EPISODE 130: The Growth Coach of Northern Virginia Mike Williams Shares his Journey from Manufacturing Hefty Bags to Achieving Sales Success at Coca Cola and Beyond
MIKE’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Sales is about being a problem solver and helping businesses grow. If you can think of it that way, I think you’re going to go further longer in the business as opposed to just being short-sighted and looking at your features and benefits and trying to sell features and benefits of your product to a client. You really want to build that relationship and you want to work with them and show them that you want them to be successful.”
Mike Williams is a sales and business coach with Growth Coach of Northern Virginia.
Before that he served the US Army for 6 years.
He is also the Vice President of Membership for the Dulles Chamber of Commerce.
Find Mike on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Mike Williams: I’m a problem solver, what I do is I work with all kinds of businesses. I work with plumbers, electrical, IT, I do a couple of different things, work with CEO’s and business owners on business strategy and growth. I work with sales teams to build a sales strategy, a sales process and a program to grow sales, and I also do some team training with a nucleus of a business team.
Fred Diamond: How did you make that transition when you first got into sales? You mentioned you were in manufacturing with, was it Mobil Chemical Company?
Mike Williams: Yes.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about the transition, how’d you transition from that into a sales role?
Mike Williams: Interesting. I started in manufacturing, I was a production supervisor making products, hefty trash bags and stretch film. From there went into plant training, so I was a plant training supervisor, wrote training manuals, qualified employees on heavy equipment, those kinds of things. That put me in front of the leadership team a lot and one day the sales manager asked me if I’d ever thought about sales. I said yes and they asked me if I was interested and I said yes, and away we go. I got into sales and they moved me out to Oklahoma City.
Fred Diamond: Why do you think that was? We’ve interviewed a bunch of people on the Sales Game Changers podcast who were analysts or consultants or techies and then the manager or some leader would see that they were good in front of the customer – they’d like to present, they’d have empathy, they were strategic thinkers. What was it about you that this particular leader saw something in you to ask if you wanted to move into sales?
Mike Williams: I think some of it’s personality, outward personality, having some confidence in yourself. I think what you’re looking for is somebody that can connect with people, somebody that can network, someone that’s genuine. I think that’s what you want in sales, somebody that thinks strategically, not just looking to sell a product but really looking to build a relationship. My relationship with him and my relationship with the organization as I presented training and different things like that, I think that was the thing that got me going.
The reality is, Fred, when I look back I’ve been in sales almost my whole life. I started off selling papers, a paper route. I can remember – and this is really dating myself – selling seeds, plant seeds and different things like that. I went from there to the military and that’s where the training, the mission-vision comes into play and then getting into sales.
Fred Diamond: What were some of the lessons that you learned when you took on some of those first sales jobs?
Mike Williams: Lots of lessons. When I started I really wanted to do well, and you focus on trying to close the deal, but I think that as you move forward you really want to follow a process. It’s not so much about selling as much as building a relationship, uncovering a need and then being able to problem solve and link your product or service to that need.
Fred Diamond: How did being on the manufacturing side, what were some of the skills that you had from that that helped you become successful on the sales side?
Mike Williams: I think that with sales people, it’s all about the sale and making the sale and I love doing that but there’s a lot of behind the scenes work so I think the logistics of making things happen once you close the deal. Particularly in the businesses that I was in with the plastics packaging and then with Coca-Cola, you’ve got to get the product there and you’re the source for that client so the sales, the customer service, all of those different things, you’re that person. Everything that’s going well, you’re taking that in. If something goes wrong, you need to be the point person for that and the problem solver for that.
Fred Diamond: Mike, you mentioned you had a 21 year career at Coca-Cola. I think you’re the first person that we’ve interviewed on the Sales Game Changers podcast who worked for Coca-Cola, obviously one of the biggest brands in the history of the world. What did you sell for Coca-Cola?
Mike Williams: Initially I worked in the fountain division, so anything in a cup but as I moved through the organization you’ve got marketing strategies and helping business owners – and in this case, restaurants – sell more Coca-Cola products, working with them to market and sell. There’s marketing, there’s working with the business owner or that franchisee and helping them build their business. I think that was a great transition for me to start working with other businesses as I open my own business and transition there.
Fred Diamond: You were there for 21 years, do you still drink Coca-Cola products?
Mike Williams: I drink Coca-Cola products every day whether it’s water, I drink the teas but I drink a Coca-Cola Classic every day. I enjoy it.
Fred Diamond: A little tribute to the 21 years, it must have been a heck of a place to work.
Mike Williams: It was. The thing with working for a company like that, everybody has a story. You’re in the airport, you’re on a plane, everybody can share a story about either their first Coca-Cola or something that happened with their mom or dad sharing a Coca-Cola so it’s definitely a brand that everyone knows and it’s worldwide. It was a lot of fun, people would tell me, “You worked for Coca-Cola? That had to be pretty easy to sell.” As we know, there are lots of products out there so you really want to help these business owners utilize that product to help grow their business.
Fred Diamond: That’s a good point. In theory, Coca-Cola’s competitors are “drinking out of a fountain.” I actually worked at Apple Computer for a long time, we had the same type of brand experience where everybody had some type of a story. Tell us what you’re an expert in, tell us about your specific area of brilliance.
Mike Williams: I don’t know how brilliant I am, Fred, but as far as expertise I think that for me, it’s problem solving and really bonding and building a relationship with a client, really listening to their concerns and what they’re looking to do. Then matching that up and being able to provide a service or product that’s going to meet their needs. If you can listen and really understand what those needs are and what they want to do and match that up, you’re going to have a long term relationship. You really don’t want the short term sell, you really want to understand what’s going on and that’s not always around your product. You want to be someone that’s there to listen and really serve the client.
Fred Diamond: I want to talk to you about listening because again, you’re a sales coach, you’re a business coach. You mentioned listening and that comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast. What are some of the things, Mike, that you would coach your customers on doing to be better listeners?
Mike Williams: Ask better questions. I think the biggest thing is you want to ask better questions, deeper questions than your competitors do. You want to listen to understand what the issues are, feedback to the client what you’re hearing to make sure that one, you understand what they’re saying but two, that they know that you’re listening to them.
Fred Diamond: You’ve worked for two of the greatest brands in business, Exxon Mobil and Coca-Cola and in theory, US Army as well. Pretty big brand, well-known brand around the world for over 200 somewhat years. Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and tell us a little bit about how they might have impacted your career.
Mike Williams: I’ve had a lot of people cross my path that have helped me and that’s really what I enjoy about what I do, is meeting lots of interesting people. I had a marketing manager and we called it marketing managers back then, but it was product sales. Oddly enough, his name was Mike as well, I don’t think he’s with Coca-Cola anymore but Mike did a great job of challenging me asking me questions, challenging me to think a little deeper before going into a client, having a client call and I know a lot of folks resented that.
The reality is when someone’s challenging you – and in Mike’s case, it wasn’t because he was playing stump the band or wanted to try to trip you up – it was that he wanted you to think about what you were going to do, think a little deeper, ask you questions that maybe you had not thought of and that really helped me in preparation for customer calls to try to understand what the client wants to do.
He was a great fan of people being successful, so it really wasn’t something where he was being malicious to try to trip you up, it was more of, “Had you thought about this? Are you planning to ask this question? Why are you thinking this way?” Preparation, anticipation of what the dialogue is going to be.
Fred Diamond: You deal with a lot of business owners and a lot of sales leaders. What are the two biggest challenges you think that are facing sales leaders today?
Mike Williams: I don’t think there are any revelations there, Fred but really getting salespeople to continue to develop their skills. I run across a lot of salespeople that are happy to tell you how many years they have in sales and what they’ve done, and that’s great but I equate business and sales a lot to sports and you don’t hear Tom Brady say, “I’m not going to training camp because we went to the Super Bowl.” You make a big sale, you do well, that’s great but if we’re not closing 100% and I know I’m not, then there are things that we can learn.
There are things we can tweak, there are things we can do to get better and I think business and sales is all about getting better. The one thing would be improving your skills and then getting sales managers to invest and develop in high performing teams and improve loyalty and turnover. If you show your sales force that you’re willing to invest in them and help them improve, I think they’re going to be more loyal.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve worked for some big brands, you were at Coca-Cola for 21 years. Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of.
Mike Williams: They say you’re as good as your last deal, so I’m pretty happy with a current deal this week that I closed with an IT business that I’m working with. I’m going to be working with their leadership team on a quarterly basis helping them strategically to develop a business but I’m also going to be doing some team training every other month with their team. I’m pretty proud of that.
If I go back to the Coca-Cola Company, a couple things come to mind. I sold a national juice program to the third biggest food service distributor in the country and I was pretty proud of that because lots of volume, lots of opportunity there but it afforded me the chance to work internally with the sales force at Coca-Cola to help them teach the food service distributors how to market and sell the Coca-Cola products. I had food service distributors outlets that I worked with, but nationally we had internal people that were going to be working with food service distributors for this distributor across the country. Working with them internally and then working with the business externally at a headquarters level, that was a big deal for me.
I like projects and I like process, so we had all of that in selling and then working out the logistics of getting it rolled out.
That was a big one, another one locally here, I was asked to work with a small restaurant business that had about 6 or 8 locations at the time and they were looking to franchise and have a national deal with Coca-Cola, they had a local deal. I worked with them on a national deal and you know when you’re working with somebody they’re always, “We’re going to be big”, that’s always the case so they kept challenging me in terms of the program. I built it where there were hurdles that they would need to reach to get to the support that they wanted and the funding. They met all of those hurdles, they’ve got over 100 locations now, they make fresh burgers and fresh fries, you probably know them. They’re in the area here and their colors are red and white.
Fred Diamond: We can let people listening to the podcast guess. Mike, before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, we have Sales Game Changers listening around the world to today’s podcast. A lot of sales leaders, a lot of people who want to take their sales career to the next level, could you talk for another moment or two about what it’s like to work in sales for such a big brand? Again, you were at Coca-Cola for 21 years, you were at Exxon Mobil for a shorter period of time as well. What’s it like to be a sales person for a big brand like a Coca-Cola? Is there a lot of pressure, is there a lot of energy? I hope they support the sales people. Tell us a little bit about what it means to work for a company like that.
Mike Williams: Lots of energy, lot of support. Obviously with a brand like that there’s marketing support, you’ve got sales support, there’s some internal training but a lot of times they’ll bring folks in sometimes to work with you as well. To me, it’s like whatever your favorite big team is, working for a big team and obviously you’ve got a lot at your disposal to help you. There’s going to be a little bit of pressure because you’re working for a big brand and the expectations are high, but I think wherever you work you ought to have some high expectations of yourself. You ought to work on relaxing and being genuine and being willing to serve and help and move forward.
Fred Diamond: Mike, when you made that transition from mobile manufacturing into sales did you ever question being in sales? Again, you’ve been a sales professional for the last, probably close to 20, 25 years. Did you ever think to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s really just not for me, I’d rather go back into manufacturing and have a role like that”?
Mike Williams: Sure. I think there are always days when you might question, “Why did I get into this? Maybe I should be doing something else.” Usually that happens when there’s some kind of a logistical issue, something happens that might be beyond your control and you say, “I worked hard, I closed this deal and now I can’t get the product there or I can’t make the system work” but for me that was fleeting. I really enjoy working with people, I really enjoy talking to people and learning about them, not just on a professional level but really on a personal level, understanding what people’s personal wins are. I enjoy selling, you know that there’s nothing like closing a big deal and most deals are big deals.
Fred Diamond: Mike, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals listening to today’s podcast?
Mike Williams: The most important thing I would say, Fred is building relationships, really understanding and building relationships. There is a process to selling, I use a READ process relating to the client, establishing a need or gab, advancing a tailored solution which is really doing the problem solving putting the puzzle together and then developing a commitment in closing. I think that sometimes we rely too much on people say, “It’s an art, the gift, the gab.” There is a process to it and if you’re an extrovert it makes it a little easier for you but you really do need to be a relationship builder and you need to be part problem solver. If you can solve problems for people, they’re going to want to work with you. You’re going to have credibility and they’re going to want to work with you.
Fred Diamond: What are some things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Mike Williams: I still do the basics, Fred. I still do role-play, I still go through the processes just like I would when I started out. I do like to read but I read a lot of the old-school stuff, The 7 Habits, still important. Zig Ziglar, still like Zig. Those are some of the things that keep me sharp, obviously staying in the business and selling keeps you sharp as well. I enjoy being around sales people and I think that there’s a misnomer about good salespeople. People talk about selling somebody something they don’t need, that’s not a long term win. You really do want to build that long term relationship, go through the process, follow the process and trust the process.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Mike Williams: One of the major initiatives that I’m working on really is a lot of what a lot of business owners should be working on right now, with it being the end of the year. Sitting down and thinking about where I want to be 10 years from now, what I want my business to look like 10 years from now and also thinking about the 3 to 5 main indicators for me that if I fast forward 12 months from now I’ll feel like I’m successful. Really working on the key goals that are going to move me forward, it’s been a great year for me. A lot of times when we get towards the end of the year things can get kind of slow and I haven’t had that this year so I’m pretty excited about that but really looking to move forward. I’m looking to write a book so I’m starting the outline chapters for that, that’s a major initiative I’m working on but I’m just really excited about the future.
Fred Diamond: Very excited for you, obviously you’ve been at Growth Coach of Northern Virginia for 3 years now, 4 years?
Mike Williams: A little over 3 years.
Fred Diamond: We’re talking about sales and it’s hard, especially with some of the smaller companies that you’re working with. We talked about some of the challenges that you face when you were working with Coca-Cola, one of the 10 biggest brands in the world, but you work with a lot of smaller companies that have a whole bunch of different challenges facing them. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Mike Williams: I think it’s the win, it’s working with somebody and what makes me feel really good, Fred is when it moves from a client-salesperson relationship to more of a consultative where people are looking at you as part of their team. That’s what makes me feel good, when you’re invited to a Christmas party, when they talk to the team and they include you as a team member. For me, I know I’ve made it when I’m considered a part of the team. I’m not just a consultant, I’m not just a salesperson, I’m a part of their team helping them grow.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great answer. Mike, why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners around the globe today?
Mike Williams: Sales is about being a problem solver and helping businesses grow. If you can think of it that way, I think you’re going to go further longer in the business as opposed to just being short sighted and looking at your features and benefits and trying to sell features and benefits of your product to a client. You really want to build that relationship and you want to work with them and show them that you want them to be successful. I think that’s the important thing, so again building those relationships, having that process, I think we need to follow up more. I know I push myself to do a better job of following up and again, solving the problems.