Theo has worked in a variety of industries, as he says in this interview – from door-to-door, to real estate, to finance, to technology to management and sales consulting, right through to the super-premium internal sales training he provides today. Given the wisdom Theo has accumulated throughout his varied career, it made sense to divide his interview into several parts.
I hope you enjoy the second part in Theo’s comprehensive interview series, which contains each of strong industry guidance, ancient wisdom and practical advice for right now.
You can read Theo’s full biography here
Jamie: Theo, what have you found most fulfilling about your career so far?
Theo: I think the most rewarding thing, and ultimately the reason I do what I do now, is helping people and changing lives.
Jamie: What do you think it is about sales that allows you to do that disproportionately when compared to other potential career paths?
Theo: There are two types of salespeople. One is the product pusher salesperson that is not really interested in solving problems. He is trying to push out as many sales as possible and earn a commission, the other is a problem solver. That is a major difference, I think, and in helping solve people’s problems, ultimately, you end up winning as well. It goes back to the old saying, “If you helped enough people get what they want, you will also get what you want.”
Jamie: Can you expand on the benefits that you get from being the latter kind of salesperson?
Theo: Well, first of all, you ultimately succeed. It’s the hidden success formula. It’s not intuitive.
You would think that if you focus on your commission and you focus on your results, that you would perform at the highest level, whereas in fact, you can’t out-give your client.
If you forget about yourself and focus purely on helping other people, serving other people, solving other people’s problems, you ultimately win yourself as well, and you will get paid. People are paid proportionally to the problems that they solve in any organization. The CEO gets a massive salary as they solve problems at the highest level and in the same way, for a salesperson, the bigger the problems they solve, the more they ultimately get paid, whereas if they don’t think in that way, then they lose the very pay that they are seeking.
Jamie: How can people move towards being more service-minded and therefore more successful in sales?
Theo: The first point is the focus.
It’s the old wisdom of Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, “Beware your thoughts they become words. Beware your words, they become actions. Beware your actions, they become habits, and beware of your habits they become your character and your destiny.”
Where your thoughts are, your actions go, they become habits, and they become who you are. That very much applies to a salesperson as you should focus on what you really want.
Focus on your customer, your prospective customer, your client, and then you act more and more in that line of thinking. Therefore, that becomes a habit. That becomes who you are: not even a salesperson anymore, but more of a trusted advisor. By focusing on the customer’s needs first, and putting your own aside, the ultimate output and actions as far as service becomes habitual and ultimately becomes how you do it. Once you go into sales leadership, that is how you lead teams.
Jamie: What is the best thing about being in sales?
Sales legend Tom Hopkins once said, “Sales is the highest-paid hard job, and the lowest paid easy job.” If you take it easy, you don’t get paid. If you work hard, you do.
There’s a financial reward.” Obviously, we’ve talked about how that financial reward would come from working hard, but primarily the focus should be on the customer, the customer’s needs, and solving problems. That in itself is very satisfactory. Clients become friends, and you really feel like you’re making a difference, much more than the money. Of course, money makes the world go around, but the fact is that you are designing your lifestyle, and all the while doing something that you enjoy.
There’s a study that says if you like your job 30% or more, you should probably stay where you are; most people are around 30% content with their job. I think the most successful salespeople are the ones that are pulling that way up. I’ve met and trained and worked with salespeople that are 90% or 95% satisfied with making a difference in helping others.
Jamie: That hasn’t always stopped you from leaving jobs, though?
Theo: Ultimately, there are other factors. Every company has politics. Every company has people. When I train sales managers, I always talk about the principle that salespeople don’t leave companies, they leave sales managers.
There was a study of the top five reasons why employees leave companies. It’s definitely worth a discussion within the sales manager training realm and sales manager’s knowledge base. The reason that most people instinctively think that people leave companies is money. It is in the top five – but it’s number four.
The number one reason people leave is they don’t feel they’re making a difference. Either, they are not recognized for making a difference or the actual job that they do, they don’t feel they’re making an impact or changing anything; that their contribution is worthless.
That applies to that point of why people leave. Indeed, if I look at where I’ve gone, it’s been why I’ve moved from companies. I’ve gone from software sales to real estate; I’ve done banking, private banking, and telesales within banking. Then I’ve done consulting, sales consulting, management consulting, and specializing in sales where we worked across multiple industries. I’ve seen a whole breadth of clientele in that space. I’ve seen why people leave and what helps them to stay, and specifically the sales reps inside of those companies, those industries; a nice snapshot of the whole spectrum.
Jamie: If we look at the sectors where you’ve worked – how do you feel that salespeople are recognized in real estate?
Theo: As far as recognition, the real estate generally does a good job of recognition and awards. You’ll have monthly ranks of people’s production. If you’ve made the top 50 in a month, you’ll know it. I’ve worked tonight in two of the largest houses, where we’ve had 3,000-4,000 brokers in the company.
If you make it into the top hundred, you know it, certainly at the end of the year. That’s the good news; there’s always strong award ceremonies where you get trophies. I’ve received multiple certificates of achievement. We have something called the million-dollar club. I’ve had that many times and been recognized on stage where you go and receive an award for ranking in the top 1%, every month, on an annual basis, being a top leader, having a top team in terms of team production, and you get paid on how your team produces. I think real estate has done a great job, with a lot of great straight commission payment structures.
Jamie: Does that work as compensation for being willing to take a more variable salary?
Theo: Yeah, definitely. No floor, no ceiling.
I’ve done a lot of coaching and training for insurance companies. You see people that have seven-figure incomes and pure commission-based sales. If you take CBRE or Jones Lang Salle where they’re selling purely commercial real estate, the perk is that they have a base salary and then they have a commission on top. However, they won’t be able to make a seven-figure income.
Jamie: What skills do you believe that someone should have naturally to go into sales?
Theo: I’d say that number one would be persistence in the face of failure. That’s from Og Mandino in his seminal work, “The Greatest Salesman in the World.” “If you stack the bodies of the failures in sales, one on top of each other, they’d go all the way to the moon and back.”
I think it’s very rare that people believe that salespeople are born; it always has to be learned. There are many mistakes you need to make, and things you need to learn to be able to succeed and persistence is actually, for me, above everything else.
Jamie: Aside from the systems, can you develop everything else?
Theo: Yeah. I actually believe everything can be developed. Truth is, it is the mind that limits. If we go back to our Lao Tzu continuum of thoughts becoming words, becoming actions and habits, how do we even change how we think?
Well, in my very first year of sales, I learned from my manager that you will be exactly the same person you are five years from now other than the people that you meet and the books that you read.
If you don’t see any fundamental change that comes with the people that you work with, that you meet, that you hear, that you listen to, that you go to training with, you see at conferences or seminars, then the other side is the books you read. You can literally change your mind or your heart about something fundamental through a book.
Jamie: What skills are needed to though to succeed in pure-commission industries above and beyond your typical sales skills?
Theo: Other than the network and specific skills, the primary one would be prospecting. That’s true for both real estate and financial services. Until you get to such a stage as you’re working referrals only, it would be prospecting. That said, there is a crossover point where if you’ve got 70 referrals, you don’t have time for prospecting. I would say, starting from scratch, that wouldn’t happen until the second or even the third full year. Then the second is relationship management after you start getting sufficient referrals.
Jamie: A lot of people would think of real estate sales as a one-time transaction, and you’re saying it’s very much not that way?
Theo: Definitely not. I think people selling cars use exactly the same way.
If you read Joe Girard’s book, “How to Sell Anything to Anybody,” it’s definitely not that way. The main premise of the book is the power of referrals and referred business. That is very much relationship management.
Jamie: How do you feel about the balance of power between sales and marketing in the real estate industry?
Theo: That’s something I’ve been studying. I’ve been working on my MBA, and then I’ll keep doing a doctorate and addressing that very issue. It’s a super exciting comparison to see but the balance changes over time and with social media, but it is essentially specific to real estate. I would say marketing in real estate is very much an individual thing. There aren’t a lot of real estate houses that do marketing. All of the marketing is up to the individual broker.
Jamie: How is the sales training in the real estate industry?
Theo: Generally poor. With real estate houses, not being willing to spend any money on marketing, they are equally unwilling to spend money on training because they have this set up of each broker who is an independent contractor. They don’t really have a lot of skin in the game. If they’re not paying these brokers’ salary and benefits, and they’ll take almost anybody.
It’s up to a manager to hire someone they want to recruit, train, and work with. In essence, by taking anybody on having no vested interest, they’re not willing to spend much or invest much into training. What tends to happen – I remember at the annual general conference for the company – they’ll have two or three speakers, but these guys are selling from the stage. They’re not getting paid anything. They’re in front of 3000-4000 brokers, right?
They’re coming to do that because they have some products or services to promote, and that’s all the training you really get. Other than that, of course, the only real training you get is from your manager that hired you, that brought you on, who can promise you to show you how the ropes work and that you can be successful. That’s how the whole industry works.
Insurance and financial advisory are willing to spend a bit more on training. There are higher residuals in insurance; you build a wall of income that you build with insurance. The residual income is the main difference between the two and having that finance, having that wall means they will be keen to deploy that into training the agents and brokers to sell better. It’s a vested interest. Every sale they make, the company makes 30 years of income.
Jamie: What are the biggest downsides of working in the real estate industry?
Theo: The downside is no flow. You can have months where you do not earn anything, and there’s a very high failure rate. I think the 80:20 rule is pretty accurate. In my experience, 20% of the producers are earning 80% of the income. All these guys that come on thinking that they can make these five-figure per month incomes and six figures, the median income for brokers in Singapore is something like $35,000 or below. Good producers should be making $200k, $300k, or $400k. You’re into the top 10% at that stage.
When we merged with another house with about 5,000 brokers, it’s uncannily accurate what the top hundred earners were earning; and it fits nicely into the 80:20 rule. The number one downside is a high chance of failure. There’s a ramp up the time to get paid. The biggest downside for me, personally, is the lack of challenge, and that’s why I move on from real estate.
Ultimately, I took a significant pay cut to leave real estate and go into management consulting, would you believe? The very best commission earners will never be paid a salary that can match that by a global corporation.
That said, one of the biggest downsides is there are only so many ways you can sell a property, and there are only so many more ways you can write insurance policies. At some stage in real estate, you hit a ceiling in terms of personal growth and personal challenge.
If you’re looking for career development and fulfillment, constantly learning new things, challenging yourself, and rising up the ladder, there’s little of that in real estate. The real growth is going into self-leadership, running teams, and helping people; learning management. But even real estate people management isn’t complicated—great money, but ultimately poor personal development.
Jamie: What advice would you give to aspiring salespeople?
Theo: There are many things; enough to fill hundreds of books. I read hundreds of sales books. If you had to condense it, I think the beginning is the way you think. The beginning is the way that you think about yourself, about others, and about your clients. Ultimately, the way you approach your job. How do you change how you think? How do you upgrade and sharpen the way you think? Again, back to that piece of advice my manager gave me, right? The people that you meet and the books that you read.
Choose the right people, and choose the right manager. Don’t just choose someone who has recruited you. Go out and interview managers.
When I went into real estate, my company got a shock. I walked into the agency, and I said, “I’d like to speak to the top producing manager here please.” They were shocked. I walked up to his desk, I said, “Hi, my name is Theo. I’m considering your firm with a few others. Here are my credentials. I know I’m going to be successful with this. I’d like to have a chat.” Then I interviewed him, and I did that with the other three top houses in the country.
I ended up selecting my manager that way. Choose the right people, and choose success. People love doing business with successful people. You want to be with the best management and the best producing manager out there. They’re always looking for good people. Your manager has such a massive impact on your success in general.
Jamie: They let you talk to the top producer at that agency, straight away?
Theo: Yeah, I said, “Can you give me a list of top-producing managers? Do you guys have a ranking of the top managers?” I remember they were actually hesitant to start naming them, so I just looked around the office, and right there on the wall were the top hundred managers of 2008. I went over to the board and looked at the list, and I picked my manager. I said, “I’d like to speak to Nikon, please.” He was already a Vice President by then, but his frontline manager was then the top producing manager. That’s how I chose and what I do now is based on the leadership. I actually received the higher offer elsewhere, but I turned that down – significantly higher. I turned that down because of the people and the leadership in the organization.
So that’s the first point. The second is reading books. If you had to make a list of the very top hundred sales books of all time, I’ve probably read all of them. The order that I would have read them would be different. You’ve got to choose the right books, because how many books can you read realistically? Honestly, if we did an average of the number of sales books that were read by a rookie salesperson in their first year, would you guess what the average is?
I would say it’s 0. It rounds to 0.
If we took a snapshot of 100 first-year rookie salespeople and we took the average number of books that they read in the first year, I bet it would be 0.
In other words, if 40 of them read one book, that would give us 0, right? It would take 50 people out of 100 to just read one book in a year to get past zero. It is going to be 0.
Jamie: Will you send me the order in which you would read the books that you’ve read?
Theo: You would have to come around and look at my library. I’ve got a thousand books now. You’re asking me to go through my thousand books, and I’m a believer of hardcopy even though I use technology now. Technology is a terrible master but an excellent servant. Now I’m reading three to four books a month. I also have Audible. I have my books read to me; I could never consistently hit my reading goal as a sales rep, then sales manager, and now as sales director growing up through the businesses; I could never hit my goal of two books consistently every month. Now I’ve doubled it with technology. But even now I still have a physical copy of every book I’ve read.
I would say absolutely the essential start, the very first one they should read is “The Common Denominator of Success,” by Albert E. N. Gray.
It’s timeless wisdom. It takes 20 minutes to read. It’s free. You can just Google it. It’s actually the transcription of a speech, but I treat it as a book because of the value of the wisdom. You don’t need to read 150 pages to get value, right? This is the absolute beginner stage. When I broke the company’s sales record in my very first company, I think it still stands today, they had a nice tradition. Basically, the previous record holder had left a gift for whoever was to break the record next. The gift for me was this statuette; a carved native Indian valuable.
When I broke the record, that was what I received as a prize, my predecessor had left it.
When I was asked to then leave a gift for the next my successor, which is yet to be found, what I gave was an old Chinese antique mini treasure chest, and inside the chest, I wrote a list of the Top 10 books that they must read to get to the next level. If you want that list, you’re going to have to go back and break that sales record to get it.
Jamie: If you were starting your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Theo: I would have actually prioritized the importance of recurring income. I saw that in my first year. In my first company, I wish we came up with a product that had a recurring or tail of income – it arrived in my sixth year at the company. Boy, I wish I had that at the beginning. I may have been able to retire just from the recurring. Not that I would have, but residual or recurring income is always successful in the long run, look for something that has that element—what a difference. The same amount of effort put in, the same sale made, but one has a tail, and one doesn’t. Choose the one with the tail.
When you’re just trying to decide which industry to go into, to sell, try and prioritize one that has that. Because that’s why people do business, right? That’s why people leave companies. They realize if they don’t work, they don’t get a paycheck and Robert Kiyosaki talks about that in the Rich Dad Cashflow Quadrant;” the four different types of people – employees, business owners, self-employed, and investors. The left side of the quadrant is the employees and the self-employed. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, whereas the business owner or the investor realizes the power of residual income. I would have prioritized that.
I was also going to say; choose technology as an industry.
Jamie: So if you were an aspiring salesperson now, you’d be looking for a company that’s at the forefront of technology?
Theo: Absolutely. I would choose technology. When I was growing up, everyone was making the big numbers in banking, and that’s why I started my corporate career there. But now the game has completely changed, including the regulation. Banking is a sunset industry, and it could be made obsolete by cryptocurrency. If you’re a hotshot graduate, a top producer, or a highly successful individual choosing a company and you chose banking, yeah, maybe you still make some money, but it’s a sunset industry. Right now, it’s technology and IT that you want to go into.