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EPISODE 001: Learning Tree Sales Vice President Brian Green Is a Sales Game Changer
Episode 001 of the Sales Game Changers Podcast went live on October 9. We interviewed Brian Green, senior vice president of sales at IT and management training company Learning Tree International. Brian shared great insights into how sales professionals can stay focused on what’s important to grow their careers.
Find Brian on LinkedIn!
Here’s a transcript of the podcast:
Fred Diamond: Today I am thrilled to be with my good friend Brian Green. Brian is the senior VP for sales and solution development at Learning Tree. Tell us how you got started in sales.
Brian Green: For any great sales executive or sales professional, you know there’s a little bit of that DNA in us, right? We are somewhat risk takers, we are somewhat class clowns, we like the center of attention, we like the spotlight. But at the end the day we also have a servant leadership mentality. And I think that is in me through my parents. My parents are both entrepreneurs, and I’ve learned the art of service leadership for a long time and servant leadership for a long time, and as I look back and realize how I got here, it really is that desire to really serve, and what better profession than the sales to be able to do that?
Fred: Where’d you grow up?
Brian: I actually grew up here in Richmond, Virginia. I was born here. But most of my adolescence was spent down in Atlanta, Georgia—more specifically Marietta, East Cobb County—and so I’m a Southern boy. I don’t say “y’all” all that much anymore, but nonetheless I’m a Southern boy and spent a number of years—about a decade—down in Tampa/St. Pete, about a decade in the city of Chicago (go, Cubs!), and now here in Washington for about the last eight years.
Fred: You said that you watched your parents, who are entrepreneurs. So what did you take away from that? What were some of the lessons you remember from that?
Brian: You know, there’s a couple of things. That work ethic was instilled in me at a very young age. I was listening to an interview where Janice Glover Jones, who is the CIO of the DIA, talked about how her career got started, and it was very similar to mine, which is this tenacity that she has. She started in the restaurant business, and her first job was at Wendy’s, and the way in which she got into the job was quite unique and very entrepreneurial, and my early career when I was a teenager I started the same way. I was hired into a restaurant, and I had this mentality that I had not only to be good but I had a lead. I was actually hired as most young teenagers are as a dishwasher, and so on day one of this restaurant—it was a brand-new restaurant—and we got we’d came in and everyone sort of sat around, and the general manager said, Okay, so who are the dishwashers? Who are the grill men? Who’s back of the house? And I said, You know what? I kind of like the title of a grill man, I’m going to sit over there, and it took him about a week and a half to figure out that I was actually a dishwasher not a grill man. And ultimately I proved myself in that position to the point where the heads of the restaurant said, “No, Brian actually works really well here.” So at a very young age I realized I can break the rules a little bit here and actually find these opportunities and do really well. But at the end of day it was performance. You’ve got to perform in the position you’re in, and sales is performance-based, right? You got it. You got to succeed.
Fred: Exactly! At the end of the month you know how well you did.
Brian: That’s right.
Fred: Give us a quick description of some of your sales jobs. I know you’ve been selling training for a good part of your career, so just get us caught up in some of the places you’ve worked.
Brian: Sure. So you know the restaurant business, to me, is such a great proving ground, right? You know immediately if you put out a plate of food and that plate comes back, you get an immediate notification that the client is unhappy. And the restaurant business also taught me about creativity. You can assemble a plate, design a meal, and you have instant gratification that the client loves it, they come back for it and so forth, so the restaurant business really taught me about work ethic, taught me about being creative, and taught me about serving our clients. I almost went to the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America up in Poughkeepsie, New York, because I loved it so much, but then I realized what I really love is the interaction with the customers, and being back of the house would limit that interaction. As my career progressed I primarily have worked for entrepreneurs—very successful entrepreneurs, gentleman who have made millions of dollars as business owners—and I really learned about business at a very young age, in my late teens, early 20s, and I just saw the way that these guys ran their business. It was always customer first; it was this relentless dedication to service. Quality was everything, and ultimately the longevity of that relationship: I really understood that the customer is not a customer today or for a month or for a year; it really is a lifelong commitment, and all of the efforts that you do day in and day out should reflect that. And so early on in my career, sort of echoing what I said earlier about my mother and father both being entrepreneurs, I really gravitated toward entrepreneurs, and they’re not really in sales per se. These are business professionals who know that the relationship of growing their business is with their internal customers as well as their external customers. And ultimately I learned about sales through the business, so many of my techniques I’ve adopted are really business-oriented approaches rather than classic sales.
Fred: So tell us some of the places where you’ve worked.
Brian: My first career move was an organization called Corporate Management Services, a major $50 million to $60 million company at the time. We had major corporate contracts for facility management. So we did everything. We did personnel staffing, we did grounds, we did construction, we did janitorial—anything that it took to maintain a campus—and you could imagine the footprints that we covered in that: multiple customers, multiple points of contact, multiple interests. That was my first introduction to proposals, contracts, contract negotiations, and most of those deals were in and around the range of 600,000 to several million. And that was really my first introduction to big business, if you will, and Rob’s business, Rob Johnson, CEO. Rob continues to thrive today, and then from there the work that I was doing was really project-based work. A firm by the name of ESI international came calling; they found me and they said, Listen, we’re experts in project management; you seem to be very good in managing these large contracts and projects. And I really gravitated toward training. It just was a natural fit. Interacting with the heads of the corporation, really understanding what the business drivers were. It’s not just a training certificate or a training program.
Those individuals—those leaders, if you will—are looking to actually improve their performance: how our organization is performing, how it needs to improve, through not only people but also processing technology and that’s really a place that I have loved and have now stayed through ESI and in Learning Tree international.
Fred: You mentioned you’ve been selling training for a good part of your career now. Are you also involved in training associations? Is that a major part of growing your sales strategy as well?
Brian: As I look at my interaction points, it is certainly not just with the customers themselves; it’s with the ecosystem, and as we say “the ecosystem,” I look at organizations like yours, IES. I look at organizations like ACT-IAC, the American Council for Technology Industry Advisory Council. I look at FSIA, a number of those organizations. That ecosystem is critically important for training, for any business really. But really understanding the customer happens in these associations when you network with members of the organization; you learn so much valuable information because people are a little less guarded, if you will. It’s a personal communication, it’s a personal relationship, you’re developing those sort of personal bonds. You’re establishing trust and confidence in that conversation, and you’re able to learn in many cases much more than you would in a structured, formal, conference-call type arrangement for 60 minutes, and so I think organizations like yours and others are invaluable for extending your network but more important for really learning and understanding the businesses. You have executives who come in, you have folks who are in the trenches coming in, really talking about those challenges, and then for individuals like me, both professionals and executives, it really is dependent on us to look at that and understand how we can identify our products and services as such to support that.
Fred: Talk a little bit about how to become a leader in sales. How deep do you need to be into the business of your customer? How much do you need to know and be involved in the day-to-day business of your customer? How much of a commitment have you made to truly understanding their business to be a more effective professional to them?
Brian: Fred, you just hit on, I think, what is one of the most important cornerstones of business today, and that is if you are not involved in these associations in these ecosystems and you’re not involved in these circles you are not a known entity, and as I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit later about sales strategies, some of my cornerstones in terms of how we position ourselves with our clients really is establishing that trust and in organizations like IES and BD ACT-IAC, FSIA, you are there, folks are seeing you. You’re involved in conversations, you’re engaged in personal help, if you will: Tell me about this, tell me about that, what do you know about this? That process is really establishing this bond if you will. So that when they really do find themselves in a pinch, and as what I call “the sense of urgency,” which is a sort of a philosophy within John Kotter’s book Leading Change… they’re going to go to who they trust, and associations like those that are here in DC—of course, your own as well—that begins to establish that process.
Fred: Brian, we were talking before about four things that you like to get across to the people who’ve worked for you. How many people do you think have worked for you?
Brian: A lot.
Fred: Do you keep in touch with all them?
Brian: As many as I can. It’s tough to do today, but nonetheless a lot.
Fred: When you look back at all the people who’ve worked for you, what do you want to establish in them?
Brian: You know it’s a humbling position to be a leader. There are some leaders who enjoy the role of a leader and the benefits of leadership, but in my mind I’ve always viewed the role of a leader much like I viewed the folks I’ve worked for in the past. There was a sense of humility always that existed from my relationship with Rob, my relationship with Virgil Kelley at an organization back in Florida as well as Joe Capello. There’s always a sense of humility that we have an obligation to our staff, to the families of our staff, and so I’ve always viewed my role as leader much in the same way: that it’s humbling being a leader of an organization. It’s also stressful, right? So I really look at the fundamental of my job, which is a lessons learned that I took away from a conference that I’ve attended where Scott, who at the time was the CEO of Walmart, said, “My single job in life is to make sure that I have the right product on the right shelf at the right time at the right price.” That resonated with me so much, and the reason being is that as a sales leader, I have to make sure that I have the right staff in front of the right customer with the right skills at the right time, and likewise my role as the sales leader within the training industry is to ensure that I’m also emphasizing our role and responsibilities and accountability of ensuring that I’m helping more clients, and at Learning Tree ensuring that their staff have the right people on the right job with the right skills at the right time. And so it’s a humbling role, but it’s an exciting one.
Fred: So let’s get to your advice for emerging selling professionals.
Brian: So I look at sales and, in sort of three buckets, the people themselves, the processes, and the technology that we use. So within there you can break that down and have a daylong conversation, which we don’t have [time for] today. So the four things I came to share with you today are what I call my four cornerstones: trust, confidence, positioning, and momentum. Those are four high-level elements.
Let’s take the trust vertical first. We talked about this in terms of the associations like IES and BD and ACT-IAC and FSIA, and that really is a mechanism for establishing trust, right? You are developing relationships; you’re sharing a commonality in terms of experiences and what one does with the other, and that trust is fundamental and critical to any long-term relationship. Does the customer look at you and understand that you have their best interest in mind and that’s it? That’s a very delicate dance, but a well-earned position to have once you get it.
So we move to confidence. Confidence is really, Okay, I trust you—but does your organization have the capabilities of actually delivering what you’ve told me that it can deliver, and how do we demonstrate that? Here in the federal government there’s a [phrase] that we like to use: past performance. So past performance really drives confidence. Buyers, executives, they’d like to see that I’m dealing with someone who can help me solve my problems, my sense of urgency, my goals.
Third is position. The CEB corporate executive board had a recent survey report that came out, and it said the number of stakeholders who were involved in a decision today is 5.4. So when I go back to my staff and I’m supporting them in their overall development, one of the key questions that I always ask them is “Who’s your best point of contact, and who is not your point of contact today that needs to be?” So we always talk about a four-up, four-down, and four-cross, which is really how are you establishing relationships with multiple stakeholders, in multiple positions within the organization… and finally if you’re doing all three of those things really well, momentum is the key. We need to ensure that the train is still moving, and if anything prevents that momentum, then there’s a risk in that equation. We’ve got to figure out what that risk is, dissect it, fix it, and mitigate it, whatever might be.
Fred: Let’s say you’re mentoring one of the guys on your team or one of the salespeople on your team and it’s apparent to you that they’re missing connecting with a couple of the critical [stakeholders]. Talk a little bit about how you would coach them, mentor, yell, instruct.
Brian: You know a lot of it’s just awareness, right? And as I have this project management blood running through my veins, I look at what we do in client engagement with a project management bent: Do we have the right requirements? Are there risks? Have we mitigated those risks? Do we have a cost benefit in mind? Is the client aware of that cost benefit of mine? And so we look at the complexity of an organization and how organizations, both private sector and public sector, and how they’re buying today.
It is no longer an individual decision in most cases, especially if you’re selling complex solutions like training, human capital, design, and IT solutions. There are multiple stakeholders, so really it is just pulling back that curtain and looking at the organization. So as part of our process internally at Learning Tree we have what’s called a customer profile, and within that customer profile we have a sort of matrix of the organization to really look at the hierarchy, starting from the CEO all the way down to the operational elements. and then we really look at that and say, Where does this decision impact this organization. In training and development we really are touching many people throughout the organization, so if I’m working with an organization at a shared-services level and I recognize that I’m training 1,000 people, that’s not one stakeholder that’s making that decision; there might be four or five or six different divisions. And when you look at true selection criteria, you’ve got to look at each of those stakeholders and say, Are each of these stakeholders already in a position that they understand that our solution is the best? Or is there weakness? Do we have relationships where they already have relationships with other vendors? What are those things that are their sense of urgency for their staff, and have we addressed that? It’s very easy once you start pulling back and really looking at the organization as a whole. You’ll very quickly realize that one is not the right number.
Fred: A lot of people come to us and say that sales is harder today because of some of the things you talked about: competition, pricing challenges. You mentioned CEB of course they published the Challenger study a number of years ago, which said that the customer 57% of the time will have made their decision before they even talk.
Brian: That’s right.
Fred: Conversely, some people have said to us that sales is easier than it’s ever been with tools like LinkedIn, marketing automation, and things like that. So I’m just curious if you think sales today is harder, or do you think sales today is easier that’s ever been?
Brian: Nothing is easy in this world today. We live in a very complex world, and money is very tight, and decisions are all the more difficult, but what I would say, what I think they’re trying to say, is that accessibility to data and contacts is easier, and I would agree with that statement. If you look at LinkedIn and all the social elements that are out there now with Twitter and so on, you can find individuals within organizations fairly rapidly, and with the big-data craze that’s out there, there are now a lot of organizations that have access to these organizational data points. I was just talking with another organization this week: LinkedIn is now selling access to their contacts, Discovery.org is doing this. So access to those folks is certainly much easier today. However, you don’t get away from the core elements of selling: Is there a sense of urgency? Are there requirements? Do they have trust that you can actually deliver what they’re asking for? Is there confidence in your organization? It all gets back to those elements. So yes, data access to individuals is easier, but selling is still just as difficult.
Fred: What do you do to sharpen your saw? What are you doing to stay fresh? What are you doing to stay ahead of the curve to continue to take your career to the next level as a sales leader?
Brian: A great question, and I’d say three things that we’re working on at Learning Tree right now is, number one, we are aligning our product development, our marketing as well as our sales life cycles together as one. Number two, we’re ensuring that we’re still relevant in the marketplace with today’s interests. How people are learning today is much different than how they were learning 10 years ago. And the third component I would say is really what we started off with today, which is a nice way to come full circle, which is understanding that voice of the customer is still the most important component of any sales professional to understand. You [have to] understand what your client needs. You have an infinite responsibility of being accountable to those needs and ultimately designing a solution that, whether it might be yours or in a partnership relationship, is able to deliver. That is still critical today.
Produced by Rosario Suarez