Saj was super impressive from the day I met him – switched on, organized, and personable. When I asked what he did, I assumed he had been in sales – and recruitment – for his entire career. It turns out that was not the case, making Saj’s switch to entrepeneurial commitment even more inspiring.
Saj has some excellent insight into how sales, recruitment, entrepreneurialism and technology all intersect – please dive right in.
Jamie: Saj, what have you found most fulfilling about your sales career thus far?
Saj: The main thing to clarify is that I am very much an accidental salesman or a ‘reluctant salesman’. I’d previously worked in large corporate institutions before breaking out to run my own recruitment business which came about purely by chance. I was so passionate about the business idea, but totally overlooked the fact that it involved selling and had to learn about the business development angle very fast. The most fulfilling part of my sales career so far is the actual journey of becoming a front-person and the psychology involved when dealing with potential clients. When a sale is pushed over the line, the level of satisfaction and sense of achievement is extremely high. I realized I enjoy making people happy in my remit as a salesperson, as I’ve managed to convince them of the product and also to believe in me as a person. That’s the most fulfilling part – the combination of the two.
Jamie: When you start up a business, how important is selling?
Saj: It’s everything. You can have the best idea in the world, but it needs to be sold. An artist can create something wonderful and have a catalog of brilliant works, but to pivot into wearing a salesman’s hat can be an incredibly unnatural movement, and as a result, that body of work can remain forever undiscovered.
The reason why I was totally naive about sales is that I worked in IT and within corporate technology departments for most of my career as a paid employee. We live in a digital age, and in a digital revolution. I automatically assumed that with my acumen, my knowledge, and all of the information I’ve accumulated over 20 years working in IT- it would automatically transition itself to being a highly credible, successful IT recruiter. IT recruitment is a highly saturated marketplace, and I realized that even though I knew the business being sold better than any other recruiter in the country and had stronger credentials than all of them in technology, that it means almost nothing in recruitment when trying to get your voice initially heard. I had to learn about how to sell my proposition very quickly and importantly, how to position it.
Jamie: Has that been an interesting journey?
Saj: It’s been a very interesting journey, and it’s still an ongoing process. I was an employee for a very long time, being paid extremely well to do some very technical and complicated things, to then suddenly running a business never having run one before. You have to learn about sales the hard way and totally on your own! If you put me in front of people, I’m absolutely fine. The challenge of working in recruitment is that it’s sales from afar, over the phone, inside sales where you’re just a nagging voice competing with 1 million other recruiters.
I’ve learned that if I can get in front of people, face to face, we win more business in recruitment. It’s about finding ways to have personal conversations in a marketplace that doesn’t really want you to do that; that’s the challenge.
If I worked within a SaaS company for example, where I had a large marketing machine and amazingly strong product with leads coming to me allowing me to be consultative, that would be totally and utterly different. I’ve had to cut my teeth the hard way – acquiring leads in a heavily saturated marketplace.
Jamie: Can you tell me about how you’ve developed those skills to meet that challenge?
Saj: What I found, is that the more niche your product is, the more credible your offering will be within recruitment. Once you have developed a super niche offering, you can then have your voice heard; otherwise, you’re just one of hundreds and thousands in a constant din of noise. Once I had developed an understanding of my product, I would then find ways of putting myself in front of the people within that niche, such as conferences, seminars, etc.
I’ve engineered ways of getting into conferences where I wasn’t invited with clients in my niche. From a five-minute snippet over a break or sitting down with someone at lunch, I get a chance to do what I do best, which is talking to people.
I found that there’s a big difference with salespeople that have leads generated for them (via digital means). For example, a friend is in sales car finance, every morning there are 25 or more leads in his inbox, he’ll just work through them, there’s a conversion rate that exists, and they work towards that. There’s no effort involved with getting the leads apart from the implementation of the digital strategy. Another friend of mine has a business selling property management services, and through their digital marketing campaigns, the leads just naturally come in.
Search Engine Optimisation and Digital Marketing for the community is great, but it doesn’t generate uniqueness. I have to go out there and get clients in a very old-fashioned way. I look at these two salespeople whose businesses can remove a huge part of the challenge of lead generation. As a result, it’s more of a nurturing process for me which is quite intense because it’s taken a lot of effort just to bring a client to the table in contrast to these two associates who have well-established digital sales attraction funnels. A lot of client acquisition in recruitment is done in the old school way, but it is still essential to understand how exactly digital marketing can maximize your sales activity for your particular niche.
Jamie: Would you comment on the relative levels of satisfaction and compensation from finding a match as opposed to a typical business where one side, the product, has been taken care of?
Saj: Yes, when I started doing recruitment about eight years ago, the market was very distinct; it was a client-driven market. You’d go out there concentrating on winning clients because it was a very fluid market on the candidate side. It was never a problem to find candidates – the product so to put it. Fast forward to today, it is literally the exact opposite. You need to put in more effort towards finding candidates because it’s a totally candidate-driven market now. They just don’t exist, the demand for STEM candidates is sky-high, and the supply isn’t keeping up in any of the major disciplines. This gap, this chasm is gargantuan and strengthens the case even further for recruiting within fine-tuned niches to be profitable and for clients to want to reach out to you.
So, to create the market, you really need to work within your specialism becoming part of the fabric of it and within that, generate strong candidate attraction strategies. This is where my background becomes invaluable. I’m made for a candidate-driven market because I’ve got credibility with candidates. Once they trust you and want to work with you, you can go away and win clients as you have an in-demand talent pool that you can tout with a high degree of confidence. Clients will want to use you because you have the candidates at a time when HR professionals are talking about working and living in times of a “war for talent” and IT is at the forefront of the war. It’s crazy.
Technology is accelerating at such a fast pace, and the number of candidates locally available that can do it just isn’t keeping up. When you have built your reputation within a niche, you want to then get it to a point where you don’t even have to sell to clients as you have pipelined a strong candidate pool that almost sells itself. It’s totally flipped around the other way. It works in my favour, because having worked in technology, I can talk the same language as candidates, that’s my strongest point. I am at heart, still, a candidate working in IT.
Jamie: If you didn’t have 20 years of experience in the IT space, how would you potentially go about building rapport in a niche?
Saj: My skills set me apart by winning trust. In sales, trust is a keyword. In IT recruitment, candidates immediately have their back up. “Not another recruiter”, “leave me alone”. It’s not like recruiting for people in sales, or accounting, or marketing, where there’s no major paradigm shift every 6 months – it is what it is. It doesn’t take long for a recruiter to learn the buzzwords and what the role is, but IT is changing continually, and it is very technical by virtue.
A recruiter coming in who doesn’t have a technology background can’t talk technical, whereas someone going into accountancy recruitment will take about 6 weeks to learn the buzzwords and have some credibility speaking to someone. They can do it even if they don’t have the background, it will just take a longer to win their trust, and it’ll be more of a numbers game. With me, it’s not a numbers game, it’s highly consultative.
Jamie: You are, as you said, an IT candidate. So why did this career move happen?
Saj: I worked in the city for Tier 1 banks for a long time, at VP grade, managing and working on trading floors, predominately in London which was particularly intense, as the financial capital of the world. It just became second nature working on these very aggressive and fast-paced, testosterone-fueled trading floors. Then with changing family commitments and personal ideologies, I came to the realization that I needed a change. The company didn’t want me to take a break, so I thought let’s take a 6-month sabbatical, I had such a strong CV, I knew I could go back into the game. I never did.
I fell into recruitment by accident after helping someone with the IT systems in their recruitment agency. Whilst I was there, they needed a bit of help with some junior-level IT position. I spoke to their client, and they loved me, I spoke to the candidates, and I knew more than them about what it is they do so was able to advise how to ace the interview. Bang, I made a placement. The work was straightforward, so I took on more, and before you know it, I had my own desk there. After doing that for a couple of years and grossing well into six figures of revenue in year two, I branched out and did my own thing and after another few years, I kind of thought, “Okay, this is what I do now”, and I never went back to the city.
Jamie: Coming to sales later into your career, how have you honed those skills in a short amount of time?
Saj: I have one million people trying to sell me things every day, from managed IT services, printer cartridges, new candidate sourcing systems, and the list goes on and on. I’ve listened to them as a business owner who also has to partake in ‘Inside Sales’ and what I’ve learned is that for me, personally, getting in front of people, the timing, and having strong gravitas about you is massive. You don’t need to be old, just a certain level of maturity and life experiences that permeate throughout your whole persona and then transcends to other people. Life experience and as I like to call it, being a ‘social chameleon’ is massive. I came from a very normal working-class kind of area of London. I can talk to these people, I’ve then worked in high brow corporate institutions, and I can converse with dignitaries at events. You need to be able to switch it up.
Growing up in the eco-system of London, you come across a variety of people from day one, it’s a very tribal city. If you can break outside your immediate tribe and integrate with other tribes = or class structures and people to be precise = you become quite the social chameleon. That isn’t possible in, say, Lincoln.
When you are dealing with people, if you’ve got that emotional intelligence, awareness, that ability to just talk to absolutely anyone and to also listen extremely well, that’s the key. Knowing immediately what makes that person tick, where they’re coming from, what’s their background, what are their drivers in life, and adjusting accordingly. Dealing with a risk assessment from adolescence navigating all kinds of situations, combined with maturing well has helped me in my business and personal life as an adult and helped to shape the ability to switch to someone else’s plane of existence very quickly.
There are a million books out there on this sales stuff. I haven’t read any of them. I’ve read a few on spin selling this, that, and the other, I’ll skim over it, read the highlights, and then suddenly realize this is what I’m doing already. Unless someone says to me, “Saj, here is something you have to read to do with selling.” I’ll read it, I’ll skim over it but again, you buy from people and from them having a particular need or a desire. You have to be passionate about the product in the first place, and once that has opened a door, it’s all about you. When these social skills are inherent in your persona, that makes for very strong salespeople. The other skill that I think is absolutely essential is to be a natural evangelist. I’m someone who when I’ve had a great experience with a service, a holiday, a book, a gadget whatever it may be, I’ll sell it to my friends until the cows come home. I’ll understand everything about it, and I’ll evangelize it.
People pick up when you’re passionate about something. As a small business owner, I don’t have teams of salespeople working below me. I can evangelize about it because I own this thing and I inherently know my product better than anyone. People love talking to the business owner. So, a combination of those very strong people skills, the natural ability to listen, to solve a problem, and to evangelize.
Jamie: How do you take that next step to be able to talk to the most senior people in the industry?
Saj: I just view people as people. You might be overwhelmed if you meet your favourite pop star or your favourite footballer, but in business, having worked in a global corporate environment, I’ve had to sit down with MDs of business units within the biggest banks in the world that generate tens of millions of dollars; the equivalent of the CEOs and CTOs in smaller setups. I’m accustomed to talking to people, A) because it’s technology recruitment and I have been a senior technologist and B) whilst I have respect for the status and rank someone may have within their organization, I just liaise with them as people. That combination works well. It comes back to having a level of confidence and being authoritative. You need to listen, you need to own the process.
Jamie: What advice would you give for aspiring salespeople?
Whatever role you go for, do a lot of research upfront. That’ll determine the challenges you will face. Are the leads generated automatically, or are you going to generate them yourself? Do they have a marketing machine that provides a platform for you? Does the company have an antiquated view of sales? Are their competitors doing things better or in a more modern way? Is the company at the forefront of technology, and can they survive in a digital age? Do they have a strong bias for positive action? Importantly – how good is the product and does it have meaning to which you can relate to?
I’ve met some strong salespeople who were introverts, so I wouldn’t say you absolutely have to be an extrovert which seems to be a common misconception. Don’t be put out or be scared by sales because you’re a certain personality, there’s a place for every kind of personality within sales. It’s just a matter of finding the right one for you. The main thing is that you are driven by positive outcomes. Cold calling can be frightening, but if you believe in the product, your approach, and these positive outcomes it can become a weapon. Some people breeze through it, and others can be a wreck at the thought of it. However, if you’ve got the right mentoring around you and a framework to overcome that initial hurdle, then after that, it’s plain sailing developing and building your persona. Do your research and don’t be scared. There are differences between selling stationery, selling property, or selling multi-tiered AI-driven SaaS software solutions to corporates, and each requires a very different persona to correlate with that sales approach.
Jamie: If you had your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Saj: I would like to have realized earlier just how important sales is to a great business idea – remember, it was all an accident for me. I should have sought a lot more advice when I moved into running my own business. I’ve recently had a couple of mentors who’ve been instrumental in helping me along, not just specifically in sales, but in business in general. I should have done that sooner, seeking advice, reaching out, and talking to people, not just for sales but for my whole business journey. I learned it all on the job, and it would have been beneficial to have had guidance at an earlier stage rather than muddling through it.
Jamie: Can you tell me about a time you failed to make a sale, and it taught you something valuable?
Saj: As I have mentioned once or twice in recruitment, you’ll only survive if you specialize in a niche market and this is partly because of the rise of the in-house recruitment functions due to the cost of using agencies. Companies will only turn to agencies now when you’re able to offer something that they can’t do themselves. When I first started, I was a jack of all trades and master of none. My recruitment strategy was ‘mile wide and inch deep’ covering the whole IT landscape without having a deep ‘inch wide and mile deep’ specialization. At the time, this was fine, but the landscape changed, and I needed to have pivoted quicker.
Early on, I was awarded a contract by one of the largest hedge funds in the world, and I managed to get face to face with the decision-makers at a time when my business was quite nascent. As a one-man band at the time, being awarded a gig like this was unheard of. I thought I could deal with their demands.
There’s a quote from Richard Branson along the lines of, “if you don’t know how to do something you’re being offered, just go ahead and accept it, do it and worry about the details afterward.” I love that mantra.
The hedge fund had aggressive timelines, needs, and demands. My edge and strategies for finding candidates weren’t mature enough. I tried to leverage long-standing relationships but couldn’t find the people that knew their technology. As a result of not being able to deliver as quickly as required, having onboarded a very large company, and then not making a couple of placements -which would have been extremely lucrative – there were immediate feelings of failure. They used a one-man band to try and augment their big supplier strategy, and I wasn’t able to deliver.
My answer doesn’t address your question directly as the sale was actually successful, just the business off the back of it wasn’t. It was a big lesson for me and the business – not to oversell if on the other side you can’t actually deliver! Our product is people, not something that is already made, ready for you to go and sell.
Jamie: Can you give an example of when you have had face-to-face meetings without achieving the sale?
Saj: Once I had developed a reputation for a unique offering, I still struggled with larger financial institutions. They have their horrible old Preferred Supplier List (PSL) structure that isn’t really open-minded or flexible. What’s the point of having 10 identical agencies on a PSL? Why not have a mix? That’s how you’ll achieve better outcomes. I try to explain that to buyers, how to use a small company to augment their strategy and when it’s not successful, it’s very frustrating. This said, with the current product I have been working on, we have banged down many doors with large banks and Big 4 consulting firms. Why? Because we cornered a niche within a niche and established relationships with every single contractor within it. Clients have no choice but to listen if they want to tap into this hidden market we have made ourselves an integral part of.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you really succeeded and made a great sale that shows off the skills that you’ve developed throughout your career?
Saj: The story I mentioned before, where I worked my way into an industry conference where there were literally 30 decision-makers in my target market, all sitting in the same room. Heaven. Masquerading as one of them, sitting through a host of seminars, making some notes as a cover. I was very self-conscious as it felt like there were a million eyes on me and then about half-way through the seminar I was approached,
“We know who you are and I don’t think you should be here.”
“Well, I’m not here to sell my services, I’m here to learn about the products you use because it’s what I recruit for, it’ll help if I know about the products and in turn help you”.
It turned out that I knew a couple of the companies there as I had worked with already, one was a good friend of mine, and naturally, over lunch, I joined them. Others saw me talking with them, and that was enough, that’s all I needed for a story to pitch in the days/weeks afterward. Over the next month, I successfully approached clients from that conference, and three of them represented my main revenue stream going forward, all from a moment as opposed to a year of knocking on doors.
Sometimes in life, not just sales, things happen from moments, and in sales, all it takes is one moment for something to suddenly turn around. If you had to throw the rest of this interview in the bin, I would just say go out there and keep creating memorable moments, within a niche industry.
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