EPISODE 090: Hear How a Masters in Neurobiology and Growing Up in a Family of Sales Leaders Prepped InfinityQS Sales Exec John Hicks for Success
JOHN’S CLOSING TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Don’t let the fear of failure be your guiding principle. Embrace failure. Know that if you’re failing you’re stretching the boundaries of your horizons. Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn. Embrace failure as a way to broaden your horizons and become more comfortable with the notion that it takes a lot of no’s to get to a yes. Collect the no’s because the faster you collect the no’s, the quicker you get to the yes.”
John Hicks leads sales for InfinityQS International in Fairfax, Virginia.
InfinityQS is the leading provider of statistical process control software and services to manufacturers world-wide.
He’s been in sales leadership for 15 years with past contributions at VERISIGN and Intuit.
Find John on LinkedIn!
John Hicks: Thanks for having me. I got my masters of science in neurobiology from the University of Alabama, Birmingham with the intent of pursuing a science and research based career. However, things just didn’t work out that way. We all have obstacles and forks in the road that we’re forced to make a decision at and I was in a position where I had to pay the rent so I did what I knew I could do which was sell.
I grew up in a family of sales people, it had been basically the career of choice for two or three generations prior to me and as a result I had picked up a lot of things just naturally over the years so I started selling and turns out I was able to make a career out of it. After I had gotten far enough into it as far as promotions and working my way up to leading a sales team, I came to the conclusion that research science wasn’t in the cards for me anymore so I made a conscious decision to just double down and refocus my efforts and become the best sales professional that I could be, and that’s when I decided to go back to school.
I am taking night classes, I got my MBA in project management and since then have really focused all of my continuing education on how to get better in the particular fields that I’m working in.
Fred Diamond: Very good, we’re going to be talking about that today. Just curiously, what are some of the things you said your family had always been in sales? What were some of the things that your family sold over the years?
John Hicks: My father was a pharmaceutical sales and the hay day of the early 80’s and mid-80’s and then for years beyond that he transferred over into technology for a short spin and then ended up in automotive sales and management and that’s where I cut my teeth, that’s where I got my start was as a 22 year old with no real experience except graduate school under my belt. I said, “What can I do and get picked up today to start doing something?” And selling cars was it because all I had to do was go into an interview and sell myself.
Fred Diamond: It’s going to be interesting because I don’t believe that anyone we’ve had on the Sales Game Changers podcast has sold cars and a lot of people that come to our programs or listen to the podcast they say they don’t want to be in sales because they don’t want to be a used cars sales person, but obviously you’ve learned things on the lot. What are some of the things that you learned as a car salesman? And now for people listening here today, again you’re selling statistical process control software. I don’t know how many guys or ladies have gone from the car lot to selling SPC software.
John Hicks: I think there’s a lot of things you learn on the lot, and one of the things that I picked up over the years and in the time that I did it was how to interact with people and how to read people. I got my biggest education in verbal and non-verbal communication by understanding what was being said and not said from the person sitting across from me and being able to drive the conversation appropriately.
I think the biggest victory in all of that in the time that I spent doing that was my ability and learning, I would say learning the ability to establish trust and credibility in the person, in the client that I was working with. That was my #1 goal in every interaction.
Fred Diamond: Very good. We’ll talk more about that over the course of the podcast but tell us what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
John Hicks: InfinityQS focuses on the manufacturing sectors. Our manufacturing intelligent software is designed to provide real time feedback not only to the operators on a manufacturing line but also to management all the way up to the executive branches on what’s happening with the manufacturing processes of the business. Is there a particular line in a factory that’s underperforming? Is there a particular test that continues to fail? And then by examining and driving deeper into the data that they’re collecting, how can they make actionable decisions off of the data that’s coming through.
It takes a tremendous amount of data that is flowing in and out of a manufacturing facility and turns it into actionable intelligence, and that’s ultimately where businesses really are headed today. It’s about doing more with what you already have and the only way to do that is by taking all of that data and making it actionable.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned again, one of your first jobs in sales was being on a car lot selling cars. Is that how you first got into sales?
John Hicks: Yeah. Outside of being exposed at a very young age with my father being in sales and both of my grandfathers being in sales, seeing what they did for a living and being exposed at a young age to that, but selling vehicles was my first exposure into the industry itself or to the profession, I would say.
Fred Diamond: Usually I ask a question right now is what are some of the lessons you learned but you already mentioned how to look at verbal and non-verbal cues. I’m just curious, coming from a family of sales professionals, your grandfathers and your father, what are some of the things that you learned from them?
John Hicks: Oh, I don’t think the podcast is long enough, to be honest with you but if I had to take some of the top nuggets particularly my father was and continues to be a big influence in my career. What I’ve learned from him, some of the nuggets immediately was always check your own head, do a self-check before you engage in a sales conversation. There’s a very simple reason for that, is you can’t’ drag your own baggage into that interaction. You cannot be distracted, you cannot be thinking about what’s next, you have to be focused on the person you’re speaking with, be it phone or be it in person.
Active listening is truly that, it is an active thing to do. You cannot multi-task, you cannot distractedly look at an email coming in on your cell-phone and still hear everything that that person has to say because the difference between losing and winning deals is often in a few words that the client says that if you have the ability to pick up on you can then redirect the conversation appropriately. You can position yourself favorably based on that particular piece. Active listening like I said is just that, it is something you really have to work at and that I think is one of the most important pieces that I’ve taken away from their lessons to me, was always make sure you check your own head before you get into that sales interaction.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you do, John Hicks, to make that happen? What are some of the little processes or personal habits that you have to make sure you’re taking that advice from your father?
John Hicks: Initially – and it’s going to probably make some people laugh but – particularly if I’m going into a conference call which is quite frankly the vast majority of how we do business these days, a limited amount of what I do is face to face so with conference calls and particular meetings that I know are high intensity and are going to be very important to the outcome, I spend about 5 or 10 minutes prior to that call, I shut down and I focus on my breathing.
I just detach myself from everything, I turn my phone on silence, I turn it over on the corner of my desk, I close out all of the distracting windows on my computer, anything that’s not related to the particular call and I focus on my breathing and it centers me and it brings me to that moment and that moment only because whatever is happening in my life right at that particular time is still going to be there in 30 minutes or 60 minutes and there’s nothing I can do about it in that space of time so I refuse to think about it. It’s going to be there. Whatever my baggage is or anybody else’s baggage is, whatever you’re carrying around, drop it at the door of your office and leave it there because it’s going to be there for you when you leave.
Fred Diamond: You manage a team, just curiously, is that something that you discuss frequently? Do you pass that particular lesson on to your team?
John Hicks: Absolutely. It’s not just this team, too. I’ve passed that on to people and people that I’ve worked with for years and years now, particularly younger sales people. I find that as you get more tenured in sales and as you have a longer career that almost becomes a self-managing piece of it. You don’t see too many really tenured sales professionals that get flustered by their own personal life, that’s the law of evolution, I guess.
The Darwinian theory of sales is that the people that get too flustered by their own lives tend to get weeded out of the process but with younger sales folks that I’ve worked with in the past, that’s been a very important lesson for them and one of the keystone pieces, I think, is to let them say, “Manage your life, don’t let your life manage you because if your life is managing you, you’re not able to focus on what’s important here. You’re not able to focus on your career if this is what you wanted to be. If this is just a job then we’ll treat it as such and don’t expect me to invest a whole lot in you as an individual.”
Fred Diamond: For the Sales Game Changers listening, if you’re treating your sales career as just a job, you’re not going to be very successful. One of the key themes that continues to come up on the Sales Game Changers podcast is the fact that this is a profession, you need to treat this as a profession for you truly to reach the highest levels and to be frank with you, if you’re not striving to reach the highest levels of your sales career you’re eventually going to be out of the sales career. It’s either go for the top of you’re going to struggle or you’re going to be at the bottom and that’s not where you want to be if you want to be Sales Game Changers podcast. John, what are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
John Hicks: My expertise, where I’ve really crafted that over the years is my ability to take a team of people and my goal is always to create an environment and a culture where the sum of the output of the team is greater than the sum of its parts meaning that the interactions between the team members, the culture, the environment breeds success greater than what each individual can achieve by themselves so I truly believe in the team concept.
I believe in competitive collaboration with my team and I strive to always set up an environment where you can be competitive with the sales person next to you but your success does not come at the expense of theirs and that’s really where I like to think of myself as being very proficient is in setting up those types of cultures and setting up cultures where people just understand how to win and that’s the big key, is a lot of people I find that struggle don’t understand how to win and in my experience, 90% of that is mindset.
Fred Diamond: Actually, I didn’t use the word mindfulness when we were talking about your strategy for preparing for a call. Breathing, getting in sync, getting focused on what the customer’s going to talk about. Do you practice mindfulness? Do you practice that consciously?
John Hicks: I try to. Obviously, I’m not going to sit here and say I’m a master of it. Sometimes emotions get the better of me as I think all of us, it happens but I strive to make sure that I am mindful of my reactions, the words that I’m saying and the impact that those words are going to have. I try to be very judicious in my approach to communication not only with my sales team but with clients, with peers, with my superiors as well to make sure that I’m understood and that I’m setting the right expectations at any level of communication. I like to think that I’m conscious about the mindfulness component of this but I think I’ve got a long way to go to becoming a master of it.
Fred Diamond: Very good. We talked about your father of course being in sales and some of the great things that you learned from your father about truly being an attentive listener and really focusing on the needs of the customer. Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor, you can talk about your father if you want again, and how they impacted your career.
John Hicks: I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of impactful people in my career, I’m going to focus on the positive simply because there’s two types of impactful that I’ve come across in my career. There’s those people you want to emulate and those people that you want to recreate whatever magic was present when you worked with them. Those are definitely the people that I carry with me further but I’ve also had experiences where I’ve worked for people that give me specific examples of what not to be as a sales leader and those lessons are just as important because it allows me to do a temperature check with myself to go, “Wait, am I going down this road?” because if I understand what I don’t want to be then that’s almost easier to keeping a base line in the positive rather than butterflying back and forth into that impactful sales leadership versus detractful sales leadership.
I strive to be on the positive side of that on pretty much everything so of the folks that I’ve worked with in the past, one is still a very close friend of mine, his name is Rob Taylor, I worked with him at Intuit. Our careers have taken us on divergent paths but I still keep in touch with him. We shared and were colleagues in the same sales team at Intuit for many years, learned a tremendous amount for him in the way that he approaches his business. He is tenacious, incredibly bright, just a really well-spoken individual and takes great pride in what he does and having that comradery really accelerated my ability and gave me confidence. I had these ideas and he never said, “You know what? You should hold off on sending that up the chain.”
It was always about, “Heck no, man. Let’s put it down, let’s make a plan out of it and let’s punt it and send it up so the worst they can say is no.” He really gave me that confidence earlier on in my career to be able to not be afraid to pitch what I think was right for the business and beyond Rob I think there’s a number of people that I could go into and talk about that have been very impactful in my career but I think #1 when I talk about that is my father, like you said. It’s just the vast amount of sharing and information and although I’ve never done any of the official training, my father was able to give me snippets and things from the old masters like Zig Ziglar and things like that.
It’s a piece of that history and honesty if you understand the foundations of sales then a lot of what we do is still based on that because human nature, human psychology hasn’t changed all that much in that time frame, it’s just how we interact with people, it’s more of the digital mindset today and the speed at which we interact I think is one of the biggest things to take into consideration there.
Fred Diamond: John, what are the two biggest challenges you face as a sales leader today?
John Hicks: One of the biggest challenges I face today is the speed at which we communicate not only internally as a business but with our clients. The speed of business has accelerated so much just in the short time that I’ve been in my career and I know that my 15 years is poultry compared to a lot of people out there that have been doing this for far longer but the speed at which we interact and the speed at which information and data is transferred and is able to be analyzed and actionable items are able to be taken from that is so fast that you just find yourself struggling sometimes to be able to create those meaningful relationships that can be the win or the loss in sales.
People don’t buy from people they don’t trust so you’re going to create a relationship if you’re going to be successful. You’re going to have the ability to create that relationship and make sure that you bring credibility to the transaction however large or small it might be and I think with the speed of information transfer and knowledge transfer today it makes relationship building that much more difficult. It is very difficult to develop a relationship by email and by electronic instant messaging or texting.
A handshake and looking somebody in the eye when you’re talking to them is an invaluable way of creating that personal connection and that face to face credibility that really makes selling easier I think is the best way to put it. It’s a little simplistic, I know, but that would be the first challenge, the speed of communication and the speed of business. The second major challenge that I think we’re facing today is the global economy as sales leaders. It’s no longer about influencing one or two people in an organization. Purchasing today in the business world, particularly in business to business sales purchasing is done by committee.
It is no longer you just have to getting good with one person and do that. You have to create a relationship with half a dozen people to do that and the reason for that obviously from the business’s perspective is there’s no single point of failure. There’s never one person that faces the brunt of a failed purchasing project. If somebody buys million dollars of software and it turns out to be complete garbage, one person isn’t going to lose their job.
In fact, rarely today does anybody lose their job over it because there was a committee and they spread that responsibility out so I think that’s one of the biggest challenges too, is just in that time in my career, during that time it has transformed from one or two people being your decision makers and the folks that you really need to be able to talk to to this is much more of a spread out matrix type of purchasing world that we live in now where you have purchasing committees and you may not have visibility or access to all of the people that are making this decision so big challenge, constantly a moving target and I think those are the two things that most greatly impact the work that we do here.
Fred Diamond: John, take us back to the #1 sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of. Take us back to that moment.
John Hicks: I think the #1 win in my sales career was back when I was at Intuit. I was brought on board a team that was an internal promotion where I just moved from one division to another but I was brought on board to a team in tremendous turmoil. There was a complete leadership upheaval where a lot of people in the business had been let go, there was a complete reorganization occurring at the same time variable pay structures and payment plans for the sales individuals being radically redefined and changed. When you talk about the SARAH model of change management, there was just a tremendous amount of anger that was happening right there with that team so when I came on board and started from day 1 it was like a monsoon of personalities and we were really in danger of flipping the boat.
This was a sales team that was responsible for renewals of clients so by far they were responsible for the vast amount of revenue that this particular business unit was bringing in because we represent, I want to say if my math is right, we represented about 100 million dollars total of renewal revenue so very significant. In the time that I came on board with that team my focus was on them as individuals and it was about a consistent and a transparent communication of here’s what’s happening, here’s why it’s happening and I would answer that to the best of my ability.
Obviously there were things that I couldn’t share and there were things I didn’t know at the time but I was being as transparent as I could and it was around providing answers that they needed, it wasn’t that they liked the answers that I was providing but they needed them. Then about guiding the team forward with, “Here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to break this larger goal up into manageable steps. The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to look at here, let’s plan out the next, map out the next three days. When we get to that third day, OK, now let’s map out the next week and after that let’s map out the next month” and then we started looking longer term. What’s the next quarter, what’s the next 6 months, what are our goals for the next 12 months? And over the course of about 6 to 12 months I was able to steer that team into increasing our renewal rates from the previous year and I’m not going to say that the process was worth it, there were some casualties and there were some people that were not happy with the direction and could not get over some of the change aspects so there was attrition in that time frame.
I’m OK, it happened, it was not malicious, we just decided that it was best for both parties to go our separate ways. I wish them nothing but the best in their careers but the core group of people that I took forward from that as a team we saw years of success after that and I still remain very good friends with them and consider them an integral part of me learning how to be a good sales leader as well. A lot of the key learnings that I took from that were in part because of them and their feedback.
Fred Diamond: You came into a new team that was struggling for whatever the reasons were and you basically said, “Let’s look at it, three days, what are we going to do for the next three days, then what are we going to accomplish in the next week, then what are we going to accomplish in the next two weeks, in the next month?” And then next thing you know you had a nice run of a couple of years working with this team, some pain to get there, some people dropped off but you knew that if you had this approach in place that people were going to buy off on it, the right people, and eventually going to lead to success.
John Hicks: Yeah, and I think one of the key aspects too is that I really focused in on making a personal connection to the work that they were doing versus where they wanted to be. One of the key questions I asked each individual when I said, “Where do you want to be in 12 months, and where do you want to be in 5 years? What do you want to be doing?”
I said, “And you don’t have to tell me you want to be sitting here selling tax software, if you don’t want to be doing that tell me because there are things that I can help prep you for even in the job you’re doing today to help you get ready for that” and when I took that small amount of time and effort to show that I was invested in that individual was when I started to get buy in, that’s when they started to understand that there are things beyond a paycheck and a commission structure that they can get from the job that they’re in is I can help prep them for where they want to be.
Fred Diamond: Very good. John, you’ve had a great career in sales, you told us some great stories, again you’ve had some great role models, your father and your grandfathers and you mentioned Rob from Intuit and a bunch of other people that you worked with along the way. You again worked at Intuit, you worked at VERISIGN and of course now you’ve been with InfinityQS for 3 years now. Did you ever question being in sales? Again, you originally were going to go into the sciences, you had a masters in, was it biological science?
John Hicks: Neurobiology.
Fred Diamond: Neurobiology, ladies and gentlemen, and then of course you moved into sales. Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
John Hicks: Absolutely. I have obviously had those moments both as a sales professional and as a leader. I think the most polarizing of those moments in my career came during my second stent at Intuit. I had returned to the company I was working, I was working for Rob Taylor’s team at the time as a global sales executive and I had taken a step back from what I would define as my rabid career pursuit and my advancement and everything. I’d taken a step back because my wife and I were expecting twin boys and at the time I wanted to be able to really focus on a work life balance and as a global sales executive because we got leads in from all over the world I was able to take advantage of the fact that I had leads coming in from Australia and Japan and things like that.
I was able to be up in the middle of the night with an unhappy child but I could follow up on these leads and still be productive so it gave me a flexibility in my work life balance that was very attractive. I was doing extremely well for the first year that I was in this position consistently beating my quota, bringing in good, solid business partners and signing up for this cloud based relational data base. Some of our biggest competitors were Zoho and SalesForce so we were in a pretty competitive space.
As I progressed, we got some new leadership. Rob had taken an opportunity to move to another business unit so we had new leadership come in and they started coaching on their particular ideas and philosophies on how to approach sales. I bought in and I did what they asked me to do and I started to change my methods. I had a great breakout month, the one month that they asked me that I started doing exactly what their methods were which were in contrast what I had done. I had a breakout month that first month that was like 130% to quota.
It was tremendous. The month after that, however, I had more cancellations in a 30 day window than I had had in the previous 12 months combined. The approach was not client centric, it was not client friendly, we were bringing people on and making them start to pay a subscription for a service they weren’t quite ready for and as a result I was getting cancellations which put me in the negatives and ended up in me getting cut from the team so I lost my job. Here I am, a seasoned professional that had been doing really well and I got hit by this. It took a lot of introspection on my part to understand that the biggest mistake I made there was stepping away from what I know worked, was not being more forceful about, “Here’s the track record that I’ve put together.
Here are the clients. I don’t have cancels.” You might have somebody that’s got 200% to quota in one month but if half of those people cancel, they’re struggling to hit quota the next month. That churn does not do the company any good. I would rather bring somebody on board that’s going to be on board for 12, 24, 48 months because that’s long term revenue. I think that was my biggest obstacle in my career, was knowing that I had fallen into the hype, if you will. I’d done it their way, I had not done it my way and as a result I paid the price and that was a hard lesson and it was a hard reality to come to terms with but if anything, what I am proud of myself from that moment is that I’ve taken the resolve and I now know that I have the resolve to stick to what I know is right.
I have a long enough career and I have enough success stories to where I can say, “I can prove to you that this works, just give me the opportunity and I can prove to you that this works.” And fortunately, the last 3 years in InfinityQS have been a testament to that.
Fred Diamond: John, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their careers?
John Hicks: I would say the biggest piece – and this is something I still try and live by to this day – always learn something new. Every single day learn something new whether it’s about your product, whether it’s about a competitor, the market that you work in or the ins and outs of being a sales professional. Always learn something new every day because when you’re not learning something new, you’re falling behind in this business and being stagnant. Being stagnant is probably one of the worst things you can do in this profession because all of a sudden you’re being left behind and again, that kind of plays into the speed of business that I spoke about earlier. Things move too rapidly these days to not be able to integrate new pieces of information consistently.
Fred Diamond: In line with that, what are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
John Hicks: I’m a huge fan of audio books. There’s an app that I use now called Blinkist that does what are called blinks with books and you can go through and identify the books you want to hear but it’s almost like an audio version of cliffs notes where they concentrate down these books into 9 or 10 what they call blinks of the most important facets of a particular book. I listen to those audio pieces often when I’m commuting or travelling or things like that is a way to cover a lot of ground from the literature that’s out there because I think all of us would agree there’s no shortage of literature in sales approaches, philosophies, management, any part of it.
I sharpen my saw by really trying to stay abreast on that. I also do it with webinars from professional groups, I sign up, I try and do an average of 2 or 3 webinars a month and stay on that focusing on some of the projects and places where I know I want to develop a little bit more as well.
Fred Diamond: Very good. Take us to one major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
John Hicks: Right now the biggest initiative in place that we’re focused on is our CRM. The CRM here as most sales professionals would say is the absolute life blood of what you do. Where we are currently, the CRM is less than optimal. We understand there’s a lot of work that needs to be done but it’s not just about fixing what’s already there, we need to create a system that is scalable, we need to create a system that is more efficient and that we can allow the system to do a lot of the work that we’re currently doing manually. We need to work more efficiently and we need to work smarter because it takes far too long not just in time but in resources to add head count to a sales team.
When you talk about recruiting, finding budget for salary and benefits then going through the hiring process and then on boarding, it could be 6 to 12 months before you have someone truly revenue generating. I would rather redo our system and spend six months doing that and then the guys that have been doing this for 10 to 15 years I can immediately bump their productivity by 30% just because they’re working with a system that works for them. That’s really our biggest initiative right now is a complete redesign of our CRM in order to make sure that we are not only working smarter but I have access to the data that I need to make informed decisions and to help the team itself perform at an even higher level.
Fred Diamond: John, you’ve taken us through some of the things you’ve learned along the way, some of the ideas you have about how your sales team can be more productive, some lessons that you’ve learned along the way. John, but sales is hard, we even have gathered that from you over the course of the conversation. Even today you talked about the global economy, people don’t return your phone calls, they don’t return your emails. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
John Hicks: I don’t take it personally. Because I called and left a voicemail, if they don’t call me back I don’t take that personally. I don’t take no personally either, I view no as the second best answer a sales person can get.
Fred Diamond: A fast no.
John Hicks: A fast no. Yes is the best answer we can get, no is the second best. No answer is the absolute worst. I think that don’t take no personally, that’s where I stand on it. I see it as great, now I can redirect my efforts elsewhere. Understand, learn from it, by all means learn from it if there’s a lesson but it’s not personal and today’s day and age none of it is personal.
Fred Diamond: And things change. We’ve had some of the Sales Game Changers where we asked the question about what is your top success that you want to talk about and they might talk about it being like a 3, 5 year process so the initial no they may come back, things change, the competition changes, your offerings change and what the customer needs changes. We talked today to John Hicks, head of sales at InfinityQS, he’s given us some great information. Again, he started his career thinking that he was going to go into science. He has a masters in… What was it again?
John Hicks: Neurobiology.
Fred Diamond: Give us one final thought to inspire the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast today from around the globe.
John Hicks: I would say, the one piece if I could instill anything in folks is don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t let the fear of failure be your guiding principle. Embrace failure. Know that if you’re failing you’re stretching the boundaries of your horizons. You show me somebody that’s not failing and I’ll show you somebody that’s way too comfortable with what they’re doing and they are always going to get the same thing. If you want to be the best at what you do, if you want to be the top performer in your company you’re going to hear no a lot more than you hear yes. Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn. Embrace failure as a way to broaden your horizons and become more comfortable with the notion that you’re probably very familiar with the adage that it takes a lot of no’s to get to a yes. Collect the no’s because the faster you collect the no’s, the quicker you get to the yes.