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EPISODE 153: If You Do This One Thing, Salesforce Sales Exec Connor Marsden Says You Can Drive Leadership Greatness
CONNOR’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Be willing to forgive people if they make mistakes. Be willing to forgive yourself if you make a mistake. You always need to be thinking about what’s in front of you, what’s next and if people are looking back, it can impact the level of work and the greatness that you can drive.”
Connor Marsden is the Senior VP of Strategic Accounts at Salesforce.
Prior to coming to Salesforce, he held sales leadership positions at Microsoft.
Find Connor on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: I’m very excited to hear your story. We’ve had a couple Salesforce senior sales leaders: Dave Rey who runs Global Public Sector and Joe Markwordt who’s a VP for federal and public sector. I’m excited to hear your story, you do something different at Salesforce and I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Connor Marsden: First off, thanks for having me, Fred. It’s been great to see your business grow over the years as we’ve gotten to know each other. I’ve been here at Salesforce for 4 years now working in the commercial accounts, not the public sector accounts. DC native, grew up in Virginia, live in Leesburg, wife works at Booz Allen, two great kids – 8 and 10 years old, and I think sales is one of the best careers one can get into.
Fred Diamond: We’ll be talking about your career through the course of the podcast. Most people listening to the show probably know about Salesforce at some level, but why don’t you tell us what you sell today and why don’t you tell us what excites you about that?
Connor Marsden: My team is responsible for the largest accounts at Salesforce, hence the name “strategic” and we sell the full portfolio of Salesforce offerings, really helping our customers along digital transformation. I think what’s exciting about my role and the work that our teams do is that we’re really at the forefront in helping some of the largest brands that you can think of rethink their business models, rethink how they are engaging with their customers, rethink about what it means to support our customer’s customers. It’s really exciting, it drives a lot of C-level conversations and it’s something that’s very rewarding because you can actually see the impact in the market.
Fred Diamond: You just touched on something that comes up not infrequently with some of the sales leaders we talk about on the Sales Game Changers podcast, the fact that you need to know what your customer’s mission is, what your customer is trying to achieve with their customers. What would you say to a young sales professional about that?
Connor Marsden: I think when people come to me and ask for advice, the first thing I say is you’ve got to be curious. It’s the sales professionals that are curious, that are always asking the question why, “Why is the company doing that?”, “Why are they organized that way?”, “Why are we selling in the way that we’re selling?” They ultimately may not know the answer, but they’ll figure out a way to pull together the right team to collaborate in an efficient way and come up with an answer that they can bring to their customer that may be insightful and helps move the conversation forward. That’s my one best piece of advice for any young sales professional, be curious and ask a lot of questions.
Fred Diamond: Who do you sell to? Is it typically C-suites? CIO, CTO, CEO, CFO?
Connor Marsden: There’s been a pretty significant shift at Salesforce in what we’re seeing. Traditionally a lot of digital transformation was running through the CIO group in partnership with some of the key business leaders but more and more we’re seeing CEO’s roll up their sleeves to drive the digital transformation agenda. I’d say in a high percentage of our accounts now we’re having CEO level conversations which is exciting because they’re the ones who are setting the agenda and driving the initiatives through their teams.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about your career, how did you first get into sales as a career?
Connor Marsden: I never thought I had an option, I always thought that I’d be in sales. Both my brothers are in financial services as financial advisers which is a different flavor of sales. I thought I was going to go into that market, I graduated from University of Richmond in ’99 and that was right at the tail end of the dot com boom. It was either go to Wall Street or go into technology but since nobody ever made money in Wall Street – at least prevailing, everyone was making money on these dot com’s – I went into technology in sales. It’s been a great decision.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about some of your first few sales jobs and some of the key lessons you learned from those jobs.
Connor Marsden: When I really think about from technology sales it was at 24 years old, I started selling ERP software for a company up in Frederick called Scorpion Systems. The two things I learned is you always have to be prospecting for new leads and opportunities. You’ve got to fill your pipeline, you can never rest in that area. The second thing that I learned was to build trust, you have to build trusted relationships with inside your customers. If you don’t, you’re going to be in big trouble so you can always have a big pipeline and you can build trusted relationships. The numbers in sales are going to take care of themselves.
Fred Diamond: The concept of trusted relationships comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast. How do you develop that trust?
Connor Marsden: I think we’re seeing it in all facets of life today, I think you build trust by being authentic. It’s the sales leaders, the sales professionals who are authentic, who put themselves out there, who are willing to take risks, who are very self-aware at the same time, those are the folks that customers are going to listen to because they’re going to realize that the agenda that the sales person has is their customer’s agenda. They’re going to know that by being authentic they can trust them, and when you don’t have those things you’re going to fail in the trust parameter and you’re really going to struggle.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you, tell us what you’re an expert in and tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Connor Marsden: I don’t know if I have an area of brilliance. I think what I try to do with my team is a couple things. First and foremost, I’m a very big believer in empathetic leadership especially as you climb higher up in an organization. You’re interfacing with your product leaders, you’re interfacing with your marketing leaders, you’re interfacing with your sales operation and finance teams, you’re interfacing with your customers, you’re interfacing with partners and things get rather complex rather quickly. You have to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
I think being an empathetic leader is critical, and then I’d say one last thing and that’s to simplify. Based on this complexity, I think I do a fairly decent job of helping the teams simplify what actually do we need to go do, what are the immediate next steps that we need to drive, let’s just think of this one problem at a time and let’s go execute aggressively to get that done.
Fred Diamond: We’ll get some more tips from you and you’ve already given us great tips. You work now for Salesforce, you worked at Microsoft for 10 years, two of the biggest names in the history of technology. We have a lot of people listening to the podcast around the globe who are maybe striving to work for blue-chip companies like that in technology side. What’s it like to work as a sales leader in a company like this?
Connor Marsden: In a company like Salesforce?
Fred Diamond: Salesforce or Microsoft, two of the biggest names in the history of technology.
Connor Marsden: What I love about working at Salesforce is the impact you can have. First off, we’re a values-driven organization, we believe in trust, customer success, innovation and equality as our values and you have to live by that. I think as a company we live by that, I think my team lives by those values and I think that leads to our success. I think the key thing of working at Salesforce is the accountability that you need to have. We’re the fastest growing enterprise software firm in the world, we’re posting incredible results on a quarter by quarter basis. The expectations you need to hold for yourself, the way that you need to hold yourself and others accountable is pretty high but that’s also pretty exciting because you can actually see the impact that that’s driving across the sphere of responsibility that you have.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve worked for Microsoft, presently of course you’re the Senior VP of Strategic Accounts at Salesforce. You must have had some great mentors along the way. Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales mentor and how they impacted your career?
Connor Marsden: I’ve had a couple great mentors. At Microsoft I had a great mentor, a woman by the name of Jamie Tozzi. I think what I learned from Jamie is the power of collaboration and bringing teams together and solving problems as a unit. She had such a knack of putting the team in front of herself and being humble and I learned a great deal from her.
Here at Salesforce we have a great sales leader, he runs our commercial business, Warren Wick. Warren has taught me the power of not only relationships but the power of impactful relationships, and when you really take the time to get to know somebody and what’s important to them, how far that can help you when working with your customers.
Fred Diamond: Talk about that for a few moments, what does that mean? Impactful relationships with your customers, with your partners, with your peers.
Connor Marsden: I think ultimately the #1 currency that we have as salespeople is our time. You want to develop relationships where people value your time, value your input and are willing to do things to help you move things faster in an accelerated pace and help drive organizational alignment. It’s not about having a relationship, it’s about having a relationship where someone’s willing to do something to help further your cause. Generally that’s because you’ve been authentic with them and you’ve built that trust.
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges you face as a sales leader or you see sales leaders being faced with?
Connor Marsden: I think the first is talent. Things are getting more and more complex, as a result you need to have incredible talent who’s accountable, who’s driven, who’s proactive with what they’re tasked to do and that’s hard. You have to be constantly looking at your talent and evaluating, looking for how you can coach them and help them along their career journey.
We talk a lot about solution sales and we talk a lot about solutions across the board. The reality is that from a solution perspective we need to find talent and people who can put together a picture where there’s no road map. You can’t tell in any one of my accounts whether I’m dealing with either a large hospitality company or a Fortune 500 manufacturer. There’s no road map about how they need to change their digital road map on how they’re going to engage with their customers in a more efficient way. There’s no PDF I can send to them, I need them to be able to go, make a connection, interview dozens of people, build trust so that we can ultimately come back and show them the way. That’s not something you can develop, you can’t train somebody, there’s that X factor that you need to look for in your talent that enables them to be able to succeed in that type of environment.
Fred Diamond: Is there a second challenge that you feel is pretty strong as well?
Connor Marsden: The next challenge is just time and acceleration. If you’re a growth company, it’s how do you get done with what you need to get done today so you can get to tomorrow. Ultimately it’s a race against the clock to help our customers move faster, to help our teams move faster and that’s the biggest challenge at Salesforce that we face frequently. I think we’ve got great people that help us along that journey but we’re always trying to do more, quicker, faster.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got a question about that. You’re a pretty high energy guy, what are some things you do to manage your time more effectively for the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast?
Connor Marsden: I’ve got a fantastic assistant, Sheryl Monroe, she does a great job of keeping me organized. She doesn’t let me touch the counter, I just push everything over to her. I think for me, it’s what are the important connections and how do I minimize my team’s internal distractions, how do I ensure that the majority of my time is spent externally focused? I try to spend the majority of my time on customer facing activities and put aside the internal things that may feel like it is important but isn’t urgent and critical to ultimately driving revenue. There’s a lot more you can do in front of a customer and learning about where you need to take your business versus trying to have an internal meeting and talking about it.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about the #1 specific sale success or win from your career you’re most proud of?
Connor Marsden: I think where I’m most proud of is where our teams have been successful, or you see a team tackle a really difficult challenge. I’ll share a personal story. When I came to Salesforce, we were right at the front end of working with a local company, Marriott, and we’ve got a fantastic Account Executive, Bryan London, on the account who’s literally second to none in my book. We created a goal to get Marriott on stage with Dreamforce which is the largest technology conference for business.
We choose two customers a year to highlight and to be the center of the show. We spent several years building towards, “How do we get Marriott to be one of our premiere customers?” In this past Dreamforce we were able to get successful, we had the great team from Marriott: Arne Sorenson, the CEO, we had Stephanie Linnartz on main stage, and then surrounded by an incredible team at Marriott about how together with Salesforce we’ve really helped them transform how they think about their guest experience. That’s been very rewarding.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question being in sales? Did you ever think to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Connor Marsden: I have a saying for my team all the time that I use: our business can make you look a lot smarter than you are at times and can make you look a lot dumber than you are at times. In those times where it is hard, I always go back to that and think we’ve had a tremendous amount of success, we’ve closed a lot of business, we’ve closed a lot of large deals, let’s just get back to the basics. We know how to do this and you have to have the confidence in yourself. I’ve never questioned my ability to be in sales or to continue a career in sales, but at the difficult times where you would normally challenge, that’s where you have to have confidence in yourself and your leadership and in your team to not point fingers but to be self-reflective on, “How can I improve?”, “How can the team improve?” and “What are the things that we need to do to get back on track?”
Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break, I want to ask you a slightly different question. I’ve actually never asked this question before, but the reason I’m asking it to you is I’ve been to the Dreamforce conference a couple of times, it’s a lot of fun. We’re doing today’s interview at the offices of Salesforce in Reston, Virginia. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the DC area, it’s about 20 minutes outside of DC. We walked to a conference room and there’s stand up desks, people seem to be having a good time and we had some nice coffee here as well.
How important is fun, do you think, to being successful in a high-pressure type of a company like a Salesforce? And again you were at Microsoft, high demands, you’re working with some of the big companies in the world, you’re working with some of the smartest people in the history of technology, talk about fun. How critical is that for the people listening on the podcast?
Connor Marsden: It is a core thing that I think about all the time, I’ve never been asked that question.
Fred Diamond: I’ve never asked it as well, it just came up to me.
Connor Marsden: If you fundamentally think that things are getting more complex and you need to be able to collaborate, have a large network both internally and externally, you need to be able to build connections and you do that through having a good time, through having fun. Every year I do an off-site, I’ve got a lake house out in Western Maryland and I bring a hundred of our AE’s up and I host them for two days. The first night I cook them dinner with my managers – that’s not a meal I recommend to anyone to join – but we get everyone together and we have fun, we have a good time, we tell jokes, we have live music.
I think it’s important because it creates the atmosphere that you can build relationships, it creates the atmosphere that people are willing to go the extra mile, to make the extra phone call. It’s not just about what’s in it for you, it’s about what’s in it for the team and that’s where you have relationships.
Fred Diamond: Connor, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals listening to the podcast to help them improve their career?
Connor Marsden: We spoke earlier about being curious, we spoke about being a great collaborator. I think you want to be someone who is known for helping others, someone that is willing to share their expertise, that’s willing to help solve a problem that’s maybe not in their best interest, invest your time in others. I think that’s another piece of advice that I give to someone early in their career. The other piece of advice I give is to be concise, concise in your communication, concise in your emails and concise in how you express your ideas to your customers.
Fred Diamond: What are some things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Connor Marsden: I’m a pretty voracious reader, I like to read sales books, I like to talk about sales, I like to brainstorm with my peers and my customers on what’s happening inside sales and question the paradigm and think about what we can do differently and better.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Connor Marsden: What I’m working on right now is across a whole host of customers. I had an hour-long meeting yesterday, Fortune 100 firm and they are rethinking their entire go-to-market strategy. Where typically, large industrial companies have their complex ERP systems and business divisions and went to market to their customers, they’re thinking, “How do you put the customer at the center and then how do we orient all of our divisions and businesses to go after that customer?” and then, “What channels do we want to interact with them and how do we want to actually sell to them? How do we want to make it easy and efficient for them to do business?”
It’s a game changing strategy that they have and we’re the first team that they’ve actually rolled it out to, they have the trust in us to fly out to San Francisco to take the first crack on how to solve that. If they do, that’ll have reverberations across the country in large Fortune 500 industrial accounts. I think those types of initiatives that I’m working on with my customers are really invigorating.
Fred Diamond: When the customer calls you in that type of trusted relationship, that’s actually very exciting. Connor, sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or emails, there’s a lot of demands, you mentioned time, things are moving so quickly. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Connor Marsden: Every day is different. When you work for a large technology company like Salesforce, there’s no cookie cutter day. If you’re driving digital transformation, each transformation is unique. The transformation that we’re driving at Marriott around their guest experience is different than the transformation that we’re working on with a large staffing firm or a large airline that we’re working with. The problems are unique to the companies and they’ve got their own unique take. I think it’s fun to be at the tip of the spear having those conversations.
Fred Diamond: Connor, why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners today?
Connor Marsden: First and foremost, know who you are as a sales leader, live the values that drive you. One of my core values, and I’ll lead you through this, is forgiveness because ultimately in a complex world where everyone’s working hard and driving fast, is be willing to forgive people if they make mistakes. Be willing to forgive yourself if you make a mistake. You always need to be thinking about what’s in front of you, what’s next and if people are looking back, I think it can impact the level of work and the greatness that you can drive. That’s the one lesson that I’d share as we end the podcast.
Fred Diamond: You’re the first person to use that word in the history of the Sales Game Changers podcast and it’s very powerful because one thing that comes up not infrequently is “next play, keep moving.” You’ve got to move forward, you’ve got to remove the blocks that stopped you in a deal that didn’t happen or whatever it might be. How do you do that? How do you forgive yourself, just curious? How can someone apply that message?
Connor Marsden: I think it needs to show up in your day to day. It’s how you treat others, it’s how you treat others when things don’t go well and as a sales leader people are going to look to you for how you respond and react. They’re either going to lean into the problem or they’re going to get into a crouch and get defensive. If they know, because you’ve lived your values, that you’re going to forgive and they know that you’re not going to constantly use that hammer against them that they’re going to lean into the challenge and you’re going to get the best out of them in that next at-bat.
That’s why I think it’s so powerful and important at least for me personally in my sales leadership skills to embody that and what I ask my sales leaders to do as well because ultimately, we don’t have all the answers and we’re going to make mistakes. Learning from those mistakes is ultimately what’s going to make us better as a company, as a team and I think that’s what’s going to help build trust with customers.