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EPISODE 173: Appian Sales Chief David Mitchell Explains Why LEAN – Land, Expand, Align, and Nurture – Should Be at the Core of Your Corporate Sales Efforts
DAVID’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Know your product, know your customers. Lean on your company for help and get your face in the place. Those are the things I think about the most.”
David Mitchell is the Senior VP of Worldwide Sales at Appian.
Prior to coming to Appian, David was a President and COO at Version One.
He was the CEO at Global 360 and was also the CEO at webMethods.
Find David on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you sell today? Tell us what excites you about that.
David Mitchell: At Appian we sell a platform that enables companies to build enterprise applications, and our differentiation is around the speed at which they can do that. With Appian, it’s about putting together a high-impact application from an idea, it is a matter of 8 weeks. In fact, that’s our guarantee. If you go to our website we talk about the fact that you should expect that your project be up and running very quickly.
The speed at which you can do that is a big differentiation for us but the impact that it has on the organization is obviously another impact. When you talk to our customers, they talk a lot about the speed at which we can get these applications up and running but they talk a lot about the fact that we get it done right which leads to the impact that they have as organizations.
We focus primarily in financial services with large banks both on the corporate side and the retail side. We also focus on insurance companies, we focus on the federal government given our headquarter location here we have some natural affinities to get to a lot of federal government agencies. We focus on large pharmaceutical companies, we focus on healthcare both on the payer and the provider side and then of course we have a whole range of other industries that we sell to. We’ve gotten pretty deep in the verticals that I just outlined.
Fred Diamond: Who are typically the people you sell to?
David Mitchell: That’s interesting because in Appian you don’t have to be an IT person to use the platform. In fact, it was designed what I like to say for “mere mortals”, so super-humans can do really cool things with the platform but we also have “mere mortals” doing wonderful things with the platform. I’m talking about business people and analysts in addition to the IT staff.
Our sale cycles are multi-level selling engagements, we have to engage with the business because the business is looking for the result from the application, the process improvement, the efficiencies that they get from the application but we also have to sell to the IT organization because they have to make sure that everything that we do is kosher with their standards and security concerns. More importantly, it makes them more productive with the backlog of projects that the business is putting on. It really is a multi-level sale that both the business person and the IT person can take advantage of.
Fred Diamond: How did you first get into sales as a career? How did you first get into the sales side?
David Mitchell: I finished up school and was trying to figure out where I was going to go and what I was going to be, I was a bartender at the time. I had run short of a little bit of money and you reach out to your parents and my dad said, “You know what? Instead of sending you a check, I’m going to hire you to be a salesperson.” I said, “Well, as long as it pays.” [Laughs] He hired me – this was over 30 years ago – to be an inside salesperson for a computer security software that he was part of, a software company and I sold to the federal government.
I literally cut my teeth on the inside sales role, it was all about smiling and dialing. We have business development reps here, we call them BDR’s, that’s a new fancy term for inside sales but I joke with them. When I was doing it, the biggest piece of technology that we had was the thing that you put on the phone receiver so that your neck didn’t have to go all the way down. Of course, today they have all kinds of wonderful automation. It was all about smiling and dialing and activity and getting your face in the place. I carried that throughout my career.
Fred Diamond: As an inside sales person back then did you ever get out of the building? Did you ever go on to the customer site?
David Mitchell: Yes, quite a bit. That’s another thing that really got me excited about being a sales professional, was that ability to engage with the customer and not just convince them that you have the best product and the best approach but to really understand what problems they were trying to solve. For sales reps, that’s sort of figure that out quickly in sale cycles or be able to bring forward what other customers that they’ve sold to and why they were successful to a new customer engagement. We see those kinds of salespeople move a lot faster particularly at Appian, but in all the companies that I’ve been affiliated with.
Fred Diamond: Just curiously, was your dad the owner, the VP of Sales at the company where you worked at originally?
David Mitchell: He represented a couple company’s products so he had his own company and literally it was just him and I for a while, and it expanded to some more employees. Eventually I decided that I needed to cut out on my own, so I went to work for a startup and basically we from scratch decided that IT Help Desk Software was an interesting opportunity. We had some experience with some existing customers when I joined the company around asset management and data center management.
Back in the early 90’s, late 80’s IT Help Desk started to really spring forward as a big problem for corporate America. We started to build an application there and eventually I ended up running that company, it was a very small company. Along the way McAfee approached us and actually acquired the company, so I went onto McAfee to run their Help Desk and network management software division and then after a couple years of really getting to know what it was like to be in a big software company decided that I wanted to do a startup again. That’s when I was engaged with webMethods and I joined webMethods as the tenth employee to run sales.
Fred Diamond: Of course that was a great success in the DC region or the Virginia region as well. Take us back to your first few sales jobs, tell us some of the key lessons you learned from some of those first few sales jobs.
David Mitchell: It’s interesting, working for your father has its pluses and its minuses. The pluses were just the wealth of experience that I got exposed to right away because he was a sales professional up until his retirement. I tell it to new salespeople today, there’s not any secret sauce here, it’s about smiling and dialing, it’s activity, it’s about getting your face in the place, it’s about understanding your customer problems, it’s about prioritizing your time. It’s about understanding your product, understanding why your product is different, understanding your competition. It’s the work ethic around all of that so that you can be well armed in each and every sale cycle. There’s no secret thing that you can tap into, it’s really about the work.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you, what are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
David Mitchell: I haven’t figured that out yet, I’m still trying to figure that out.
Fred Diamond: (laughs) Me neither.
David Mitchell: I think what I’m good at is that failure is not an option, that’s how I live all my experiences. I want to work hard but early in my career I learned that working smart is as important. I think one of the most valuable lessons I learned in probably the first decade of my sales experience was really around following a process. You can’t just wing it, you have to figure out what process works and what processes are repeatable and you also can’t do it all by yourself.
We have a saying around here, “We are Appian sales” and what that means is that it’s not just the AE’s, the account executives, it’s not just the sales management team, it’s not even just the systems engineers, it’s the whole company and how do you get the whole company working for the sales effort and making sales happen. I learned in some cases the hard way that if you didn’t get the resources focused on what you wanted to achieve in terms of your sales efforts, it became a lot harder to do.
Fred Diamond: Would you mind telling us some things that you do to get the entire company based around sales? We talk about everybody is in sales and sales culture and things like that, but give us some things that you do to get the rest of the organization involved. One of the reasons why we do the Sales Game Changers podcast is because at the end of the day, if your company doesn’t sell, the lights go off and there’s no jobs for the accountants and there’s no jobs for the people in AP. Tell us some of the things that you do to support that.
David Mitchell: Key is strategy, our strategy here, I have an acronym for it, it’s called LEAN. It does have an agile sound to it because that word is used in a lot of different used cases around agile, it’s actually a book, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. It’s not what I’m talking about here but I use the acronym because the letters are representative about how I want to focus the company’s resources to drive our sales efforts.
L for Land, there are certain prescriptive things that we do to land into new accounts and then there are certain things that have to happen when we land in those accounts so that we can do what the next letter represents which is Expand. The fact that we guarantee a result in a very short amount of weeks allows us to Expand on the success of that first project. One of the things that we do on our sales efforts is make sure that a sales rep understands that don’t just find that first project, you need to also find project #2, 3, 4 and 5 while you’re selling that first project.
We have a designation for projects called S4, Stage 4 deals and we have a saying which is, “Sell S4’s while you’re selling the S4.” That has caught wildfire. What that means is you’ve got to involve professional services, you’ve got to involve customer care, you’ve got to involve our cloud people, you’ve got to involve legal to put the right deals together, you have to use the whole company to drive that Land experience so that it successfully drives the Expansion.
That gets into the third letter in LEAN which is Align. Align meaning how do you and the company align, because it’s a multi-level sales process. How do you align with the executives and stake holders of your customers? Also, how do you align with the executives and the stake holders of your partner? Because in many cases our deals – and it’s not just in Appian’s business but in software business in general – are influenced by large systems integrators. If your strategy and goals aren’t aligned with the systems integrator and you’re trying to get into a major corporate client which they have a toehold in in terms of their consulting business, chances are they could be a gatekeeper that if you don’t pay attention to, you’re going to have trouble getting through. Aligning with that partner, aligning with the customer but then also aligning internally is key to the overall process.
The fourth letter of course is Nurture, everybody talks about taking great care of your customers. I’ve never seen a sales rep stand up in front of an audience and say, “We really suck at customer support”, that’s just not going to be a way that you pitch your company but everybody says, “We’re good at customer success.” Prove it and the way we prove it of course is we show results in terms of customer references, but more importantly we talk about the fact that in 8 weeks you can get to value. We point to things like in our financial statements where our net recurring revenue is 115% to 120% meaning that customers not only renew their subscriptions but they buy more during that renewal period.
You have to live that and breathe it within the organization. In fact, the value here and why I joined Appian and why Matt Calkins hired me is that the customer wins. If we don’t focus on the customer winning, they don’t buy more and that’s something that I’ve taken to heart.
Fred Diamond: That’s pretty powerful. You talked about your dad, but why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor or two and how they impacted your career?
David Mitchell: Over 30 years you meet a lot of people, you meet a lot of different salespeople, you meet a lot of different executives. I’ve been leader in sales but also an operator that had more than just sales. CEO both public and private situations, I’ve been on the private equity side, I’ve been on boards so I’ve been able to meet quite a few folks. I would say that one mentor I had particularly during my webMethods experience, I would say I had a great relationship with Phillip Merrick who was the CEO there. A lot of that was him and I learning together because we were both fairly young and building the company literally from scratch. Phillip taught me a lot about paying attention to the customer and the customer being the focal point of everything that we do.
A guy that joined our board, a guy by the name of Bill Russel who came from HP Software, he became a mentor to me particularly during the transition when I became a CEO and Phillip decided to retire, the board decided to make me the CEO and quite frankly, that was a pretty daunting situation. It wasn’t the best of the economy, the stock market wasn’t treating all of us dot com folks very well so we really had to make some tough decisions. Having an experienced software executive like Bill Russel to lean on – not only to bounce ideas off of, but to have him be able to talk to my management team not necessarily with me in the room – gave me an interesting perspective where I could trust what his feedback was. More importantly, I took advantage of some of the ideas that he had and then of course that would support me with the board and my team and so forth. That’s another guy that comes to mind.
Fred Diamond: As a sales leader now, what are the two biggest challenges you face?
David Mitchell: Scale, that’s something that I think about quite a bit. We talked about mere mortals and super-humans. I think about the whole scaled opportunity at Appian and we’re going to continue to grow our sales organization but we’re not going to scale that sales organization in a consistent basis country to country unless we have a platform and a repeatable process that can be learned pretty quickly by the right talent. You have to hire the right people, you have to hire to the right profile but when you put that human into your platform you’ve got to have some predictable results. The only way you’re going to have those predictable results is if you have a solid process by which you can put them through.
One of the things that we focus on quite a bit is that pipeline activity, so get your face in the place. That’s actually something that I heard from a Salesforce executive one time so I can’t claim to it but it’s catching on like wildfire here. Get out there, meet with your customers, meet with your partners, understand what their problems are. By the way, here are the customers that look like these customers that you’re meeting with and here’s the value that they’ve gotten. Here are the partners that have made it successful, here are the demos that have been able to attract their attention, here is the content that you’re going to need to be able to talk about.
When they mention this competitor you’re going to have to say X, Y and Z and you’re going to want to make these positioning statements so that you can lay some landlines. All of that enablement ingrained into the process has to be there so that you can get that repeatable success which is I want to see sales reps on the board in the first 90 to 120 days of their tenure. I was told that that’s pretty difficult to do in enterprise software. Failure’s not an option, going back to my earlier comment. We’ve got to figure out how to get them on the board in enterprise selling and we’ve been able to do a pretty good job here. The AE attainment has gone up pretty substantially over the last year, but more importantly that ability to get to a 2, 3X pipeline in the first 60 to 90 days is a big focus area
Fred Diamond: I have a question for you. You talked about align in your acronym LEAN, aligning with your customer and your partners, but a lot of people now rely on technology, they can’t leave the office. You expect them to do so much in the office, it’s hard to get into customer facilities now. I asked you before when you started your career if you were inside sales but if you made it outside of the building and you said, “Absolutely.” What do you do today to get people away from their phones into the customer, meeting with people, building relationships when there seems to be so much of a pull to keep people inside and on the phone?
David Mitchell: First of all, you’ve got to have partners. You can’t do this without strong partnerships because they give you the credibility but they also give you access and more importantly, they give you visibility into the account so you really know what’s going on. That’s one strategy for access and getting the message to your target. You’ve got to take advantage of what’s going on in the social networking infrastructure. LinkedIn is a very valuable platform, believe it or not and I think there’s more believers than not. We were trying to enter a particular industry last year where we had very little customer traction but we had a great customer story.
We wanted to get that customer story out as part of the lead in our campaign to get meetings. You could smile and dial all day long but if you didn’t connect it was hard to get the story out so we came up with a LinkedIn email campaign to certain titles that focused on this particular use case. It didn’t talk about business process management or case management or RPA, any of the technology acronyms, it talked about a business solution that solved a very specific problem and the result that they got in this particular case, they saved about $25 million dollars in the first year.
Lo and behold, all of the sudden we started getting meetings and they wanted to talk about this solution that we talked about. This is not a big secret out there, but taking advantage of your partners, the social platforms, people like to hear about customer stories and that’s what I tell my reps as well. If you do anything in your first 90 to 120 days, you need to learn 6, 7 or 10 customer stories that are relevant to your territory and you’ve got to be conversational about it. You don’t have to be an expert, but you’ve got to talk about the customer because people buy from people and they want to see that you’re going to be somebody that they can trust and you’ve made other people like them successful.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of.
David Mitchell: I mentioned that I’ve been doing this for 30 years, there’s been a lot of good sales scenarios. Top of mind, at webMethods we had an interesting experience in very early days, we were looking for that lane that we could drive through that would allow us to start building pipelines, start building repeatable sale success. I would say that allowing the prospects to download the software and play with it and then understanding the feedback they gave. There was one particular customer, a very large computer manufacturer who called us up one day and said, “We’ve been playing with your software and we’ve figured out a way to share information real time with our suppliers, we’ve integrated it into our ERP system, we think this is pretty cool. Can you come show us more?”
That’s when I said, “A-ha, this is supply chain execution, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to rinse and repeat, we’re going to focus on this.” Even though that deal initially wasn’t very big, it turned out to help us build a $220 million company that eventually went public. That was a pretty thrilling event. There’s been numerous situations where the customers have not been as happy as you’d want them to be and to turn a customer around, to improve their satisfaction, to get them to say good things about you is great. To do that and get them to buy more is another challenge and I’ve had numerous experiences where we’ve been able to accomplish that.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question to yourself, did you ever think, “It’s too hard, it’s really just not for me”?
David Mitchell: I don’t want to sound egotistical but I’ve never really questioned it. I’ve always loved it primarily because – and that’s what I love about computer software – you can take concepts and apply it to business problems and in a very quick fashion if you have the right product solve these problems and create real value. To be able to sell that is kind of a no-brainer, so I’ve always loved sales.
Fred Diamond: David, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their career to the next level?
David Mitchell: Know your product, know your customers. Lean on your company for help and get your face in the place, those are the things I think about the most.
Fred Diamond: Get your face in the place. Tell us about some of your selling habits that have led to your sales success.
David Mitchell: I can tell you a lot of habits that I don’t do anymore because it wasn’t successful. Some of the things that I learned, I’ve learned that process is important, I talked about that earlier. When you’re younger and you’re entering this industry in enterprise sale, software selling or solution selling it’s easy to not pay attention to process. You kind of know through brute strength and personality, “I’m good with people, I’m going to go make things happen”, what happens is you get unpredictable results.
You may get lucky, but in most part you’re going to be disappointed. Following process, working smart with the process, understanding what the prescriptions are around different sales plays. They’re there for a reason, it’s because they’ve demonstrated success in the past so don’t be afraid to learn those new things and apply them to your selling behaviors. If you push back on that, a lone wolf mentality, you may be successful but more times than not you’re going to be frustrated. In a future podcast when someone says, “Do you regret being in sales?” you may be one of those people that say, “I regret it.”
Fred Diamond: [Laughs] if that’s the case, you’re probably not going to be on the show. What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
David Mitchell: It’s really around scale. We’re in hyper growth mode here, we’re hiring like crazy and that’s a good thing, it’s a good problem to have. The issue is if you don’t really pay attention to the enablement, how you scale new reps to productivity you can put a stall into the machine. It’s really important that we move fast on getting new reps into the organization and get them ramped up, but it’s really important that we have the infrastructure around enablement and a partner ecosystem that they can work with so that we can drive demand for them to go sell.
Fred Diamond: Curiously, you mentioned partnerships a number of times through the podcast. What types of companies does Appian partner with?
David Mitchell: Appian partners with the who’s who of systems integrators, large systems integrators. Accenture, KPMG, Deloitte, PWC. On the federal side, it’s the who’s who of government contractors. In some of the niche verticals we have what I call second tier or boutique systems integrators that help us out quite a bit because they have a local presence and a focus on a particular business problem within a particular vertical. It’s mostly on the delivery side, companies that focus on delivery and consulting that we partner with.
Fred Diamond: What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going for all these years?
David Mitchell: Nothing gets done until a sale is made, so it makes it a pretty important function within the organization. I’ve always had the personality of wanting to be out and front and trying to make things happen. It’s rewarding financially, of course but it’s also rewarding to have great customer relationships. People sometimes lose focus on reputation and your network, bad news travels faster than good news so this may not be your only job in your career. Being able to build great customer relationships that you can go back to from job to job has been something that I’ve been able to take advantage of. That’s one of the key questions I ask every AE when they come here to apply for the job, “Who are your customers, can we talk to them?” and they always go, “Why do you want to talk to them?” “Because I want to know how you treated them, and by the way I want to know if they’re going to buy from you again.” That’s an important part of my focus and the rewards that I’ve gotten by having those kind of relationships.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great answer. We’ve interviewed Sales Game Changers who’ve been in the same career selling to the same type of customer for 15, 20, 30, sometimes as many as 40 somewhat years. Over the course of the podcast we’ve heard great stories that, “I’ve been with my customer for 30 years, I might have moved to one or two places” and there are some people we’ve interviewed who’ve been in the same place for 20, 30 years in companies like Oracle and Microsoft. In a lot of places they’ve continued to develop those relationships. David, I want to thank you. You’ve given us some great insights on today’s Sales Game Changers podcast. We have listeners around the globe, why don’t you give us a final thought to inspire them today?
David Mitchell: Get your face in the place.