EPISODE 065: Sandy Lutton Sells Speaker Services But Says Effective Listening is the Key to Sales Success
Sandy Lutton is the Chief Revenue Officer at the Washington Speakers Bureau. Sandy’s responsible for developing the company’s revenue strategy and ensuring the strategy aligns with the corporate vision.
In addition, she’s responsible for all revenue generating processes in the organization and focuses on driving strategic alignment across all corporate function. Her key focus areas include sales and marketing as well as customer and speaker relations and logistics.
Prior to the Washington Speakers Bureau, Sandy held the position of National Director of Sales and Operations at Grant Thornton. In her life-long sales career, she has held just about everything you can imagine. Her clients have ranged from early stage startups to Fortune 500 and everything in between.
Find Sandy on LinkedIN!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Sandy Lutton: At the Washington Speakers Bureau it’s interesting because with the title, name, Washington Speakers Bureau folks are confused. They’re like, “What is that?” and they think it’s government, it’s Washington’s Bureau. Really, we’re a talent agency and in my opinion we are the platform for really connecting audiences and amazing speakers who have inspirational stories to tell.
Fred Diamond: Who do you sell to? Who are the types of people who purchase speaker services?
Sandy Lutton: It’s really anyone looking for a key note and beyond for an audience, it’s colleges and universities, it’s associations, it’s Fortune 500 companies, it’s big for accounting firms, law firms, anyone who is going to be putting on an event and who needs a really compelling speaker to tell a story and to move an audience.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about what people physically buy from you. Is it a one-time key note, is it yearlong series, is it training? How do you position what you offer?
Sandy Lutton: It can be a variety of things. Typically, it’s a one-time keynote. Sometimes it can be consulting. We work with a lot of subject matter experts and companies are looking to bring in that expertise so we can help set up those opportunities as well.
Fred Diamond: For the people listening in, just to give them an idea of some of your star power, tell us some of the big names that you represent or maybe some of the more inspirational names.
Sandy Lutton: We represent President Bush and other world leaders like David Cameron, George Osborne. We’ve actually represented every prime minister since Margaret Thatcher, so that’s been really interesting.
As a matter of fact, Ronald Reagan is kind of who put us on the map when he had worked with every Hollywood agency out there and when he came out of office he said, “I don’t want to work with a Hollywood agency. I want to work with this small bureau in Washington.” and he was great friends with Margaret Thatcher and we developed a great relationship. It really soared from there, so now today we represent Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. We represent Terry Bradshaw, sports figures, Lou Holtz and Coach K.
We represent people like Joanna Coles who was the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine for ten years and now she’s the first person to ever hold the title of chief content officer for Hers Magazines. We have a variety of people, our portfolio is so broad in who we represent and we really look for people who just have a powerful, inspiring message to deliver. One of my favorites is actually Anthony Robles who was born with one leg but yet he went on to overcome what life dealt him and became the NCAA champion in wrestling, so he changed the world of wrestling. To me, if you ever hear his story or get an opportunity, he is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.
Fred Diamond: Do you get a chance to spend time with these people as well, in your role?
Sandy Lutton: We do. I’m a big proponent to have my entire team getting out there and being in the audience when our speakers are speaking because it’s hard to sell them if you’ve never experienced them. You’ve got to have that experience, you’ve got to feel the goosebumps that you get when you’re truly inspired and motivated by someone and it’s really about moving an audience. If you haven’t experienced that, it’s going to be a little tough for you to sell it.
Fred Diamond: Who are the types of people, you mentioned associations, incorporations and universities, but who is the person or team that physically makes a decision to purchase a speaker?
Sandy Lutton: Our typical buyer can be anywhere from an event planner from a big company who’s being tasked to put on an event and find that key note speaker. It also is usually in conjunction with a C suite, the chief marketing officer, the chief learning officer. It’s really about who’s in the audience and what they’re trying to accomplish and that’s who the buyer becomes.
Fred Diamond: Just to give our people listening in as well as, what is the range the people would typically pay for a key note speaker?
Sandy Lutton: That’s an interesting question. It varies, but it can be anywhere from 5 thousand dollars to a half a million dollars.
Fred Diamond: Is there a chance that Colin Powell is going to be walking around today when we do the interview?
Sandy Lutton: Probably not today but he has been in the office and surprised us, so you never know around here who’s going to walk through the door.
Fred Diamond: For the people listening to today’s podcast, you really can feel the inspiration doing today’s podcast from the offices of the Washington Speakers Bureau. How did you first get into sales as a career?
Sandy Lutton: It actually all started for me when I was 14 years old and my parents said, “If you want to go buy these things and spend money, you’re going to have to make your own money.” so I found a job that would actually hire me at 14 and I went out door to door selling newspaper subscriptions for the local newspaper in my town.
Fred Diamond: Good for you. Pounding the pavement, selling newspaper subscriptions. What are some of the key lessons you learned from doing that that have stuck with you today?
Sandy Lutton: I would say don’t take rejection personally. We really got to listen to what people want and then either you can give them that or you can’t, depending on what you’re selling. Knowing that it’s really about what the customer wants ultimately. I also would say don’t oversell. I feel like we often get so focused on trying to sell the product and maybe we’re not doing enough listening to the customer and what their needs are.
Fred Diamond: How much outbound selling do you do versus in bound where people contact the Speaker Bureau for someone to come speak versus your people calling a university or calling an event manager?
Sandy Lutton: A lot of out bound. It’s a little of both but mostly out bound. It really depends on the speaker, a lot of speakers bring their own demand to the table or if they’re just new on the speaking circuit, they’re hot at that moment, they’re trending, we have to do less out bound, but over time they’ve got to stay relevant and we’ve got to help position their relevance.
It really requires us from a marketing standpoint to position them and their message and what the experience is to have them on your stage, and we’ve got to get on the phone and talk to customers about it, get in front of customers, understand what they’re looking for, who their audience is and what it is that they’re trying to achieve with that audience. It really requires us to be out bound in a proactive understanding what they need and be part of that planning process with them.
Fred Diamond: Interesting. For the people listening in, tell us a little more about the speaker business. Do you exclusively represent the speakers and you’re pitching them, or can anybody sell Colin Powell as a speaker?
Sandy Lutton: It’s a combination. We represent 230 speakers exclusively. Colin Powell is one of those that if you want him on your stage, you’re going to have to go through us to get him. There’s also hundreds and hundreds of other speakers that we also represent that other bureaus do as well. It’s really them looking for multiple outlets in order to get their message across.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you are specifically an expert in. Tell us a little more about your area of brilliance.
Sandy Lutton: I would say that I’m a really good listener and I’m really focused on asking the right questions and trying to get as much out of my buyer, my customer as I possibly can. That’s the one thing I feel I do extremely well. I always tell my team, “We should be doing less talking. Ask questions and let them do the talking and really listen, and then figure out what is it that we can provide to deliver what they need.”
Fred Diamond: When someone’s looking for a speaker, give us a little insight into if you were listening to someone, what are they looking for? Is it someone just to motivate for an hour? I’m sure it’s across the board, but what typically do people want when they’re looking to pay a lot of money for a speaker?
Sandy Lutton: It’s an experience. You really need to understand what experience they want the audience to have, you want to understand who’s in the audience. Is it your investors? Is it your employees? Are you trying to grow the company, are you trying to change a culture and you need someone who can talk about culture change and the positives and the negatives? It’s so important to hear what people have done well but it’s also more important to hear where they have failed and why it’s OK to fail and what you learn. It really comes around to the audience and what you’re trying to move them to do.
Fred Diamond: How many of your customers call and say, “I need someone who can speak on culture change” as compared to – I keep referring to Colin Powell, but, “I want Colin Powell.”?
Sandy Lutton: Right. Often people do call and say, “I just want a name, a figurehead on stage.” But we really try to drill down deeper into that and try to understand, because not every speaker is always available so it’s best for us to understand what is it that you’re trying to accomplish, and it can be something as simple as culture change. It could be, “I’ve got to grow the company and I need my entire employee base to become sales people and to someone who can motivate that.” Also could just be a pick-me-up, a feel-good, “We’ve had a great year and we want to celebrate and I want to reward my team.”
Fred Diamond: Take us back into your career and tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career.
Sandy Lutton: Back in my telecom days, I had a sales leader who really in her own right had already been super successful in telecom. She was kind of just an icon in the telecom world, she had been there, done that, sold, she had led teams and was constantly successful. The main thing that she really taught me was you get a goal every year. You need to know what your plan is for how you’re going to achieve that goal. Where’s the revenue going to come from and execute on it. It’s as simple as that, and she really taught me that you’ve got to track it, you’ve got to continue to evaluate how well you’re doing towards your goal and if what you’re doing isn’t working then you’ve got to change.
Constantly looking at that, staying focused on that goal I’d say is the #1 thing she taught me and I’ve been able to use that throughout my selling, throughout my sales leadership and really teaching my team it’s all about having that plan, knowing the plan, tracking the plan and then continuing to execute on it.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned as a sales leader you also impart that upon the people on your team. Tell us a little more about how you direct them to plan. What are some of the things that you have them focus on so that they can be successful?
Sandy Lutton: It’s territory and account planning. Every year we go through that process of, “Here’s your goal, here are your top clients, where’s the revenue going to come from? Where are the clients that have the growth potential?” It’s really about prioritizing your time. As sales people we can get so caught up in the administrative side of the things that we do and suddenly your business development efforts are put on hold. I think that’s one of the biggest traps we all fall into, and that’s a great opportunity for us to just have a plan and again, it goes back to staying focused.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what would go into being a great sales professional in the type of service that you sell. You mentioned one of your areas of brilliance is that you’re a great listener – what are some of the things that make up some of the best-selling professionals that work in your organization?
Sandy Lutton: It amazes me how knowledgeable our team is with our product, and I say product, but talent. We represent so many people it’s just amazing to me the amount of knowledge they have about each and every one of these speakers that we represent and it’s because they’ve been out there with them on site, they get to know the speakers, they develop a relationship with them, they hear their message and those thinks stick with you.
I would say my team is brilliant at really understanding what the customer wants and finding – I always say the magic moment for us is when you have found the perfect pair. Like the person you’ve put on that stage that has achieved what the customer wanted the experience, the customer wanted the audience to have and that’s when everyone becomes a hero. That event planner who put that person on the stage or that chief marketing officer is now that hero because they have achieved that.
Fred Diamond: What are two of the biggest challenges that you face as a sales leader today?
Sandy Lutton: I would say it’s probably the same as most sales leaders but it’s finding growth especially in these uncertain times when things are continuously going up and down. I feel like sales and revenue comes in waves so it’s finding growth and I think a lot of that has to do with having your plan and knowing where your growth is going to come from. The other piece is you’re transforming a sales organization. We are a high volume operation where we do over 3000 events a year and that number continues to grow year over year, so it’s easy for our sales force, we don’t have an enormous sales force.
We have about 40 people total and for our sales force you can get really caught up in the transaction side of it, and really getting the team to be more focused in taking a consultative approach and being part of that planning process. I guess that we all get caught up in the administrative side and there’s all the contracting and things that you have to do, but being able to carve out that time I think, making that transformation and getting the team to see that and really creating that methodology for making sure you’ve prioritized your time properly and you’ve really continued to be consultative to that customer as well.
Fred Diamond: Do you spread out your sales people by industries as well, or does it really not matter in this industry?
Sandy Lutton: We do, I think it’s really important especially with colleges and universities that you have people who know and understand that business. The contracting needs are different, I think it’s important from financial services to know who’s really relevant and who’s resonating with those audiences. We do have people who cross over some industries but mostly focus on key industries.
Fred Diamond: We also mentioned in the introduction that you handle logistics as well. Is that something what your sales people are also responsible for? If they book a speaker at a university, do they also have to go soup to nuts to finding the opportunity to ensuring that the speaker shows up and the whole thing goes through or do you kind of drop off at some point?
Sandy Lutton: At the time of booking, they’ve negotiated a lot of that in the terms and conditions but we do have a hand off to our event logistics team. They’re the ones who really become that conduit between the customer and the speaker and take away that pain point for the customer because if you can imagine me an event planner and all the things that are happening leading up to an event and day of, the one thing you don’t want to have to worry about, “Is my speaker going to show up, are they going to be on time?”
We handle all of that. We handle all of the travel, we ensure that they’ve been put in the car in the time that they should be, that they walk through the door when they should and that they are on the stage when they should. We take all of that away so that’s an opportunity for us to take it to a whole other level from a service stand point.
Fred Diamond: Is that the biggest concern, a snow storm?
Sandy Lutton: [Laughs] it’s interesting, our event managers, we say that job is 24/7 because if there’s a snow storm in Chicago or if there’s a snow storm in Paris, we need to know. We need to know what’s going on and who that’s going to impact so the first thing they do when they hear this is, “Who are my speakers, where are they travelling to and are they going to be impacted by this?”
Fred Diamond: All these little things have to go in, the lighting, the speaker probably has some demands, I guess, so that they’re crisp and ready to go and they knock it out of the park?
Sandy Lutton: Absolutely. We’ve got stories of not being able to get a speaker there and let’s say it’s DC, it’s a snow storm, the speaker can’t get out, the event’s in Chicago. The first thing we do is pick up the phone and call every single person, every one of our speakers that we know that’s in Chicago, “Can you go do this?” We’ve done this numerous times, it’s not unusual for us.
We’ve had people drive our speakers to an event because a plane couldn’t take off. It’s just numerous stories about that, we will go above and beyond and out of our way to ensure that that speaker gets there, it’s that important. When you’re putting on an event, there’s nothing more important than making sure that the people you need there show up.
Fred Diamond: Absolutely, that empty stage would be the worst thing.
Sandy Lutton: Yes.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of. Take us back to that moment.
Sandy Lutton: I chased a client or prospective client for quite some time when I was at my time at Grant Thornton and I continued to talk with him and develop a relationship and as work came, we would bid on certain opportunities but for an accounting firm, the audit is what you ultimately want.
This company was the Motley Fool, they had historically only worked with Big Four firms, especially for the audit, and they had decided to take a look, take it out for bid and see if there’s a better solution out there and I found out about it. They let me know. They did a formal RFP process so I knew I had to get a proposal over to them and how was I going to make my proposal stand out? The one thing I knew is I had the right team who could do the work.
I felt very confident that we could do and deliver what they needed. It was now, “How do I get their attention so they can see me beyond the Big Four firms?” And so we put a beautiful proposal together. As a matter of fact, in the team bio we had the head shots and we put just our hats on all of them. Again, just to resonate with them and let them know, “Hey, we understand who you are, we understand what you stand for, we appreciate your culture” and really try to stand out.
Then I had someone deliver the proposal in a jester costume and so that was a big hit and that went over really well. Then, we got called in for the meeting with the audit committee and the executive team and that was a big opportunity. This was our opportunity to shine to get in front of their team, get our team in front of their team and really prove to them that we were the right fit.
The interesting part about this was I was actually in the late stages of my first pregnancy and I was sitting next to the CFO. Someone on my team made a joke that we hope Sandy doesn’t go into labor during this meeting, so I think it freaked everyone out a little. We went through the meeting, it was a two hour meeting. I was drinking a lot of water, at one point I excused myself to go to the bathroom and everyone thought, “This is it! She’s going into labor!” The CFO escorted me to the bathroom like, “Really, I’m fine.” Halted the whole meeting, came back, had a great meeting, it was wonderful.
Then 24 hours later I was literally in labor. It was a very memorable moment for me and I actually found out a week later that we won so it was worth all the effort in the time. I would say with that one it was so memorable to me because I knew we had the right team for them. I knew that we could deliver what they needed and we just needed that opportunity to be able to show it and prove it and shine and I felt like we did that brilliantly. We won the work, and that for me was just a really exciting win.
Fred Diamond: Very good. How long did you pursue them? You said you were very persistent.
Sandy Lutton: It was a couple of years.
Fred Diamond: Couple of years, yeah. Did you name your child Motley to secure…
Sandy Lutton: I did not, no.
Fred Diamond: Fool?
Sandy Lutton: Just Jack. [Laughs]
Fred Diamond: Sandy, you’ve had a great career in sales, you’ve told us some great stories. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me.”
Sandy Lutton: I can’t think of a moment where I wasn’t in sales but I can definitely think of moments where I questioned why am I doing this. Typically it was in one of those years where I was struggling to hit my sales goal, it was a lot tougher than I felt it should be, my earnings were down because when you’re not selling, your earnings are impacted it. I asked the question, “Do I really want to be on this roller coaster?” and at the end of the day it really came back to, “Yeah, I really want to be on this roller coaster.” I loved it, it was for me.
Fred Diamond: Sandy, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Sandy Lutton: I would say stay focused, know where your revenue’s coming from, have a plan and execute on that plan, and continue to evaluate your plan. Is this continuing to work for me? If it’s not, evolve that plan but the key is to stay focused on that plan.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Sandy Lutton: Get out in the field. Nothing excites me more than when I get in front of a customer and have that client meeting. It’s really fun for me and it reminds me that I do enjoy this and I want to be part of it. You always work towards things you enjoy. The other thing is I talk to my peers, I find out especially when we’re struggling and having hard times, “What are you doing differently? What have you seen? What’s happening out there?” and get that advice.
I also still take sales courses, get refresher courses, I enjoy that. You don’t always learn something new and mind blowing but it’s always good to have that refresher, “Oh, yeah. I forgot I should be doing more of this” or “I should be doing less of that” and to me that’s a big way of doing it. I also try to read who’s out there in sales and listen to podcasts like this.
Fred Diamond: I’m just curious, when you listen to a speaker can you just listen as a listener and be inspired or are you – being in the trade – are you kind of critical of, “How come he didn’t shift there” or something like that? I’m just curious how you listen to your products.
Sandy Lutton: I can be a little bit critical and I try to turn that off because I think what’s most important is really the message and the people we represent just have such powerful messages, but yes. I find myself being critical at times, I see them reading cards or things like that and I’m like, “Oh, you don’t need to do that, you know what you’re talking about.” So yes, I can be a bit critical sometimes.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Sandy Lutton: We have a lot of initiatives. We’ve been in this business for over 30 years and we’ve seen a tremendous amount of success. I think one thing that we sometimes forget to do is invest back in the company and so right now we’re going through a whole re-branding, new website, new look and feel. We are doing a sales force realignment where we’ve even better aligned our sales teams to verticals.
We focus on territory and account planning and really honing those and making that a huge party – again, it goes back to that focus. We’re looking at not just the sales force but sales marketing automation and what can we do from a brand and marketing stand point to continue to generate leads. It’s about generating demand for our speakers and keeping them relevant, and that involves our speaker relations team, it involves a marketing team and our sales team.
Fred Diamond: Sandy, sales is hard. We talked about some of the challenges that people face along the way today. 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?
Sandy Lutton: It comes down to being able to satisfy a need of a customer. For me, it’s really understanding what they need and being able to deliver that, especially when you know that you’ve got exactly what they need and it’s – I don’t want to call it a game, but it’s that opportunity for you to shine and be able to prove. It’s a challenge, I need to prove to you that I have what you need once I know that that is true.
Fred Diamond: Sandy, why don’t you give us a final thought to share with the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast today?
Sandy Lutton: Listen to your customer, be inquisitive about their business and we can be much more effective sales people when we listen versus trying to sell what we have to sell.
Fred Diamond: Interesting. You’re in the business of speaking yet you’re suggesting to the sales professionals listening today to be more effective at listening.
Sandy Lutton: Listening is the key.