- There are four key traits to look out for when Sales hiring: intelligence, integrity, hunger and coachability.
- In order to structure your team, you need to understand the market you’re going after.
- Understanding and implementing MEDDPICC when managing a team in order to forecast accurately.
Setting the scene
In this podcast, I sit down for a very honest conversation about sales with the one and only Jennifer Bers. I think you’ll agree by the end that Jennifer lives and breathes sales excellence, and has lost none of her passion and energy around the craft. Her drive and results are incredible and I trust you’ll hear and feel that in this episode.
Jennifer has had an incredible career in sales, both as an individual contributor and as a leader, in her positions as National Account Executive at Yahoo, UK Sales Director at Bazaarvoice and VP of Sales at Onfido. In this episode we explore how Jennifer has developed her skills, built teams, grown companies and figured out the GTM formula.
The journey into sales
I graduated from university with a degree in marketing and assumed that meant that I was going to work in marketing. Then, I quickly realised that I was creating things for the salespeople, and I wanted to be on the front line. I started off working in the movie industry- back when VHS was a thing- for a studio selling VHS, and then DVD to big chains in the US. Then, I quickly made the leap to digital and software in 1999, and it was then that I really understood that sales was not flogging something, it was really about helping my customers solve a problem. That mindset changed my relationships with my customers, because they didn’t look at me as just trying to have a quick win, they realised that I really care.
I’m very fortunate to have worked for some incredible companies. Andy’s been a huge part of this, with Bazaarvoice and other companies who have really innovative ways of solving a problem. My customers figured out that I cared about closing the deal, of course, but I cared more about understanding what they needed and helping solve that- I’m still really good friends with a lot of my customers!
Sales is a perfect blend of art and science
What I love about sales is that it’s a blend of art and science; too much art, and you have every deal as its own unique art form, and you can’t replicate it. Whilst, too much science and you have a bunch of robots who freak out if something doesn’t go exactly to plan. Sales is not for everybody, even though there can be a stigma of sales being coin operated- it actually is something that you have to learn. I was very fortunate that I had leaders at Yahoo and leaders at Bazaarvoice, including Andy, who invested in the training. Sales isn’t rocket science, but it is a science. There are certain methodologies and structures that you need to put in place to help people grow, and I was very fortunate to be the beneficiary of some amazing training, which I now instil in some of my junior team members. It just helps give them that scaffold so they can start putting together a repeatable process, repeatable deals, and we can easily learn from each other and have this common language.
Transitioning into a managerial position
There’s often the perception that you go from a sales individual contributor to becoming a manager, and that is the career path. But, it is a career path. It is absolutely essential that people realise that being an individual contributor is an extraordinary career path through an entire career. Management isn’t for everyone, for me going into management was because I realised that I found a lot of satisfaction in seeing the coaching and mentoring that I was doing for my teammates. It was almost more enjoyable seeing them do well as a result of something that I suggested. For me, it was just a shift in what was important to me. I think it’s really critical to realise that being an individual contributor is way less stressful, your time is your own, it’s oftentimes more money and it’s just a different path. I’ve had great leaders who were able to show me what to do. I’ve also had terrible leaders and I’ve learnt just as much from that about what not to do and how not to engage, or what frustrated me. Ultimately, I think you can learn something from every experience.
Providing mentors and training is significant when developing sales teams
I do think that the huge organisations (HP, Oracle, IBM) do invest in formal training programmes, but that’s not accessible to startups, who oftentimes need really strong sales talent, but don’t need a senior enterprise salesperson when they’re just starting out. So, how do you balance needing somebody with great sales skills, but who isn’t comfortable going into a startup environment where you don’t have all of the infrastructure, the collateral and the processes in place that they’re used to having in order to thrive? That’s something that I wrestled with quite a bit in terms of starting up sales teams and having to almost brute force some of the training. Some of it was bringing in colleagues that I’d worked with in the past who had a lot to share, some of it was buddying them up with some mentors, or bringing in training. I believe that you have to invest in training and some of it I can do, but some of it is better coming from people who are specifically skilled at the training aspect of it, and then I can reinforce and coach.
A successful sales rep will identify customer needs
I’ve spoken with some founders who want the really big hitters. Initially, they want to get somebody in who’s used to doing the huge deals, and quite frankly, those people probably will churn pretty quickly at the start, because you almost need somebody hungry and willing to put in the hours. It’s partially figuring out some of the product market fit at that very early stage and understanding the customers pains that you’re trying to solve. It’s an understanding, you need somebody with the experience to know that you’re not out there selling features; you need to understand the customers needs and relate how your solution solves it. Ultimately, customers care about two things:
- Can you solve my problem?
- Are you the best option to solve my problem?
They don’t care about features, they just care if you can solve the problem. But if you have really experienced enterprise sales reps, they’re going to want that already proven piece. What founders really need to understand is:
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- What do I think the sales cycle is going to be (and add three to six months onto that)?
Every founder thinks, ‘this should maybe be a three month sales cycle’, and it’s not because when you’re just building that credibility you need people who are hungry, ambitious and are willing to have the door slammed in their face a lot and be told no. It’s not personal, but that’s part of the initial sale is refining the message and refining the fit between what customers need and what the product does.
Traits of a successful salesperson
When I’m interviewing sales reps there are four characteristics that I think are really critical: intelligence, ethics and integrity, hunger and coachability.
Intelligence is not about being able to recite pi to the 18th digit, it’s being able to explain, sometimes, very complex technical solutions in a business value way. It’s also the emotional intelligence to be able to read the room, we’ve all had those people who keep going and going, and they’ve completely lost everybody and have no idea. Intelligence is really important.
Ethics and integrity
These are really important, because they’re representing that company. They can go in and lie through their teeth, but they’ll never get a second chance, and we will burn ourselves with not only that customer, but everybody that customer knows. I don’t want to micromanage people, so I have to trust that they’re doing the right things.
You cannot be lazy in sales. It’s not a job for someone who wants to sit back and be lazy, because every minute you’re doing something is a step forward- every extra phone, email or business case proves that you’re moving forward.
I need people who are coachable because there’s nothing worse than having somebody come in who knows everything, does it their way, and it turns out that it’s not working cohesively with the group. I understand everybody has their own style, but I need to know that somebody is coachable and will take feedback.
Another part of sales is sweating the details. I’m a huge proponent of MEDDPICC. It really is a way to have this common framework and be able to interrogate and dig into the details and prove and request them.
Sales is such a team sport and nobody ever wins a deal alone. There’s nothing worse than somebody who tries to win a deal alone and loses it because they were just too arrogant to bring in the extra person or didn’t even know they needed to. MEDDPIC is a framework for sales for qualification of a deal. It’s broken out into different parts, and it’s about being able to really analyse:
- Where are we in the deal?
- What do we know?
- What don’t we know?
What don’t we know is oftentimes just as important, and it provides a roadmap of what to do next. For example, ‘E’ in MEDDPICC stands for economic buyer. So, do we know who’s actually signing off on this deal, because there’s nothing worse than having an amazing deal all teed up, and then it goes to the person who has to pay for it, and they’ve never heard of it and they don’t have the budget or it’s not a priority. It’s really good to know that at the beginning of the deal, as opposed to the month you’re forecasting it. It doesn’t really matter what framework you have, but it’s important to have something so the whole business has a common language.
It’s important to know how to orchestrate a deal and who to bring in because they really need to understand and hear from the customer why they did or didn’t buy. It’s important for customer success to know why they’re buying, and what they expect to get out of it. The difference between a very junior rep and a senior rep is being able to orchestrate more complex deals. When I say ‘orchestrate complex deals’, it’s who to bring in from your own company, how to navigate across the company that you’re selling to, and bringing in different parts of the business, as you never want one point of contact.
Addressing failures in an interview highlights the strong sales candidates
My favourite question is, tell me about a deal you’ve lost. We’ve all had those deals that we won and we love to talk about them, but I think we learn the most from the deals we’ve lost. If we’re really honest with ourselves it’s the deals that we lost where we know one thing we just screwed up. The responses are interesting and how people respond tells you a lot about them. If they blame the customer, pricing or everybody else then quite frankly I’m not interested. It’s the ones who have really insightful reflections and think ‘oh, I screwed up here!’. And that person’s not going to make that mistake again.
1-on-1s are vital when supporting a team
Sales meetings are interesting. But, one of the things that I always hated about sales meetings is where they were a waste of time, or people felt they needed to have a meeting to have a meeting. For me, what I always wanted to do is make sure everybody was involved. So, we would pick deals, like one deal per rep, and go through a MEDDPICC and really analyse where we were. I love having their colleagues question them, but we all agree that egos stay out of the room. Sometimes when you’re doing the interrogating, so to speak, it sparks something in your mind about your own deal. It’s important to have people professionally own their deals, where they’re going to come in and not just be wishy washy, there needs to be a sense of ‘I own this’.
One of the things that’s also really important is having those 1-on-1s with your team, where not only are you analysing the current deals that are in play, but the pipeline building and the really early stage just to have your finger on the pulse of what’s coming down the line, or what are they doing to drive that pipeline. It’s really easy to spend time focusing on what I’m working on now, but as soon as that pipeline runs dry, then that rep is gasping for oxygen. A good leader is making sure that you’re constantly driving that pipeline build and thinking about how to get more in the funnel- it’s keeping an eye on the current quarter, but also looking forward. That’s sometimes when those 1-on-1s are even more impactful, because at some point you don’t want to necessarily just sit around and listen to somebody doing a forecast if it’s not driving something, because as an individual contributor I could have spent that time on the phones or doing something else.
Understand the market first and use that to structure your team.
I think it depends on the stage of the company that you’re in and what you’re selling. There needs to be an initial viewpoint of realistically what can we support and have customers be happy. That oftentimes means starting out with mid market, or starting out with maybe not selling into the fortune 100, because you can’t necessarily support it, and the whole company will be consumed with creating a bunch of bespoke features. I think it’s a matter of taking a realistic look at who is in the market.
One of the things that we did at one of my recent companies was we created the top 500 that we knew if we could win these 500, we could then confidently say, ‘we’ve really cleared the table’. We figured who was realistic to go for, and we knew we could not support the Tier 1 companies at that point. Our strategy was to start building up credibility and start building up a reputation by starting a little bit smaller- I think you need to be quite ruthless in knowing who not to go after! It’s really hard to say no, but knowing where to focus and not trying to sell on a global basis where you can’t support companies in a whole other geo (yet). It’s important to figure out what constitutes success, and some of that is talking to your investors who invested in you for a reason, and have a good idea of what your market is and should be. Some of it is talking to peers, and some of it is really just digging in and knowing your market.
A huge educational piece that any sales leader needs to do is understand the market first and the potential market. When structuring a team, you need different levels of experience for different types of sales, the more quick transactional deals that are faster that you close a lot of them, they’re important but not as complex. You don’t need as sophisticated a sales rep, and quite frankly, a very sophisticated sales rep isn’t going to be happy closing those as you grow. As you have more complex deals with lots of moving parts that need more orchestration with companies that have a more sophisticated buying department, you need a more sophisticated sales rep who knows how to handle and work with that. Those procurement departments’ job is to get the best deal and the best value for their customer. That doesn’t always mean the cheapest price, it means the best deal overall for the company, and once you really understand that you can work with the procurement team as you don’t look at them as an enemy. It’s important to have sophisticated reps who understand that a good procurement department from their customer side wants to get the best value for their company; it doesn’t necessarily mean the cheapest deal, it means the best value overall, which encompasses not only the product but the service, support and the ongoing relationship.
Making a big difference for the customer in a unique way is extremely important.
For me, I don’t actually care what I’m selling, I care that I am solving a big problem in a way that’s unique. I do know, for me, I prefer selling something that’s going to help drive business for my customer, as opposed to reducing risk, for example, which is more of the cyber side of things. There’s ultimately three key things: make money, save money or reduce risk. For me, I enjoy helping customers by showing how they can make more money or drive sales. In the FinTech and the Regtech space, that’s all about helping onboard more customers and such, and it resonated with me the most. But, for me it’s really important that the type of company that I’m working for isn’t just selling a commodity, but it’s selling something that almost requires a bit of an evangelical sale. I almost need to feel like I’m on a bit of a crusade where I know what I’m offering is going to make such a difference for you that you can tell me no, that’s fine, but eventually you’re going to say yes. I have to feel passionate enough about the solution. On paper it can be an extraordinarily boring solution, but if it makes a big difference to the customer, that’s what I care about.
Keep your customer happy throughout, even after you close a deal.
It’s so important to have really happy customers at the beginning, because they will serve as references. Initially, it’s really hard to prove that when you’re just getting started. But don’t kid yourself- buyers are talking to other buyers, they’re not just talking to the sales reps. This is why they want references and oftentimes they’ll ask for references and call other people who you don’t give as a formal reference to find out. It’s almost like you want to become part of the plumbing, and for anybody who has had to change pipes it’s a nightmare. The tangible benefits are what help close the deal. Whilst the intangible, the ones that you can’t necessarily prove at the beginning is why it’s also really important to invest in a good customer success team. Once you close the deal, it’s where the real work begins. It’s about the implementation and constantly delighting the customer because there will always be a competitor knocking on the door. A lot of times people get excited about closing the deal and then forget about how important it is afterwards to make sure that the customer constantly feels that the company is working on their behalf.
Some quick fire questions!
The Sales Development Reps or SDR’s. Should they report to marketing? Or should they report to sales?
I like reporting into sales, because then you can have a much more cohesive relationship between the account executive and the SDR where they can really strategize. They can also help mentor the SDR because that tends to be the career path for SDRs, where they’re also helping to drive who I’m going after and why. Marketing has slightly different goals. In a perfect world marketing and sales reports up into the same C-level executive.
Compensation for sales – 50/50 base/variable or something different?
50/50, but make sure there’s heavy acceleration for over performance. The compensation structure will drive behaviour, and any good individual contributor will tear apart that comp plan and figure out exactly how to structure deals to make the most money. So, you need to think about how they’d game it.
Should salespeople do new business and renewals? Or should you split them?
I think salespeople should have a piece in renewals partially because the last thing you want is for them to close a really bad deal and kick it over the fence, and then that client feels completely abandoned. I think a great client success or customer success team can work on those renewals, but I do think the original rep should be a part of it. Partially because, oftentimes, you can do a lot of upselling and cross selling at that point. One of the things when you’re looking at churn, it’s not just does the customer go away but are they spending less, and it’s really hard to upsell an unhappy customer. But, having a good deal well structured from the beginning makes it much easier to have that great relationship all along.
Who is somebody you admire?
I don’t think there’s necessarily one person that encompasses everything. I look at a lot of different people for what they’ve brought and their individual characteristics that I really admire. I really admire Francoise Brougher, who has a great history of Google and Pinterest, for not only what she has done on a commercial and operational side, but the fact that she stood up for herself when things weren’t good at a company. I look at somebody like Whitney Wolfe, who was told she couldn’t do it, but she believed in herself and took her company public. I look at people like you (Andy), even though you started in IT and on the engineering side, you realised that sales was a really valid career path.
It’s really important to understand what matters to you. For me, I know the type of culture that I want to work for and I think that’s critical. Culture is a big word that everybody talks about, and you need to understand what culture means. Culture is not just a pool table, culture is a company that’s ambitious, wants to achieve great things and understands that employees are also people. If I’m going to spend 8-12 hours a day working for a company, I want to know that they actually recognise that I’m a person, have a little bit of fun with it and reward achievements. That’s not necessarily just from a financial perspective, but a company that invests in the training, learning and development. It’s also important that a company thinks about a career path, not just for the more junior reps, but for their more senior employees too. This can sometimes get overlooked because they’re brought in at a senior level but senior people want to also grow, learn and be challenged.