Venetia’s career path has in many ways mirrored my own – we sold books with Southwestern Advantage at the same time, were both #1 sellers from Europe in our first year, and now work together again, as Venetia provides sales consultancy and training to my business. Much like she was at door-to-door sales, Venetia is an excellent sales coach – diligent, patient, reliable, and with a flair for bringing principles to life via story.
SBR Coaching sales principles were key to the development of The Exceptional Sales Career, and I asked Venetia to dive into the most salient points in this interview.
You can read Venetia’s full biography here
Jamie: Venetia, what have you found most fulfilling about your career so far?
Venetia: When I reflect on it, what I am proud of, and what I value from the development perspective is the breadth of what I’ve covered, having worked in the States, Belgium, France, and West Africa, and then coming back to London, all with international clients dotted throughout that experience. What I really enjoyed, as I reflect on my own personal experiences, is the breadth and diversity.
Jamie: Have you gone about choosing those various industries?
Venetia: None of them were conscious decisions based on the industry. A lot of them were based on location; I had a desire to not follow the norm and have an international footprint. A lot of them were opportunistic based on relationships and conversations, which therefore led to slight zig-zagging in terms of specialisation; always within the sales function, but never within the same industry.
Jamie: If you were an aspiring salesperson, would you go about selecting an industry or company?
Venetia: I think that has changed based on my own priorities as I developed as an individual.
I would always advise looking for breadth: an organisation which can offer you a range of different opportunities. Whether that’s different verticals within that business, or different businesses within the group, or different country offices if you have a passion for travelling internationally.
What that allows is access to graduate programs, which are fantastic and that could give you access to lots of different sizes of business, which can provide you with a chance to know and choose.
I think from a company perspective, it is the people that you need to like. From my experience of interviewing and meeting lots of people, you should trust your gut, and it is important to be thinking long term when we are interviewing, and we are looking at organisations thinking about where you can be in the next three to four years.
One other thought that I wish someone had told me when I was in university is around getting work experience when you are done looking for a job. A lot of people who had work experience at the big banks, the big consultancies, found it a lot easier to walk into a graduate role at those places having done some free work experience. I fully appreciated the power of spending the summer before graduating building my network so that when I was actually looking for a job, I had a lot more leverage. I did some really fascinating things in my year before university, such as running a safari camp in Botswana. However, that didn’t really help me when it came to leveraging my network in London six months later when I graduated. That would have been something I would have valued, someone highlighting to me before them.
Jamie: A lot of people talk to you about the value of networking, and how it can help you get jobs. What practical steps do you advise on networking?
Venetia: On a very basic level, it is never too early to start networking. I still find myself, even last week, emailing someone I was in a class with at university, that I have not spoken to since. It was harder because I had not regularly maintained my network and taken the time to go out for a drink with them at least once or twice a year.
The first thing I would advise is; grow your network right off the bat. Be conscious of the impact that you can have. You are always as valuable as your black book, especially when you are moving jobs.
Never feel that you are not senior enough to link in with a senior partner that was in the same meeting. It’s vital to get into the habit of doing this right from the start of your career, so that when BD does become part of your role, you have a strong springboard.
Be conscious of developing that early on; it would be that kind of main focus around networking, and also not being afraid to use one’s network.
I think a lot of us have preconceived ideas about asking for referrals, and people not wanting to respond or not wanting to introduce you to their contact. But if you have taken the time to nurture your network, people are really willing to offer introductions where they can help. Do not be afraid of using it and actually asking!
Jamie: What is the biggest strength a salesperson needs?
Venetia: Perseverance, and hand-in-hand with that is resilience. Having that perseverance and as part of a standard process for all elements of our job is going to put you in a good place to persevere emotionally and physically.
Jamie: What kind of benefit does it have in a sales environment if everyone is supportive of each other, as you’ve mentioned is the case at SBR Consulting?
Venetia: I just jumped off a call with two of my colleagues, and we were doing a deal review using an internal tool that we have – a “playbook.”
It’s not my deal, but even going through a colleague’s deal and checking where they are in term of our sale cycle is helpful. We were analysing what has been done, what has not been done, and what questions he could ask. Our culture is founded on feedback, support, and peer-to-peer coaching, which helps all of us grow as individuals and as a team.
It was for all of us. It was not my deal, but what I was able to do was think about it, and it got me thinking. It got me to think about building my confidence around the types of questions I would ask. It got me thinking about things differently by hearing what my colleagues were suggesting. The value of having that feedback culture is one of constant growth and the well-known quote of “sharpening the saw.” It allows for an alternative perspective from each other, and it frees up management time to an extent because we are not reliant on a senior partner to be coaching all the time. At our level, we were able to self-coach and also coach one another.
Having someone listening on a call and sitting a little bit back, not driving the call and able to reflect from a distance, is a powerful element. In terms of outcomes, it provides two or three tangible actions at the back of each session that we can all grow and learn from. Another activity which we do within the team, and we did this at our team meeting the other day – we watched a video recording of a client coaching session. We coach clients, so we record a role play and then worked with the client to talk about the recording, and what happened in the meeting.
As a team, we did exactly the same exercise, and what was really fascinating is that we were all spotting the same things which allowed us to identify where our own personal gaps were in terms of how we can be better coaches. Doing it as a team exercise also allows us to ensure that we are aligned, and learn from each other’s perspectives of what a good deal looks like.
Jamie: Why do you think so few organisations instigate peer-to-peer practices?
Venetia: First and foremost, it takes up senior leadership’s time to implement if they are doing it from a leadership coaching perspective. It is an hour listening to the meeting, and then an hour coaching – so two hours out. It is never put as a higher priority, possibly because they have never done it and therefore, haven’t seen the value and impact it has. If it is unstructured; if it is done once in a blue moon, it is very difficult to see the progress, versus where it is done in a structured manner.
I think time is one. I also think it is not actively promoted because so many people either do not have the confidence or do not have the managers who feel confident. Some managers do not sell, so they may not feel comfortable putting themselves in that coaching scenario with very high sales performers. It does not mean they cannot do some coaching, even if we are just pulling them into “competent competency.” It may be a confidence element, and finally, I think no one has ever really thought about it in lots of organisations.
In professional services, pilots are tested all the time, doctors have to do a certain amount of revision or exams or learning time every year. None of us, in the professional service industry, have to do that. If it is, it is usually knowledge-based but not skill-based. It is never a focus, but it really should be.
Jamie: Having seen the cultures of a lot of organisations, which elements would you pull out as particularly important to you?
Venetia: My primary focus, whenever looking for a new role is the manager and the leadership team. I was very lucky at the beginning of my career to have really good managers.
It was only once I experienced a bad one that I realised the impact or lack of impact, they were having on my growth. For the last two roles that I have worked in, interviewing the leader and the person that would be managing me was fundamental to deciding whether I am going to take that role.
Looking at them and assessing what I can learn from them and how they can help me to be the best that I can be.
Jamie: What questions would you ask?
Venetia: I would ask how they currently support their team. What does that look like? What do they see? Where do they think they can help me, based on the time that they spent with me? Some of it is the stuff that you cannot do immediately, but if it is a long recruitment process. If you are shadowing them, how are they with clients? Do I want to be like that? What can I learn from them? Learning from understanding their experiences and what they have achieved from a sales perspective and understanding more about their career growth. For me, it is also a bit of a barometer.
Jamie: Can you talk to me a little bit about the value of being able to effectively get referrals as part of the sales process?
Venetia: It is fundamentally one of the most powerful things you can do in sales. One of the things that time and time again that people do not enjoy doing and they put at the bottom of their list is prospecting. A lot of companies do not even do it. They hire a third party to get that prospecting list and to get their meetings in the diary, which is rarely that effective in B2B sales.
One way to make this easier is to get warm leads by asking for referrals. The introduction will come through a person they know which will reduce barriers. A warm introduction tends to position you as a trusted advisor as opposed to people’s perception of a salesperson.
We are always slightly wary of that. By having an introduction, it just takes away a couple of the first barriers that we have to overcome in terms of possible rapport building or presenting what we do is as valuable, not just pushing a product on them that they do not need.
Jamie: If you had your career to this point again, what would you do differently?
Venetia: As much as I love the experiences that I have had, now that I have come to the point of being senior, or middle management’s age bracket and experience level, one element on reflection that I feel would benefit me is to have more specific industry experience. The breadth of my career is great – I have sold educational materials, to security services, to raw materials for manufacturing, and now consulting services. The common thread within that is the sales role. There is only so much commonality between selling a factory owner in the Ivory Coast 300 tons of polymers and selling to a private equity firm how to organically grow their portfolio. It is so varied. When you are looking for a job, it is helpful to have a clear direction. So, specialising: whether that’s on sales of cloud solutions or property or law, I feel that would have helped me be in a stronger position.
Jamie: When you think about that range of industries, the one that stands out to you as ideal?
Venetia: Very broadly, and the broadness of my answer reflects my lack of knowledge, but basically tech. Software solutions sell for loads of money, and people need them. I think when you scratch the service, it is not that complex, but just coming and listening, and hearing the language that is used, the terminologies, and the simple basis of “agile” versus “waterfall.” It is just being able to speak the language. It literally is all over the world and has a lot of flexibility in where you work from. I feel it would be great.
Jamie: Would you and tell me about an unsuccessful selling process that you learned something from?
Venetia: One of the key things I learned during my first two years in consulting is very simply doing things at the right time with the right people. I had not qualified properly, so I was getting really excited at the first meeting. The first meeting was great. “Shall I put a proposal together?” I remember a specific fintech company, it was an introduction, and the guy was really nice, really enthusiastic. I thought he saw the value of what we did, and so I went away and spent a lot of time – when I was not very quick at writing proposals – at least a day putting that proposal together, sending it to him, but not getting any answers whatsoever. No calls, no responses. I took it quite emotionally because we got on so well. I did this same thing three or four times, and on reflection, I realised what I was doing. I was just pushing the proposal to them instead of properly qualifying, and they have no skin in the game, and it was very easy for them to say, “Yeah, put the proposals together, and we will think about it.” When actually I should have qualified a lot more, and truly understood if they saw the value and if I actually understood the value that we can add.
Not qualifying leads and opportunities has resulted in lots of wasted time spent. I remember having about four or five proposals, and the same thing happened time and time again until my manager, and I went back and looked at my activity. We realised that I had lots of first meetings, resulting in lots of proposals, which then went quiet. By understanding my activity and my metrics, I was able to change my behaviour. Getting the meetings wasn’t where I needed help, it was in qualifying those meetings once in them, and not just jump to ‘proposal mode.’ My goal was to have another meeting off the back of the first meeting.
The moment I started adapting that behaviour, I was spending less time writing proposals, more time having second meetings, and actually qualifying the right proposals to be writing. That was a strong lesson learned, that I kept making the same mistake again and again until someone actually sat me down and helped me understand how and why that was a problem.
Jamie: Could you tell me a specific example of a sale that you made, that shows the skills you developed and the lessons you have learned so far?
Venetia: This one has a completely different context. This was from my old role when I used to work in the Ivory Coast selling raw materials; ingredients that went into food, cosmetics, and construction; polymers. Culture and business in the Ivory Coast is run by the Lebanese; a middle-eastern culture which is predominantly relationship-based. We always talk about people buy from people, now more than ever, and that was certainly the case here. You have two or three coffees, and usually, it is like an hour-and-a-half talking family and maybe a bit of business if you are lucky. I had two long meetings with this guy, he bought a couple of hundred tons of polymers, and it takes three months for the orders to arrive. This relationship was slow-burning, very slow-burning. The first order was for a couple of hundred tons. It went well. Then again, a couple of hundred tons. But now we’re nine months in, and only two medium-sized orders.
I had not thought to ask, but the next meeting I was like, “You mentioned that you have got factories in Ghana and Nigeria, are those places that we could provide polymers as well?” and he was like, “Oh, yeah. I just did not realise you shipped to those places.” The next order was for 3,000 tons. The lesson I learned is to actually ask a question. Do not just assume that people will come to you.
That was the first lesson, and then, knowing I had trust and rapport, I said, “By the way, I am still trying to meet quite a few people in the areas, is there anyone else you think I should speak to in the polymers area?” And he got out his phone, he just scrolled through his address book, and he gave me a name and I was like, “Great! Anyone else?” He goes, “Yep!” and we just went from A through to Z. I did not rush him, and he just gave me name after name.
That same meeting, not only did I get ten times the size order that I was used to getting by simply asking a question, but also came out of that room with about thirty-five names of people in West Africa with plastic factories that I could call up with his blessing. That was a good story and a very good client.