Stephen is a good friend, a powerful presenter and a product sales savant. Having built and trained huge teams of retail salespeople, Stephen has moved his businesses online in the face of closing retail stores and the COVID pandemic.
“The pace of change will never be as slow again as it is today,” we used to say at Gartner. Stephen is embracing change and launching successful new businesses in the face of adversity is a credit to his perseverance and skill.
You can read Stephen’s full biography here
Jamie: Firstly, Steve, what have you found most fulfilling about your career to this point?
Steve: Seeing people start from not having any experience to see them achieve some great results. The thing that fills me with joy the most is watching a new salesperson, coaching them, and seeing them get some fantastic results.
Jamie: What made you want to work in sales?
Steve: I never wanted to work in sales per se. When I was younger and working minimum wage jobs in bars and clubs, my tables were always taking more money than everyone else’s at the end of every night. I suppose this was because I worked fast and wanted people to have a good time and a good customer experience. I did that for about 3 months, and it was great. I loved it.
But I got pissed off that I was getting paid exactly the same as everyone else, and then I thought it’d be good to get a job where my hard work and talents would actually get rewarded.
I never thought sales is what I want to do, it was always just part of the business. I was doing a business management degree in university, and I wanted to have management experience when I left university. So, when a job came along for Southwestern door-to-door sales, I thought, well, if I can be a sales guy, and then be a manager by the time I graduate, that’s exactly the experience needed to run my own business. I didn’t run my own business when I left university, because I had a couple of job offers on the table and went with one of them. Whether I regret that or not is a whole different conversation.
Jamie: What have you found the worst thing about working in sales or business management?
Steve: The worst thing is that your emotions and feelings can be massively up and down every day, depending on your results. Literally, one day you can be on top of the world and the next day at 2 p.m. having not sold anything or having that feeling like no one is buying from you, can feel like absolute shit. So, you’ve got to perform day in, day out, and that is something I’m happy to do, but there are some days when I just don’t want to, and there are no lazy days.
Jamie: When you don’t feel like going out to sell, what techniques do you use to motivate yourself?
Steve: I’ve tried to avoid actually being in a pure selling environment anymore for the simple reason that it is, generally not the best use of my time. I spend most of my time training the sales managers who work for me.
I try to only sell things that I am genuinely passionate about. It is a bit of a cliché, but if you care about something, then you should be selling it.
Jamie: In terms of the salespeople you have employed – and there have been many- what are the key characteristics you look for?
Steve: This has changed over the years, but probably the two biggest things are being hardworking and reliable. Everything else can be taught.
Jamie: How do you test in advance for those two characteristics?
Steve: To understand if someone is hardworking, I ask them to describe what they usually do in a typical day. Whether they’re out of work or in a job, people who can list many things achieved day-in, day out are usually hard workers. They don’t waste time; they get things done. Reliability is a more difficult characteristic to test. As with hard work, I’ll start by investigating their past, and whether they pushed through the tough times or gave up. Beyond that, the more important aspect is to create reliability. I do this by asking them flat out if they would be reliable, because of how important it is to me. This creates a sense of honour that they want to uphold.
Jamie: Can you tell me about the rise of online sales and its effects on your business. What role do you see the salesperson on the ground taking as we go forward?
In terms of retail, I think it’s dead. Online has been chipping away at physical retail for 10 years. Retail won’t vanish, but the days of making a large profit from a few sales guys in retail are gone. This change is accelerating, and the game is changing.
Online is fiercely competitive, and a lot more companies play dirty than in traditional retail. It’s dog-eat-dog instead of friendly competition which I miss. Quality salespeople are still vital but in a different capacity. Writing great sales copy, building chatbots, marketing emails, even customer support, take sales skills.
Jamie: Is human interaction going to become less essential to the buying process?
Steve: Yes. I am working on setting up and running remote video selling, so you can talk to a customer in a store while working from home. You can have a conversation with a real human about products in the store; that’s in the works.
I think it will become a regular thing to have these screens in stores. One person will potentially be working across three stores at the same time. That’ll represent a significant cost saving.
That’s in the works, but I don’t see it being that major game-changer, because many people are scared and getting comfortable ordering from home. It’s easier and sometimes quicker.
Jamie: Where would you recommend all those retail salespeople who want to continue working in sales, but their previous jobs do not exist?
Steve: A client of mine, Tailor Made Car Finance, sells cars via telesales, it’s a fantastic business model that is rapidly growing due to how scalable it is; they will do very well long term. The most valuable items they would sell with my retail sales teams were high-end white goods, like washing machines and fridges. Taking out VAT, retailer margin, and production cost, it left very little to pay the salesperson commission, which will never attract the best salespeople. Whereas with much higher ticket items, you can afford to pay the sales reps a lot more, which is better for everyone. For the best of the bunch, they can move into selling products remotely, which is more profitable for everyone.
Jamie: So, telesales is going to grow as instore sales decline?
Steve: I think so because fewer people want to have face-to-face interactions. The world has changed. Things are going to go back to normal, to an extent, but as online grows and more people stay home, it allows telesales to flourish too.
Jamie: Throughout your career, how have you chosen the products you sell and market?
Steve: In the beginning, I chose things that I liked, like technology, consumer electronics, speakers, audio; things that I was passionate about. When I was younger, my ambition was to have the likes of Sony, Samsung, and Panasonic as my clients, with my team selling their products. That didn’t happen for several reasons. However, retail buyers knew I was great at delivering sell-through results, and they started referring their suppliers to me. My teams started selling everything from karaoke machines, lady’s makeup, anti-ageing creams, and robots to remote control cars and pillows. My mindset was: this is a client, it’s a profitable opportunity, let’s do this.
Later, thankfully I had more business coming in than I had time to deal with, I was able to become pickier, in terms of products that I cared about and things that I thought would be successful.
Jamie: If you were a salesperson on the ground rather than a business owner, what sort of characteristics would you be looking for in a product to start your sales career?
Steve: I would be looking for something that I was passionate about, like cars or technology, or something that could pay good commissions – ideally both!
Jamie: If you had it again yourself, are there specific industries you would gravitate more towards?
Steve: Industries that can make you more money.
How hard you work, and what you get paid are not directly related. I’ve learned you need to work hard, but on smart stuff, not just smart and not just hard.
Working in the consumer audio world, you are looking at a few pounds of profit to pay the salespeople in commission per sale. Whereas, if I was selling cruise ships, jets, luxury cars, and financial products, there is a lot more money to be made in those industries. That’s what I would have started with.
Jamie: What is the difference in skillset required between those selling physical goods and selling services?
Steve: Products are harder to sell because you cannot adjust them for every client, whereas with most services you can better meet the client’s needs and therefore make the sale easier. You’ve got to be a better salesperson to sell a product, generally speaking.
The vast majority of skillsets would be the same, but the difference is that services require carefully taking on board the customer’s needs and altering the service to meet the customer’s needs profitably. Going completely bespoke is rarely efficient or profitable for products, so product salespeople need to figure out how the existing product can meet customer needs.
Jamie: One of the things you’ve sold previously is sales training. What do you think is the most important component of a sales training program?
Steve: The old saying that you have to ‘Start with why.’ People have to have a good enough reason to sell something. It’s a lot easier to give someone sales training one-to-one than as a group because you can find their ‘why;’ whether that is to earn enough commission to save up a deposit to buy a house, or to make them believe that everyone should buy the product they are selling. If they are top of the league, then they could be promoted quickly.
The technical ‘how’ to sell matters, but it matters less than the hunger that drives them, the motivation that will always come first. Having a replicable method, created by people who’ve successfully achieved results before, is also significant. If a system covers objections and what to do with X or Y situation, it can help a beginner become an expert quickly.
Jamie: Should an aspiring salesperson look for an organization that has good processes in place to help them?
Absolutely, either good processes or good people, but ideally both, because there is a lot that can be learned from other people. What you can learn from ten good people in two months would take you two years to learn yourself.
Jamie: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to aspiring salespeople?
Steve: It would be to sell something you are passionate about, stay hungry, and always strive to be the best.
Every day, and even after every sales conversation, pat yourself on the back and look for something that you did well, as well as think about what you could’ve done better.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you did not make a sale, but you learned something?
Steve: For my sales agency service, I have missed out on a couple of potential clients because I just didn’t do the follow-up. It’s crazy when you can put in a lot of work and money into lead generation opportunities at trade fairs, then you have these great conversations, you exchange business cards, you talk about maybe working together, and then you never email them. Don’t do it! Understanding those mistakes and spending time on key result areas such as follow-up make a world of difference.
You end up beating yourself up for that because you are busy doing other things. It needs to be a priority, as it’s such a waste of time to build those great relationships – or at least the beginnings of what could be a great relationship – and not follow up. That is definitely the biggest reason.
Jamie: Why do you think that happened?
The psychological reason would be the fear of failure, because you left on a high and if you follow up and they say ‘no’ or they ignore you, then it is a ‘no.’ If you had not chased it, then it is still a “Yes, at the moment,” which is completely illogical, but that’s what’s going on in the subconscious.
In terms of a supposedly logical rationale, what I would say out loud to a human being or to myself, would be, “I am busy, and I have got other things to do that take priority,” which is true to an extent as well.
Organization really matters. Taking the time to put things in a calendar, follow up, or schedule time to draft emails; it’s all too easy to lose a business card and a deal worth millions.
Jamie: Lastly, on the flip side of that, what is that sale that you made that a lot of people would not have made, that show off your skills and expertise gained during your career?
Steve: My first sale, when I started my sales agency Your Edge, was amazing. I was a 25-year-old selling to one of the biggest companies in the world, and the biggest white goods manufacturer in the UK and Europe. It was my job to convince them that I could run their entire retail sales team in John Lewis across the UK. There are very few people who could’ve achieved it. I got my foot in the door to pitch because of my reputation in the industry for being bloody good at recruiting, training, and managing salespeople while on a tight budget.
When the opportunity arose, I worked really hard to make a great presentation. I did all of my research, producing the contracts, website and video, literally just for that meeting. Despite not being a fan of public speaking, I rehearsed, listened to loads of content on body language and presenting, and worked. They signed on the dotted line, and I ran their sales team for the next 3 years.