EPISODE 005, Heather Combs Talks Importance of Mentoring, Passion, and Hard Work in Sales Achievement
Heather Combs is 3Pillar Global’s chief revenue officer. She oversees 3Pillar’s marketing and client services teams. In her role, Heather is responsible for continuing 3Pillar’s double-digit annual revenue growth. Heather believes that success in business depends on a positive client experience. As such, she leads and develops her teams to deliver first-rate services in the digital software product industry. Additionally, Heather works closely with 3Pillar’s delivery organization to ensure 3Pillar customers are receiving quality, cutting-edge software products. Heather has served as chief business development officer at HRCI and Aronson. She was also chief sales officer at Hanover Research. Heather attributes a great deal of her success in sales and business to the 13 years she spent as a consultant for the Corporate Executive Board.
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Here’s a transcript to the podcast:
Fred Diamond: I’m here today with Heather Combs. She is 3Pillar Global’s chief revenue officer. She overseas 3Pillar’s marketing and client services teams. In her role, Heather is responsible for continuing 3Pillar’s double-digit annual revenue growth. Heather believes that success in business depends on a positive client experience. As such, she leads and develops her teams to deliver first-rate services in the digital software product industry. Additionally, Heather works closely with 3Pillar’s delivery organization to ensure 3Pillar customers are receiving quality cutting-edge software products. Heather has served as chief business development officer at HRCI and Aronson. She was also chief sales officer at Hanover Research. Heather attributes a great deal of her success in sales and business to the 13 years she spent as a leader for the Corporate Executive Board. Heather, I’m thrilled to be with you here today. Why don’t you tell us a little more about yourself and fill in some of the blanks?
Heather Combs: Thanks, Fred, for having me. It’s so nice to be here. I really do some other things than just work. I’m also the mom of four awesome little girls, a set of twins in there. So they keep me awfully busy. I’ve recently more or less retired my triathlon past in exchange for much more yoga. So I seek solace and quiet every once in a while between that job and those little girls.
Fred Diamond: Very, very good. So I’m very excited to talk to you. You’ve had a great career of sales success with different types of companies, accounting and research and now with 3Pillar. How did you first get into sales as a career?
Heather Combs: Accidentally. Let’s be clear: I never set out to be in sales originally. I’m from Texas. I went to undergrad there for political science and psychology and started working for a congressman in Texas, and coming up to Washington, D.C. with him I fell in love with the city. When I returned after graduate school expecting a career in the nonprofit space and in politics, I quickly discovered those fields don’t pay back student loans and D.C. rent very easily. And so, like many of my peers at that time, I did the consulting-firm series of interviews and landed at the Corporate Executive Board, right as it was going public from the Advisory Board Company. It was about 400 people and had the mission of growing fast and hard. I started in research but within about six months my talkative personality landed me in account management, and from there I went through a number of roles, increasingly responsible for more and more revenue. Today I certainly think of myself as sales-oriented.
Fred Diamond: What exactly do you sell today, and tell us what excites you about that.
Heather Combs: Well, today, I have the honor of being at 3Pillar Global. It is a digital product software company. We build custom applications for companies of all types. So it’s professional services, like much of my career, but is now in this disruptive industry of technology. You probably know 3Pillar more from what we have built than the name. If this morning you parked, you might have used the Parkmobile app. If your kids watched PBS, you got Curious George via 3Pillar. If your high-schooler applied for college through Common App or you talked to Alexa about your Geico insurance, those are all the types of things that 3Pillar does with other companies.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned you started your career in the nonprofit space, and you also worked for a congressman. What key lessons did you learn from your first few jobs that served you as you moved into sales? Or even from your first sales job, what are some of the key lessons that have stuck with you?
Heather Combs: First of all, I think that flexibility and the spirit of leaning in to continuous development over time [are important]. To be passionate about what you do, whether you’re trying to convince a congressman of a position point or a prospect of the value of a product, I think they are all opportunities to speak intelligently and with a level of authority and passion and commitment to the value of what you bring that day, be it a product or a position or a service… What I would say I learned through that is that tenacity is required. That sales is a hard job, we know that. Anybody listening to this one will know that. And so, just having the ability to keep going when it’s difficult, keep learning, keep trying new things, keep embracing new tips and tools and tricks of the trade. In my early days email was not a sales tool, and I think about today how we’ve gone to the process of moving through email to… today, when really thoughtful consultative conversations are probably the best instrument we have, which requires a lot of time and a lot of face-to-face investment.
Fred Diamond: I know you mentor a lot of people today, and we took a nice tour of 3Pillars facilities and saw a lot of high-energy people working there. Take us back to one of your sales mentors. Tell us what lessons you learned from them and how they impacted your career.
Heather Combs: I feel like I get asked this question a lot, and I feel like I should go find Sally Chang and tell her all of the things she taught me. She had a very high standard and really raised my bar, and I hope I’m doing that for others now. Will McKinnon and Paul Ironside were there in the beginning, and then some local favorites are still people I watch and admire to this day: Kara Delvecchio and Richard Perez, both skilled in their craft, and I enjoy seeing the onstage and their increasingly sizable positions at other companies.
Fred Diamond: You have a lot of people who work in your organization in sales and marketing. What kind of questions are they asking you as a mentor?
Heather Combs: Well, there’s always the time-management question. How do you do it all? My response is that you don’t. Put first things first. Decide what it is that you need to get done, and be proactive. When you find yourself in that inevitable position that we all do—where our days and nights and weekends are becoming reactive, we’re trying to keep up with the inbox, we’re trying to keep up with the phone calls, we’re trying to react to everyone who’s bringing us information noise, questions, where we lose control of what it is we need to be doing, what prospect did we need to follow up with, what client did we need to be thoughtful about their business and make a suggestion about what could improve or what you’ve read that they might be interested to by—get back to being proactive and really thinking hard about how to leverage your time for impact versus constantly trying to catch up, because you won’t.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to a specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of. Take us back to that moment.
Heather Combs: I can remember the moment that I had my first contract signed in the moment. I was selling legal services at that time. We were selling a membership to general counsel. And to have someone in my presence that had that level of authority and who had been that persuaded to just sign a contract of tens of thousands of dollars in front of me was just a moment of such elation. And then, to be back in the office when people who had had that experience across the month, we were called out and—I don’t think this is legal anymore, Fred—but they could hand us these crisp $100 bills to congratulate you for that moment, and we would take a marker and write “on the spot” on it and then keep this $100 bill. I still remember the feeling of success and pride so much so that I forget the hundreds of other times that did not happen.
Fred Diamond: That is definitely true. It would be nice if every sales call we did and every interaction led to a contract being signed for tens of thousands of dollars. You know, one of the trends we’ve heard from the sales executives we talked to at Sales Games Changers Podcast is you might be successful three out of a hundred times, you know, and hopefully that those three are going to be so valuable and impactful that they’ll keep you going. Which leads to the next question. You’ve had a great career in sales. We’ve talked about some of your successes. Did you ever question being in sales? Heather, was there ever a moment when you thought to yourself, “It’s too hard” or “It’s just not for me”?
Heather Combs: Does today count?
Fred Diamond: Today does count, and it’s early.
Heather Combs: It is early, and I still have a full agenda today. There’s not a moment when you do something difficult that you don’t question “Can I keep doing it?” Those successes, though, some of the ones we have talked about, are the ones that keep you going. Also, by nature, I am a little competitive, a lot ambitious, and always eager to win. So sales in its various forms, whether it’s renewals or new logos or changing a pricing strategy that meets the needs of new customers or entering a new market, I do think that all of those things feed this level of energy and excitement that I love to get my hands wrapped around and then find the successes. It’s taught me over the years to be pretty risk-tolerant. I realized that when I’m doing my job at its very best, I’m making mistakes because I have to be trying new things and that a one-in-ten return is actually brilliant. If I can get to yes and get to something successful 10 percent of the time, then I’m doing a really good job. And if I can really embrace that thinking and celebrate the one in ten and let those other nine roll off, I’m getting somewhere.
Fred Diamond: Heather, let’s talk now about some of your tips, some of your ideas for sales professionals and how can they optimize their career. What’s the most important thing you want to get across to sales professionals to help them improve their career?
Heather Combs: Put yourself on your calendar and I mean by that register for conferences, read books, go to events, go to networking opportunities, have coffee with the people you haven’t seen in a couple of years who are in your field. Put your time and your attention and your needs to grow on your calendar, and when you do that you will find that it has exponential benefits. You’ll be sitting at a conference. You will learn something from the speaker. You will meet the person next to you. You will have a few minutes to get inspired. You’ll freshen up and you will be a different person when you walk out.
Fred Diamond: So, tell us specifically what are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw? What are the things that you do on a regular basis to ensure that you’re as successful as possible? Actually, you mentioned that you used to do triathlons, but what do you do now to stay as high-energy and as powerful as you are?
Heather Combs: I‘d like to say this that I’m a voracious reader. It’s not true anymore. I am now a full-time audiobook listener. So, in my car and on airplanes and when stuck in the airport, I’m always listening to something. Every time somebody mentions something to me that they really like I just buy it really quick on Audible and download it and wait until the next one kicks on. So I try to use my downtime to listen and hear. Every once in a while still read in print. I wish I did a little more of that. So I would say that’s one thing. The other is really still interviewing, learning from my mentor group, my peer group, my colleagues in slightly separate fields who have a similar mission. At this point in my career I never think about it as just sales. It’s about growth. It’s really about looking for opportunities to growth. And so, expanding my mind on what that means, whether it’s a one-to-one sales opportunity or a marketing opportunity or a market opportunity, being available for every one of those conversations and opportunities by continuing to learn and be present when the opportunity arises.
Fred Diamond: Is there any book you want to recommend that has had an impact on you on the past year or two?
Heather Combs: Great question. I’m listening to Mindset right now, about making sure that you have a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset, which is reinforcing a lot of what we’re talking about today. It’s probably a good one to like, I, of course, am attached to some of the classics. I was at CEB when they wrote The Challenger Sale, so I always recommend it along the way.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Heather Combs: I would say learning. Being in the technology field now, there’s this tremendous appetite for growth through mergers, acquisitions, partnerships, partner channels. There are some places I have not gotten to learn from and experience as much recently as I had earlier in my career, and I find that the field has really changed. And so I’m really having a good time learning about other companies, learning about how they do things differently today and trying to bring that thinking into both the question of how could we do it together and how can I simply learn from that. This is somewhat of a trend in my professional services background, having gotten to go through the transition of legal services and then accounting services and then the HR field and now seeing this really disruptive explosive moment in technology, moving from a product to a service in many, many ways.
Fred Diamond: Heather, you’ve made it to the top of your organization as a sales leader, but sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or your emails. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Heather Combs: Is this the place where I’m not supposed to say “money”?
Fred Diamond: Nothing wrong with saying “money.” There’s nothing wrong with trying to have a better life for yourself and for your family and for your children. So there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Try to make as much money as you can.”
Heather Combs: It is true that there are different types of reward systems for different parts of careers, and I think those of us who are in sales can be excited about and embrace that what we do directly impacts the growth size of a company and we get directly rewarded for that. Many, many other of our colleagues who do great work have more indirect methods of being repaid. And so, one of the things I love about sales is this ability to work harder to impact ourselves as much as the organization. Being proud that I can decide to make one more call to one more prospect or to serve a client a bit better, and that will result in positive things for them and for me, so for me, it feels like a win-win career.
Fred Diamond: Give us one final thought to inspire the sales professionals listening in on how they can take their career to the next level?
Heather Combs: Lean in to the suck. Learn more. Work harder. Work longer. Try new things. Experience will build an entire career. So just embrace that it’s hard, that you will have more failure than success, that the technology tips, tools, tricks around you will continuously change, and lean into all of that. Try again and again and again.