Read Theo’s bio
Theo Davies has been a constant in my life, as a mentor and friend. One of the first exceptional salespeople I met, he inspired me to take the profession seriously, and to challenge myself to be better, more ambitious and more disciplined. Fittingly, he was also one of the key influences in my undertaking of this project almost two years ago.
I really enjoyed my (multiple) interviews with Theo for their candidness, wisdom, and enthusiasm. In this first interview, we touch on his direct sales experience, goal setting, and the combination of stubbornness and coachability, which makes Theo a record-breaking salesperson.
You can read Theo’s full biography here.
Jamie: Theo, what do you think makes a salesperson invaluable to a business?
Theo: The obvious is being a rainmaker. It’s actually not only enough to be a rainmaker but also to be a team player because otherwise, that can affect the culture and morale across an entire team. You can have a top producer who destroys everyone else. You really need a bit of both, I think. As far as the breakdown for top-producing in order to be a rainmaker, it’s like a very old question I was asked by one of my first sales trainers. He said, “What is the key to success in sales?” Of course, if you ask that – and I have asked that to rooms with as many as 450 years of combined sales experience in the room – you should expect the same answer.
There is no key to success in sales. It’s a combination lock. If you are to truly be invaluable to an organization, you need to be a rainmaker who is also a team player because it’s covered by both. There are three pillars to that lock and a centrepiece.
Jamie: Okay, please can you tell me more about the three keys?
Theo: This is according to the Southwestern Group of Companies, which has 180+ years of training over 200,000 salespeople, and now works with multinationals and across industries training sales now. They train 12,000-15,000 sales teams globally. The key that they’ve discovered over that time and all those training is that the three pillars are skills, self-motivation, and self-management. The core is habits. The centerpiece and keystone are habits. That’s why “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” (Dale Carnegie) is a powerful book. If you follow Lao Tzu (founder of Taoism) he said, “Beware your thoughts, they become words. Beware your words, they become actions. Beware your actions, they become habits and beware of your habits because they become your destiny.”
If we’re trying to follow Einstein’s “simplicity is genius,” then we can simply do all of that. How do you really become invaluable to the organization? Well, then it’s the invaluable habits that you display, that you create, that ultimately make rain and that the rest of the team can see and follow.
Jamie: What makes someone great at selling books with Southwestern?
Theo: Given that that industry is door to door, it adds in a bit more complexity. If we look back at that model of skills, self-motivation, and-self management, with habits at the core, it adds an extra level of intensity to the motivation part, and how to spot the breakthrough point. This is a business that has a 30% attrition rate within the first week or two. In the first two weeks, 30% of the trained salespeople have gone home – and that’s after some of the best training in the world, I may add, and a very tough selection process. You see some extremely sharp guys and gals quit; some of them without even knocking on the first door. I think there’s a much heavier weight on the self-motivation part, and the hardest part building those habits very early on and avoiding the typical temptation to give up.
Jamie: What made you specifically great at Southwestern?
I think I learned and polished a lot of the skills from shadowing other greats. It was shadowing some of the best people, rubbing shoulders with them but ultimately becoming friends with them and then becoming mentors. I remember one time I spent $1500 of my money to fly to Alaska to shadow the number one producing guy in the company.
Second would be the hunger and I would say, the preparation that came with the hunger. Something I learned was the power of preparation. They would always talk about the 7Ps in Southwestern – proper prior preparation prevents pitiful performance. I remember writing a 100,000-word thesis of how I was going to break the company record. I would run up Arthur’s seat, a tall hill in Edinburgh, repeating and visualizing my goals. All of that, prior to the year that I did it, it took was an enormous amount of preparation and most people didn’t do that.
Within the preparation was calculation. I calculated exactly how much I got paid, every single sale call that I made, and that was a powerful exercise. If I just knocked on a door, regardless of whether someone was there or not, I had just paid myself $4. If they opened the door, I pick up another $10. If I managed to get them to even not slam the door, it went up to $50. I didn’t care. I had this attitude of not caring about how work went. As long as they open the door, I was already happy. If they slam the door in my face, I already just got paid. Even if they went a little past slamming the door in my face and were insulting me, I got paid a hell of a lot more. I was happy about that. Then the third part – it’s like Rory Vaden, one of my mentors said, in “Take the Stairs” – which is the New York Times Bestseller.
He always says, “Normal goals need normal work habits, and big goals need big work habits.”
You’ve really got the core there, of the exact model that I talked about just now. Big work habits. I worked everyone in the sight, right? Those three pieces, you’ve got the mentors, you’ve got the preparation and calculation, and you’ve got the massive work habits. It’s about the habits.
Jamie: How much did you make in your biggest year of Southwestern earnings?
Theo: Annualized, about a half-million US dollars total and that includes all sales, commissions as well as a management fee on my base of recruited salespeople – not bad as I was 26 at the time. I got a property in Singapore, my first investment property – with Singapore being the most expensive country in the world according to the economist – and six months of traveling around the world which was awesome. I got to 55 countries of my goal of 100 countries by 50; I knocked out a huge number of counties in those six months. It also allowed me to travel around the world first-class.
Jamie: Could you tell me an individual sales story – what was your biggest success?
Theo: It was the moments of fear and doubt, when my goals came to a head. That was actually my very first year, and it was within my very first month of the company. I remember I was sitting on a street corner in town called Oak – Oak was a small town in Northern California, in my sales territory. I was sitting outside the church and I hadn’t sold anything all day, I hadn’t sold anything the day before. I was calculating how much I’d been paid per hour, pretty easy – it was zero.
I was on straight commission and I remember I didn’t even know where to go. I had made a commitment not to go home ever in during the workday but I had such a bad time that I just need to go somewhere to just try and collect my thoughts. And I remembered; I can go to a church. Church is always open; right there, always willing to welcome to you. I remember that going to the church nearby and even the church was locked.
I made a decision at that moment; I remember it like it was yesterday. I didn’t care if I didn’t get paid. I committed to doing this and I’m doing it, and no matter what, and that’s it. I’m going to be number one in this.
We had 800 rookies in the company. I was going to be number one – and I wasn’t exactly anywhere close at that point. You know what – it didn’t matter if I did make anything today or for the rest of the week. I’d committed to doing this, no matter what.
Jamie: Would you be willing to tell me about a time when you failed, and learned something?
Theo: I was in a car crash, in my third year of selling. I was leading a team, and I actually learned how hardcore I can be to stick to my commitments.
I had a car crash in the middle of the day and I should’ve probably gone to the hospital. They said, “you should go to the hospital right now.” I said, “Mm, actually I think I can walk,” I had blacked out, I was unconscious. Some time had passed from the time of the impact to the time the ambulance and the paramedics had arrived; because the impact was the last thing I remember, and then the medics were already there and the ambulance was already there. I’d been out for half an hour, and they were trying to push me to hospital. I was in a daze, my ears were ringing and I could barely hear them but I didn’t seem to be injured. My car was a red land cruiser, crushed like a coke can, but somehow the driver’s part was intact – the rest was all demolished, any other passenger would not have survived, I’m sure of that. But somehow the driver seat was intact and I had no blood, and no bones broken. All I had was this ringing in my ears and a white light in my eyes. I could barely see the paramedics. “We need to get you to the hospital,” they said. But I thought, “I’m going to be okay and I made a commitment,” so, I went back to work.
When you’re pushed to the limits, to the extremes, you learn just how deep your commitment goes. I’ve also been in the army in Singapore; it’s only during torture training that I learned how stubborn I could be or how easy you usually have it, when you have lights flashing into your eyes.
Jamie: Do you feel like stubbornness is a key characteristic of a good salesperson?
Theo: No, when it comes to mentors, I think the opposite. I think coachability, teachability, being smart enough to be dumb, and enough to take things on board from people even when pride is at stake. I was willing to try anything if I saw someone that was successful. I think one of the biggest things I was able to do is become like my mentors – have you seen “The Matrix” when Agent Jones, so that he can be the best, he jams his hand into the other person and creates a carbon copy of himself?
I think I was able to do that somehow, to create a carbon copy of an element of success that I took from someone and just implemented. There was no stubbornness in me that would have stopped that. When I suggest things like that to people, I sometimes see that their stubbornness stops them from doing the exact same thing.
So not when it comes from mentors but definitely when it comes to quitting.
Jamie: Would you recommend selling door-to-door for every college student?
Theo: I had insight into that very debate when I got promoted to become a manager and had to find people for my personal team that I would have to train, be responsible for, lead, and ultimately help to succeed. That blood would be on my hands if I didn’t, because it’s a hell of an investment to get started from the UK, where we were recruiting – their flights, their visa, and their costs. It’s literally like starting up your own business but within the framework of the company.
I think I must have interviewed 180 to 200 people to ultimately hire 20. I wouldn’t even sit down for an interview if I didn’t like the application – so I must have looked at 1,800 applications to do the 200 interviews and only taken 20 people. I think the Southwestern programme is so intense. The only people I saw that succeeded were people who already had a track record of success; either people that were extremely successful in sports, or they were head boy in a school, represented the county or the nation or something similar, which requires a high level of discipline and the ability to communicate at an extremely high level.
Jamie: What are the additional challenges of recruiting vs just selling books yourself?
Theo: I think if you look at it historically, the challenge has probably been different by generation. The pre-software days, the challenge was that there were too many people wanting to sell, and there wasn’t enough territory. A big challenge you would have to get together was, “Well, I’m going to be to have to be selling over someone if I do this.” That’s a very different set of challenges, as was selling books in those days. Then in the 2000s, it started to become quite a big safety concern, with the advent of gun crime and you read things in the papers and the things that sort of went on but the social change really affected people’s impression of safety, especially females, and including hiring female college students which is the big recruiting ground.
Then parents would obviously get involved with that kind of a decision. “Sounds a little bit crazy,” parents would be consulted but they’d object. Nowadays, I think it’s the advent of social media. There is a lot of bad press when you see someone going from house to house that you don’t recognize and you call the cops, right? Then these people get put in jail or other bad stuff that can happen, even if they had perfectly legitimate reasons for being there. I think in this day and age, the challenges have all changed but throughout there’s always been challenges. Pick your year and pick a different set. I remember my very first team, just before we set out for the selling season, the front page of the local newspaper said Southwestern was terrible, and basically had interviewed all the people that had quit the program. We had heard about this as people that were successful in this program, and they refused to take any interviews from us. They just wanted to devalue the programme. It was a terrible piece.
It’s funny because that could’ve been a reason for a number of people, including myself, to just give up. But we didn’t have a single person quit because of that. That team ended up being number one in the company.
Jamie: What are your thoughts on the author Zig Ziglar, in terms of inspiration for direct sales?
Theo: Zig Ziglar. One of the legends, one of the greats, the true greats. I’ve got all his seminars that were recorded live, and I’ve listened to all of those. The year that I had the number one producing team, it was the year I read “See You at the Top.” I had the audiobooks as well. General thoughts, I still remember his classic response to weird objections. One time he was selling insurance; he’s selling in the Bible Belt of America and he got the objection, “It all sounds really good. But we need to pray about that to make a decision.” They hadn’t taught him how to answer that objection!
He’s was pretty quick, though, and he said, “You know, that’s a fantastic idea. Let’s pray. Let’s pray right now,” and then Zig said, “What He told me, was ‘Yes.’ What did He tell you?”
Jamie: Do you feel like the strategies such as, “Secrets of Closing the Sale,” the strategies he uses are applicable to all sales?
Theo: No, Zig was very much B2C; high volume transactional sales. Zig Ziglar, and Tom Hopkins, all these guys in the early days; it has definitely changed and consultative selling has become the norm for complex sales, but I think a lot of the motivation principles are timeless. It was the correct straight sales technique. You can adopt the ideas with a lot of what Ziglar says or what Tom Hopkins says and a lot of these old school guys. You adapt, and you ultimately have to evolve them to suit your business, your industry, and yourself.
Jamie: What additional skills do you think are necessary for consultative selling?
Theo: There is much more teamwork is needed. In complex sales, you need sometimes 2, 3, 4, or sometimes even 5 guys on your team, if you’re going to land a big, $500k, $1 million, and $10 million accounts. When I was selling banking wealth management products, I would always have to work with at least an analyst or a team of analysts as well a relationship manager, and sometimes in really big investments, the full team. I think the team play and the interaction and the division of labour; that’s critical.
Because of that extra emphasis on knowledge, you can’t be a one-trick pony and learn a basic product. There’s so much more to complex products that you need to know and ask. Then also what’s going on in the industry and PESTLE – Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, and Environmental impacts that are happening in the industry in that ultimately affects your clients – to be able to talk about those, much of the stuff will be way outside of the product knowledge.
You could get away, with a high-volume transactional sale, to just be pitching a product. Now in a complex sale, in solution selling, you need to have knowledge outside of your own company.
Jamie: How do you deal with managing organizational complexity as a salesperson?
Theo: It’s tricky because now you have a number of decision-makers. Let’s say, an average of three to five different decision-makers in a given business, depending on size. Obviously, managing all the different moving pieces is tricky. You can’t even afford to deal with those guys, and you need to also see who’s influential behind the scenes. Sometimes, you have to work your way up, having those lower-level conversations first to get all your dots in a row and then when you finally get the time for the senior executives to be able to maximize that, rather going in blind. That’s unless you have a very high-level introduction or network to be able to just go straight in and instantly get to a trusted advisor level.
Please stay tuned for parts two and three of my interviews with Theo Davies.