This was a big interview, and not just in length! We traversed a wide range of topics, from the dealing with rejection, to psychometrics, to sales technologies, recruitment, adaptability, culture, modern sales complexity, peer-to-peer coaching, sales compensation, company leadership, and the importance of recognition, among other topics…
Stuart is accomplished, well recognized, and innovative in his communication. Please enjoy.
You can read Stuart’s full biography here
Jamie: Stuart, in your career in sales and consultancy, what have you found most fulfilling?
Stuart: I think it’s two things. The first is winning business. The bigger, the better because, the larger transformation projects create real change. This then has two parts that I enjoy. The first buzz is the sale and the second buzz is the success of the client based on material and insight we provide. It’s great to see the impact that has on people that just do not have that awareness. I find that sometimes I undervalue the knowledge that we share. You will sometimes skirt over it because you do not think it is that powerful.
The second element that I find fulfilling is building a great team which I feel we have right now. When you have the right people, the right culture, they are singing off the same hymn sheet, and you know that if you left, they would stand up in your place and be just as competent; that is another thing I am really proud of.
Jamie: Can you talk a little bit about how important it is to nail the basics first, before looking into advanced sales techniques?
Stuart: I had a conversation earlier this week about this very thing. You can talk to someone about designing your sales funnel and reverse-engineer what you need to do to achieve your target. For people like yourself and me, that is a basic thing to do.
You would think that this would be the first thing you learn in any kind of sales transformation, but I am amazed at the number of people that lack any concept of a sales funnel, conversion rates, and activity metrics. The number one distraction from success for most salespeople is just not doing enough activity.
What is fascinating, working with professional services firms, is that they often dismiss this as spinning the wheel, but we say you need to apply ‘intelligent activity.’ Obviously, you do not just randomly pick anybody to go pitch your services or solution to. To me, that is kind of implicit in the thinking.
I have been using what we now call our habits triangle for over thirty years. In the early days, the three sides were named physical, mental, and emotional, and now we have it in SBR as skills, systems, and motivation. What we mean by this is that these 3 fundamental parts are what makes up a high performer, and they need ALL 3 to be effective. Poor salespeople will worry around their product offering. “I am concerned. I do not know the market. I do not know the product really well.” That should be the least of your concerns; you are going to talk about your product all the time. What they forget is that the understanding of building a solid base of activities as your foundation and making sure – even in that account management role, you still need to be putting in that activity to make sure.
All the top people I have spoken to in this COVID-19 scenario, are the ones that are saying, “This is a perfect time to reach out…” They are the ones that are succeeding.
Jamie: You mentioned the account manager vs new business distinction. Do you think that that should be a distinction in organisations, that account managers and new business should be different roles and skillsets?
Stuart: That is kind of the classic idea. I know a lot of people do not like this hunter and farmer terminology. I think that there are people that are more suited to a hunter mentality. They like the chase. They like the hunt, the kill, and the win. Where those sorts of salespeople often let themselves down is that they do not build the relationships. They do not make sure to execute properly. They then don’t take advantage of building referrals on the back of a quality implementation process. They miss a trick because they are out to get the next thing, the next buzz, and the next dopamine hit from all of the excitement. There are people out there that lend themselves to that; they have equipped their brains to see opportunity.
The account managers have longer-term relationships and have a very different view on it. Whether there should be a distinction in a business depends on the firm and the product offering. You will get large global account managers that you want to be a central point of focus, and so they need to work on the strategy and to map the decision-making process and individuals in their clients. They need to have their finger on the pulse to be aware of the changes that take place in fast-moving business environments, such as a regime change or IPO, or anything that could risk the contract, relationships or revenue. They then need to rapidly respond to that.
The challenge in account management, which is again another skill, is that they go over the friendship line. They have good relationships, but then they become too friendly, and you realise, “Hang on, who is paying their wages?” The other thing I have a problem with is the term ‘account manager’. In account management, you just manage, whereas actually, we would implore organisations to use “Account Development.” It’s actually about growing that account. There is a significant difference in the picture of your “Account Developer” as opposed to an “Account Manager.” In fact, again today, one of my client meetings was around the fact that they have really poor Account Management, so its an ongoing issue.
It might just be as simple as changing the name. A lot of firms find value in changing it. I think a lot of firms think you need a different animal for each, but equally, in
our firm, we do both, and I do not see an issue with it, certainly with smaller firms. It is quite nice because you have a mix. You could pick up the phone to an account, and they are going to answer you. They answer your emails and then have meetings that make you feel a bit better than when you do not get many meetings because you are just doing cold calling and business development. There is a value in both.
Jamie: Do you believe that anyone should go into sales?
Stuart: Yes. Everyone is in sales. Interestingly enough, one trend that I have noticed over the years is that the word ‘sales’ in the title is disappearing.
One of my favourite ones was a senior sales leader in a large construction firm. His title is changing, but it was the “Head of Pre-construction.” It is just ridiculous to avoid the word ‘sales’ because sales has such a negative connotation.
As a business-studies graduate myself, there was no section in that training, and as a pro bono lecturer of various universities in London, still, to this day, they do not have sales on the curriculum. I know it does exist nowadays, but most business studies courses do not have ‘sales’ in it. Of course, most people’s interaction with sales as they grow up is normally a negative one – phone salespeople, or door knocking, which normally leaves a bad taste in their mouths.
The second part of your question is, “Can anybody do it? “I genuinely believe anyone can. I think some people ramp faster than others. You have got firms that actually have got rid of loads of salespeople because they are not technical enough to sell their offering where you have complex technical solutions; it is easier to train technical individuals on how to be effective salespeople. They need that technicality and can learn how to be effective as a communicator. Then some individuals are really good with relationships and people, but they are not necessarily technical enough. You get these two kinds of people.
If you look at it from technical individuals and then the more expressive individuals, I think both could do it, and I say that having trained, managed, and recruited 2,500 students before I started my fourteen-year career in consulting. I think I can honestly say anyone can do it.
Jamie: What would you say is the worst thing about being in sales?
Stuart: I think the worst thing, without a shadow of a doubt in my mind, is that you are only as good as your last sale, your last month, your last quarter, or your last year. You are a hundred percent tangible, unlike other roles of the business. That accountability, or tangibility, of, “You are doing a good job, or you are not doing a good job,” can put a lot of pressure on people, because your worth is invariably limited to the revenue that you bring in and the sales that you create, in everyone else’s eyes. If that does not happen, it is always your fault, whether that is actually true or not.
The biggest challenge is the mental toughness that you need in the sales. A lot of us will reach out to a few friends, and if a friend does not call us back after dropping them a couple of texts, we deem that as rejection and we consider what have we done to them. They are probably just busy people.
That is the case in most of our environments; if you start taking that personally or if you do not form mental strategies on how to overcome that kind of rejection, you’re in trouble. It is very rarely the negative rejection, as in, “You are no good, get away from me. I cannot stand people like you.” That is very unlikely to happen. You have to have polite persistence and keep going.
Jamie: Are you aware of any official tests that people could take to determine their sales aptitude in advance?
Stuart: Yes. Psychometrics has really gone through an explosion, and especially now it is all online, so it is easy to take tests.
What most people think if they say, “Oh, you would make a good salesperson,” is someone who does a lot of talking, somebody who is expressive and lights up a room. This is not a good test at all.
There has been some analysis on a couple of our clients, which they have done with psychometric and behavioural analysts, and what they have determined is that the highest performers are people that have charisma, or ownership of a room, and pick this up as a behavioural trait. However, that is only in a B2C environment, so I do not think all industries need that. There are definitely going to be some industries that lend themselves to certain characters.
Back to your point as well – could anyone go into sales? I think anyone can, as long as what they are selling is the right fit for their personality type.
I had the lucky opportunity to be a judge on the National Sales Awards a few years ago where there were ten finalists that I had to interview. They were all very good individuals, and they had obviously gone through quite a few hoops to get to these ten finalist positions, but what I found fascinating was that they all seem to be very reflective of the personalities they were selling to. I have found that the highest performers reflect their clients the most, whether that is learned or whether that is natural.
Jamie: When you are advising your clients on how to recruit salespeople, what criteria do you recommend they look for?
Stuart: We offer a whole load of insight into what they should be looking for in salespeople. I would say the most important one is to be a cultural fit for your business. Some firms are very successful with hunter-mentality, go-get-it, high-spirited individuals. If you are a high-spirited individual but working in more of a kind of data-related or technical sales environment, you are going to die. You need individuals who are reflective of your culture, and the personality types that you are selling to. Do they reflect those kinds of personality types, or can they learn to?
While I said earlier that anybody could be in sales, there are definitely people that will ramp faster than others. Will people make the grade in the time you have allocated them for learning? That time varies dependant on the market and product or service you are providing. I have seen firms do this from a week and others up to a year. This is what organisations need to ask themselves. In our business someone can get onboarded in three months, they are earning in six months, and they are covering their costs.
When I recruit, I always look for a ‘desire to learn’ in the candidate. That is the growth mindset as opposed to the fixed mindset, and that is not reflected in their age. In fact, our oldest team member probably has one of the keenest desires to learn and is a real value to the team. I also think there is a lack of focus on creativity in sales. I think you have to be very creative in sales around finding a way to get a hold of someone and finding a way to attract their attention.
Lars Tewes (fellow interviewee) had a great example once, coming out of the client meeting where they talked about their growth, and learning that they are moving into a new building. He literally took a picture of himself outside the new building and sent it to the client as a follow-up, saying, “We want to help you move into this building fast.” This kind of creativity helps reduce those barriers.
Let me give you another example. For one of my secret Santa Christmas presents, I was given an R2D2 coffee mug. A CEO in my client firm commented on it. So I just got him one and sent it to him. That is the kind of creativity that gives you a slight edge. AJ Vaden, a very successful salesperson in the United States for our consulting firm, came at it from a very different angle, a much more nurturing angle of relationships, and would send her clients ‘bobbleheads’ or t-shirts that she knew would appeal to her prospect. I wouldn’t usually do that, but it works very well for her in creating good long-term relationships.
Jamie: Is there a way of testing for that creativity other than just asking for examples?
Stuart: Well, yes, asking for examples is one way and the only way I have assessed people for it, but there are psychometric evaluations that allege to measure it.
Jamie: What are the most important ingredients in a good sales culture?
Stuart: I would say tenacity, finding a way, which is embedded into our values and the culture of our firm and collaboration.
The other challenge in a lot of sales environments is that they are often individually focused, and you still want a degree of that, but collaboration is the way we have won business. The average number of external decision-makers, according to the Harvard Business Review, is now 6.8 in business-to-business sales. I think that having one person selling to 6.8 people is reducing your chances massively.
Working effectively in a team is great because you are constantly learning the entire time. I am obviously biased, but I think you would feel reticent to leave and go somewhere else because your success and growth are based on the people that collaborate and share ideas the entire time. A lot of sales organisations do not offer good platforms to collaborate with the team effectively. So that would be a key factor for me.
Jamie: What do you mean by platforms for collaboration?
Stuart: My team would usually sit around me, in an office, so there was a lot of collaboration going on and ideas and thoughts and proposals. We also had a Tuesday huddle, and we have monthly sales meetings. We now have weekly calls on a Tuesday morning to go through any kind of issues you have, like, “How do you get things over the line?” “What referrals should I be using?” that kind of thing, but now with COVID, there are daily huddles. In these daily huddles, we talk about what is going on, what is happening, and just checking everyone’s doing all the right things. That is a team-initiated event, not a manager-initiated event, and that reflects my style as a leader as well.
In the virtual world, these team huddles are working really well, and people love the opportunity to share. Equally, the team has a good resource platform. If you can find all the resources that you need as a salesperson, when they are from a technical background, like white papers and proposal templates, and make it as easy as possible for people to spend as much time client-facing.
Jamie: How would you test for this culture in an organisation; how would you make sure they are serious and value sales?
Stuart: That is what we do in SBR Consulting. Typically, clients value our qualitative insight more than quantitative insight. All of our people have sales skills. When you are around salespeople all the time, you can sense sales culture very quickly, or we feel you can understand it relatively quickly once we are on-site talking, to the sales team, leaders and support team.
We use habits triangle I mentioned earlier as a filter to look through so that someone who has come through good training will be able to identify when people have not had good training, and where they are shooting from the hip. That means that anything they are going to do is going to lack serious scalability. The test is. “Are these people running off frameworks that are scalable within the business? Do they have some kind of common language? Do they recognise what they need to do and the effort they need to put in to achieve results?” These would be kind questions we are looking to answer. Then from a more tangible side, we need to answer “How accurate is their pipeline? What conversion rates do they have?”
Some of the challenges with CRMs like Salesforce, which update instantly, is that you are getting live data and as a result, we have a tendency not to go back in history and see how accurate it is from a historical point of view.
Jamie: You have sold physical products, and you sold intangible consultancy services as you do now. Which do you prefer? How would you recommend an aspiring salesperson make that decision of what kind of product they would like to sell?
Stuart: I think it depends on where you are in your career. I think when you start in sales, I think it is quite nice to have a tangible product. It is going to be a much easier sell, but I think the challenge in our world is that a lot of things are becoming commoditised. Recent data is that around 80% of people will check stuff online now, so if you are selling a commoditised product, then people are going to be checking for price. If they are going to be able to get the same thing somewhere else for cheaper, then it does not make any economic sense to buy. You might be able to sell them ongoing after-sales service or the warranties; you might be able to add value, but, of course, the demand and the growth of online is showing this to be the case.
You need to look at the longer-term game, “Will I have a job and will I be selling this product, or will it be commoditised?” There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “The Death of a Salesperson,” that hypothesised that increased product commoditisation would lose a million sales jobs in the United States.
The challenging and exciting thing about conceptual selling is that it is much harder. You have got to base it on so much more than just saying what you are offering. The second thing is that it is going to stand the test of time, and the contract values can be very large. If you are in a commission environment and you are selling large-scale projects, for example, that would be pretty exciting for most.
Jamie: How would you recommend organisations best compensate for their salespeople?
Stuart: The one thing that does seem to show up consistently is that there has got to be some sort of compensation directly related to what you do.
What I find in organisations that are often led by individuals with a financial background is that really do not understand salespeople. They often see ways of reducing the costs in the business is to cut commission levels (because some individuals are earning large amounts). Or they put a cap on the max amount someone can earn. This is a false economy. You need to have salespeople incentivised.
Interesting enough, we have a very good collaborative, effective sales culture, but we do not have a collaborative commission system in our organisation, it is just a straight commission system on what that individual brings to the table. Already, the team themselves are talking about the fact that when they collaborate with someone else, it seems unfair. I think we need to have more of a joint commission spread amongst people working on a deal, which makes complete sense. Ultimately, I think you need to be paying people for the effort and the revenue that they are bringing in.
The reason why you need to have some sort of degree of basic is to attract talent. You need a reasonable basic salary, but almost borderline unreasonable, to the extent that people recognise that they have to go out there and sell.
The other one is actually sharing the success of the company. Should the company achieve something quite amazing, there should be some sort of award there. That reward could be in the form of commission, or it could be an incentive trip or additional reward. I have been lucky enough to pretty much have an incentive trip every year for the last thirty years. We did very well as a company last year, so we took the entire team for a weekend away as a reward. I think that if you do not reward people for the success of the organisation, which is ultimately their success, then I think you will be in danger of eroding the relationship and the emotional bank account that you have got with them.
The reason why people outside of sales do not really understand this is unlike many of them, it is often impossible to walk away from the job. It couldn’t be further from a 9-5 role in a firm. Successful salespeople are the ones who look to get slight edges, which means you might be working in the evenings or you might be doing the early morning calls or whatever, and that effort often goes unseen. Networking, for example, if you are in business development, in the evenings. It is all out of your own personal calendar, and therefore you need to be rewarded for that effort.
Jamie: Do you believe in recognition, if not compensation, for the activity at the top of the sales funnel?
Stuart: Yeah, a hundred percent. The one thing that there needs to be more of is recognition. That goes for anybody in any organisation. Having completed a psychology degree recently and gained some more understanding of behaviourism, you learn the value of recognition. Positive reinforcement, recognition is necessary.
In Southwestern (our parent company), you saw a culture where people would knock on doors for 80 hours a week and when they first start would earn very little for it. The reason for doing such long hours was to earn recognition and achieving one of the key metrics of activity at the start of their role. I am a massive advocate of all of that; celebrating success, recognition, and then some sort of compensation for the effort.
Jamie: What would be the number one piece of advice that you would give to an aspiring salesperson?
I would say you have got to have a passion for helping people and base your product or service around that. Helping people has got to be a driver, and I think the second, but also close to the first, is that you have got to be able to deal with setbacks. If you are easily upset with someone saying ‘no’ to you, then you are in trouble. You have got to be able to cope with that, and as I said earlier, I do not mean the kind of brutal rejection I used to get on a Friday night when I went out. It is the rejection of people not returning your calls, or deciding not to go with you. Or more often than not its people saying you were a very close second. There is no prize for second place. It’s painful.
Jamie: If you had your sales career again, what would you do differently?
In my first sales career, I stayed for ten years, but I wish I had moved sooner. For me, it is about learning. One of my core values is learning, and for you to be successful, you need to be learning. I would say that if you are not learning and you have achieved a good degree of performance, then you should move.
Jamie: Could you tell me how you have storytelling capability and the value it brings to your sales engagements?
‘Facts tell, stories sell’. I think it is just a learned thing that I have gone and done that you do. You use third person validation or social proof the whole time, you weave in stories, and it makes it visual for people, and it resonates.
I do not even realise now when I do it. We all have our favourite stories.
I think one of your other questions was about a time I failed to make a sale and learned a valuable lesson. The one that I have referenced a few times in my trainings was back in 2009 when we had the last large economic downturn. I was gunning for a really big deal; it would have been my annual target in one deal. I did all of the hard work; I started off with a complimentary ‘lunch and learn’ sessions in the prospects companies. Then they enjoyed those and asked for some ‘paid for’ sessions which helped me understand and learn about the different vertical businesses in their firm. Now I have a proven track record, and I have great relationships with several of the key stakeholders.
Then a new person came in, and I had not met before, and he was looking at it from the very cold light of day. He was not emotionally connected in any sort of way. He said, “Well, look, we are already running this program effectively in Australia. We are going with the Australian vendor.”
I had been putting all my effort into bringing this deal, and as a result of that, I had let my activity go down. So I had the worst year in my sales consulting career that year, which I was able to hid beneath the financial crisis. The reality is very different. It was due to my lack of activity metrics, and that I dedicated three to four months to that deal. I was more a ‘zero’ than a hero for that year.
The very valuable lesson I learned from that was: always maintain your activity, and then you can land some big deals. Yes, you might lose out on some other deals because you are not focused as much as you should, but when you look at the average distribution curve, some are going to come in, and you’ll do well.
Jamie: What advice do you have on telling a good story in a sales company?
I think what makes a good story is connecting it to yourself. It is also about understanding the person you are telling the story to. How are they responding, what are the signals they are giving off which tells you they are engaged or not, which is not always easy to do on a big stage? Then, building the picture of that situation. So a good story is to build the pictures that people can actually visualise you or themselves doing that kind of thing.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you really nailed it and made a sale that someone else might not have made, and it shows off the skills and knowledge you have developed throughout your career?
Stuart: It is really interesting because I remember when I went started in sales, I went door-to-door to sell aerial photographs; pictures of people’s villages, way before Google came around. I had a one-day sales school and a couple of hours out in the field training to show me how to do it. That was it, that was my onboarding on sales skills and everything else.
I think it is great selling pictures of people’s homes in Britain. It was in my third or fourth week. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the most exciting sale I had made because I had effectively communicated the message, and had got other people in their house to come and have a look at the pictures to engage them effectively. I got them excited about seeing the photographs and made them realise that actually, this would be a really good memento for their place.
We used to have an acronym for the reason why you would buy. It was called THUMP – that was Talking point, Historical record, Unique, Memento, and Present. You go through the THUMP in your head as to which one do you think would be relevant, and they bought it as a memento, and I guarantee you, of course, all the salespeople that had an aptitude would have sold it, but that was as a result of those key skills. I walked away from that one thinking, “I have nailed this! Finally nailed it, I have really worked out how to do this.” That was one.
I think the other one, from a conceptual selling background, was working with a firm – a direct sales organisation – that was my first big engagement. It was a whole national company, 150 salespeople or more. I worked with their leaders and their salespeople. This was a big six-month project across a hundred and fifty people that was transformational for them, but equally was my first big sale from a career perspective. It was good because there were multiple stakeholders who we had to win over. It took over a year to finally land the deal, but through polite persistence and perseverance, it finally closed.