EPISODE 021: Sales-Enablement Leader Jen Burns Shares Why Understanding the Buyer Journey Is Critical to Your Success
Jen Burns is the managing director of business intelligence and operations at Interfolio, a D.C.-based education technology firm serving the higher-education market, where she is helping to position the organization for scale and profitable growth. She has been in sales, sales and revenue enablement, and operations for the past 17 years. Jen spent years in various sales and business development capacities, was in human-capital consulting for a few years, and then shifted into enablement and operations, building out teams from the ground up to deliver efficiencies and business-process improvements while driving innovation to the buyer and the customer journey. She is the president of the DC chapter of the Sales Enablement Society.
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Fred Diamond: Jen, why don’t you tell us a little more about yourself and fill in some of the gaps.
Jen Burns: Sure. As you’ve mentioned, I’ve been in various sales capacities over the years, so I’ve certainly been in the role for quite a long time and am happy to share a little bit more about my experience. In addition to my job at Interfolio, I’m currently on the board and the president of the D.C. chapter of the Sales Enablement Society. I’m very, very passionate about this topic, this function, all in support of driving more success to sales and sales leadership, so I’m excited to infuse some of that work into our conversation today.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about your career. How’d you get into sales as a career?
Jen Burns: That is a very good question. I actually got my undergraduate degree in biology, and I spent some time in my latter years in undergrad working for a pharmaceutical company. I was in the lab, and they said, “Wow, you don’t really have a personality for being a lab rat.” I thought, “You’re right about that. What else could I possibly do?” And so, in that process I learned a little bit more about pharmaceutical sales, which I had previously not known much about. I applied to my first sales job right out of college, got a job in my entry to my career with Pfizer as a pharmaceutical sales professional. That’s how I started my career out.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about what you sell today and what excites you about what you’re selling today.
Jen Burns: I’m really glad you asked that question. Obviously, I no longer directly sell. However, we at Interfolio are doing some incredible work in the higher-education community, particularly focused around faculty. Our mantra is “Faculty first,” and we are in the process of diving really deep into understanding how we can better meet all of the needs of our customers around the faculty life cycle, whether it’s directly related to the faculty themselves or the institution.
Our solution set is bringing innovation to the higher-education community, and our sales organization is focused on parsing out a buyer’s journey—and a customer journey on the client’s success side of our business—to ensure that not only are we understanding the unique, evolving needs of our market but also ensuring that our salespeople, our customer-success folks, and our product teams are staying ahead of the curve to drive innovation to our customers, whether it’s from a consultative perspective or from a product perspective. I’m really excited about the great things that we’re doing here at Interfolio, and obviously that coincides with a lot of the work that we’re doing around how we’re supporting our sales organization and client-success organization as well.
Fred Diamond: What is your role here at Interfolio?
Jen Burns: My role is a little bit of a hybrid position. I’m focused on understanding how to drive business improvements to our buyer and customer journeys. That is pretty comprehensive—not only around thinking of something specific to sales like a sales process or sales methodology but how we’re able to support that process through our technology ecosystem… How are we ensuring that we’re bringing all the right support tools not only to our internal customers, our salespeople, but also to our external customers so that we are viewed and seen as consultants in the marketplace versus salespeople or vendors.
Fred Diamond: Think back to some of those first sales jobs you had when they got you out of the lab. What were some of the key lessons you learned from your first few sales jobs that have stuck with you today?
Jen Burns: I think it took me a few years to really recognize some of the things that I was doing right and some of the things I was doing wrong. I would say, and I’m sure everyone listening to this has heard this before, but people buy from people, right? And there’s a lot of things that you can do out there to try to access your market and your prospects, but making sure that you’re understanding why they need to buy from you or how you’re able to help them or consult with them is a critical thing that I think a lot of people skip over. It’s the more time-consuming thing. It’s not just about a blanket need in the marketplace you’re serving or you’re selling into but really down to the specific prospect level, the person you’re speaking to, the person you’re reaching out to.
When I first started, it was kind of a rat race. The pharmaceutical industry is very dynamic, and it’s changed a lot over the years. This was back in 2001; the times are a little bit different now. But the goals that I had were pretty straightforward and standard, and I was focused on hitting my goal. I was focused on quantity over quality because it was important for me to hit my number—the primary driver, obviously.
I lost focus very quickly on the quality piece of it, and so I learned very quickly that that actually can hurt you in the long run. It’s better to build solid relationships not just by being a human but also by understanding what drives the prospect, what do they care about day in and day out, and actually living and breathing that and adjusting my approach and my message around the solution that I’m offering to really help bring value to that individual person. It can carry you a long way if you take the time to do that.
Fred Diamond: A lot of people look at you as a leader and probably seek you out for counsel and guidance. Let’s talk about an impactful sales career mentor that you had and how they were impactful on your career.
Jen Burns: It’s interesting because I’ve had a lot of different mentors along my career. I would say—and this is a little bit of a maverick move here in this conversation—I had a mentor probably about eight years ago now who was an executive in the financial services industry. He was not a previous salesperson. The reason I bring this up in relation to sales is that even though I have my MBA, I got my MBA pretty young, and I hadn’t spent a ton of time in the workplace. He helped me better understand how a business operates.
The reason that was impactful for me from a mentorship perspective is not just for my own professional development, but as I continue to grow my sales career it helped me better serve my customers because I was able to better understand their world. If I’m selling into the C-suite and I’m a 25-year-old, how can I relate to a CIO or a CTO? I can’t really, because I’m 25, I’m early in my career.
Having a mentor, Mike Rowen, helped me tremendously understand what a CEO cares about, what a CSO cares about, what a CTO cares about. Helping frame that for me and helping me build my professional skills, my business acumen skills outside of what I learned in the classroom, made my career much more impactful, made my relationships with my prospects and customers more impactful. And obviously, as I continue to grow my career, it helps me better shape that as well. I think he was a critical component to my success as an executive mentor and gave me a different spin on what I was bringing to the table as a business development professional.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to one specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of, Jen.
Jen Burns: There are probably a couple of different ones. I would say it was when I was in more of a consultative position. It wasn’t frontline sales, so it’s a little bit different. However, I was working with a global organization here in the D.C. area doing human-capital consulting. It was a very niche consulting opportunity, where I was working through learning and development pathways for their employees. This particular organization’s actually a consulting firm, so that made it interesting.
I embedded myself with the stakeholders there, and in terms of their day-to-day I really understood not only what they care about within their organization but, in the context of this conversation today, really understood the customers they were serving. Because of the legwork that I did and the time that I spent understanding both their particular internal world but also their customer’s world, I not only was able to sell my consultative services to them and worked in building out these different learning and development pathways, but they then turned around and were able to further facilitate the work that I had done with them over to their customers. So it essentially doubled my sale. It went from my selling to them to them then selling what I was selling to them to their customers. It was a double win for me, a huge personal win, because as I mentioned earlier in the conversation, taking the time to really care about what you’re doing and learning about customer and what drives them and what drives their customer will position you for tremendous success. For me, it was really about the impact that I had on not only their business but their customer’s business.
Fred Diamond: You’ve been very successful. Sales is hard. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s just too hard. It’s just not for me”?
Jen Burns: Yes, many times. I have a very competitive nature to my personality, so that definitely helps in terms of driving you to continue on and not give up, but there are ups and downs in sales, and it certainly can be very stressful. The reason I ended up where I am is twofold.
One, I’m operationally minded, and so a lot of my sales career was spent living in the analytics and managing my territory based off numbers and how much do I need to hit my goal. I was very analytically focused. But also—it deviates a little bit from your question—one of the primary reasons I got out of sales and went into enablement and operations was because I’ve had great training and I’ve had not-so-great training.
I have had great support and bad support, and I’ve learned over the years what it really takes to build out a successful sales organization, whether it’s from a leadership or from a frontline sales perspective. I wanted to go on the other side of the fence and help to make things better and make the buyer’s journey more successful and the customer journey more impactful. That really stemmed from a decision I made to transition out of a sales specific role and move into an operational enablement-focused position so that I could drive more impact from the other side.
Fred Diamond: Jen, what is the most important thing you want to get across to junior or midlevel or senior sales professionals to help them improve their career?
Jen Burns: Good question. This took me a little while to figure out. I would say the biggest thing is to network. Find out how other people succeed in their careers. I did forced networking through, I would say, the first half of my sales career, meaning I went to conferences. I did all the typical things that we do.
But joining professional organizations, those like IES in the D.C. area, the Sales Enablement Society, whatever it is relevant to your specific career, is essential because you meet people who not only can help mentor you or are in the same shoes as you are but you get professional development. You can learn best practices from other people.
There are just things you can’t read in a book. You need to learn from how other people are doing things successfully. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, because there is someone else out there who has figured out how to do it great, and why not learn from them? Professional networking is hard, and it’s out of a lot of folks’ comfort zone, but I would say that that singlehandedly has been one of the most impactful things in my career, today and in the past. I would encourage anyone, if they’re not doing it, to explore ways that they can get more involved in their professional community through these membership organizations, because it really does add tremendous value.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned the word “profession” a couple of times; this is the “sales profession.” People listening on the call today, on today’s podcast, you are in the sales profession; what are things you should be doing to ensure that you truly are a professional? Jen, today, what are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Jen Burns: A lot of things, actually, kind of what I just mentioned. I think staying engaged in the community is really a big one, probably the biggest. I do try to stay in the loop in social media and LinkedIn and reading articles online and making sure that I’m in touch with what’s actually happening, not only in my profession but also in my market. Regardless of the role you’re in, making sure you’re doing both of those things is pretty critical. I would say to stay fresh and sharpen the saw, there’s the obvious, which is education. We can all go back and get certifications and take courses, but for me, I’m able to stay fresh by engaging in the community as much as I can and networking and being involved.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned the Sales Enablement Society. You mentioned all the things you’re doing at Interfolio. Tell us one major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success as a sales game changer.
Jen Burns: I like this question because it’s relevant to something I just worked through internally at Interfolio here. One of the things we’re focused on as an organization, not just as it relates to supporting our customer in our market but internally as well, we really see the value in supporting our organization, our sales organization, and our other staff across the company to make them successful. So there’s a twofold innovation project happening here.
One part is around the buyer’s journey, so that’s very applicable to this conversation today. One of the things I did when I came into the organization is I aligned very quickly with the marketing organization, the sales organization, and the client-success organization. That’s a very sales-enablement thing to do because you have to serve as a connective tissue there to drive success across all three of those functional areas. We all sat down as functional leaders—sales, marketing, client success, and myself along with our executive leadership team—and realized that some important changes needed to be made to our process. There’s the sales process, but there are also those other influencers that really make it successful.
The buyer’s journey cares about the buyer: “Who are our buyers?” “What matters to them?” We talked about earlier, so I don’t want to deep-dive on that. But also, “how are we going to support that internally?” So we completely revised our sales process. We leveraged the expertise of our marketing organization. We are implementing an account-based marketing approach for the first time, which is exciting, and also ensuring that our technology ecosystem is set up properly and configured properly to support that. I think a lot of organizations fall flat as far as that’s concerned. Unfortunately it’s common because there’s a lot of technology out there. Getting them all to talk to each other and provide the data on the back end to ensure that you can make informed decisions about your business is not easy.
We went through this exhaustive process. It was tremendously successful, and we’re now positioned to fully support not only the buyer’s journey but also the customer journey, both in our process, our people, our structure, and also our systems. We will now have the data analytics that we need to make the right decisions about how to improve our business moving forward and get the insights we need to understand what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. I’m superexcited about that. If anyone wants to hear what we did and how we did it, I’d be happy to share.
Fred Diamond: If you don’t mind my asking, what are some of the things you’re doing to continue to ensure that wasn’t just an event that happened at a strategic offsite somewhere? I love the concept and having people conscious of that. It makes you aware of some things you talked about before, which is not just “what is your customer challenged with?” but also “what is your customer’s customer challenged with?” For a couple of moments here, just talk about some of the things that Interfolio is doing to ensure that this isn’t a one-off event, that it continues to permeate the culture.
Jen Burns: I would say it’s getting everybody to the table and doing it together and agreeing on it. Typically and just by nature, most functional units will operate in isolation. They will make decisions in isolation, all for the greater good, of course, always, but that often causes the problem that you just described, which is how do you ensure that it’s sustainable and it actually works long-term and people stay engaged long-term. We have a very collaborative culture here at Interfolio. We’re a small organization, so it’s a little bit easier to do that, but that is our culture here.
We have an open work space; none of us have offices. We’re constantly collaborating, talking, making sure that we’re all on the same page, and documenting things. Our documentation process is very thorough. We have an internal kind of wiki where we document all the processes and workflows that we agree upon as well as make sure that we have full transparency. The transparency of our processes, our data, our successes, our failures, is there, and I think that helps support that type of approach we take here at Interfolio.
Fred Diamond: Very good. I’m very excited to hear more about that, the buyer’s journey and then also the customer journey. Jen, as we bring it down towards the end of today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast, 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?
Jen Burns: That’s a good question. I would say, for me personally, it’s really about the mission of the organization and the impact in the marketplace, so the impact on the end customer, the end user. Especially in education technology, which is the area that Interfolio is in, and some of the previous companies I’ve worked for, it’s a little easier because the value you’re bringing to a student or to a faculty member or to an institution that ultimately impacts the students and the faculty is something that keeps you coming to work on a day-to-day basis. Whether you’re in sales or you’re in engineering, whatever it might be, the mission is just incredible. It has kept me going and kept me so excited and enthused about what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. And so, for me it’s an easy question to answer. But I think from a sales standpoint, it’s the great wins that you have that keep you going and wanting to continue coming back. And there’s a little bit of competitive nature in there too. But I would say those two things really is what drives me for sure.
Fred Diamond: Jen, you’ve been giving us some tremendous ideas throughout today’s podcast. This has been an absolutely wonderful conversation and a lot of great information for the people listening, the thousands of people in sales across the country. What’s one final thought you can share to inspire our listeners in sales today?
Jen Burns: Learn from others. Learn from successful people, how they were successful. Like I said before—I think I’ve said it a couple of times; so sorry to be redundant, but it’s actually very important—there are a lot of really successful people out there. I certainly don’t know it all. I will continue to learn until I stop working. It’s probably going to be when I’m 80, maybe 90. But I learn every day. I learn from people I report up to. I learn from my peers. I learn from people who are in entry-level roles.
There’s always something you can learn from others, but staying engaged and being willing to learn and grow, I think, is critical for anyone, particularly for sales professionals. There’s a lot happening. The markets change. Everything’s evolving. You need to stay up-to-date with your skills, with your situational fluency. It’s a constant learning process. I think as a salesperson to be successful you have to be willing to evolve yourself and be willing to learn something new every day to make yourself more impactful and successful in your career. That would be my parting thought.