EPISODE 423: Former Top Salesforce Producer Ian Koniak on Building a World-Class Sales Coaching Culture

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers LIVE sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on October 20, 2021. It featured former top Salesforce producer Ian Koniak.]

Register for the LIVE IES program featuring Arnold Sanow on November 5, 2021 here.

Find Ian on LinkedIn here.

IAN’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “The framework I use to call is all based on RGAs, Revenue Generating Activities. Is what I’m doing an RGA or not? And there’s two types of RGAs, one is advancement of pipeline – everything you need to do to move your deals forward in a sales cycle – and the second bucket is creation of pipeline – everything you need to do to add additional pipeline. Everything else is noise.”


Fred Diamond: As a lot of you know, Salesforce is actually a Gold Sponsor of the Institute for Excellence in Sales, our Women in Sales Leadership Forum. We’re delighted to have Ian on the show. Ian was with Salesforce for nine years, and now he’s out on his own. He’s coaching sales leaders, coaching sales teams. Ian, it’s great to see you here. Again, nine years at Salesforce and now you’ve decided to put out your own shingle and provide coaching services to sales leaders and sales teams. It’s fantastic.

You’re telling me in most cases, you’re helping them shift in a lot of ways from transactional type of sales to the more consultative, what we like to call enterprise complex sales. It’s great to see you today. First off, best of luck to you on your new venture, congratulations, I know you’ll do great. We’ve had some pre-calls and I think the guidance and advice that you’re bringing the sales leaders and the sales professionals you’re working with will be very, very critical, especially right now.

Ian, it seems like we’re in this huge transitional process, people are starting to go back to offices, but then not fully. It’s taken a lot of people a long time to get used to doing their sales virtually like we’re doing right now. Let’s get to it. First of all, how do you think things are going right now for sales organizations in general and for a lot of the salespeople that you’re coaching?

Ian Koniak: I think for what I’m seeing, a lot of sales organizations are struggling with a few things. Some are doing great in this COVID and getting back to work, but what I’m seeing a lot is a lot of sales organizations are struggling with what’s being called The Great Resignation. A lot of sales account executives are empowered now, where they’re getting recruited heavily, they’re getting better offers and they’re looking to find ways to attract and retain top sales talent. They’re also looking for ways to differentiate their companies so that people will stick around and really want to have a destination company versus bouncing every couple years, which a lot of sales reps have done.

But I’m finding that right now is a tough time for a lot of sales organizations, because they are losing some talent and it’s shifted towards the employee with coming out of COVID. People are rethinking what they’re doing, just like I rethought and decided to leave Salesforce, it’s happening quite a bit. I’m seeing it with a lot of my clients and I’m seeing it with a lot of the companies I’m working with as well.

Fred Diamond: We actually did a show two weeks ago with the great Bob Greene. We talked about The Great Resignation. It’s a real thing, people are deciding not to live where they lived before, so the question is do I want to keep working or do I want to rethink? It’ll be interesting to see how long it lasts, because at the end of the day you still need to pay your mortgage and it’s very difficult for people. That’s why I applaud you, I went to work for myself in 2002 and you learn things every day.

By the way, if people are choosing to go work for themselves, I always tell them the most important thing is a supportive spouse, so I hope you have a supportive spouse. What are you telling the companies to handle The Great Resignation? What’s some of your advice for the leaders? Because a lot of cases, it comes down to who you work for. A lot of people say, “I like working at this company because I love my manager.” Or, “I had this great boss 10 years ago” and that’s a lot of reasons why they stay.

Ian Koniak: I think you hit the nail on the head. I think the important thing leading to this conversation is I’m telling companies they need to coach and develop their account executives. When people feel stagnant, when they feel like they’re not learning and growing, then that’s when they start to stray. We all have the need to feel like we’re getting better, to feel like we’re going somewhere. Growth is a basic human need. If we look at the evolution of our lives as we get older and we progress in our careers, we want to get better. We don’t want to be doing the same thing and feel like we’ve stalled out quite a bit.

I see this a lot. I see account executives that feel like they’ve reached a plateau and they want growth, so you have to do whatever you can to help develop your people, and that’s what I will tell them. You need to make coaching part of your DNA and development of your people part of your DNA. In addition of that, it’s not just coaching them on the products you sell and it’s not coaching them on the tools you use. It’s coaching them at the individual level, finding out what is important to them, where do they want to go with their career, where do they struggle? Actually working with them and meeting them where they are and helping them get better.

The best sales leaders I’ve ever worked for have been great coaches and that’s really hard to teach, because a lot of the sales leaders are focused on their number and they see 7 or 8 people that are basically either contributing or taking away from them hitting their number. I think that’s an antiquated way of looking at sales leadership, it’s really about getting the most out of people and getting them to want to do their best, which in turn will give you the outcome of them hitting their numbers. I think it requires taking a step back and getting out of that commission, “I’m here to only hit my number.” Reframing that as, “I’m here to develop people, I’m in the people business. I want to make sure each person on my team is successful.”

That’s the advice I’m giving them, showing them how to coach effectively and what good coaching looks like. It does come down to that frontline sales leader, the one who’s responsible for reinforcing and working with the AEs on a day-to-day basis.

Fred Diamond: We’re getting some questions here. Mickey says, “What was the big lesson that Ian learned at Salesforce?” That’s a great question. You were there for nine years, like you mentioned. Now you’re out on your own helping sales leaders and teams take their careers and their lives to the next level, the proverbial “go from good to great.” Salesforce has become one of the premier sales organizations, and like I mentioned in the beginning of today’s show, we’re very blessed to have Salesforce as one of the Gold Sponsors of the Institute for Excellence in Sales, our Women in Sales program.

What’s really interesting about Salesforce is, Ian, we’ve interviewed a bunch of people from Salesforce for the Sales Game Changers podcast over the last couple of years and a lot of them came from great companies. It reminds me a little bit now like an Oracle or a Xerox where it’s like the NFL, it’s like the premier sales organization. You could probably talk for the next couple of hours what you learned, but give us one, maybe two critical lessons that you learned from your nine years of experience at Salesforce.

Ian Koniak: This is going to be a lesson for any sales leader or AE, individual contributor. The lesson is when I was focused on myself and my goals and my achievements – in other words, hitting my quota and just making as much money as I could – ironically, I didn’t get the top results because I was self-centered, self-motivated. Where I made a major shift about, now it’s coming up on five years ago where I became #1 at Salesforce, I was the #1 AE in their enterprise division, and had a run of phenomenal years before leaving. The shift was really simple, and it was this. Help others get what they want and you will get what you want.

Instead of focusing on what I wanted and making my goals and my aspirations the center of my day, it was all about really understanding and connecting with my customers and figuring out what success looked like to them. Whether it be driving sales, whether it be attracting and retaining talent, whether it be keeping their customers happy, every company has different goals. When you can get to the strategic executives and understand what’s top of mind for them, and then show them how you can help them get there through use of your products or services, the money’s going to come, the sales are going to come.

That was the big shift. Instead of chasing deals and instead of chasing closing and figuring out what I needed to do, I was trying to chase business outcomes for my customers and figure out how I can actually move the needle on the things that mattered to them. That entailed really getting to power. At the tactical departmental level it was really about focusing more on meeting with senior executives, and I spent a lot more time focusing on fewer but larger accounts, and a lot more time focused on fewer people at those accounts but at the power line. I’d say that’s the biggest lesson, help other people get what they want and you’ll get what you want. Making it about them and not you.

Fred Diamond: I think that’s a Zig Ziglar quote, if you keep focusing on other people helping them achieve what they want. It also reminds me, one of my favorite quotes right now is an Einstein quote which basically says, only a life lived for others is worthwhile. We talk about that a lot, sales is about service and sales isn’t about you. I love the way you answered that question because we talk about that a lot, we talk about the fact that the great sales professionals know that it’s about servicing their customer, helping them achieve their goals.

Let me ask you a question here. Are people struggling right now? I know we talked about the great resignation, but what are some of the big struggles you see sales professionals or sales leaders dealing with right now? And how are you helping them get past these struggles?

Ian Koniak: I think sales reps and sales leaders feel overwhelmed, and what I’m seeing over and over again is where do I prioritize? The day’s overtaking me, I have so much coming at me and I can’t focus on my strategic priorities, like coaching people, because I’m keeping the lights on. I’m running the business and I’m running ragged. I see that over and over again with nearly every single person that I coach and every company I work with, and I think that is the biggest struggles because we’re being asked to do more. There’s more technology, there’s more tools, there’s more programs, there’s more training, there’s more enablement.

There’s more and more, and the truth is that less is more. Less things and more focus is what I specifically work a lot on with people. Sometimes I’ll do a 12-week coaching program, sometimes 6 weeks will be spent just on identifying the critical things that you need to say yes to, and everything else say no to. I have a framework that I use for this, and the framework is called RGAs, Revenue Generating Activities. Is what I’m doing an RGA or not? And there’s two types of RGAs, one is advancement of pipeline – everything you need to do to move your deals forward in a sales cycle – and the second bucket is creation of pipeline – everything you need to do to add additional pipeline. Everything else is noise.

If we can just break it down to those two things, what I’m doing right now, is this meeting an RGA? Do I need to be there? No. If you can clear out 80% of your calendar, that enables you to say yes to more strategic prospecting, more account planning to get into the biggest enterprises, more things that the best AEs are doing. The best AEs, especially in the enterprise, they’re silent shoppers. They’re becoming customers of their prospects and seeing what it is like to experience that so they can come with a very tailored point of view on how they can help in the areas that their solution solves for. You don’t get to do that if your day overtakes you.

Stephen Covey, I am a huge follower of and proponent of. Him and Eisenhower use a framework called the Eisenhower Matrix. This is how I run my day, it’s how I run my life and it’s how I teach my clients. The matrix is really simple. In the top-left, it has important and urgent. The top-right of the matrix is important and not urgent. The bottom-left is not important and urgent, and the bottom-right is not important and not urgent. Where a lot of people are living is in the top-left and the bottom-left, so everything’s urgent. If everything’s urgent, nothing is urgent.

Really taking a step back and thinking about, is this an RGA? Is this going to help me advance my business? If it’s not, a lot of that bottom-left quarter is other people’s problems. Those things can be delegated, they can be outsourced or they can just be ignored. Or it’s the bottom-right stuff, frankly, stuff that’s just distractions. Phone calls in the middle of the day, text, news, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, all the other stuff. It’s amazing if you get real with yourself and see, how am I spending my time? How much time is actually wasted? At the end of the day, that leaves you feeling like you got nothing done, feel empty, feel frustrated, then it repeats. It’s just a downward cycle.

I spend a lot of times with focus and figuring out what are the critical few things that people can do to really advance their business. It makes a huge difference in getting people to feel like they’re winning the day versus having the day overtake them. And that’s at all levels, that’s at the executive level, that’s at the sales leader level, that’s at the AE level. It’s an exercise everyone I’d encourage to do. Pick up that book from Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and apply it because it really does make a huge difference in working more efficiently. I found that in my own business I’ve had to say no so much so I can say yes to things that are really critical.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk a little bit about interacting with customers. You talk about your RGAs, Revenue Generating Activities. One of the interesting things about the last 18 months is that for the first time in our history, everybody has dealt with the same thing. We’ve all had to deal with this threat, in some cases it hit people very hard, some cases it was a little more abstract but everyone on the planet has had to deal with it on some level or other, including your customers. Not just your customers, but your customers’ customers, so we all had to be conscious of that.

Talk a little bit right now about what types of conversations should sales professionals that you’re coaching and sales professionals listening to today, talk a little bit about where they should be right now. Have they shifted over the last 18 months? Are we back to where we were normally? They’re almost all going to be over some type of web interface, so give us some of your insights on that.

Ian Koniak: I’m talking to clients about training in particular and how training needs to stick, what’s different about less enablement but the right enablement, that’s a big conversation. Going back to how you develop your people, one way is you train them and you help them – you know this with your business, the Institute for Excellence in Sales – how do you get that to stick? How do you get people to want to actually be better and want to learn and want to apply what you teach? That’s a conversation that seems to come up more and more, and the reinforcement of what we’re teaching versus, “Teach this and move on.” Let’s pick something and let’s do it really well, reinforce it and go all in on it versus a hundred things in a hundred directions. That focused training and focused development is one area.

The other key area is just the basics, Sales 101, and I don’t think it’s changed that much from 18 months. I think how we sell is a little different, certainly we rely more on webcams. I think people have gotten used to virtual selling and Zoom and it’s the new norm, if you will, and I don’t see that changing, frankly. I think people are going to be more reluctant to hop on a plane just for a discovery session when you can do the thing in person and save a day. My focus on the fundamentals is three things.

Number one is revenue, how are you doing with revenue? If they have a revenue problem, why is it? Is it a lack of pipeline, is it poor conversion? Is it a product issue? Trying to get to the meat of what their business goal is around revenue and then dig deep. Around the metrics that we need to start looking at, tracking and working on through training. For example, I had one client that their revenue was below their targets. What we learned is they had a 10% conversion rate, and that’s exceptionally low for a software company, so we dug into the why. What I learned is that they were sending out proposals right away, early, sometimes on the first call and going over pricing before the deal was qualified.

Clearly, what they needed to learn was A, have a process that could be followed as far as steps in the sales cycle. What is that process? Let’s get it set up. That’s the first thing we did. The second was when do you actually deliver a proposal? It has to be qualified, we have to be at power, we have to have a problem that they said is important to them. Ideally, we want to have some type of reason they want to do it now or have some type of at least timeline, and we need to know what the cost is today of staying the same. What’s it costing them not changing? Until we have those things, we’re not going to do proposals anymore.

Sure enough, they’ve been holding back and their win rate’s a lot higher. This way, you don’t get diluted pipeline, you don’t get mis-forecasts, you don’t get poor conversion rates. It really is about understanding what are the problems in the sales organization that they’re facing. Could be problems of attrition, could be revenue, could be pipeline and then working with them on the tried-and-true fundamentals to help them in those areas and get to the root of the problem. Those are most of the conversations I have, how do you get your sales reps to have peak performance? Then where are they today, what’s not working? Then I’ll come in and tailor our program to help them and meet them where they are.

Fred Diamond: We have a follow-up question here from Ferris, “Could you ask Ian how we should be talking to customers right now?” You talked about how you talk to your customers and that was great, but the core of the question was, “How should the sales professionals be interfacing with their customers right now?” I know we talked about Zoom and it’s going to continue, but we talk about empathy a lot. Should that be a major theme? Should we be talking about the pandemic or do people want to get right back to business? I want to hear some of your thoughts on that.

Ian Koniak: Here’s my opinion. I think everyone’s busier than ever in all roles, including our customers and I think we need to be very direct with our customer. I think we need to come in with a point of view on how and where we can help our customer, not just open up and say, “Give me your initiatives, give me what you’re working on.” Yes, you want to get that in their voice but come in and tell them, “Here’s how we help heads of sales, here’s how we help service departments or agents. Here are the typical problems that we solve. I’d love to understand if these problems are top of mind or if not, other things that you are trying to solve for right now in your business where we can guide the conversation.”

I think it’s very important to be direct with people, it’s very important to be transparent, I think it’s important to cut to the chase, I think it’s important to respect their time. The way that I engage with people is I try not to do too much small talk, I try to actually add value by giving a point of view, by sharing how we can help, by sharing what we’ve done with other customers and then opening up. It has to be a give-take. I hear time and time again that sales reps interact with their clients and it’s take, take, take. We’re taking all the stuff from you for discovery, but we’re not giving you ideas. Sales reps should come in with a point of view on how they can help the prospect even without extensive discovery.

Come in, take a guess. Here’s what we think we can do based on what we’ve done with other clients. Here’s what I read online that you posted and you said that I think I can help with. Here’s what your account is focused on in the news that I think we can map to. Come in with a personalized message about where and how you can help and you’ll be amazed at how much your client starts opening up because you’ve taken the time to do your research and come in with an opinion. That’s what they expect now, they don’t want you to come in like, “Tell me about you” and blah, blah, blah. They want to know, what can you do for me? How can you help me? If you don’t come prepared with that point of view, your discovery is going to fall flat.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great point. I tell this to everybody as well. By the time you meet with the customer, you need to know what their business challenges are and it’s really easy to figure out right now because we all have access to people in the same industries and we all have access to understanding what their industry is going through. We have a question here from Jill, “Ian, do you agree that face-to-face meetings are critical to building relationships and generating revenue? Discovery meetings are important to be in person to see and feel, have a gut feeling and sharing small talk. Hopefully, Zoom will phase out. What are your thoughts?”

Let’s talk about that for a second or two. We’ve all had to get used to this world that we’re in for obvious reasons we all understand. We’ve actually had some guests on like the great Julie Hansen who’s an expert on how to speak to the dot and how to use your hands, how to stay focused, people have gotten a lot of training on that. But back to Jill’s question there, do you think that we’re really struggling because we’re not in the same room, we’re not able to make the small talk, we’re not able to take a walk into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee and come back into the meeting and all those types of things?

Ian Koniak: It’s funny right now because I’m looking at you, Fred, in your square in Zoom and I’m not looking at the camera, at Jill, so I’m like, where do I look? In a room, you don’t have that same issue. You look at the person you’re talking to and not worried about where your eyes are going. There’s definitely some nuances and some differences into selling virtual versus selling remote.

I’ll give you my best answer to this, I do not think it’s necessary anymore. If you would have asked me two years ago, is in-person relationship building necessary? I would have said yes, hands down, because that’s how I always sold. But I started my business and I really started accelerating my business and now moved to full-time completely during the pandemic. I got all my clients mostly through LinkedIn and posting videos, coming to me and having video calls with them. A lot of them are in Europe, a lot of them are in Australia and it’s amazing how close and connected I feel to them through the conversations I’m having.

I think in a one-on-one environment like this, you can build that relationship. In a group setting it’s a little bit harder but that goes for in-person. If you’re sitting in a boardroom with 20 people versus at a dinner with one person, it’s harder for them to open up. I think if you can meet with people in person, if it’s local to you, especially for a large deal where you’re doing a big presentation, I think it’s always going to help. You can look people in the eyes, you can get the truth and it’s always preferred. But do I think it’s necessary? No, I don’t, because I’ve been able to build a very fast-growing coaching business mostly through leveraging social selling and through selling on Zoom and using tools like Calendly to run my business.

I feel like in today’s world you can, when you market correctly or when you build awareness, bring a client to the table where they already trust you and know about you. In the old world, you’d have to do a lot of that in person. If you use your marketing correctly and you put out content and you’re able to guide people, by the time they meet with you, a lot of times there is some trust with your company, your brand or even you if you’re an individual like you or me, Fred.

It’s not as necessary as it once was. It’s a nice-to-have, it’s not a must-have, in my opinion because I’ve been selling workshops and B2B and I’ve not met with any of my clients yet. I have met with a couple people randomly who were in LA and we met up for coffee or whatever, but all my sales have come virtual and I never thought that would have been possible before. But now I can tell first-hand it is possible.

Fred Diamond: We have time for one more question. Ian, this question comes in from Jeremy, “What are we doing wrong?” That’s a great question and I’m curious on your thought. What do you see over and over again? You mentioned before one of your customers who had a very low conversion rate and you realized that they were going through proposal too quickly, and I agree with you. If you got a proposal on the first call and people right away talk about, “What’s your budget?” on the first call, you know they’re not going to be a customer or vendor of yours.

Before we get to your final action step, just tell us what you see people doing wrong over and over again? The biggest thing that you see time and time again?

Ian Koniak: At the sales leadership level I think it’s bad hiring in many cases. I think a lot of times you have to find people that want to do the best for themselves. If you find people that are bouncing around year after year and moving and haven’t necessarily performed or sold to complex enterprises, “This person’s personality seems great, they’re friendly, they’re sociable, let’s hire them.” A lot of times you have to look at the facts, you have to look at the track record. If you hire the right person, they’re going to find a way to figure it out. If you can spend much more time on the front end hiring the right people, number one, and developing them.

Maybe they’re not extremely skilled or experienced in enterprise but they’re very, very hungry, they’re extremely hard workers and they’ve had a great track record in midmarket. Then they’re ready to go upstream and develop. But you can’t teach people to want to be their best and to do their best. Hiring for hunger, hiring for drive, hiring for people that are truly out to win at a huge level and they have the right reasons, understand people’s why. Really, why they need to be successful, where they want to take their career. Spend more time on front end to get the right people in place so that you don’t have to keep flipping through people or have reps that aren’t performing. I think winners find a way to win and that’s on the sales manager level.

On the individual level I can tell most people that aren’t hitting their numbers in sales are spread too thin. They’re chasing a lot of small deals, unqualified deals. Way better to focus on fewer but more strategic larger accounts. That’s where the best reps at Salesforce are performing, they have very few accounts and they’re deep in the accounts and they’re really focused on solving those business problems. It’s that 80-20 rule, the Pareto Principle. 80% of revenue from 20% of the accounts. If you’re a rep, pic your 20% and go deep with them because that’s where you’re going to get most of your money.

Fred Diamond: Ian, thank you so much and best of luck to you. You work for a great company and we’ve had so much great interactions and relationships with the people at Salesforce and the company itself has done so much good for the world and the whole mission behind Salesforce is fantastic. You talked a little bit about understanding your why and Salesforce is definitely a company that really understands its why and its purpose. Best of luck to you also, you ventured on your own, you’re bringing some value to sales leaders and to sales professionals to help them take their sales career to the next level.

Give us your action step. You’ve given us 15, 20 great ideas. Give us one more thing, something specific that people should do right now to take their sales careers to the next level.

Ian Koniak: Go through every one of your deals right now and look at the power line. If you’re working with champions or you’re working with folks that aren’t VP, C-suite, figure out what you need to do to get to power. Power compresses deal, that is the single thing that I did differently is I started focusing on getting the executives who actually cared and were directly going to be impacted by what I was selling. A lot of times the people that are evaluating are looking at that and not thinking about the business problem, the business outcomes.

Get to power, make your focus and every single one of your deals getting higher up, getting to power and making sure this aligns with what they care about, and watch your deals accelerate, watch them move. That’s the singe biggest determinant of whether deals are won or lost, and all of my individual clients and all of my sales leadership is we weren’t at the right level. Make sure you’re at the right level in your deals, that makes a huge different.

Fred Diamond: Thanks everybody for watching today’s webinar. If you’re listening as a Sales Game Changers podcast listener, thank you so much. Thank you again to Ian Koniak for the great insights and ideas.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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