeople?
Ronald: The first thing that pops into my mind is about mindset, and also being coachable and willing to learn; eager to learn even. Ask for help; you cannot do it all by yourself. So be coachable, help, and learn about people. Read about psychology. Invest in yourself. How many people actually read a lot of sales books? Not many. Be coachable and eager to learn, have a positive attitude, because you have to work hard. It is hard work and long hours. Of course, when you need to send out a proposal and it is six o’clock in the evening, you make sure that the proposal is sent the same evening. It is keeping momentum; it is not nine to five.
What makes it a bit easier is to have a goal in mind. What do you want to achieve? Maybe in hard numbers, but also as a person. This is so important as when you hit rock-bottom – and you will multiple times – the thing that keeps you on your feet is your goal. Reset your mindset, plan and execute. Especially execute, because many people are good at making plans….such good plans that they love to work on that. However, perfection is the killer of productivity. So good is good enough. Same in Innovation: the 1.0 version is never completed, start with 0.9 version and improve while executing.
Finally, listen, with empathy. Be really interested in a person and his or her company. Try to understand someone. Ask the right questions, and they don’t need to be real sales questions—just interest, personal.
Salespeople are remembered by the questions they ask, and not the answers they give. Are you able to ask questions their internal organization is not asking and make them think? A meeting should be worth money for your customer, even though they are not paying for a meeting.
Be relevant or be gone. When you do, it is much easier to connect your product or service to their need: “Understand to be understood”.
Jamie: In terms of training, if we look at Gartner as an example, what do they do well?
Ronald: Training is very good at Gartner, but it is more like the first one or two years. What they do is put you in training for the first two weeks and then you go a week back in the office, do assignments, and then have two weeks. It is five weeks in a row, and you are not even allowed to talk to or email customers. Within the first five weeks, you get assigned a mentor who can help in the first five, six, seven months. At a certain point, you have been there, you have done it. In general, if you’ve done some roles in sales, it is very hard to move up the ladder in sales jobs and career – you either stay in sales or move into sales management.
Do not have the expectation that your company will provide you with proactive yearly training. Don’t become mad about that as that is the way it is.
The question is if you want to learn, are you willing to invest in yourself when you don’t have the money? Use Google or Youtube. There are thousands of really inspirational sites or videos to be found for free. Are you willing to invest time? That is up to you and your level of sacrifice. No time? Well get out of bed 45 minutes earlier and do it then. You decide if you become a better salesperson.
I would rather look for training by reading good books. I recently joined a book club, reading sales books, and each quarter, I meet with five people and discuss a book.
Jamie: How do you recommend organizations best compensate their salespeople?
Ronald: I see a difference between order takers and salespeople. It is about proactive- and reactive-ness. Reactiveness is when your customers call you, and by the nature of their business, they need more of your product or service. That is a big difference then being proactive, and driving demand creation: cold calling, having the meetings, creating demand by asking the right questions.
Personally, I don’t believe in group targets. If we lost ten per cent, it is about you, and your accountability. The bonus structure should then be uncapped, just like in Gartner, sixty-forty salary to bonus ratio and then an additional bonus if you accelerate past your target. Commission above target should be unlimited, so you do not keep orders back in December, and continue to drive the business.
It’s also about some recognition, of course. At Gartner when achieving a certain threshold, you can win four days abroad, where everything is done for you (hotel, flight, food, drinks, excursions, party etc.), and it includes your partner as well. The final thing is –
I see this in software companies that try to recruit me. Every two weeks, I will get a call. “You can earn an amazing OTE, wow!” But then I asked them, “So how many people can achieve that kind of target?” and it becomes very quiet.
At Gartner, we give you a target, and you have to make it. It is achievable – 80% hit their targets, and about 34% achieve 130% of goal: President’s Club. It should be challenging, but it should be achievable.
Jamie: What other elements of culture make a sales organization successful?
Ronald: What I had liked about Gartner is that, although we all have our own targets, everybody wants to help each other, and they make time for it. I think that is key, sharing success, sharing best practices, helping each other on proposals or difficult situations or conversations with customers, helping with role plays, and those kinds of things. I think it is key in a culture.
Jamie: What advice would you give to salespeople to make sure that the rest of the team wants to work with you and prioritize your needs?
I think that is what distinguishes a salesperson versus a consultant. Salesmen discover needs; things that prospects have not thought of themselves; triggering those needs. If you go too much detail when you are talking to CEOs who have been a CEO in over twenty years, you can never outperform them in conversation; you can never match their knowledge on specific topics. I always want to make it clear that I’m a salesperson, and that we have really distinguished roles between myself and the technology analysts.
In the sales process, I’ll ask an analyst to deep dive on certain topics. They understand that because they know I am a salesperson and I should not have all the answers. That is not my role.
Jamie: How did you choose that as an organization you wanted to work for?
Ronald: Well, they gave me a call. At that point, I did not have any IT experience, and I had no clue who they were. During the interview process, I got more enthusiastic, and then I got hired. It is hard to know in advance. During a hiring process, ask if you can meet a salesperson in the team you apply for. It provides some clarity on the company, culture, and the level of professionalism and intelligence you will join. This can help. And there is only so much you can learn at a company. Know when it is time to leave. If you get too much into your comfort zone, it becomes the same over and over again, and you will not grow.
If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.
Jamie: What is the biggest piece of advice that you would give to aspiring salespeople?
Ronald: Like I said beginning, it is a way of life. It is a hard and lonely job. It is about falling down continuously, but you need to be able to get up and continue. Like life, sales is not easy, it is about resilience and how you get stronger out of a certain situation. It will form you and prepares you for future tough times. Once you get the hang of it, I think it is the best job in the world.
I think there was a study recently of Fortune 500 CEOs and the percentage that have sales backgrounds. It was about 70% because sales are about connecting people. It is understanding people and asking the right questions instead of all the answers.
You learn so much about people. It a way of living, but it is a tough job. With the money you earn, you can do great things for your partner, kids, parents, family, friends, and yourself. Giving back is the best feeling there is…even better than closing a deal.
Jamie: If you were starting your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Ronald: I would start earlier at a company like Gartner. I started at another company, and they basically said; “Okay, here are your clients and your prospects. Go ahead,” and they basically let you do it all yourself. You can learn some things. You fall down, you learn from your mistakes, and you get up again. If I look at Gartner and imagine if you’d just come out of university and they offer you a job. You are 23 or 24 years old, and they put you in training and connect you with some more experienced peers, and they have a complete program the first year for you, and you can grow so fast. I think if you stay there until you’re thirty years old – eight years with Gartner – man, your CV, the things you did will be amazing, and you will be attractive to any company for the next move in your career.
I had to work it out for myself. What you learn with Gartner in the first few years is like skyrocketing your experience. That is what I would do differently. I was lucky to meet some good sales managers who helped me take the next step in my career. Like I said in the beginning, it is being coachable, being open to learning, and willing to learn. People like to work with me and manage me because I adopt what they say; I listen carefully and take action on it. That is very important.
You can sit down and do your thing, but if you don’t talk to people and say, “Hey, I have a problem. Is this how I solve it?” or, “This is how I want to solve it, but what would you do?” then you cannot learn. This way, you learn from the mistakes of others as well.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you did not make a sale, and it was quite painful, but you learned something valuable from it?
Ronald: When things do not go well, it is usually one of the two things.
One is that a salesman should not sell to someone who cannot put a signature on paper. Sometimes, it is very hard to discover whether they have the power because sometimes they say they have the power, and you check everything you can, but in the end, the sale goes deathly silent. That is usually a power issue. The second thing I noticed is the urgency; why we should we start collaborating tomorrow, not in two or three months. That is very hard because we sell knowledge. It is pretty hard for people to see it and feel it and see personal value, which drives urgency.
I think those are the key ones when deals do not go ahead. With COVID, it is a different time now, but when I look at my deals that did not go through; that did not close, it was one of those two or maybe a combination.
Jamie: How do you drive urgency with an intangible product?
Ronald: It is hard. It’s the entire sales process: your first meeting is a discovery meeting, you need to close in the discovery meeting. Not physical closing, as in the signature. Instead, mental closing, which you do in the first meeting of a perfect client meeting. It is how you explain the process, then ask for the buy-in on time and align it to the process, then explain the budget and things you will do, so you do not get surprised at the end. That is the only part of closing you can do at that point.
You agree to set a certain date with the prospect.
“It is June right now, would it be achievable and if everything goes well, could we have a decision by August?” You need to pinpoint a destination and time in their mind, and that it is not an endless sales cycle. There are investments of time on both sides, then they need to make a decision at a certain point. This is a mental thing, and I think one of the key reasons why some people have endless sales cycles is that they don’t set expectations.
When you are at the end of the sales cycle, you can go back to the first co-created schedule. “Remember we talked about ABCDEF, those basic commitments to each other?” That is the only thing I do, and it works. It does not always work, because sometimes people don’t always do what they say they’re going to do. In the end, those people are not ethical people who you want to work with anyway. Be clear about your expectations at the beginning of the sales cycle.
Jamie: I wonder if you could tell me about a specific time when you made a great sale that perhaps another salesperson would not have made that shows the skills and experience you have gained throughout your career?
Ronald: There is always a challenge at the end of the year, especially if you are close to the Presidents Circle Club. I always remember the ones that caused me to win Presidents Club, and one example was in December, just before Christmas. We had a meeting, and he said, “Yes, I am going to sign. We are going to do it.” I explained the importance of having the signature this year because we could put some extra things in the contract that were added just for him, but suddenly he went silent.
I called his PA, and it turned out he was on a skiing holiday between Christmas and January, so the contract was gone.
So, I found out which hotel he was staying at, and I called the reception there at eight o’clock in the morning when he was having breakfast. He was about to ski with his family, and then he passed reception and reception said, “We have a phone call for you.” He picked up, and he started laughing. He said, “Okay, I made some promises. I did not do it. I understand.” He said, “You’ve got five minutes to send it via fax,” and in five minutes, the fax was signed, as was my return to the President’s Club. You will remember those things – if you have a commitment from both sides, you can call people at the end of the quarter or even the year.
Those are some success stories, but you always try to prevent it and do it like sooner, but for some reason, it is like a hockey stick every time at the quarter’s end. I do not know why we do it to ourselves as salespeople. But it always happens. Sometimes, some customers, they wait for that on purpose, in case we offer a discount. That is why I always explain at the beginning of the sales cycle my position on discounts. I have never given a discount in my life. I just explain to them that I am not the type of salesperson that adds ten percent and then negotiates eight percent off and gets a good feeling because I still have two percent in the pocket. That is not a good start of a collaboration. I will speak to procurement, of course, and they say the same thing. I then say, “Okay, you know what I can do? I can add ten percent on the proposal, and we take off ten percent again. But who are we fooling, right?”
I am clear, so they always know they have the best deal. They never have doubts, like they might for Microsoft or SAP deals because they have 80% or 50% discounts and it’s still more than some people can afford to pay. It gives procurement a bad feeling and makes for poor collaboration. That is not how I would start a relationship. I think it is a very important thing.
I do the negotiation at the beginning and explain to them, “This is it. I gave you the best and final offer the first time. I can add some things potentially. But the price is set.” When you are clear in the beginning, you do not get questions at the end.