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MARK’S TIP: “The biggest thing is take control. Take control of your destiny. Take control of your own success. Start today, look at your calendar and delete every single meeting that’s not critical that you’re in, or that isn’t leading you toward delivering value for a customer. At the end of the day, we can’t forget that the life we chose in sales means that we get paid to hit our number. At the end of the day, it always boils back down to that simple fact. What you have to do is block the noise out and take control and drive your own success.”
BRIAN’S TIP: “On a personal level really important just to keep your mental health front and center, whether that’s exercising every day, whether that’s finding some downtime, whether that’s proper nutrition, whatever that is, to ensure your makeup as an individual for yourself, for your family, for your friends. Having a whole life allows you to contribute exponentially more as a professional and as a colleague and as a teammate.”
THE PODCAST BEGINS HERE
Fred Diamond: Welcome to the official 600th episode of the Sales Game Changers podcast. We’re talking today, Mark LaFleur, Brian Green, episodes number one and number two, and we’re talking about how has sales changed and where are we today. Mark, let’s start with you, even though you were episode number two. First of all, give us a brief introduction on what you’re up to right now, and give us some of your insights on where we are right now and where we’ve grown over the last six years.
Mark LaFleur: Thanks, Fred. It’s a pleasure to be back. I’m proud to see what’s become of this podcast, it’s amazing. I am currently vice president of North American Sales for SheerID. We’re a 10-year old company based in Portland, Oregon. We’re a global marketing technology platform. Been here for a couple of years now. The biggest thing that I see from a change perspective, it’s not anything new, but I think the pace of it has accelerated, which is just how noisy the market is now for anything goods and services that you’re trying to sell. In our industry particularly, when we were founded 10 years ago, there was about 300 companies in the MarTech space. Now there’s over 8,000 in this space. I heard someone say a quote one time as a rep, be the value proposition, and I think that’s become more important than ever. Reps really have to understand that there’s a lot of options and a lot of noise, and it’s really up to them to be the value proposition for any given customer, and that’s the way that you stand out. Again, it’s not a new thing, but the emphasis on that is certainly greater than it’s ever been.
Fred Diamond: Brian Green, episode number one, and a couple of other episodes as well. By the way, the Institute for Excellence in Sales is the sponsor of the Sales Game Changers Podcast, and you were one of our members of the year back in the late 2010, so it’s great to see you again. It’s interesting, as I’m looking at both you guys, for the listeners, we’re recording this on video, both of you guys have had interesting career journeys to get to where you are now. We’ll talk about that a little bit. A lot of times people ask me, “What should my path be? What should my career journey be?” After, Brian, you give us a brief introduction about yourself and how have you seen sales change over the last six years, I want to talk about your journey. Brian, why don’t you give us the answer to the first question?
Brian Green: Thank you, Fred. Again, I’ll echo Mark’s comments. When you first reached out to us and offered this idea about getting us both back together, Mark and I shared some time together at one of our previous employers and worked alongside one another for a number of years in a variety of different capacities. Always great to get back together with Mark and yourself and continue to celebrate your exceptional work in bringing not only a community of committed professionals together to learn, and talk, and collaborate, and ideate, and in many cases, probably gain some confidence building. This is not an easy profession. To have individuals, your peers that are out there in the trenches doing the good work that they’re doing, it’s always good to reflect on them. Kudos to you in your success, and of course, the members who support the IES.
In response to your first question, I’ve been in the L&D space, the learning and development space, for well over 20 years. Predominantly that’s where I’ve had a tremendous amount of success starting in Chicago and then now here in Washington, DC. Every industry is of course a little bit different, but nonetheless, the sales trends within those and across those industries are fairly similar. Look forward to sharing more about that. The biggest lessons learned in terms of looking back and looking at today is the personalization that’s absolutely required now in service to any clients, whether you’re in MarTech, as Mark suggested, whether you’re in L&D, whether you’re in any industry across the nation, organizations are looking for more and more equitable solutions for the constituents that they serve. There’s a whole variety of ways that we have resources now that can allow for that personalization. But it also comes from a commitment from your organization to knowingly need to provide that personalization, which allows our sales communities to be successful and effective.
Fred Diamond: As I’m looking at you both, I’m thinking about your journey. The reason I asked you both to be on the first episodes of the Sales Game Changers Podcast back in 2017 is you both, from my perspective, are the quintessential sales leaders. Brian, I’ve talked about this many times on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, you advertise yourself as a servant leader. We’ve spoken about that many times, and I want to focus on that in a second or two, but you both have been at some great places. You both have gone to large companies, and smaller, and startup in various different stages along the way. I’d like you both to reflect on your career.
Again, primarily over the 600 some odd episodes we’ve done, I’ve interviewed sales leaders. Sales leaders at companies like Salesforce, and Amazon, and Hilton, and Red Hat Software, and IBM, and Oracle. Give a little bit of reflection. Here we are today, we’re actually doing today’s interview in February of 2023. You’re at this point right now. You both have had a lot of success. You’ve both have led many, many people. Give us a little bit of reflection when people would ask you, “Tell us about your career journey,” give us some thoughts on that.
Brian Green: I think you probably hit the nail on the head, Fred, with regards to what’s made anybody successful is really understanding what your North Star is. I’ve seen a lot of sales professionals who have just been really unhappy, and it’s because they’re in the wrong environment. Perhaps even the wrong job in many cases. For myself, as I reflect on my career, both as an individual contributor, a leader, a manager, a consultant in many ways, a community advisor, I look back at the success that I’ve had and recognize that I’m in the right place where I want to be and doing the things that I want to do. Having that ability of waking up and being very happy with the work that you’re doing, you’re doing some great work outside of IES on something that’s very unique and personal to you, and it wakes you up every single day because you’re passionate about it.
You are not fearful of engaging customers, you’re not fearful about engaging industry advisors, about networking groups. You are very front and forward and engaged in a way in which that I think is very genuine. Customers can see that, organizations can see that. When you have a passion for something, as an old friend of mine used to tell me, and former boss, I should say, the CEO of my former company, he said, “Brian, never chase the money. The money will never come if you chase it.” But he says, “Do something that you love and your success and your career will take off.” As a result, I think that’s probably fundamentally one of the staples of my own career, is just continuing to do something that I’ve loved.
Fred Diamond: Mark, how about you? A little reflection on you as a sales leader today, and the journey it’s taken for you to get there.
Mark LaFleur: When I look back at my career, the thing I’m always most grateful for, I think, is that I grew up professionally in a phenomenal environment. I spent 14 years with one company where Brian and I both worked, publicly traded company with really excellence from an operational and delivery and customer perspective. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I started as an entry level salesperson, I ended as vice president of North American Sales. Along the way just had tremendous opportunities to grow and move up professionally, and I was also surrounded by a lot of personal and professional mentors. What I didn’t know at the time is when that opportunity ended and I moved on to my next adventure and started doing more smaller startup type companies, the disciplines that I learned in those 14 years were invaluable. I got to startups and realized, “Okay, these guys are brilliant, but they may not know what great looks like from an operational perspective, or how to deliver value for a customer.” I feel like I was able to bring that value. I’m always very grateful for that. I’ve continued. I am very forward about seeking out mentors in my career.
Brian also really touched on an important thing, which is I think authenticity is so important. Customers can sense it and it affects you in your own personal happiness. I agree, you really need to be passionate about it. I’m not the type of sales leader that’s micromanaging on a spreadsheet. I’m the type that’s out in the field all the time, constantly jumping on planes and going to see customers, because that’s why I’m in this line of work. It’s not always the easiest line of work, but I’m super passionate about getting in front of customers and having authentic conversations about how we can help them in their business and then delivering great results. I think that’s the core of everything. You have to have that passion.
Fred Diamond: Prior to the pandemic, we were doing interviews in person. Like I mentioned, the interviews I did with both you guys were at a studio in Northern Virginia, and then the next 150 or so episodes, I literally went to sales VPs’ offices. To be honest with people, they know this, the podcast was a way for me to get into the office of sales VPs, did an interview, I brought my mics with me, and the recorder. Then we really did a nice show. We spent a lot of money on the intro music and things like that. Some of the people I interviewed in the first 150 episodes I’m still in contact with, or members or friends of the institute. Then we shifted, of course, to doing things via Zoom when the pandemic kicked in, and we started doing shows almost on a daily basis, which really increased our numbers and our listenership.
But over the last year, year and a half, topics like mental health, topics like, Mark, you just mentioned authenticity, but vulnerability, and dealing with your people’s fatigues. I remember I interviewed the VP of sales for public sector at Dun & Bradstreet, and I asked him, this was June of 2021, I said, “What’s your number one priority?” He said, “Managing the fatigue of our people.” Talk about that side, if you could, Mark, and then Brian. You mentioned authenticity, but the personal side of sales leadership, especially as the whole world is going to be coming out of the pandemic for the next three to five years, even though the health aspect might be handled for the most part. The COVID side, there’s still so many ramifications that are going to be coming out. Tell us how you’re dealing with that as a sales leader, Mark, and then Brian.
Mark LaFleur: We just had our global sales kickoff in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, and hold a couple of hundred people in person in Nashville. One of our core initiatives that we announced, and the thing that probably got the biggest positive reception of the whole thing, bigger than even comp plan, kickers, and accelerators, was we have a corporate initiative going on right now to reduce and eliminate meetings to a very significant degree. This is not like an email with guidance for meetings. I had 22 recurring meetings on my calendar that got deleted because we recognized coming out of that pandemic what people were doing. Like, “Hey, let’s have a weekly check-in since we don’t see each other in the office.” Then all of a sudden, as we all know, your calendar is filled from 8:00 AM till 6:00 PM with weekly check-ins, and the fatigue is real. We recognized that with the whole sales team, and we eliminated that.
The second thing we are doing right now is we are pushing very hard to back to face-to-face. We have significantly increased our travel budget. We are coaching and inspecting reps based on how often they’re getting on a plane, a train, a car, going to see customers. We’re putting together regional happy hours and customer dinners. We have a significant focus on getting back out in the field. Then separately, from a human perspective, we are still doing a lot of things that came out of the pandemic to address the fatigue. Giving people unannounced days off, having regional outings, happy hour, and other things, where people who maybe aren’t near headquarters can get together and get out. We’re doing a lot of those things. Knowing your people, and back to that being authentic and being vulnerable, recognizing that people are tired. Zoom fatigue is very real.
Brian Green: I’ll echo Mark’s last point there. I did a conference in Phoenix at the beginning of last year, so still in the middle of the pandemic phase. Everyone was still masked up, if you will, in the audience. I found a survey on workplace burnout. I found it literally about a week before I was going to this conference, and it was very relevant to my chat. I plugged it in and highlighted workplace burnout, employee fatigue, and just pulled the audience. There were probably 250 people in the room and asked them how many people are experiencing employee burnout. Every single hand in the room went up. It is a very real issue.
In light of today’s conversation about what’s changed, I think the pandemic has created some genuine human benefits of organizations. People are much more dialed into how people are feeling. People had parents that they lost, they had aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings in many cases, close friends, neighbors. We all went through that. Every single one of us. Nobody was spared. I myself went through it, some really terrible days of losing some very close friends. I think that’s created this deeper human understanding that the work in which that we’re doing requires balance. It requires a bit more of a human touch. It requires, just like Mark said, like all these meetings that are on there that were corporate mandates, if people are responding negatively to it, we have to respond to that. I think there’s a much more acute understanding of that. If there are very few silver linings that we can look at as a result of the pandemic, some of that is a big factor.
I would also say that a broader issue is I see the sales organization now no longer as this circle in the org charts. When you look at the former VP of sales, chief sales officer, now you’re beginning to see more and more chief revenue officers, and those chief revenue officers are understanding that the majority of the organization has a responsibility of generating revenue. Programs need to renew, new services need to be in installed, expanded, whatever that might be, other parts of the organization that we’re not serving, we should serve. I also think that there’s this broader understanding coming around of the role of sales development professionals, SDRs, heads of sales, account executives, whatever it might be, and their struggles and their need for resources to do their job effectively.
Technology is absolutely rampant. In many cases, it’s made our job easier, but it’s also made buyers’ jobs easier. They have much more access to the solutions and services and product features that they’re looking for. The dynamics are, I think, ever changing. The grass doesn’t grow under your feet in this profession. But I think because of that changing nature of having more and more CEOs, and chief revenue officers, and chief product officers out there talking to customers, and in many cases presenting, it is in fact helping our sales teams around the country, around the world, for that matter, have a much better understanding about their challenges and their needs.
Fred Diamond: With everybody jumping on Zoom and bringing more people from the organization on, there were more meetings that accounting and finance and other support organizations had with sales. I think a lot of people got more educated in the companies on the sales process. It wasn’t just about salespeople. Before we wind down the show, I do want to ask you about customers. We can’t have a conversation about sales without talking about customers.
One of the interesting things about the last couple of years is prior to the pandemic, it was always about us in sales. How do we present to the customer? How do we be of service? How do we continue to grow the relationships? Well, everybody on the planet has had to deal with the situations of the last couple of years, including customers. Our customers are now not just having to deal with their own world, but they’re having to adapt to what their customers are going through, and what their customers are going through. For the first time, it’s not just about how do I serve you, Mr. Customer, whatever it might be, a hospital, or a financial organization, or a retail chain. I, as a sales professional, need to understand what’s going on with your supply chain. I don’t mean literally the supply chain. I mean, how your customer is now interacting. Are they back to people working, et cetera? Talk a little bit here about what salespeople should be thinking about. What are you telling your salespeople? What are you doing as it relates to your customer? Are we being vulnerable with our customers the same way we’re trying to be vulnerable with each other?
You mentioned a great point, Brian, and this has been going on even before the pandemic, is that a lot of the information is available to the customer via social media and the internet and support groups. We’ve all heard the stats that the customer may be 50%, 60% down the road before they engage with you. Now, if you have the relationships, hopefully that’s not going to be the case. Brian, why don’t you go first? Briefly touch on that, and then Mark, and then I’ll ask you for your final action steps.
Brian Green: If you look at the customer journey and buyer journeys, program offices, I’ve always been a big believer of following the investment dollars within an organization, whether it’s a private sector, public sector organization. Understand how those budgets have come together, and more meaningfully, what is it that they’re looking to accomplish with those dollars, and then follow that whole supply chain. In many cases, if you can follow that whole supply chain, you’re going to get much more educated on how best to serve your customer. Take a traditional federal agency, you’ll have IT organizations, you’ll have program offices, but all of their work is very meaningful in terms of serving their constituents. The more that you understand that broader impact, the better off that you’re going to be in representing your organization and better being able to position sales and products to support that.
I’ll say just in general, getting back to Mark’s point on authenticity and personalization, there is such an important element of having a customer understand that you’re working with them in partnership to solve their problems of creating some small wins, of building that guiding coalition, as John Kotter suggests in Leading Change, in a way in which that’s meaningful for them, because ultimately they’re having to report up to their senior leadership on the work that’s occurring. The better off that we make our customers look was the age-old adage, today it’s the better off that we’re serving our customers programs so that those programs are successful. In the work that I do, we’re serving citizens who are unemployed, disadvantaged, underemployed, all types of different groups, trying to build skills and capabilities so that they can be prosperous. What does that mean and how do you create traceability behind the work that we’re doing in serving those communities? In many cases, if our metrics are not tied to their metrics, we’re going to fail and they’re going to fail.
Fred Diamond: In my conversations with you over the years, you’ve always had that, like I mentioned before, servant leader. I brought that up at least a hundred times on the Sales Game Changers Podcast. Whenever people ask me, “Fred, what is your advice for my career?” I say, “Get to intimately know your customer.” I always say the guy with the biggest house in the neighborhood is the guy who sells Dell to the Navy, or the guy who sells some brand to a large customer. Mark, how about you? Why don’t you reflect on that question? Then I’ll ask you both for your final action step for our listeners.
Mark LaFleur: I’ll go back to as a rep, be the value proposition, you personally be the value proposition. There are things that 10 years ago reps would do that would make them in the top 10% of reps. I think those things today are table stakes. What we sell, we’re selling to large enterprises. They’re paying several hundred thousand to several million dollars a year on our solution. We really seek to understand the whole buying committee, not just a single buyer, and all of their individual personal and professional needs that they need out of it. We emphasize a pretty significant amount of research before even first contact with a potential customer. Then once a company becomes a customer, we have a lot of resources that we’re putting on that account from customer success, the sales rep stays attached to that account. We have executive sponsors on every single one of our accounts. We even have in our comp plan reps get spiffed whenever any one of our customers gets a promotion, one of our contacts on our programs.
I don’t think it can be overstated. You really have to understand and frankly do the work. Going into LinkedIn, looking up all your contacts is a good first step, but it’s just really the first step. We do complete ROI analysis for every one of our prospects and customers. We do significant pre-sales workshops. We offer proof of concepts at no cost to customers. As a company, we invest in the selling process, and we’re very open about that with our customers, and that’s part of our authenticity. Our reps have no shortage of resources and tools to be able to bring to bear for that customer to show them the value. That’s where we win business, is by outworking our competitors and really bringing the value to the customer from the very first conversation.
Fred Diamond: Before I ask you both for your final action step, I just want to acknowledge you both. As I’m having this conversation, Mark, you brought me in a couple of times, not just the institute, but Fred Diamond as Diamond Consulting, whatever I called myself, at a couple of different places. I was reflecting on a place that you worked at in Arlington. I’d forgot about it until we had this conversation. Thank you for that. Brian, of course you’ve been a member of what we call the big three, like the kitchen cabinet of the Institute for Excellence in Sales, and have continued to support it along the way. Like I mentioned, you were one of our members of the year. Mark, you were actually our first award winner. The very, very first thing we ever did at the Institute for Excellence in Sales was an award event. We’re actually going to be holding our 13th annual award event in June 9th, 2023. But the company you worked for won an award for excellence in sales management, and it was literally the first thing that we did. You helped us out by submitting an application when no one even knew what we were doing. Thank you both.
As I’m listening to your answers, I just want to acknowledge you both as leaders. You guys have been at great places. Like I’ve mentioned before, you’ve led so many people and you’ve also led customers. I like both your answers when I asked about customers and how you’ve guided them, you’ve been of value to them. For the people listening to the show today, if you’re not thinking about how you’re leading your customers to where they tell you they need to go, and where they might not even tell you where they need to go, there’s literally no value. Mark mentioned the salesperson is the value prop. You’ve got to be of value to them. I mentioned before that vulnerability is something that we’ve talked about a lot. Being of value is something that we talk about on almost every single Sales Game Changers Podcast.
Briefly, as we like to end all of the 600 Sales Game Changers Podcast episodes with a final action step, Brian, you go first. Give us something briefly that people should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.
Brian Green: I’ll give two. On a personal level really important just to keep your mental health front and center, whether that’s exercising every day, whether that’s finding some downtime, whether that’s proper nutrition, whatever that is, to ensure your makeup as an individual for yourself, for your family, for your friends. Having a whole life allows you to contribute exponentially more as a professional and as a colleague and as a teammate. We’ve all seen certain members who are just having a tough day. Most likely it’s personal, and as you can tell, it just affects their performance. I would say definitely if you’re not feeling right, reach out, get some help, find a mentor, and get back on track.
Professionally, I would say looking at technology, let technology be the source of your undercurrent as you engage your customers. Utilize all of the applications, the databases that you can to really ensure that you tighten up your messaging because competition is as fierce today as it ever has been.
Fred Diamond: Mark, bring us home. Give us something people should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.
Mark LaFleur: The biggest thing is take control. Take control of your destiny. Take control of your own success. Start today, look at your calendar and delete every single meeting that’s not critical that you’re in, or that isn’t leading you toward delivering value for a customer. At the end of the day, we can’t forget that the life we chose in sales means that we get paid to hit our number. At the end of the day, it always boils back down to that simple fact. What you have to do is block the noise out and take control and drive your own success. Don’t wait for the marketing leads. Don’t wait for something magical to happen, for the phone to ring. Get out there. Understand your territory. Understand who your targets are. Build a game plan. Block your calendar for research time. Block your calendar for prospecting time. Go see your best customers. Take them to dinner. Take them to lunch. Be the value proposition, I keep going back to that, but that’s really what it is at the end of the day. That hasn’t changed, which is you really do have to seize control of your own destiny. There is a lot of noise and a lot of distractions. Eliminating those would be the number one tactical piece of advice I’d give to any rep who’s trying to understand how they’re going to get to their number this year.
Transcribed by Mariana Badillo