- The e from eCommerce is going away – it’s just Commerce!
- Complex deals need executive team involvement including the CEO.
- You need to hire a Sales team with diverse superpowers.
- Measuring the balance of art and science in a Sales teams performance.
- Arriving prepared to solve your customers hard problems.
Setting the scene
Growing up via a very diverse cultural journey, Kamal shares some hard learned and honest lessons around mastering the art and science of Sales. Kamal has an amazing record in sales, and shares his thoughts on how to solve big customer problems, how to get the exec team onboard and finding key superpowers to build your team. Now a senior member of the Mirakl team, he shares thoughts on why eCommerce is now just Commerce, what makes a great Marketplace and how the pandemic has accelerated change. Hear who and what he admires, but mostly take away valuable lessons that helped him build the fantastic career he has today.
My parents are from India and I was born in Hong Kong. My parents left India before I was born and moved to Germany when I was very young. My first language that I learnt was German and I went to the German school system, until I was 12. We then moved to Norway, where I had to learn Norwegian and completed A Levels in the Norwegian school system, and became a Norwegian citizen. I was born a British citizen, because I was born in Hong Kong, and then came to the US for university. Then, by accident, I ended up moving to Paris for a job and stayed there for 17 years. Recently, I moved back to the US.
The journey into sales
I’ve always been very passionate about technology. I had a very brief career as a stockbroker because I thought I’d enjoy it, but I was completely wrong. I got into technology at a speech recognition company, which was similar to what Siri is doing today, but we were doing it in 1996 and I was in a more technical role. I realised two things; I enjoyed speaking with people and I was not as good at technology as I thought I was. So, the natural role I fell into was technical pre-sales, which is now called sales engineering. It’s basically the person that tags along with the sales rep, showcases the technology and focuses on the technical when. I did this for seven years, but I got tired of feeling like I was doing all the work and seeing the sales reps get the big commission checks. That’s when I raised my hand to say, ‘I want to do sales, it really doesn’t seem that hard’. However, in my first job, I was there for two years, I didn’t sell a single thing and really learnt a lot about the craft and why tagging along and doing the demos made it seem so easy. But, when you actually have the number and the objective, then you’re responsible- it’s actually a lot more difficult. Thankfully, things have turned around since then and I’ve learnt a thing or two, and the last 20 years have been great!
Trilogy focused on investing in their employees
I was very lucky and joined a company in the late 90s called Trilogy. Very few people remember Trilogy today, but it is hard to overestimate how influential Trilogy were back in the day, especially in terms of the quality of people they attracted; they would go to the top universities, find the top computer science professors, take them out to dinner and pick out those students who really blew them away and get them on board. It was routine that everyone they wanted to go after would have an offer from McKinsey, Goldman and other great companies, but they would end up choosing Trilogy. We had fantastic people and Trilogy spent a lot of time investing in their people and developing their skills. For example, we were all shipped out to New York to take presentation classes with a private firm that typically worked with CEOs and politicians to help them improve their presentation skills. We were a bunch of 20-somethings, learning how to articulate our value proposition to a C-Level audience. I left Trilogy in 2003, and that network has been invaluable. Almost every job I’ve had, until recently, came through the Trilogy network one way or the other.
Direct impact comes from being as close as you can be to the deals
I’ve always been very interested in staying close to the money, where most of the value is generated for a company. I think the closer you can be to deals, to be driving the sales execution, the more direct impact you can have. At some point, you obviously want to be able to clone yourself to develop other people that do the same things that you do- I really enjoy that part! I think sales management is about a lot more than just development. It is also about keeping people in check, doing the pipeline reviews, and a lot of the underlying mechanics. Although important, I’m less passionate about it. My focus has been on staying as an individual contributor, driving a lot of the direct deals and revenue, but also working closely with the rest of the team and making sure that the skills and learnings that you’ve developed permeate throughout the organisation and don’t just stay with you.
Self awareness is an important trait in a salesperson
There’s no single set of magic skills that make somebody amazing. One of my favourite interview questions when I interview salespeople is, ‘you’ve surely worked with a lot of great salespeople during your career, what are the one or two things you feel you hands down do better than most?’- that gives me some insight into where they think their special powers are coming from. Then, I flip the question around and say, ‘on the flip side, what are the two or three things that you feel you constantly struggle with and you need to develop? And other salespeople do better than you?’ That answer gives me a lot of insight into their self awareness; the typical sales rep is going to talk about all the amazing things they do, but then when you toss them what do other people do better than you, they really can’t think of anything. For me, I like to look for people who have been very successful in their career, but have got different answers to the first question. I think when you do that, you build a team that complements each other, rather than having a team that excels in doing just one thing very well and doesn’t do a great job at the other things.
Measuring the art and science of selling in a team
There are four things that need to be at the top of your mind at all times:
- Hiring people
- Developing people
- Getting them to execute
- Helping them forecast accurately
If you are in sales management, you’re constantly thinking of hiring, you’re always looking for great salespeople, and every time you meet a great salesperson, you’re pitching your company to them and trying to get them on your radar. The developing part is very important, just because somebody has been an excellent salesperson somewhere else does not mean you can just plug them into your organisation, and they will automatically perform very well. So, no matter how great they are, I think that it’s very important to spend some time developing them, helping them understand your sales culture, your value proposition, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.
At Mirakl, we’ve invested a lot in creating Mirakli University, and we’re developing a sales excellence programme to transmit some of that tribal knowledge. I think helping new reps shadow more experienced reps to really see what actually happens on the ground, not just the easy stuff, is important. But, how do you handle objections? What roadblocks do you run into? Once you’ve done all that, hopefully they’ve got the skills and the experience to do a great job at forecasting. Forecasting is always a challenge, and this is where I think you need to have the individual contributors work closely with their managers, and have the manager dig into the details to validate whether the forecast is real or not. Is that rep too optimistic? Are they being too cautious? Are they sandbagging? And that’s where I think that experience really comes to bear.
The changing face of sales as a discipline
Even though I’ve been in sales for my entire career, personally, I can’t stand salespeople. When people reach out to me, and they’re trying to sell stuff to me, I find that super annoying. I appreciate that a lot of people might perceive what I’m doing that way. The way I try to address that is not focused on selling, I focus on solving problems- everyone likes to engage with people who can solve a problem for them. I think the issue is that it requires a lot of hard work upfront:
- Do your homework
- Understand what’s going on with the company
- Understand what’s going on with this particular individual, and how long have they been in the company
- Understand what that individual is they trying to do and how they’re trying to make their mark
I think where technology helps us today, is that you’ve got a lot more information at your disposal. If you’re motivated, you have access to lots of information. I look at the earnings calls, and it’s fascinating because you get to talk to some of the most powerful executives and have them grilled by the most hard nosed investors, and you get to listen in on that conversation in real time for free. This is a complete treasure trove of information that you’ve got access to. So, I think what has happened is that the good salespeople have realised that they’re in the business of solving other people’s problems and helping other people be successful. They make great use of the resources available to them, they do their homework and they show up prepared, they’re able to build a relationship with a trusted adviser. Many sales execs aspire to become trusted advisors, but then show up with a vanilla sales deck with no preparation for the first meeting. I don’t know if that’s fundamentally changed the sales profession. I think good salespeople have always looked at themselves as problem solvers, but the new technology stack has certainly provided a lot more resources for people to actually execute on the trusted advisor role.
Adding value and engagement throughout the team
I think there are a couple of elements here. One is that a lot of good salespeople have this hero complex where they think of themselves as James Bond; they go into a very difficult situation and come out with a deal, but how they do it is a complete mystery to people. For me, I think that’s mostly a sign of weakness in the sales process, because you might be successful with a couple of deals but you’ll probably lose more deals than win deals with that approach, and a lot of larger complex sales cycles require multi level selling. There is a perception among great salespeople that, ‘I don’t need to bring in the CEO, I know as much about this as they do’ or ‘I don’t need to bring in this person because I can handle that’, and that may or may not be true, but I think it’s important to understand that the prospect perceives these roles differently. It’s going to be much easier for me to get higher into an organisation by saying, ‘I’d like you to take a meeting with our CEO, so that you can understand what our longer term strategy is’, and really make it something that would be valuable for them to engage in.
It’s interesting for the rest of the team as they see that the conversation has been really well set up and it’s not a waste of their time. So, if you bring an executive into a meeting, and the prospect doesn’t know why they’re meeting the executive, they don’t have any interesting questions or insights and it doesn’t advance the deal at all, it’s going to be really hard to get that executive to help you out on a future sales cycle. On the flip side, if you bring them in and there was a critical point that needed to be resolved for the deal to move forward, the prospect had some very thoughtful questions, they felt reassured and you could immediately see the impact from that meeting. I think that’s how you get the credibility so that when you ask people to get involved in your deals in the future, they’re more than happy to do it because they know it’s not a waste of their time. At the end of the day, executives always like meeting other executives to understand what their challenges are, to understand how they can help them and broaden their network. It’s a win win for everyone.
Innovation will make the experience of eCommerce more seamless
Increasingly, the ‘e’ part of eCommerce is disappearing, and it’s just becoming commerce and how customers engage. We saw that during the pandemic as there were things that had no electronic component to it before at all. For example, going to the local bakery to pick up bagels, now there’s a QR code you scan on your phone, and you’re doing an eCommerce transaction to buy something. I think that a lot of people will realise that those things are actually more convenient, and those things aren’t going to go away. The idea of there being an electronic component to almost all commerce activity is here to stay, and the transformation is really going to be the deeper integration of eCommerce into day to day life.
We’re going to see more things like Instacart, for other things where you can buy immediately and get something delivered to you within a couple of hours. We had a sales meeting with a large PC manufacturer in Texas, and my colleague forgot to bring her charger for her Mac and she was able to order something from the Apple store and get it delivered within two hours. What’s interesting is that, had this been for the manufacturer whose headquarters we were at, it probably wouldn’t have worked out quite as fast. So, I really see a lot of the innovation to make the experience even more seamless, to provide an even better customer experience across the entire lifecycle: buying delivery, returns, customer service, post sale. A lot of the new players are focused on various slices of that and making the experience world class.
Defining your ideal customer profile and educating the market
I joined Mirakl with the express purpose of helping them expand to the US. I was the first person on the ground in the US with a laptop, a cell phone and a motel room. This month, we just crossed the threshold of over 100 people in the US- it’s been quite a bit of growth! I think the sales motion involved a lot of trial and error. So, especially in the US, the marketplace term itself wasn’t very elevated. A lot of people associated marketplaces with eBay and Amazon, they thought of it as cheap, as potentially not very credible because a lot of fake products were being sold on marketplaces. When we were approaching high fashion brands and talking about marketplaces, that conversation wasn’t going well, because they were afraid that it would denigrate their brand. We spent a lot of time educating the market and frankly, we had to make bets on whether we double down on the marketplace term and hope that we’re going to be able to elevate that term to mean something else, or do we call what we do something entirely different? We decided to double down on the marketplace term, and I think our bet has proven itself to be right.
Gartner are now releasing studies and analysis of the enterprise marketplace segment. If I think of how we got here, in the beginning we just wanted to get the value proposition out. We would go and talk to anyone, we’d attend all the trade shows, we would work really hard to book wall to wall meetings at every trade show. We weren’t so much trying to sell them, but present the idea and really listen carefully to their feedback and objections, and then incorporate that into the next pitch.
Our initial handful of customers were companies that had independently come to the conclusion that they wanted to do a marketplace, and we simply had to persuade them that of all the different ways to do it Mirakl offered the best option. We had thought about all of the edge cases, we had built our very robust technology which was working, and then we had to go after the people where we were convinced the value proposition would be great for them.
Later we expanded to prospects who we felt would be a great fit for our technology, but they had no idea what a marketplace could do for their business, which was quite interesting because we would approach the sales cycle in the classical way. It’s like going on a date and showing them pictures of your friends or testimonials from family members – it’s not going to go anywhere! And the other person is thinking ‘I don’t really like you, this is irrelevant’. We were showing up to all of these meetings talking about how credible we were for a solution that they didn’t think they needed. Just like if you’re going on a date, and you are interested in persuading someone, what you really need to talk about is them and how their life will be better or different with you in it? We fundamentally changed the way we should set up to these meetings, we would say, ‘Look, let’s pretend this meeting went great and you decided to implement us. Let me show you what your life is like four months from now, and tell you the story’. We called these value walkthroughs. It was very meticulously researched, based on:
- Who they are as a brand
- What their strategy is
- Who they’re trying to attract as a customer
- What challenges they’re facing
Once we were able to present it to them, and they understood, they wanted to work with us. We had to rethink the way we would go about educating the market. Then in parallel, we evolved the way we would structure deals and pricing quite significantly. I think my one takeaway from that exercise is that too often you spend time negotiating with yourself, you’re thinking, ‘Oh no, this isn’t going to work. Nobody’s ever going to go for it’, but I think the right answer is try it and see what happens. At the end of the day what matters is the value you deliver. If the value you deliver is significant, you’re able to structure the commercials in a way that makes sense for your business that you can show attraction to your investors and to your employees and get predictability in your ability to invest without it impacting your ability to close deals.
Connecting long term value with Revenue
In all conversations around pricing, it’s important that the value is aligned with where you’re extracting pricing. I think with rev share, the concern is that once this is up and running, I’m doing all of the work. There are two things that we do to differentiate ourselves, one is we work side by side with our customers to really help them make the technology work and drive value for them. The analogy I like to use is, just because I’m able to sell you a great gym membership, it does not automatically mean that you’re going to look like Brad Pitt! You actually need to do something with the technology to get the results you’re looking for. If we were to propose that we can give you the technology but never see you again, the likely outcome is you don’t get the results you’re looking for- you feel like that investment wasn’t great, because you didn’t get a lot of return on that investment.
Alternatively we could say, listen, what I’m going to do is package up this amazing technology, with expertise and put in a whole team and infrastructure around working with you to leverage the technology to make sure you get the results you’re looking for. Then as you’re getting the results you’re looking for, we are going to take a small share of the incremental revenue so that our interests are aligned; the harder we work to help you achieve your goals, the more money we make. Once they see that working, that the results are really linked to the insights and the efforts you’re bringing to the table, a lot of those objections go away. Now that, of course, presupposes that you have a very tangible and crisp way of identifying the incremental value you’re delivering. Again, with our technology platform, it’s very straightforward, the transaction actually needs to be coming through our technology platform, and once you see that, it becomes very obvious that it is Mirakl that’s delivering this value.
The characteristics of a successful marketplace
First of all, you need to have some kind of demand traction, you must have a property where people are coming to your site looking for products. Ideally, you have a suspicion that there are many customers looking for things that they might not be able to find on your site, and they’re opening up a new tab going to Amazon and completing the transaction there. So, the hypothesis of ‘if I had a larger assortment, more longtail assortment, I would be able to drive revenue lift’. Now ideally, you want to create a symbiotic relationship where as you increase the demand side audience, and the supply side products that you’re able to offer, that creates a virtuous cycle that the additional products you bring will bring the incremental traffic that you otherwise would not have had.
We actually did a symposium not very long ago where we had some of our earlier customers, like Best Buy Canada who have been working with us for six years now, talk about their marketplace. Thierry Hay-Sabourin, SVP of Ecommerce, talked about how during the pandemic they would see a spike in products like thermal blankets, a product that they didn’t typically sell. So, during the pandemic, third party sellers listed these products on their site which enabled Best Buy Canada to sell these products to customers coming to their site and looking for these products. This enabled Best Buy Canada to make money on a product they didn’t buy, didn’t source, and barely knew existed; while delivering a better customer experience, and becoming a channel for suppliers of those products and helping them reach customers that otherwise they would not have reached.
Shopify & Amazon – How do you see that dynamic and is disintermediation coming into effect?
The search for alternatives to Amazon, where people are looking for a different type of buying experience, is going to be good for both the likes of Shopify and the likes of Mirakl. Shopify gives the vast majority of Amazon Marketplace sellers the ability to disintermediate Amazon and have their own eCommerce experience that is delivering a lot of the same capabilities, but build a direct relationship with their customers rather than going through Amazon. Mirakl helps our customers by providing an extended assortment of products without needing to go and buy all of those products and warehouse them and have the inventory risk. Just like Amazon, rather than making your money by buying low and selling high, you make your money by connecting supply and demand, delivering a better customer experience and charging the seller network.
If you look at the capabilities that are required to facilitate that, you need to have the ability to seamlessly onboard the product catalogues of thousands of third party sellers, ensure that they meet the quality requirements of your site, transform that data, then once you receive the orders; seamlessly route the orders to the right parties, split up the orders into multiple sub orders, and ensure the customer experience is amazing. You need to do all of this with a lot of automation and scale. If you’re doing this for a handful of products with a handful of sellers, you can maybe manage this in Excel. But if you’re looking to scale this, you need to introduce automation, but it also needs to go hand in hand with the ability to control and curate the experience. You never want to be in a position where products that are not appropriate to your brand are being sold, or a customer experience is being delivered, by a third party seller that is not aligned with your brand promise. So if we can get all of these elements, you’re enabling anyone to be able to deliver an Amazon-like assortment without the massive investment that you would otherwise need.
Building cross-country relationships
The way deals happen in different countries vary. I think the differences are gradually homogenising and becoming more of the same. For example, the US because it’s a very large country, but culturally very homogenous, from going back 15 years, you were able to do sales cycles through WebEx or GooMeeting and have remote conversations that would actually result in a significant deal and signed contract, without ever meeting face to face with the prospect. Until very recently, it would be almost impossible to do this in Latin America; they want to see you, they want to have a meal with you, they want to know who you are, they want to know whether they can trust you, they want to look at you in the eye, and only then after you’ve built a relationship with them, they’ll do a deal with you. A lot of it was similarly true for places like France, Italy and Spain, where I think almost every sales cycle I had in those countries started and concluded with an in-person meeting, with very few remote meetings.
We’ve seen in 2020, with the pandemic, that a lot of these places have realised that you can get a lot done over Zoom, and that the face-to-face meetings are not quite as necessary as people thought. But, I think that in Europe, particularly in Southern Europe, relationships are a lot more important. So, how you get introduced into an account- whether it’s through a trusted relationship or through a cold call. The other thing that is very important when you’re building cross country teams, is to have strong alignment between the host country culture and the place that you’re selling into. For example, if you’re a French company trying to sell into the US, but you don’t actually have an understanding or appreciation for how business is done differently, you want to take your way of doing things and impose it on the other country, or vice versa, is where you get into the most trouble. I think the value that I’ve brought to the companies I’ve worked for is because I’ve spent meaningful time in the US and I spent meaningful time in Europe – I actually understand how things are done on both sides. I’m able to explain how the other party is looking at it and educate people on both sides of the pond.
For any company in the UK thinking of expanding to the US, don’t take your top performing UK rep and give them a one way ticket to the US, because you’re going to lose out on the revenue they could bring in the UK and you’re going to lose out on what they’re going to do in the US. Also, I would not just go and hire a very expensive rep in the US because it’s going to be hard to manage somebody thousands of miles away; they’re going to be expensive, and you’re really not going to know whether they’re going to be successful or not. The model that I’ve seen work well is to have a senior executive actually pick up and move with their family to the other region to make things work, and that’s what we did at Mirakl. Adrien Nussenbaum, the Co-Founder of Mirakl, moved his family to the US at the same time when I moved here with my family, and having the co-founder of the company be fully invested in making the US a success, and also have the ability to influence decisions on the other side of the pond worked extremely well. I see a lot of that happening with European companies coming to the US. I don’t see many American executives flying over and settling down with their families in Europe, or not enough. I think we need more of that.
Who do you admire?
For a very long time I’ve been a big admirer of how Apple does product launches. From the days of Steve Jobs all the way through to now, I would look at every one of those events multiple times. I find that the way they engineer the presentations, from the way they do the graphics to the way they choose every single word, and the time and energy and effort they put into it amazing. The whole idea that you can get hundreds of millions of people to dial in to watch a 35 minute commercial of one of your products, and then immediately submit millions of orders is mind boggling! And yet they do it so well. I’ve used that a lot to influence my presentation.
I find that when you’re communicating there are some well known mechanisms. So, if you have something interesting and complex to explain, there’s nothing that’s better than a well written two page document. We see that with Amazon, abandoning PowerPoint for doing that and insisting on written documents. When you want to explain something in person, having a visual aid or a graphic that makes your point is helpful, and I think what we’ve seen with the emergence of the consulting industry is the bastardization of those two mediums. Now you get slides with lots of text that can’t be read as clearly as a document, and are difficult to present. Yet, that is what most sales slides look like – it’s this page with no complete sentences, no narrative structure, and a bland graphic. If somebody asks me to send my deck, they wouldn’t even know what they’re looking at. So what I do now is I send them a video of me presenting that deck, or if you want to educate yourself, in your own time, I’ll write up a document. I’m not going to send you a deck, because that’s not going to be very meaningful.
For similar reasons, I’m a big fan of Amazon’s management, and particularly the whole narrative structure. Everyone knows about it, because Amazon makes a very big deal of telling everyone how great they are, and yet surprisingly, few companies actually say, ‘let’s give that a shot! Let’s actually have people show up to meetings, having written out what they want other people to discuss’. I think that’s an obvious one for me.
Most recently, Brett Hurt from Data.world, the Co-Founder of Bazaarvoice, tweeted something that made an impression on me. He said that for the first time, at Data.world, he shared the entire unredacted board deck with the rest of the company. Brett said that an important lesson he’s learnt as an entrepreneur is the quality of team you bring, and the way to attract the best team is through transparency and openness. People like to work for companies where they know what’s happening and where they feel like they’re a valued stakeholder. I find too many companies have got too many layers where there are things not talked about or explained. I find that in this day and age where top talent has got a lot of options, you want to create a company culture of trust and openness to attract and retain top talent.