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EPISODE 156: WebbMason’s Doug Traxler Tells How an Awkward Negotiation with American Airlines Led to His Sales Success
DOUG’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Be proud of sales as a profession. It’s one of the great careers. There’s a lot of companies that need their problems solved and if it wasn’t for us walking through the door and asking those questions, they couldn’t grow and they couldn’t change. I think it’s one of the finest careers you can aspire to.”
Doug Traxler is the Chief Revenue Officer at WebbMason, a full-service marketing firm based in Hunt Valley, Maryland.
He’s been there for 24 years. He was employee number 11 and now they have over 400 employees.
Find Doug on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little bit about what you sell today, tell us a little bit about WebbMason. Again, you’ve been here for 24 years, tell us what excites you about that.
Doug Traxler: WebbMason is a marketing logistics and marketing operations company, we help companies market. However they’re trying to go to their markets and talk to their potential customers or prospects, that’s what we do and that can be printing, promotional products and branding, websites digital media, social and content.
Right in that answer is why it’s so exciting, this is the golden age of marketing. Channels and media have exploded, marketers have tools that they never had before and they’re all trying to figure it out, we’re all trying to figure it out together. It’s exciting because how to use these tools mixing them together, how to reach consumers and prospects and that thing is really evolving, it’s an evolving science right now. It used to be pretty simple, now it’s pretty complicated.
Fred Diamond: Has WebbMason always been in all these areas of marketing or did you guys start out as something different and evolve to this?
Doug Traxler: We started out mainly in print, direct mail, signage, brochures, those sort of things. As marketing has changed, our company has changed because things like mobile and mobile advertising wasn’t even a thing that was tracked 10 years ago as a channel. We’ve evolved and marketing is changing really fast right now.
Fred Diamond: Who specifically do you sell to, who are your customers that you’re physically getting to buy your products and services?
Doug Traxler: The best way to give that context, call it the Fortune 3000 without the Fortune 200. We really don’t call on those top, massive organizations. We’re going to help middle and upper-middle market companies market better.
Fred Diamond: How did you first get into sales as a career?
Doug Traxler: [Laughs] desperation. I was a marketing major at the University of Illinois and coming out in the early 80’s there was what was called a recession. The big people who used to hire all us marketing majors were Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, American Express, and they came to campus that year saying, “We’re not hiring anybody.” I looked around for some interviews and saw a company that was in the computer services space, saw that their sales were growing, they were a public company, about $100 million company at the time and I thought, “I need a job and everybody always used to tell me I’d be good at sales so I’m going to go check this out.” I got the job and never looked back.
Fred Diamond: What were some of the key lessons you learned from those first few sales jobs?
Doug Traxler: Good question, a couple of things. One, they did a nice job with training and I started to learn very early that sales was a profession and a skill, not just something that you lucked into or had enough charisma to get by on. Good training in the first two years and then in the fifth year they came back and gave us some advanced training. I learned the value of real professional selling and the skill sets that are required. The other thing I learned was to pick mentors and watch the great ones, and pick their brains and learn from them. I could go on about persistence and never giving up but really those two things, get the training, look for the best in your industry. Those were the things that helped me the most early on.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve been a Chief Revenue Officer at WebbMason for 24 years, what specifically are you doing today that you learned from those first few sales jobs?
Doug Traxler: To never forget the customer, that the business is all about the customer. When we were front line salespeople we used to ring our hands about how the people in corporate had forgotten what it was like out there on the front line and how to deliver these services, how upset customer was talking to us first. I think we never lost sight of the fact that we’re a customer-first business so rather than a pyramid that’s built from the CEO down, we built this company from the customer back.
Fred Diamond: You’ve mentioned mentors, we’ll talk about them in a second but tell us what you’re an expert in. Let’s get to know a little bit more about Doug Traxler, tell us what you’re an expert in. Give us some insights into your specific area of brilliance.
Doug Traxler: Probably most people you ask that question, we’re going to shoo the word brilliance but I’ll tell you what I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about listening, I’m passionate about teaching young salespeople the art of listening. Active listening is a word within the sales profession I think is overused and under-appreciated. When I teach it, I talk to these guys and gals about passionate curiosity, real empathy when you’re in front of somebody. If I’m good at anything and I’ve learned to be good at anything, it’s to listen first and be curious first before I start talking and before I start evaluating.
Fred Diamond: Doug, listening comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast and a lot of people that we talk to do say that one of their areas of brilliance is they are effective listeners. We have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, a lot of people who are early in their sales career, in the beginning stages. What are some things you do to specifically become a better listener that the people listening to the podcast should start to practice?
Doug Traxler: It’s to be intentional about it and to have passion about it. The metaphor that I always had when I was young because I had a good friend who went into the law business and he was a great lawyer, we used to talk about this all the time, how a lawyer never presents a case until they’ve done all their due diligence. Gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and all the stuff that a professional lawyer has to do and will do, and if he’s not ready he’ll as the judge for a continuation. He’ll ask the judge to wait, he’s not ready to present that case.
He won’t ask a question in court he doesn’t already know the answer to, so the lightbulb went off for me saying, “I control the process. If I prepare my case and have interviewed all the witnesses and have learned everything I can learn, by the time I get to court, by the time I get to that final opportunity, I know the outcome already because it’s already been tested.” Approaching it saying I should take all the time I need to be sure that my case is air-tight, that I’ve evaluated everything from every angle, that I’ve talked to everybody I needed to talk to before I step into the room and say, “Here’s what I think you all should to.”
Fred Diamond: What are some things you do? Do you do a lot of research on the internet? You said you talked to people, who do you talk to and how can the people listening to the podcast get better at that, more professional once they start engaging?
Doug Traxler: I’m in the B to B world so it’s a little different than if you’re selling to a consumer like an insurance policy or something, so I can only talk to my area. In B to B, it’s a complex sale. You have a lot of ways to be passionately curious, you can be curious about the company itself. Are they a 2 year old company funded by PE firms? Are they a hundred year old company founded by a family who’s still in charge? Either of those two things are going to tell you something about the environment that you’re in.
There’s the company, then the industry. What industry? Are they the largest in their industry? Are they the fifth largest, are they the smallest? Are they a conglomeration of four companies that got bought? That’s going to tell you something about your situation. Then you have the actual service that they’re going after. How are they doing it now? This is where you get into the pain point stuff, but what’s the reality of their world and why did they even see you in the first place? Which is a crazy question, but people don’t often answer it or ask it in these meetings.
“Why did you see me? Does your elbow hurt, does your knee hurt? What’s that all about?” Then I like to study the individual. Somebody who’s been there three weeks versus somebody who’s been there 15 years is going to tell me a lot about them and their area of expertise, their confidence, whether they’ve brought suppliers along with them from their last job or whether they’re married to the environment, maybe they created the environment that I’m just about to tell them is broken. All of this has to be studied, and then finally the situation. I can’t tell you how many times I go in with reps and I say, “Where are they in this?” “Well, I don’t know, they just said we could come in and present.”
And I’m like, “Are they pre-RFP? Are they RFI? Are they in the final decision? Is this the person making the decision or is it a committee?” So many things you can find out that aren’t necessarily directly interviewing somebody, and I don’t like to make a move until I’ve looked at all these areas, understood them, sized them up with whatever emotional intelligence I have and then decide what the next move should be.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor or two and how they impacted your career.
Doug Traxler: A couple of things come to mind. First, when I first moved out to Baltimore there was a young man who’s now one of my partners who had just been named “Rookie of the Region.” He was charismatic and successful and was only in it a year and he was just going great guns. I immediately said, “I’ve got to watch this guy, I’ve got to watch what he does because he’s one of the best.” He took me aside one time early on in the first year and he said, “Doug, you’re probably one of the best presenters I’ve ever seen. You really do things technically well, you give great presentations and great proposals that you write, but I’m always going to outsell you.”
I said, “Why is that?” he said, “Because I let people get to know me and you’re trying to be a perfect sales rep in front of them. If you open that up and let them get to know the real you, you’re going to build trust much faster. They’re always going to trust me because I let them know who I am.” I took that to heart, I needed to hear that as a young man because I was trying to be Joe Perfect Salesman at all times, Mr. Professional and really wasn’t bringing Doug to the party.
Fred Diamond: What did you do? What are some of the specific things that you started making available to your customer as you’re engaging?
Doug Traxler: I started to share the real stuff. If I was worried about something, if I had anxiety about a deal, saying maybe, “This is a really important opportunity for me.” Some of those things that are on the more human side. They already know you’re there to sell them something, they’re trying to figure out who you are and if they can trust you.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve been here for 24 years with WebbMason. Do you have customers that you’ve been working with for almost the entirety of the 20 somewhat years?
Doug Traxler: That’s a great point, Fred. I tell young salespeople that we’re responsible for building the trust bridge between our company and other companies, that all commerce runs over. Trust bridges are really strong if they’re built well and I have had the privilege of staying with certain people who have moved to do new companies, new opportunities. Sometimes they get there and they say, “I’ve got this problem at new company” and the first person they want to call is Doug because they know that I’m going to help solve the problem in a trustful and integrity way, but also I have a company that can help them solve that problem behind me.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got a question for you. You just talked about how you made the shift at some point based on one of your mentors about becoming “more Doug”, being more open with your customer, if you will. We have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast who are early on in their career. Social media is huge: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter where people between the ages of 22 and 30 something, they’re very open on their social media. What would you advise on that? You started opening up a little more to your customer. Now with social media, people feel they can pretty much talk about anything. People crossing the line, would you recommend salespeople to pull it back a certain level or go full out?
Doug Traxler: I didn’t grow up in that era and thank god I didn’t, it’s a challenge for these folks and my hats off to them because it’s a whole new world of disclosure and transparency that they have to deal with. I’ve seen it with my children who are all in their 20’s. My initial thought there is just like when I was starting out, it was disingenuous to look at the picture of somebody in their family or him holding a fish behind his desk and say, “Oh, are you a fisherman?” and try to ingratiate too quickly before that friendship or that closeness was really offered as a natural course of your conversations.
I would just say to be very cautious, to not be aggressive. A friendship or trust really needs to be offered by the client based on you earning it with them. It’s much more impactful to me because I get sold to now in my role, I get to meet salesmen now on the other side of the desk which is just a kick, as you can imagine. Do they come on too strong and see the putter in my corner and say, “Oh, you’re a golfer? I’m a golfer, let’s go golfing” or do they send me an article two weeks after they met me and say, “Doug, you were talking about that thing and I saw this article and I thought of you.”
That to me is the approach that I’m talking about here, that professional, respectful approach. Then if I say, “Jim, I really enjoyed the last three articles. By the way, I’m a golfer, perhaps someday we could go golfing together” is a much more normal course of relationship and trust that gets built.”
Fred Diamond: Doug, what are the two biggest challenges you face as a sales leader?
Doug Traxler: The first one that comes to mind is finding people who really want to go into sales as a career in a profession. I don’t get it gets talked about a lot on campuses, there’s not a lot of courses on it in colleges, so I think people think they either fall into sales or get placed into sales but they don’t aspire to it. It’s hard to find those good people. I think the second thing is something we were just talking about and that is the proliferation of social media and its impact on us as consumers.
We as business professionals and us as a marketing company, there used to be rules. In direct mail campaign, you just measured the response and if you liked the response you kept going and if you didn’t, you moved. Now it’s what your mix of media and how do you use digital? Should you be on the phone or should you be on the website or should you send an email? There’s not a lot of data on what works for what, there’s a lot being created right now and it’s very challenging.
Fred Diamond: You’ve been working with WebbMason for 24 years, it’s a marketing company, provide a whole suite of marketing related services. You’re the Chief Revenue Officer. Why don’t you take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career you’re most proud of?
Doug Traxler: [Laughs] war stories, okay. I was selling to American Airlines down in Dallas and the buyer there was responsible for a rather large budget. I was getting finally my big break and a chance at the biggest contract I ever had. She was new to her role and I was a junior sales rep, and for some unknown reason, my sales management team says, “We’re just going to send in Doug by himself with this contract.” The night before, I get a call from the CEO – this is a thousand person company and I’m a 26 year old greenhorn – and he says, “Doug, we’re sending you in there tomorrow. Here’s the price we want and here’s as low as you can go. These are your parameters, go get us a good deal.”
I didn’t sleep all night, I got up and I got into my best suit and I went down. I remember the buyer and I had been working together for about a year and a half and I felt comfortable and transparent, you get back to that transparency. She brings me into a room, no windows, we sit down across from each other and I thought, “I’ve never been in a negotiation like this” and it was going to be one of the biggest contracts I’d ever touched in the company. She sits across from me and I said, “Sheryl, here’s the deal. I got a call from my CEO last night, he told me here’s the price we want so here’s the price I’m going to put on this piece of paper.”
I showed it to her and I said, “He also told me ‘here’s the price you can offer her’ so look, if you take the top price you haven’t gotten yourself a good enough deal. If you take the bottom price, I’ve got to go back to the CEO and say ‘she cleaned my clock’ so I’ll leave it to you. Something in between would be good.”
She started to giggle and she got up and said, “I’ll be right back.” She went down the hall and talked to the head of procurement, she came back down with a number right in the middle [Laughs]. It was a huge success for me, but I can’t tell you it was my finest moment as a negotiator, I was just scared to death and wanted something good to happen.
Fred Diamond: You got American Airlines as a customer, but what if she would have come back to you – which she had every right to do – and said, “Okay, we’ll take the low number”?
Doug Traxler: That’s what I had offered and I’d have earned it up. It turned out to be a 10-year contract, we ended up building on that and getting the entire account. I think the fact that I was open and honest with her, I wouldn’t recommend that as a sales technique, but it worked for me that day.
Fred Diamond: Again, we’re talking to Doug Traxler, he’s a Chief Revenue Officer at WebbMason. Doug, did you ever question being in sales? You were a marketing major, unfortunately the day that you were looking to get a job none of the big companies came to the University of Illinois to get you to go work there. University of Illinois, right?
Doug Traxler: That’s right, go Illini.
Fred Diamond: Again, you moved into sales relatively quickly, your first jobs were in sales and now you’re the Chief Revenue Officer here at WebbMason. Did you ever question being in sales? Did you ever think to yourself along the way, “It’s too hard, it’s really not for me, I’d rather go back to be on the marketing side”?
Doug Traxler: Fred, I’ve loved it. I’ve never looked back. That’s not to say that sale is not one of the most challenging things I’ve ever attempted, when people go into it or even come to our company from another sales job I say, “At about the 8 to 12 week mark, I call it the Valley of the Shadow of Death. You will hit a wall where nothing’s going right and you’re going to question it” but I had the serendipitous opportunity to go to 5 cities and start over through transfers and then joining this company and starting up.
One thing I realize is no matter how good you are, no matter how well trained, there’s no quick way through the blocking and tackling. Business development is a process, so when I knew nothing it took a certain amount of time to get in front of people and have them get to know me and learn about their problems and try to come up with solutions. Then when I was a 10 year veteran it took the same amount of time because there’s just a process to this that is hard to short-change. I learned, “It’s not me, it’s just this process.” If you’re true to the process, good things happen.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great point. I asked one of our previous guests the same question and he said, “The reason I keep doing this is because the next phone call can change my life.” It’s not just a random call, it’s because maybe this is the 100th call you’ve made to this customer. That was interesting, you talked about the American Airlines example, you said you had been working with her for a year and a half prior to getting into that dark room in Dallas where you said, “Here’s the lowest we can go, here’s the highest we can go.”
Luckily for you, she came in the middle but this wasn’t your first call with her, you had developed that relationship over a year and a half. Companies like American Airlines, big companies, they don’t make random decisions. They’re very thoughtful usually in how they go about their process. There’s sometimes as many as 6, 10, 15 people involved in a sale so it’s not just selling something to somebody. All the prep that went in to get you into that day 18 months down the road, all the work that had to go into that.
Doug Traxler: I got a call once – you’re talking about phone calls – from a company that we had become a finalist for a contract and we actually finished fourth out of four. I called the head of procurement afterwards and I said, “Would you mind if I came in and you give me 30 minutes on why we lost?” He said, “I’d be happy to, come on in.” We had a nice chat and at the end I wished him luck, I said, “I think you’ve made a good choice, the company you chose is going to do a great job. If you ever need me, please stay in touch.”
Five years later, my phone rings out of the blue. It’s him, he says, “This contract didn’t work out and you made a good impression, I’d like you to come in here. We’re not going to go back on an RFP. If I like what I hear, we’re going to move our business to you.” I finished fourth, he didn’t call the second place guy, he didn’t call the third place guy. This is why I love this profession, because you can make real human connections and people can see who they want to do business with and they know why. In that regard, I’ve loved how a salesperson can make a difference. Not my brochure, not my capabilities but the fact that he and I had that connection and he thought five years later to pick up the phone and call me was something that said, “This is a fun way to make a living.”
Fred Diamond: Doug, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals listening to today’s podcast to help them improve their career?
Doug Traxler: Fred, it’s this whole idea of passionate curiosity. It’s real authentic empathy and curiosity about the people and the situation that you’re talking to. It’s so funny, when I’m on sales calls with young salespeople, to watch them ask a question and then immediately their mind goes to the next question they want to ask. As the person’s trying to answer them and give them information, they’re paying no attention at all. They’re really just gearing up for their next, it’s like shooting free throws and not paying any attention to what’s going on in front of them and reacting to it, making that connection where the person’s giving them the opportunity to do that. The person usually can see that their face has gone blank, they’ve lost their expression and they’re just focusing on what they want to say next.
The power is in real human connection and real passionate curiosity. We psychologically spend 90% of the time thinking about ourselves, it’s just something we do, so as a sales professional one of the skills you can learn is while you’re in that situation, to be entirely focused on trying to think about the other person. That empathy, get out of yourself and think about them. What did he just say, what did she just say? What does that mean? I don’t quite understand, I think I want to ask a follow-up. Soon they’re disclosing things that are just gems and jewels that will help them get their problem solved, which is the whole reason you showed up in the first place.
Fred Diamond: For the people listening, most of the people that you’re selling to, they do have problems. You mentioned a good point before, there’s a reason you’re there. They don’t have to see you but there’s a reason they chose to devote an hour of their time. If you can, let them do the talking. It’s hard.
Doug Traxler: It’s very hard.
Fred Diamond: But eventually when you get more professional, when you get past the first year or two of your career, that’s the reason why you’ve gotten past it, because you’ve made a lot of that shift. You don’t have to show up and throw up and live all your specs and keep saying things, “What do I have to do to get you to buy this chunk of software?” or something like that. Let the customer begin to offer their own solutions that you can solve.
Doug Traxler: I don’t know many of us who say, “I think I want to waste an hour and let a salesman come in and pitch me for no reason.” The appointment is everything, by the time I got the appointment something good is happening. They’ve decided to invest an hour hoping that I’ll solve a problem. If I never even ascertain why that person decided to invest that hour in me, I instantly become curious. I guess that’s a habit I developed over the years because it wasn’t something I started off with. I wanted to talk, I wanted to pitch, I thought that’s what I was being paid to do.
Fred Diamond: In so many of the Sales Game Changers podcasts that we’ve had, when I ask the guest, “Tell us about your area of expertise, where you’re brilliant at”, listening comes up not infrequently. It comes up all the time and I began to think about that trend, to have gotten to the point of the people that we’re interviewing for the podcast. People who are Chief Revenue Officer, Senior VP’s of Sales, Global VP’s of Sales, if you’re the guy who’s doing all the talking you’ve never made it to this point and you had to have made that shift relatively early in your career because it really is all about the customer. Doug, what are some things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Doug Traxler: I’m an avid reader, I like to finish at least four books a year. Two of those usually are on history and two of those usually on something related to either my spirituality or business. I love sales as a topic so I look at YouTube stuff, I train. Training young salespeople keeps me sharp, those would be the big things.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Doug Traxler: We’re continuing to look at the marketplace and say, “What capabilities does WebbMason need to have to be at least tied with, if not ahead of the marketer. That’s a very fast moving water in the middle of the stream, so it’s an exciting challenge but you really need these young people who are out there in these technologies. You need to listen to them, you need to bring them in and say, “What’s happening and what’s going to be happening next year? How do we help our clients be part of that?”
Fred Diamond: Doug, sales is hard. We’ve talked about some of the challenges that sales leaders face along the way and sales professionals in the early part of their career. People don’t return your phone calls, they don’t return your emails, they don’t necessarily even think they need you, especially if you’re not going to provide them value. Why have you continued? Again, you made the shift from being a marketing major in college to a sales professional, now a sales leader, Chief Revenue Officer. What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Doug Traxler: What a question. For me, Fred, it’s that process of going from somebody saying, “No thank you, I’ve got that covered” to, “I couldn’t live without you.” Whether that process took three weeks or three years or five years as I’ve described, there’s just something super validating in that. Not that they bought something from me, but that I solved a problem and now I’m one of their most trusted people in their business circle. I just love that process and I get a big kick out of it, it’s the juice.
Fred Diamond: I loved the story, once again you came in fourth out of four in a particular operation you were trying to get a sale for. You went back to the customer and said, “Help me understand, I want to grow, I want to learn to do better next time” and when you left that meeting you probably thought, “That was nice, let’s move on” and five years later, the guy calls you. Was he at the same company?
Doug Traxler: Yes, he’s still there now.
Fred Diamond: Very powerful, do you still keep in touch?
Doug Traxler: Yes.
Fred Diamond: It’s one of the great things, too as you mentioned a few moments ago. The top sales leaders that we talk to, they’ve had these 15, 20 year, 30 year runs with their customer and they’re both trying to help each other and both trying to solve each other’s problems.
Doug Traxler: You’re poking at something interesting there. I think the word there is authenticity. The relationships I’ve built in business over the years,I learned early on, can be very authentic. Yes, they’re based on a transaction or commerce or contract but generally they end up being very authentic relationships and they survive the test of time. Even people who’ve retired, if I become your friend, I’m your friend for life. That also has been one of the great things about sales that I think is different than some other professions. Because you’re in the trenches with people and you have crises, one of the things that I learned early on is you don’t have a customer until you have a problem. Everything’s rosy, we all like each other and then someday you’ve got to call them with some bad news. That’s the day he decides if he really trusts you or not.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire them today?
Doug Traxler: If it would be anything, it would be to just be proud of sales as a profession. It’s one of the great careers, there’s a lot of companies that need their problems solved and if it wasn’t for us walking through the door and asking those questions, they couldn’t grow and they couldn’t change. I think it’s one of the finest careers you can aspire to.
Transcribed by Mariana Badillo
Produced by Rosario Suarez