EPISODE 015: Mike Schmidtmann Helps Seven-Figure Sales Superstars Achieve Even More Success
Mike Schmidtmann of Trans4mers is a business coach working with owners and sales leaders in the information technology field. He works with many high-profile salespeople including some who make seven figures and more. He helps them open new accounts, win new logos, and expand their share of customer spending. After building IT sales organizations for 25 years, he also now works with owners and managers to help them grow their businesses more effectively. He teaches innovative practices to hire great people, win new business, and improve profits.
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Here’s a transcript of the podcast:
Fred Diamond: How did you get into sales?
Mike Schmidtmann: I’ve been in sales for over 30 years. I started my business career with my brother buying a bar. My MBA of business was having to make payroll, pay the bills, do marketing, manage people, hire or fire, handle taxes. It was a wild ride, that’s for sure. But those three years running the bar were tremendous. Got out of that and started doing more with real estate, so I bought and sold property. That landed me in the sales field, buying and selling.
And so, at the age of 30, after losing all my money twice, I ran across a guy who said, “Mike, information technology is where you want to be, but you’ve got to promise me something. I’ll get you set up, but you have to stay at it. You have to get really good at what you do, and you can’t quit.” I probably had 15 jobs in those eight years, Fred, and it was time to get serious about my career and start growing and building something, so that’s what I did. I got in information technology and selling office automation equipment, and then that moved into personal computers, then networks, then communication systems, and the rest is history.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned that your first job in sales was when you were a bar owner with your brother. What were some of the lessons that you learned back then, running a bar, from a sales perspective?
Mike Schmidtmann: I always found that you had to focus on your people, and as a business owner later on in life I always focused on what motivated people to join my organization—how do I attract great talent—and I found that if I had great people I had a great organization.
I had one time, Fred, where a guy [who’d worked for me] who had been a dog trainer in Korea in the military came in, and I owed him some money. He came in and he said, “Mike, I’d like to get paid.” And I said, “I’ll happy to, I’m just a little busy.” “I’ll wait.”
About 20 minutes later he very respectfully came back and said “Mike, I’d really like to get paid.” I said, “I’ll just get to you in just a minute. I’ve just got some things to do and I’ll be right with you.” I forgot all about it and went about my business running the bar, and about 30 minutes later he pulled me aside, grabbed me by the lapels, pushed me up against the wall, and said, “Mike, I’d really like to have my money now.”
I realized he was right and I was wrong. I was putting everything else first. I wasn’t putting my employees first, and that’s a valuable lesson to me, Fred. I never forgot it ever. I’d never ever missed a payroll. I’ve never been late with the payroll. I always pay my people, and I make sure that they make a lot of money. I focus on how do I help my employees realize their potential. Quite frankly most salespeople are working at a very tiny, tiny fraction of their capability.
As we talked earlier, I’ve worked with many salespeople who earned over a million dollars a year. In fact, the top one probably, I think his biggest W2 was two and a half million dollars in one year, and even he… is working at a fraction of his capability. So the challenge I face all the time is how do I help everyone realize their potential. If you’re a five, how can I help you be a six; if you’re a six, how do I help you make an eight. If you’re a 10, like this final tap, how do we make you become an 11. I think we’re working at a tiny fraction of what we’re capable of. What I enjoy more than anything is helping people realize what they’re capable of, and in most cases it’s enormously more than they ever dreamed possible.
Fred Diamond: Tell us some of the sales services that you provide today and what really excites you about that.
Mike Schmidtmann: What I found, Fred, first of all, I kept looking for the magic formula. Who is this salesperson, and how do I find more of them? And I found out that that was a fallacy. It was a fool’s errand because as I look at top people, some are extroverts, some are introverts, some are highly technical, some are not, some are great networkers—I couldn’t find the commonality. I kept looking for the magic formula, and I found that there was not one.
I came away with a different model that I call the three-legged stool. The three-legged stool says, “Every top performer has a superpower, and there’s not one, there’s not two, there’s not five, there’s not 20. There are virtually limitless superpowers you could have.” But how do you exploit that superpower to your best advantage? And by the same token the three-legged stool says, “For every superpower, you got to do some other things well, but you’re going to have an Achilles heel at the same time.” You’re going to have something you really don’t do well.
For example, a person who is a great prospector may be bad with paperwork. You see that combination quite a bit. You’ll see a person who is a great networker who doesn’t have great technical knowledge. You may see a person who is a great account manager and a great strategist but is not good at winning new accounts. The combinations are limitless, but the point is, How do we take that superpower and maximize it so we can gain the most new business and gain the biggest share of customer? That’s what I try to do with everybody I work with. It’s custom. Every single person has a different superpower. Every sales team is made up of different skills and abilities, but I will say this: that everyone listening to this podcast is working at a very tiny fraction of what they’re really capable of. I’ve seen people, smarter, they don’t work any harder, they sell in the millions, earn in the millions. What makes them different? That’s the key, that’s what I focus on, and that’s what I work with people to develop.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about one of your mentors and how they impacted you.
Mike Schmidtmann: When I first got into sales, I had a manager who said, “Mike, your success will be based on how good you are and how hard you work.” His name is Ralph Kennedy, and I took that to heart. I strove to become the most knowledgeable person I could become. I read every sales book I could. I went to every sales conference I could, so I became as skilled as I possibly could in the art of selling.
I was working in south Florida at that time—Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood— and literally cold-called every single business in my territory. That was a metro area of maybe 300,000 people. I made 20 to 30 face-to-face cold calls a day for three months, and I visited in person every single business in my territory. If the mantra is true, “Your success is based on how hard you work and how good you are,” I should have been the top salesperson because I was the hardest-working sales person and I certainly was the most skilled, at least in terms of sales training.
But when I looked at the end of the year at the sales board, I discovered a very disconcerting and disturbing fact. I was not at the top. That really bothered me because I had this burning desire to be number one at everything. I looked and I said, “How come these other people who don’t work as hard as I do, how come these other people who aren’t as skilled as I am, how come they’re outselling me?”
I realized at that point that there were two other factors that were even more important than skill and activity. That was the “aha” moment for me, and ever since, Fred, I’ve been teaching those other two components. What are those other two components?
One is focus. When I’m cold-calling all these businesses, I’m not calling on the best target customers. I’m wasting a lot of my effort on second- and third-tier prospects. I found, not surprisingly, top salespeople focus on accounts that can give them a lot of business. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but how many salespeople waste a lot of their time on low-value prospects?
And then, along with focus are expectations. Many salespeople think, “Hey, I’m doing great. I’m hitting my quota,” not realizing that they’re squandering their talent. Let’s say you’re earning $100,000. I know people who probably don’t work as hard as you do and aren’t as good as you are who are earning a million. Why? Because their expectations are that they’re going to sell big accounts, they’re going to sell to high-value customers, they’re going to add value, they’re going to get really good at what they do…
We talked earlier about my own sales team, and one of my proudest achievements one year after I built up my sales team. I started with one [salesperson]; at the end I had 15. I looked across, and the average compensation in my team was over $200,000. The top people were making $400,000 and $500,000. This is 12 years ago; in today’s dollar it would be even higher. But I was proud of the fact that I hired great people and enabled them to earn big dollars by focusing them on high-value targets and raising their expectations about what they’re capable of achieving.
Fred Diamond: You’ve had so many great successes in your career. What is one specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of? Take us back to that moment—and if I know you well, it’s probably going to be someone on your team, probably not necessarily you.
Mike Schmidtmann: Exactly. Fred, that’s a great point. In fact, all my great sales stories involve what my team did. I’m like the proud teacher who wants the student to succeed. I’ve got a million of them, actually. But I’ll tell you my favorite.
Fred Diamond: Tell us one.
Mike Schmidtmann: I’ll tell you my favorite one. This is in Northern Virginia and a person you and I both know well: Kelly Harmon. She was a person on my team. This is back probably 15 years ago. We used to drive past the Booz Allen Hamilton Complex on the way to my office, and of course, we all know that’s a four-building complex. They’re an international company, and we knew they had an aging communications system there. We knew sooner or later that they were going to have to spend big money to replace it, and that was something we were hoping to do.
We drove by it day by day by day, and I kept asking, “Kelly, have you been able to get in to Booz Allen? Have you been able to get in to Booz Allen?” and the answer was no. It was like Fort Knox. It was impenetrable. We couldn’t get in. She would call. She would press “0” and ask to have somebody paged. She would send emails. She sent letters. She invited them to conferences. She tried, she tried, she tried, and she kept getting the answer back “They’re too busy,” “Craig Miller is the guy you need to talk to but he’s just so busy, he doesn’t have time for salespeople,” etc, etc.
[Someone told her that] he comes in early and he stays late. She remembered, Fred, the phrase “He comes in early and stays late,” so she started trying to reach him at odd times. She tried at seven in the morning. She tried at six at night. She tried at seven at night, eight at night. One day she tried calling Craig at four in the morning, and sure enough he picked up.
Craig Miller was not expecting a salesperson to call at four in the morning. He thought it might be a trouble call somewhere, maybe in Australia or Russia or Japan or something. Not expecting a salesperson at four A.M., he picked up the phone, and she recognized and seized the opportunity immediately. She said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to reach you for months, and I know that you’re busy. You work insane hours. You’ve got immense responsibilities—and guess what? We can help you with some of these things, and maybe if we were helping you, you wouldn’t need to be working these crazy hours. Can we meet and talk about it?”
He said, “Sure, fine.” He finally relented. She walked into my office and said, “Mike, I’ve got good news and bad news.” I said, “Okay. What’s the good news?” “Well, I finally got an appointment with Booz Allen Hamilton.” I said, “Great, that’s fantastic.” She goes, “Well, the bad news is he gets into work at four A.M., which means he needs to leave at three A.M., so our meeting is at two A.M.” And so we met at Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Manassas at two A.M. I think Craig’s underlying motivation was to test us, to see how committed we were to meeting him on his terms.
We talked about his issues, his problems, and what we might be able to do to help him. He was a cantankerous guy. He didn’t like salespeople at all. We had a big mountain to climb, but we kept going and said, “Look, we’ll help you. We’ll help you. Give us a project. Give us your worst nightmare, give us your dumpster fire. We’ll work on it and fix it.” And so we did. And again, he was a cantankerous guy. He hired us to do a small job. He fired us. We were hired for another job for him.
As much as he disliked us, he disliked our competition even more. Slowly over time, we gained his trust. And when the time came for them to flip their 9,000-station telephone system to somebody, we got the business. That was a $7 million sale, one of the biggest sales I’ve ever been involved in, all because a salesperson did a prospecting call at four A.M. How’s that?
Fred Diamond: That is amazing. People are looking for “How can I be as effective as possible from nine to five,” but here is a tremendous sales rep who sees an opportunity… She persisted, and she got creative, and she recognized the challenge that he was facing. If he’s there at three in the morning dealing with all these problems, he could definitely use some help. Mike, you and I have spoken about sales many, many times. You’ve had a great career in sales. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment when you thought to yourself, “It’s just too hard, it’s really not for me”?
Mike Schmidtmann: No. I’m like the musician who knows this is the field for me because I love the freedom. I love the fact that it’s always changing. Being in information technology, what I’m selling changes every six months. Once you get hooked on the sugar fix of technology sales, you’re hooked. I couldn’t even imagine doing anything different.
Fred Diamond: Mike, what is the most important thing you want to get across to sales professionals to help them improve their career?
Mike Schmidtmann: Fred, that’s exactly the question that all salespeople wrestle with. What’s your highest and best use? What is your potential? I’m a big believer in [what I’ve given the acronym] SAFE. There’s Skills, Activity: how good you are, how hard you work. But as we discussed earlier, even more important, what’s your Focus, and what are your Expectations? SAFE.
When I look at top people, they all have an area of expertise and a market focus where they are a thought leader and they’re an expert in their field. I’ll give you an example. I worked in Northern California and one of my million-dollar-income guys had a plaque on his wall that said “The customer is always wrong.” I thought that was kind of counterintuitive. I said, “Jason, why do you have that on your wall?”
Well, first of all, he’s a Cisco engineer. If not certified he’s a CCIE equivalent in terms of his knowledge and expertise. He knows the product and technology inside out. He also specializes in K-12 and higher education, so he knows the education market inside out. He knows the issues. He knows the problems. He knows the trends. He knows more than the CIOs do of the organizations that he works with. He understands the emergency-preparedness issues. He understands the BYOD—Bring Your Own Device—issues with kids bringing multiple devices. He knows what the security issues are. He knows more. A lot of times these educational institutions, Fred, will come up with an RFP, or request for proposal, and say “I want you to bid on this.” And Jason’s mantra is “The customer is always wrong.” By the time the customer comes up with an RFP, it’s wrong, so he actually goes in and educates the customer on why their scope is not optimal, how he can do better, and he’s considered such a thought leader in the industry.
He will only work with people who allow him to do his business his way, which is fascinating. In other words, so many salespeople will beg for an appointment. They’ll die for an RFP and say, “Look, there’s two or three million dollars here.” Jason will only take it if he has a say in setting the specs. He will only do it if all the stakeholders will meet him at one time. He’s not chasing 20 people who influence. He wants them all at one place. So the customer’s always wrong, but the value that he brings, Fred, is enormous because he’s a thought leader, he knows where the grant money is that can help fund these projects. He knows how to help get government money to pay for this. He knows how to do things for less money than the standard configurations. He knows where people are wasting money, how they can save it. In the end result, these customers end up spending less, getting more funding reimbursements from the state, getting a better system, all because of the way he works. That expertise and knowledge applied to customers in a focused way makes all the difference.
And that’s just one vertical market. I know people who do this for the legal market, for car dealers, for—pick a business—government, healthcare, it doesn’t matter. As long as you focus and have value add and bring an area of expertise and knowledge that helps a customer, you’ve earned the right to have that business.
Fred Diamond: Tell me once again what SAFE stands for, just to reiterate that.
Mike Schmidtmann: Skills Activities Focus Expectations.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about a major initiative that you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Mike Schmidtmann: Of course, I run across a lot of other sales leaders and sales experts. Some of them reach a certain pinnacle of expertise, and then they start flogging the same stuff again and again and again forever. Whereas being in information technology, I have to reinvent myself every two or three years. And so, what do I do? I read. I subscribe to the five-hour rule, also by Bill Gates and Elon Musk and Warren Buffett, where you read on your area of expertise at least five hours a week. I burn through probably 40 or 50 books on my business or on information technology or on thought or on human motivation or persuasion.
I’m constantly reading and reinventing myself on these subjects, and it’s important because our marketplace is changing. The sales force, of course, is changing. The way we’re selling is changing, and we have to adapt to it. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I’m constantly reinventing myself, and to put a plug in for the Institute for Excellence in Sales, I go to many if not most of your programs and I have for years. I’ve probably been to 30 or 40, and you have great thought leaders, Fred. They have great materials, and I buy a lot of their books. I’m always trying to understand, what are the best practices, how can we do this better, faster, and more effectively?
Fred Diamond: Mike, we hear all the time that sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or your emails, but you’ve been successful. You mentioned close to three decades of extreme sales success. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Mike Schmidtmann: Fred, I’m going to answer it slightly differently than you asked it, but I’ll say this. I tell people a lot, the best thing about sales is it’s hard. If it weren’t hard they wouldn’t need to pay you a lot of money to do it. Let’s face it, flipping burgers at McDonald’s is not hard, so they pay you minimum wage. Pushing a broom in a facility to clean up is not hard, so they don’t pay you very much. The fact that sales is hard is what makes it such a rewarding and high-paying profession, so let’s embrace the difficulty.
I say this a lot of times: If you have Fang the gatekeeper guarding the CEO, that CEO’s [likely] a creampuff. The softer the C-level executive, the more likely they are to have a vicious gatekeeper in front of them. Embrace the fact that it’s hard to get in touch with them. The fact that Craig Miller was impossible to reach made him the best target for us at Booz Allen. The harder it is to get in, the better it is for you because if you’re good at what you do, you will get in. You can; there’s always a way. Embrace it. That’s actually a good thing for everyone in sales.
Fred Diamond: Mike, give us one final thought to inspire the sales professionals listening in on today’s podcast?
Mike Schmidtmann: Fred, what are the biggest issues that salespeople face? One is “How do I beat the other guy?”, “How do I displace an incumbent?” Two is “How do I create urgency, because my sales seem to be kind of stagnated?” And three, “How do I become the best I can become?” Each of these is a fascinating question in and of itself.
All I can say is, “Everyone listening, you are working at a fraction of your capability.” Now, an interesting exercise I do a lot of times is, we’ll say, “What if you can grow your sales and income 20% a year?” The way you do that is not by making a religious conversion and all of a sudden you change, but it’s 1% more prospecting, 1% better referrals, 1% more skill, 1% better negotiation, 1% better networking, etc, etc. You find 20 ways every year to improve 1%. If you can improve 1% a year, you will be a seven-figure sales leader in a matter of years. You can just do the math on it. It’s amazing. Most people will be seven figures within 15 years or less, depending on what you’re earning now, if you take this approach. Improve 20% a year, and the way you do that is not something radical and drastic. You don’t have to win the lottery. You just have to get 1% better in 20 areas.
Fred Diamond: Wow. Mike Schmidtmann, thank you so much for being on today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast.