It helps to have a brand name like Thompson Reuters behind you, but I’m convinced that William Ferrand could sell successfully almost anywhere. He’s been a consistent top performer – the kind of consistency which comes from skill and tenacity and can’t be replicated by luck alone.
Will was very generous in giving this candid interview, and I wish all the very best to Will, his wonderful wife Bea and their newborn Fergus.
Jamie: Will, what have you found the most fulfilling about your sales career thus far?
Will: I’m quite a competitive person. I quite enjoy the rush of bringing in a sale and feeling like I’ve won. It gives you that little boost, feeling good about yourself. I enjoy working with other people, not only sitting behind a desk all day, every day but also being out and meeting people, and hopefully through my sales, helping them to make their jobs easier and their lives better.
Jamie: Is that also true of your current role? Are all of those the biggest highlights?
Will: Yes. I think in my current role, those would be the highlights. Recently, I’ve been working on some bigger contracts and some key contracts within my company in terms of looking at new ways of working with clients, new ways of contracting clients, new commercial strategies, and being part of that is quite an exciting thing because it makes you feel like you’re already part of something and changing the way a 150-year old company works.
Jamie: How do you deal with the more difficult periods when you’re not making as many sales?
Will: I think that that’s always the thing. I remember when I first joined here, six years ago, as the new guy I got handed a non-creative sales role, and I was plugging away, and I could see that the other people in my team who were doing a lot less were bringing in more sales, and I wasn’t bringing them in.
My boss gave me some good advice which was to just always try and stay positive, and keep plugging away and keep trying. One thing that he said was, “When you pick up the phone, and someone’s got bad news to give to you, just the way they say hi, you can usually tell that it’s bad news.” If you get yourself down, the second you start picking up the phone or speaking to someone in person, your body language and tone are going to show that you’re in a bit of a mood.
Just have that confidence in yourself and your products and your company. Just try and be positive and exude confidence, no matter how difficult that might be at times.
Jamie: You mentioned having confidence in the company and in what you’re selling. How do you develop that confidence?
Will: It’s been an issue for me. I’m quite a single-minded person, and the way I view my company is that we’re the best. Obviously, there are areas where we’re not quite as strong, but I believe we’re the best in many ways. I think getting to know your products as well as possible, getting to know how your company works, to help you to build that confidence in the company, and I think the confidence in yourself is the key to success. Understanding your clients, understanding the industry, and how your product fits in with what they’re trying to achieve.
Jamie: How do you feel about the way that salespeople are compensated, and how does that compare to your peers who aren’t in sales?
Will: In terms of the way we are compensated, we get targets. In my role, because I’m an account manager, so I work on both the sales side and the retention side of things, I’ll get a target which will be three components usually- which is to grow sales, minimize cancellations, and then the third one which they call an “MBO,” which is behavioural so that could be a successful new migration from a legacy product onto a new product, or it could be passing an exam or something like that.
We get a commission. The way our commission structure works, because we’re quite a big company and quite a big name, is different slightly to others in the industry. I know that a lot of smaller companies – I came from a smaller company before- it was pretty simple. When a salesperson sold an annual contract, the first month of the contract went to them. In our company, that wouldn’t work quite so well because there are a lot more people involved in our sales and they’d end up handing out the entire value of the contract in commissions. On the flip side of that, it’s a lot easier for us to bring in sales and we bring in a lot more sales, based off the fact that we have a big name and brand behind us. People come to us as much as we go to them.
How does that compare to non-sales peers? Recently, I’ve been discussing a different role which isn’t quite frontline sales. I think that’s an example where I would be on a higher base salary, but I would have a lower variable component to my salary. I guess their compensation can be higher or lower than ours, depending on how well a salespersons’ year is going because of that variable component, but on average, it’s more of a steady income.
Jamie: How do you feel like employees in sales are recognized versus their non-sales peers in the organization?
Will: I think they get a lot of perks. You get expense accounts, you get trips that you can win, But there’s a lot more scrutiny on how you’re doing because it’s very easy to measure how you’re doing in sales, whereas in many other roles, it’s a lot difficult to quantify how someone is doing, and what their results are. I think that within the firm it depends on the salesperson. Some salespeople are highly regarded and are seen as the voice of the customer while some are potentially less well-recognized. That’s the same in all areas, where some people are highly regarded because they produce and profile well.
Jamie: Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic between sales and marketing in the organization?
Will: I think when you come from sales, maybe you don’t recognize marketing as much as many others do, how brand awareness and how important that is; creating needs. We benefit hugely from the big brand that we have, but then on the flip side, as I said, this company has been around for 150 years, so that’s expected.
Marking is a valuable function, but yet again, the impact in marketing is a lot harder to measure. How many leads did you get, and how many opportunities did you raise from that? From a certain campaign, that’s about as much as you have to go on. Personally, I realize it’s an important function.
Jamie: What skills do you believe someone should exhibit naturally that means that they should go into sales?
Will: I think there are quite a few different types of salesperson, and there’s no perfect formula for it. I think the key things that everyone should have are the ability to build rapport with clients, to get on with clients, willingness to meet people, and the willingness to enjoying making new connections. I think that the ability to learn and to build knowledge is important, and not necessarily always in a purely academic sense. I think the ability and the willingness to learn about yourself, about your clients, about how to adapt to certain situations, learn from things that have worked well and things that haven’t worked as well in the past, and to build yourself and build your own personal sales style, I think, are some important things.
Then there’s tenacity. How do you get out of the lows in sales? You do have highs and lows, and the ability to bounce back from a low, like losing a sale or having a big cancellation. You do get bad news. It doesn’t always go well, and that happens for everyone who is a salesperson. It is the ability to move on from it, brush yourself off, and keep going. That is key, I think.
Jamie: Would you recommend that anyone who exhibits these characteristics should go into data and technology sales specifically?
One of the things we’re always told is that data is the new oil. If you use it in the right way, it can be very valuable.
But there’s more and more of it, so actually getting hold of data isn’t necessarily that difficult. I think it’s the managing and making the most of the data that’s more important than just getting a hold of any random data. I think the interesting part is that it’s a fast-moving area of the world and the technology is moving at an exponential rate. As I just said, data’s growing and there’s more and more of it, and so understanding that data, how to use it, and whether it’s relevant or not is the key.
Jamie: Do you see any advantage in age or gender or physical appearance for different salespeople?
Will: Yes, and no. I think, in the long run, in my sales sector, it is a relatively long-term relationship based sales rather than a quickfire and high-velocity sales because it’s relationship-based in the long run. How well you do and whether you’re responsive? Whether you’re good at your job, whether you help them out, whether you get what they’re trying to do – that will be the most important thing, and what you look like or your gender or anything like that doesn’t matter much.
On the other hand, everyone talks about initial impressions and you form your impression of someone in seconds. I think if you turn up looking smart in a suit with shiny shoes and brushed hair, it will help in turn because you’re dealing with people. If the person you’re speaking to can relate to you, it helps, but if you look scruffy, they might assume that you’re going to do a scruffy job with them.
In terms of age, it’s an interesting one.
I’ve only very rarely had people who have thought of me as too young, just because they see me and they’re used to dealing with someone 20 years older than me, so they assume that person is better than me. I quite enjoy it when that happens because I see it as a challenge to prove them wrong.
You do get some people, in financial services who are still quite a few, old school people who would judge someone for being young. But as I said, it’s a relationship-based long-term thing, so, you’ve got plenty of time to prove them wrong if you do your job well.
Jamie: What skills do you think you need to develop throughout your life to really succeed in sales?
Will: I think it is about understanding people. Why is someone buying from you? What is it that makes them tick? How do you incentivize people? I think work off the incentives. Salespeople work off incentives or just commission.
What is the incentive for the person you’re speaking to buy from you? Is it something that will make them look good in front of their boss? Is it something that will save them time and make the rest of their job easier because this is part of their job which they don’t particularly like, and they just want to get it over and done with? What is it that your customer’s trying to solve? I think that is probably the most important skill I’ve learned.
Jamie: What are the steps to understand a person’s motivation?
Will: Trying to understand the industry is about trying to understand their company. How does their company operate? What are the products their company uses? How does that all fit in?
Are there any issues they’ve had in the past? Just ask as many questions as possible, really. I always think that there’s no such thing as a stupid question if you’ve got any questions.
Seeing how they interact with their colleagues, seeing what else they’ve got going on. You can paint a picture of them; paint a picture of what they’re trying to achieve. But you have to start with as many questions as possible.
Jamie: What skills are most needed to succeed in data or in technology sales?
Will: Desire. The desire to learn and understand your clients, understand where the industry is going because you deal with a lot of other clients, and the ability to learn what other clients tell you is key. Obviously, I’m not going to tell customer “A” that their biggest rival, customer “B,” is doing this, but telling them, “I’m the one that’s been out meeting clients the whole time,” builds credibility. So, “Oh, I was speaking someone the other day that was thinking about this,” and identifying industry trends so that you can add value to the conversation with them.
Jamie: What are the biggest challenges in winning business and advancing your career in data and technology sales?
Will: The industry has been moving fast, products move fast, and you get people who might have used one of your products 10 years ago and have a perception of it as a leader. Bloomberg is a market leader. When you’re a graduate or something, it’s a badge of honour being given your Bloomberg terminal, so if we’re taking it that way, they might see your product as a downgrade.
I think the willingness to change is very key and the example I use is that for someone, about six months ago, we changed the outlook app on our phones – it was just a new version of the same app basically, but it was slightly different and six months later, we still had people learning about it, so people are very resistant to change.
The willingness to change is rare, especially when it’s something that affects their day to day life; their full-time job. All companies have politics. People have egos, so working with your internal contacts who might not always be the most helpful people; without them feeling like you’ve bypassed them and trying to block you, and managing all of the certain politics even within other companies and that goes back to what I was saying before, understanding what makes people tick and how you can help them.
Jamie: How do you deal with organizational complexity when you’re selling into businesses?
Will: I think again, it’s a question thing. Always asking more questions. How do they operate? Who works with who? Who has the sale on what? Asking as many questions as possible. Finding out who the sponsor is and who’s willing to work with you within the firm, who can help you out and introduce you to as many people as possible because the more contacts you can make in the firm, the better you can understand the firm, and the easier it will all be in the long run. You’ll have to manage the politics and egos on that front. But ultimately, it’s asking questions and trying to make connections with as many people as possible.
Jamie: Do you believe that there should be a division in the salespeople who sell into new business and account managers?
Will: Yes, and no. Just to let you know how we’re structured because we have 50+ products. The account manager’s job is to look up the whole relationship with the client, and preferably to grow that relationship from my point of view. My job is to understand all our products, understand our clients, and to work with the specialist salespeople who specialize in a particular product as and when they’re needed, but also to work on the retention side. We have a retention team who will work with the client on every product that they take from us.
Jamie: Is their retention team non-commercial?
Will: The retention team is non-commercial, that’s a change they recently made over the last two or three years. The retention team also had a small sales target. Now they have changed it to where the retention team is completely non-commercial.
I think that’s a very good thing. It will help us to get into more areas, that retention team will not be seen as a threat, they will be seen completely as people who are there to help them and make the most of their products, and they’ll get a lot more access to users. I think that’s a very key thing, but that retention team still, if they do their job well, will serve the clients as much as possible. Their job is to keep their ears open and chat with the clients and understand any potential projects that are coming up, any potential issues with our product that are coming up, and feed that back to the salespeople or me so that when I may have a conversation with my contacts, I can bring that up.
“Oh, I heard your team was working on such and such a product, and such and such a project,” and we can convert that into sales. I believe in keeping sales and servicing of clients separate, but you need that link between the two and they need to be able to work together.
Jamie: About the relationship with you as an account manager and these specialist salespeople – does the fact that they need to come in and sell on the account you’re already working on, does that sometimes lead to conflict?
Will: No. We’re both rewarded. Whatever happens, if I sell that product, they will get rewarded on it whether they worked on that sale or not.
So, it means that I’m incentivized to bring them into that conversation every time. In theory, they should have way deeper knowledge than me of that particular product. My job is to basically be able to give 50 elevator pitches and then identify what’s relevant and bring the right person in who can talk about it.
Obviously, as you work in a certain area, there are certain things that you’ve become a lot more knowledgeable on, as you are the specialist giving that pitch over and over again. You would eventually get to know that pitch pretty well and be able to accumulate yourself, but that’s not my job. My job is to bring them in as much possible, and I have no reason not to.
Jamie: Do you have a sense of whether these specialist salespeople or the account managers are better compensated?
Will: It depends on the area because of legacy things within the company. I think if the company was to do it again, account managers would have a higher base package and less commission, and the salespeople would have a lower base package and more commission. That’s not always the case because we’ve had so many restructurings over time and people have moved roles in the company.
Jamie: Just as a benchmarking exercise, how much have you made in your best year so far?
Will: In my best year, I probably made £135k. It would be towards the higher end of my peer group.
Jamie: Generally, how does the industry treat its salespeople?
Will: I’d say pretty good on the whole. You get treated like an adult where you get quite a lot of freedom. You’re not micro-managed, but obviously, the flip side of that is that they expect results from you. You’ll get scrutiny if you’re not hitting your target. There are quite a few people on my floor that had been here for 27 years, which is usually a good sign in terms of people enjoying working here. They don’t flog you about or make you work crazy hours.
Going back to what we’ve said before about the commission side of things, there are some companies in our industry, in terms of pay at least, that pay more and get more commission, but they ask for a pound of flesh in return, and so people go there and tend to leave. People get pretty disgruntled or burn out after that. There are other companies where it’s more of a bonus system, and the salespeople don’t have quite as much incentive and don’t like it as much because they like to get paid for what they feel they brought in. I think they’ve got that balance pretty good here at Thompson Reuters. They do expect us to perform or eventually leave, but I guess that is the same everywhere.
Jamie: How long of a leash would you get before you’re put on probation for your sales performance?
Will: When you join, you’re on probation for three months, and I’ve seen that extended a few times. Once you’re in, I think people get put on performance improvement plans, as they call them, if you’ve had perhaps a year and a half of poor results. Then, there would be another three- or six-month plan, and then you’re out if you don’t hit it. With that, it’s not just a case of poor results. Then additionally, there have sometimes been redundancies. Every two or three years, there’ve been redundancies where the bottom 10% or 20% have been cut.
Jamie: How do you find the sales training in the industry?
Will: A bit ad hoc. It’s something I know they’re looking to improve quite a lot. Although, I don’t necessarily agree with the way they’re going about it, but it is good to improve the sales training. When you join, it’s very much working it out for yourself, type of thing – here are some videos, learn about our products and go sell them. After that, it’s ad-hoc in terms of pure sales training. Every year or two, we do some formal sales training. The most recent one I did was with CEB – I did “Challenger Sale”® maybe a year and a half, two years ago. That’s probably the best sales training I have had.
Jamie: Do you do feel like you’re well-coached ongoing?
Will: No, not particularly. But it’s a very thin line to tread because people don’t want to feel like they’re being micromanaged, especially salespeople. There’s a thin line to tread, but no, we’re not really coached. We are encouraged to try and find a mentor who can help us.
They’re trying to introduce more sales training. They want your manager to attend almost all of your client meetings with you and rate you in each meeting, which I think is just completely not the way to deal with people. It’s a way to be micromanaged. As part of this, the first step is that we’ve got to fill in a template, which has like 40 questions, and you have to put what you think is the most relevant to you each time. I think it’s poorly designed.
I’ll give the example of a question, which was, “When dealing with our competitors, which is the most relevant to you? A) I know what our competitors do, B) I understand our competitor’s full product suite, C) For a given product suite, what their sales tactics are, and how to count them, and D) I’m an expert, so I mentor people on our competitors.” Obviously, D) is the answer that you should be putting. And yes, in a way, I sometimes mentor my teammates, and I’ll discuss it with them on a team meeting. But, it’s always pretty informal, “Oh, have you come up against this?” In terms of formally mentoring people on it, no, I don’t do that. I think the way they’re approaching it isn’t necessarily right. I also think that training the sales team, getting more training is something that’s needed.
Jamie: What are the biggest downsides of working in the data and technology sales industry?
Will: I think sometimes, the fact that you’re seen as just salespeople, and it’s something we’re trying to shift. I think most sensible companies are trying to shift away from this, but that you are just seen as salespeople who are there to flog their products, rather than seen as people who have lived in the industry that actually help your clients to do what they do better and that you strategically work with your clients.
There’s only a recent shift that we’re more encouraged to think more strategically and not just think, “Okay, what product can I sell for how much?” You’re encouraged to think, “Okay, what are their issues and how can we help solve them?” I think there’s not enough of that, but it’s a shift that’s happening at the moment. I think you’re always on the other side of the fence.
Jamie: How do you go about getting into data and technology sales?
Will: I fell into it. I ended up here because as a graduate, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I applied for a lot of jobs. I ended up getting a job with a small data company. It grew from that. I guess to get into it, try and learn a bit about the industry, and just apply, or try to meet people that work within that area. Chat with them and see if they can introduce you. They tend to be pretty open.
One of the guys on the graduate scheme last year got into this because he sold a manager a car. The guy was really impressed with him and he said, “I’d quite like to work in the city.” They got chatting and the manager was really impressed, so he hired him.
Jamie: What advice would you give to aspiring salespeople?
Will: Always keep going, be tenacious, and keep learning. Keep asking questions. Keep talking to as many people as possible. Build your network.
Jamie: Is there any specific training you might recommend in an aspiring salesperson, get or go out for?
Will: I think if they were aspiring and brand new to it, understanding how the sales process works and how the buying process works is key. My recruiter was great, in that they also give you sales training at the same time once they’ve placed you. They give some basic understanding of how the pipeline works, and how to manage a pipeline, how to work a sale. I think that’s good basics. The rest of it is mindset.
In terms of trying to add insight, we’re not always seeing the strategic, trying to create that atmosphere, where you are seen as strategic by adding insights to your customers and helping them out. One other training that we did recently – we did social selling training for LinkedIn. That place is quite a good place to show that you’re not just trying to flog stuff. Try and create a brand for yourself on social media, on LinkedIn, on Twitter, or similar.
Jamie: Have you found social selling effective?
Will: It’s weird. It goes back to the thing about marketing before, where it is way harder to measure. Because people might like your post or something, but you don’t necessarily see it. I have had clients who said to me, “Oh, yes, I saw that in your post the other day. Can we have a meeting about this thing?” Otherwise, I’ve had friends who’ve said, “Oh, I didn’t realize your company did this. Can you put me in touch with someone that would help with that?”
I think social media has way more impact than you realize it does. It doesn’t exactly take up much time just to post a couple of things a day. You just have to keep doing it. It’s like marketing in that sense, because it’s very hard to measure.
Jamie: If you were starting your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Will: I think I would have got myself a mentor from day one. That is something that I think really helps. I would have tried to realize that everyone has their own style, and not just trying to copy other people’s styles, which I might have done early on. Another one is that when I was younger, every now and then, just to be a little bit punchier, just to be not laid back and be Mr. Nice Guy. I guess it goes back to the Challenger thing, trying to challenge people a bit more. I’d ask the important and awkward questions.
Jamie: What are the benefits of awkward questions?
Will: It completely depends on who you’re dealing with.
In some instances, when you deal with a buyer who feels they have all the power, asking the awkward questions puts them on the back foot and shifts that balance, and rebalances that power. Sometimes, asking the awkward questions, especially with senior people, can get a bit more respect for you from them.
Going back to what we shared about the old versus a young thing earlier, if you ask the awkward questions, they might help you with that. The worst thing they can do is refuse to answer it, in which case you’re in the same situation you were if you didn’t ask the questions. You didn’t really lose anything by asking awkward questions and it can really give you good insights.
Jamie: Can you tell me about a time when you’ve succeeded that really shows off the skills which you’ve developed in your career?
Will: Yes. The reasons that we succeeded were, A) that we were very patient, and B) that we went to the client as experts in the industry. We were selling the data from the London Stock Exchange, which is a third party that provides data. You can get delayed data, which they call level one, and then level two, which will have every single trade on it instantly, which a trader would need. When we’d gone through selling to them and they then said, “Okay, we need this level two data.” We’d agreed on the price, because it’s a third party, and so we just pass on the fee. Unfortunately, we needed to go back to them on price, because the Stock Exchange changed their fees. They called us into the room and told us it was ridiculous. We had to explain it, “No, that’s a third party. We don’t control the cost of that. There’s nothing we can do.”
Anyway, it turned out that the client didn’t actually know what level two data was. All they needed was the delayed level one data at the most. It was realized after we explained because then we questioned them, and we asked, “Okay, why do you need the level two data? Only traders need it, none of you guys are traders.” Rather than just trying to fix the problem by offering bigger discounts or something like that, we actually explained what it was, because we knew more. You often assume the client knows more than you, but that’s not necessarily true. We fully understood their business and showed them that they’d been paying something for years they didn’t actually need. I guess it was the patience and working with the client, showing them that we do have the expertise and that we do know our stuff. That helps get the deal in.