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EPISODE 212: LinkedIn Americas Sales Chief Alyssa Merwin Discusses How Her Sales Managers Elevated Their Performance When SHE Became More Vulnerable and Authentic
ALYSSA’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Make sure that you’re able to add value in every conversation – even those that have nothing to do with the solution that you sell. Find out what your buyers and prospects care about, whether that’s on LinkedIn or elsewhere, and go in and help them get better at their jobs because they’ve spent that time with you.”
Alyssa Merwin is the Vice President Sales at LinkedIn and is the Head of LinkedIn’s Sales Solutions business for the Americas where she leads a multi-national commercial organization dedicated to helping sales and marketing organizations leverage the power of digital selling.
She was also a sales leader at CEB which is now part of Gartner.
Alyssa can be found on LinkedIn here.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Alyssa Merwin: Thanks, Fred, it’s so great to be on the podcast with you. Something that I’ll share that is an exciting thing on the personal front is that I just made the move back east from San Francisco where I had been for the last 6 years. I followed my heart, I fell in love and I moved back to Washington DC so it’s been wonderful to be back here getting re-acquainted with this great city. I’m super excited to be here today to chat more about sales.
Fred Diamond: We’re doing today’s interview in Downtown DC, we have Sales Game Changers listeners around the globe and we’re doing this at the LinkedIn office which is about maybe 2-3 blocks from the White House. It’s a nice little vibe around here, it’s a lot of excitement and a little bit of trivia: it’s not too far from Bernie Sanders’ office as well. Did you ever see him on the elevator, walking around or anything?
Alyssa Merwin: I haven’t seen him yet but I’m keeping my eyes peeled. I think it’ll be a nice little celebrity sighting to see him in the hallways one of these days.
Fred Diamond: Again, welcome back to DC and I’m excited to talk to you today about LinkedIn and Sales Navigator and your career. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Alyssa Merwin: I lead the Sales Navigator Business for North America for LinkedIn which really means we are providing a sales solution for sellers around the globe across any industry to be able to identify who are the key prospects, decision makers and influencers that they need to be engaged with. Equally importantly, how can they engage them in a way that gets the foot in the door? We know that so much has changed in the world of sales and prospects and buyers are so inundated with information and outreach, so one of biggest distinctions today is figuring out how can I separate myself from everyone else that’s knocking on their door and be able to get a seat at the table and have the right conversation. That’s really what we’re helping our customers to do with Sales Navigator.
Fred Diamond: We also did a show back in 2019 – again, this show is broadcasting in 2020 – with Brynne Tillman who’s a LinkedIn expert, she calls herself the ‘LinkedIn Whisperer’ so go check out that show, we’ll provide a link to it, we have a lot of great tips on how to use LinkedIn. Alyssa, for the people who aren’t necessarily using Sales Navigator today, tell us what differentiates Sales Navigator versus LinkedIn Premiere or just standard LinkedIn.
Alyssa Merwin: One of the things that we all know as sales leaders and sales professionals is that sales productivity is one of the most important distinctions between a really high caliber and highly productive salesperson, yet we could spend so much of our time spending energy on activities that aren’t actually customer facing or driving revenue. Sales Navigator allows reps and leaders to go into the platform to be able to do things like build lead lists, save accounts and automate a lot of what I would call insights finding information that you would need to again, understand how to get in the door, what your prospects and customers care about and find those nuggets of information that allow you to really peak their interest enough to engage with you directly.
Fred Diamond: You run the Sales Navigator sales for LinkedIn in North America, you must be a power user of LinkedIn. Tell us some things that you use LinkedIn for as the head sales person for LinkedIn in North America that maybe our users will be interested in hearing about.
Alyssa Merwin: As an example, being able to go and identify the top accounts that we want to either acquire as a new customer or those accounts that we want to expand the relationships. I will go in and save those particular individuals as leads or those accounts and be able to get alerted to key news, times that they might be mentioned or things that are going on in their company in business that allow me to be more educated, more prepared and again, get engaged with them in a different way than I might by just scouring the newspaper or other things that we do to find out information. It really drives those alerts right to you.
Fred Diamond: Interestingly, is LinkedIn Sales Navigator your primary sales tool that you use throughout the day?
Alyssa Merwin: It is, of course.
Fred Diamond: I’m just curious, how often do you post?
Alyssa Merwin: I go through phases. For a while I was doing my own series, so little video posts on tips and tricks but it depends on what’s going on in the business and where my energy is. I definitely like to comment even if I’m not writing original content or doing videos. It’s easy enough to go on and comment on someone else’s post or article.
Fred Diamond: How did you first get into sales as a career?
Alyssa Merwin: I actually got in by accident. I was graduating from college and I thought I wanted to go into consulting. It turns out that the job at the company that I was interested in – as you mentioned, it was the Corporate Executive Board here in DC – their entry level role was basically a BDR role, sales development role. I thought I was getting into consulting, turns out I was actually getting into sales but what I realized very quickly is that it was such a great fit for me. That is something I would have been surprised by, I didn’t think I was necessarily a competitive person or someone that would have found themselves in a sales role but I loved that you could get into this industry and you could be as successful as you wanted to be based on your effort and your willingness to learn and grow.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the key lessons that you learned from your first few sales jobs?
Alyssa Merwin: I learned that I was not as naturally a great seller as maybe others are by nature. I did learn that sales is all about the art of learning, about growth, about active listening and about solving customer problems, and when you can do that and you’re willing to put in the extra effort – especially if it doesn’t come naturally to you – you really can be as successful as you want to be. I think it’s all about the inputs you put in every day making sure that the right activities and the right behaviors are going to drive the right outcomes. That has translated, of course, to leading a sales business as well and a sales team.
Fred Diamond: Just curiously, you said it was an accident moving into sales, you wanted to be a consultant. Looking back at the pre-college high school Alyssa, could you see yourself now as being more suited for something like sales? Again, you’re running the Sales Navigator sales for LinkedIn in North America, it’s a pretty substantial job. Looking back, did you think in retrospect maybe you did have those skills?
Alyssa Merwin: If I were to look back, it makes a little bit more sense in some ways in that I’m very extroverted so I love being around people, I love talking about and root causing and diagnosing challenges whether that’s in people’s personal or professional lives. The part that is less obvious is I played in a varsity’s tennis team throughout high school and while I was a reasonable player, I was not actually great at the head game part of tennis. What I realized is that I found tennis to be a zero-sum game, one person wins and the other person loses.
What I realize now getting into sales at the beginning of my career is that it was such a different environment because we all could be successful. Again, that was the part that I think if I looked back I would have said, “I don’t know that I would have wanted to be in sales because I don’t find myself to be hyper competitive” and the elements I think I had traditionally had thought about as a sales career and then come to learn that it’s actually very different in practice. It’s one of the few careers where again, you can be super successful and so can everyone else.
Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you, you mentioned active listening. What are some tips that you would recommend for the people listening to the podcast to become a better listener?
Alyssa Merwin: I think often times we as sales professionals get a bad rap because people perceive us as wanting to sell, manipulate or convince someone and I think sales at its most fundamental is really all about how effectively can you understand the customer’s problem and help to solve it. You can only do that if instead of looking for the next hook to be able to get in and sell your product or pitch your product you’re really trying to understand what is this person challenged with and what are the reason that’s happening, what are some of the implications of those challenges and really trying to understand that at a deep level.
Why is this presenting a problem for this individual and how can I help? Tips, I think a couple would be one, being really attuned to word choice, taking notes as you’re in a conversation and making sure you can really recall how did they talk about the challenge or the opportunity. Making sure that you’re going to those second, third level questions, deeper discovery as we all are familiar with in this industry but really getting to understand beyond the surface level what are the drivers and again those implications and what’s at stake for the individual.
Fred Diamond: Who is your customer? Who does your team sell to? Is it an IT sell, do you sell to the marketing team, do you sell to the sales team? Who are the main people that you target?
Alyssa Merwin: It’s actually all of those and a few others but I’d say that the primary and sort of obvious buyer is certainly a head of sales because this is one of those solutions that really helps to increase sales productivity. Which by the way is pretty neat after all these years of being in this industry to be selling a sales solution to sales leaders to help them increase their sales, it’s really neat to be at the center of the bull’s eye. In addition, we have a lot of CMO’s and marketers that are key buyers or influencers in the deals. Then I’d say increasingly CIO’s because the technology gets so embedded across, it can be hundreds of thousands of sellers and making sure that the CIO is engaged as we’re thinking about a large technology deployment.
Fred Diamond: Alyssa, tell us what you’re an expert in. Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Alyssa Merwin: That’s a big question, I don’t know that I’d go so far to say brilliance but I will say that an area that I’m super passionate about and that I spend a disproportionate amount of my time as a sales leader is actually on leadership development. It’s certainly leadership development for my own growth and that has translated as well to really focusing on how can I help our sales managers to be the most effective leaders for their people. I’ve learned over the years in having hired and led many different managers the difference between an effective sales manager and an ineffective and it’s just night and day.
I think when we get into sales leadership roles we stop coaching and developing our managers, we set them free and I think they’re the forgotten middle, often. You get coaching and development when you’re a rep and the minute you get into leadership we stop investing and that has been an area that I have spent a lot of my career the last couple of years trying to figure out how can I help my leaders to be the best versions of themselves for their people.
Fred Diamond: To get to the level that you’ve gotten to you must have had some great mentors along the way similar to how you’re looking to mentor your leaders as well. Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales mentor and how they might have impacted your career?
Alyssa Merwin: I’ll share one that I worked for early in my career and that was Susan Miller. She’s become a very close friend and she was my manager across a number of years at CEB. She was this incredible combination of inspiring leader and incredibly process driven and analytical. She could go toe to toe with the best strategic minds and she could inspire a group of right out of college graduates and be able to engage equally well in any of those audiences which is super important in the roles that we’re in. She’s been someone that I have really tried to emulate over the years, and then I’ve also had a great executive coach, Andy Kelly of Sundial Consulting and he’s been someone that’s helped me so much on my own journey of personal growth and development.
Fred Diamond: Do you still use an executive coach?
Alyssa Merwin: I do, we work together often.
Fred Diamond: Give a commercial, if you don’t mind, for that. That comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast. Again, you’re at the highest level here, you’re VP of Sales at LinkedIn, you’re running the sales side of the Sales Navigator Business in North America. Give us a little bit of an insight into what coaches help you achieve.
Alyssa Merwin: I’ll speak to what Andy has helped me achieve. Personally I think everyone probably has a different reason that they might engage a coach but what I’ve come to learn is that here we are as people and what our backgrounds have been and our upbringings and our beliefs about ourselves are exactly how we show up in our professional lives. Often times that’s not the best version of ourselves and I can assure that when I was earlier in my sales career and my leadership career I think I put on a lot of fronts and it wasn’t a very effective way of being able to inspire and connect.
I didn’t have a lot of followership so it took a lot of breaking down what I believed were the ways that I needed to show up as a leader to better understand why I have this armor on, why I’m wearing these masks and getting to a place of being comfortable, being vulnerable and being the real authentic version of myself. It has transformed my ability to inspire, connect, to lead, to have the tough conversations and to build a followership.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great example, it’s come up not infrequently. We’re talking to the top sales leaders around the globe on the podcast and we’re continuing to find ways that they’ve achieved and they’ve gotten to the highest level and how they’re bringing it back. What do you think the two biggest challenges are today that you face as a sales leader?
Alyssa Merwin: One thing that is always challenging as a sales leader is of course hiring and developing great talent, although the thing that I find more challenging is finding opportunities to observe. As an example, I have a few hundred reps on our team across North America and about 40 different sales leaders and we’re in different locations. If you’re going to invest deeply in coaching and developing your people, you need to find ways to be able to observe and identify where are the opportunities for growth. That’s more practically one of the things that I think can be challenging to do unless you’re really deliberate about building in practices to be able to see people in action.
That’s one and the second is something that we’re going through in our business. We’ve had a really entrepreneurial culture over the years and it’s allowed us to be massively successful and as we scale we need to continue, like many sales organizations, to build really strong sales process. Going through any kind of change management like that can always be a challenge because you’re asking people to do things differently than they might have done them in the past and asking for a bit more commitment to certain activity metrics or sales process than they’ve needed to do in the past. That’s something that I think is an ongoing opportunity and challenge.
Fred Diamond: I want to go back to the first one that you mentioned because that’s come up a couple of times, too. We have a lot of people where a sales leader is based in Chicago but the team is spread out or something or based in headquarters, if you will. A lot of the sales leaders we’ve spoken to aren’t necessarily based where their people are anymore, especially when you get to the level that you are. Without giving any trade secrets, what’s a thing or two that you’ve done to solve that problem?
Alyssa Merwin: I’ll share maybe two or three that we do actively. One would be when you develop close enough relationships with your direct reports and your managers and team where everyone believes the intent is good, you can create an environment where you can shadow one on ones, even. You can create an opportunity to sit in whether it’s virtually, by VC or in person, a manager and a rep one on one which is a great insight into how is that manager actually coaching and developing or are they using that one or one as a forecasting meeting which is a very different way to use time. Trying to actually observe by sitting in the meeting doing the same thing with team meetings, most managers will have staff meetings each week and so sitting in, being a fly on the wall.
I also do a lot of skip levels so I will meet with reps without the leader there, again just in the spirit of ‘how can I help this manager to understand what they’re doing well in any development opportunities’. Lastly, there’s some great technology today to be able to review calls and I love to do that on my way to work, listen to a few calls, find things that I think the reps are doing well and opportunities for growth and all. I won’t pass this on to the reps directly but I’ll pass them on to the managers and ask them to lean in a bit more.
Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, take us back to the #1 sales success or win from your career you’re most proud of. Again, you were at LinkedIn for 9 years and prior to that you were with CEB, now Gartner. Is it still called CEB now Gartner or is it just Gartner?
Alyssa Merwin: Gartner.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to the #1 sales success or win from your career you’re most proud of.
Alyssa Merwin: I would say that it’s less about a specific deal and more about a time of a real turnaround and it actually wasn’t that long ago. Just last year the team had gone through quite a bit of change as we were constantly evolving and scaling our business. We’d gotten out of the gates relatively slowly and that was because we had done a lot of territory turnover and hired a ton of new folks so we’d come out of the first half in a pretty big whole which is a scary place to be as an individual contributor and certainly as a sales leader. I wasn’t sure that there was light at the end of the tunnel, I wasn’t sure that we were going to be able to dig ourselves out by the end of the year.
I brought the leaders together and I brought the broader team together and we had an honest conversation and I shared how I was feeling. I used a lot of feeling words, I was disappointed, I was scared, I was a bit unsure, things that you don’t typically think that you’d be sharing with a large audience and I really wanted them to know, “Here’s how I’m feeling and here’s how I’m guessing you’re probably feeling, and here’s some of the things I think we can do but I’m not sure we’re going to get there.” I asked everyone to find a new year and we were all able to start to think about how we’re going to show up differently, where is our head space and then found an amazing path out. It ended up being one of the best years we’ve ever had, so that was something I was really proud of, how the team rallied together.
Fred Diamond: What do you think made it happen? You used the word ‘vulnerable’ a couple of times on today’s podcast. Was it just timing? I’m just curious, looking back now starting the year in a whole, you said you were afraid, you said you even thought you might not even get out of it. What do you think were the key things that triggered that for the people listening on the show?
Alyssa Merwin: I think so much about this function that we’ve chosen, in this career that we’ve chosen is about winning the hearts and minds, it’s so much a mental game. I’m sure timing was part of it but I think a big part was each of us sitting back and taking stock of where am I mentally? Because if I’m showing up as a leader not mentally engaged and not really believing that there’s a path out and that I have control over some of the outcomes, then I disempower my team. I think that every one of those leaders took a step back, they evaluated where they were mentally and they decided to show up differently the next day. I think that was a huge part of it.
Fred Diamond: I’m just curious, I’ll ask you one question before we take the break. When did this conversation happen? Was it early in the year, was it June? For the people listening to see when the transformation can take place.
Alyssa Merwin: This was just after the first half, we were six months in the year staring down what was going to be a very big second half. Again, that’s why I was very concerned about our ability to turn it around because we had half the year behind us and we were coming into the home stretch.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question being in sales? Did you ever think to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s really just not for me”?
Alyssa Merwin: I’ve had many of those moments over the years although mostly when I’ve had challenges as a leader. Again, I shared that earlier in my career there were some really challenging moments of not showing up the way that my team needed me to and not being the best version of myself and those were some of the darkest moments. Since then, of course you have times when you wonder, “I probably could have chosen a different, perhaps less volatile path in my career” but it’s never been about the outcomes and the performance, it’s always been about, “Am I showing the best version of myself?”
Fred Diamond: What’s the most important thing you want to get across to the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe to help them take their career to the next level?
Alyssa Merwin: Fred, there are probably a couple of things that I’d recommend especially to earlier career professionals. One is I don’t think we do enough of shadowing and learning from the very best in our businesses. I know that when I was an early sales professional one of the primary ways that I learned was by doing some joint calls or tagging along in a live meeting and really understanding how the most successful sales reps were talking about and positioning the solutions, some of the process that they used.
Then I’d say the second most important was actually learning and thinking about, “What are the words that my customers and prospects are using to talk about their challenges?” It gave me so much credibility when I could walk into my next meeting talking about some of the challenges in the way that our customers talked about it as opposed to how we wanted to be talking about our solution. That was another thing that was really important and then the third that I’d add, there’s a lot of talk these days about work-life balance and making sure that we’re doing a great job of prioritizing everything and I have to say, I’m not sure I’m as big a proponent of that at all times in our career.
I think there are times in our career where we really need to put gas in the fire and I think early in the career is an important time. That’s the time we start to separate ourselves from what the majority of people might be doing and how they might be running their businesses or spending their time. For me, I mentioned I wasn’t always the best most natural salesperson at the start but I was always willing to make the extra calls, I was willing to do the extra work, I was willing to go do the extra meetings and that was what made the difference and allowed me to be more successful, because I wasn’t going to have it through just natural capabilities.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about one of your selling habits that has led to your continued success.
Alyssa Merwin: I think in terms of selling habits it is understanding at a really intimate level what are the behaviors that I’m doing that are leading to the outcomes? The great thing about sales is that it is art and science, but I think it is as much a science as we allow it to be. We have so much intelligence these days about what is our conversion rate at an individual level, what is our average sales price, how long does it take us to close a deal? We can all back into on average what are the types of behaviors and activities that I need to be doing that are going to get me the right outcomes?
I think that if more of us were really focused on understanding that on a personal level, we could back into what I need to come in and do every single day. It’s not always fun to do that outreach or get that extra no that you were hoping was going to be a yes but it’s the willingness to put in the work in ways that aren’t super fun that I think gets the outcomes. Then I think also being willing to ask the tough questions. I think there’s a saying that ‘no is the second best answer’ and it’s so true, we can’t have happy ears in the businesses that we’ve chosen to be in, we really need to make sure that we are validating. Is this a good fit for our customers and prospects? What are all the reasons they might not do something? Really bottoming that out instead of just hoping that it’s going to be a good outcome.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great tip to think about the words that your customer is using and that comes up so many times on the Sales Game Changers podcast, that it really is about the customer. It’s not as obvious, to a lot of people listening, in the beginning part of their career, they’re trying to get the features out and the benefits out, they want to make sure that they don’t miss an opportunity to say something but it really comes down to the customer and speaking to them on the language about the challenges that they’re facing. Of course, you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast that you just moved back to the Washington DC area but tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Alyssa Merwin: One thing that we’re really focused on ourselves is actually doing even more of the speaking to the customer in their language and getting away from getting to a place where we’re pitching a solution. It really is all about co-creating value with our customers, so what that means is getting into a conversation with customers where we’re really able, with them, to make sure that we’ve identified and qualified that this is a challenge and a challenge we’re solving. Then figuring out, “Let’s agree together whether this is a solution that could help or not.” We’re going through a whole initiative to help our sellers and our sales team to be even better at this. I’m excited to see but again, change in management is always an interesting journey as a leader.
Fred Diamond: Before I ask you for your final tip for the sales listeners listening around the globe, we talked about this before, you’re selling to sales professionals so if anybody that we’ve spoken to in the podcast is in deep understanding of the challenges that they face, it’s definitely you and the team at Sales Navigator for LinkedIn. But sales is hard and it’s gotten harder, again you worked at CEB for a long time. Were you there when the Challenger came out or was it a little bit before your time?
Alyssa Merwin: It was just around that time so I’m super familiar with it.
Fred Diamond: You’re super familiar with the work and a lot of the statistics that they’ve come up and all the stuff that Matt and Brent have given us but why have you continued? Again, it’s harder and harder. What is it about sales as a career? Again, you didn’t originally think you were going to go into sales but now that you’re leading great sales teams around the globe or at least in North America, what is it about a sales career that has kept you going?
Alyssa Merwin: I think like so many different industries, sales is evolving. You mentioned Challenger and they’ve come up with some incredible insights about the changing dynamics of the sales landscape. Any sales organizations that are just relying on cold calls and cold outreach are likely going to really struggle in this new era of tons of information available at the buyer’s fingertips and they don’t really need us in the same way that they needed us before. Buyers and prospects can find so much information available online, they can get peer recommendations so our job as sellers has really evolved to one where we have to find a way to add value. I think that’s what’s been so fun in this role, that Sales Navigator is a solution that’s allowing reps at scale to find those nuggets of insights that allow us to get in front of the right customers, buyers and engage them in a way that brings value. I think it goes back to we’ve all got to be evolving. This is an industry that the more we grow and learn and adapt, the more successful we’re all going to be. I like to do that in my personal life and it’s certainly played out in my professional life as well. I just think there are no other careers that I know of that allow you to have so much clarity about what you can achieve and that you have so much control over the outcomes. I think that’s a cool career to be in that you can say, “I’m going to earn as much on my W2 or have the outcomes I want or to be able to provide for my family and also support our customers in achieving their goals and objectives.” It’s such a nice, symbiotic relationship that I think is so cool.
Fred Diamond: I like the way you just said before, the sales industry is evolving and as sales professionals we need to constantly be thinking and constantly learning. One reason why the Sales Game Changers podcast continues to grow is that people are looking for nuggets, tips, ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of interacting with the customer and again you’re on the front line. I want to thank Alyssa Merwin for being a great guest today on the Sales Game Changers podcast. Alyssa, you’ve given us so many great ideas, why don’t you give us one final tip? Again, we have Sales Game Changers around the globe. Give us one final thought to inspire them today.
Alyssa Merwin: One tip I would share with everyone is to make sure that you’re able to add value in every conversation that has nothing to do with the solution that you sell. Finding out what your buyers and prospects care about whether that’s on LinkedIn or elsewhere and being able to go in and help them be better at their jobs because they’ve spent time with you.