EPISODE 624: What Joe Markwordt Teaches College Students about Sales Professionalism

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After a successful career in sales leadership at companies such as Salesforce, Silicon Graphics, Oracle, and DEC, Joe Markwordt is taking his talents to Loyola University in Baltimore teaching sales to college students.

Joe also appeared on the podcast in 2018. Listen to that podcast here.

Find Joe on LinkedIn.

JOE’S TIP: “It took me about six years to become what I would consider to be a sales professional, and another five years to earn what I consider to be a PhD in sales. You might say, where do you get a PhD in sales? Well, you get it in the University of Hard Knocks, and that’s where tuition payments are the commissions lost on deals that you could have won. Here’s my advice. Learn from your mistakes. You mentioned that early on, learning, you’re going to lose deals, you’re going to blow calls, you’re going to mess up. Every time you do that, you’re paying a tuition payment into getting that PhD in sales. But you got to learn from it. You’ve got to incorporate the learnings into the next thing, so the next time instead of spending six months on a deal you’re going to lose, you cut the bait after two months, you disqualify, and you move on to the next deal.”


Fred Diamond: We’re talking to you today, Joe Markwordt, because you’re going to be teaching a class. As people listen to this, you might already be teaching that class at Loyola University. As you can tell from Joe’s accent, he’s from the Baltimore area. For those of you who’ve been listening to a while, if you’re listening deep, you can tell that I’m from Philadelphia. We’re from generally same general parts of town, but I’m excited, you’ve had a great career. Again, we talked about your career journey on the first podcast, you were at Salesforce. Tell us some of the other companies that you spent some time at.

Joe Markwordt: Well, I started my career on April 1st, 1984 with Hewlett Packard. That was my first technology sales job. I went from there to a company called Digital Equipment Corporation, which at the time was one of the top tech companies in the world. I spent eight years with a company called Silicon Graphics, and at that time they were the number one graphics company in the world. It was fantastic run. I moved into software, worked for Oracle, Mercury, finished my career in the cloud world with Salesforce. It was a great 38 years. Last year at the age of 62, I retired from quota and commission, although I’m still doing some part-time consulting now.

Fred Diamond: You and I were talking, one thing that we talk a lot about on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, and at the Institute for Excellence in Sales, is the notion that if you are in sales and you want to be successful, you need to be a professional. As a matter of fact, once the pandemic kicked in back in March of 2020, that was something we talked about all the time. Transactions had stopped, customer meetings had stopped. But if you’re a sales professional, what does a sales professional do? We talk about that a lot, and we’re going to talk about that specifically today. I’m very excited because you’re probably one of the best guys to be talking about this. You’ve given it a lot of thought. You’re going to be teaching it, again, at Loyola in the fall of 2023. It’s something that I think it’s very, very important.

The people who listen to the Sales Game Changers Podcasts, they call themselves sales professionals. 80% of our audience are people who work in B2B sales, enterprise sales, enterprise software, whatever it might be, technology, large scale hospitality. They call themselves professionals. But we want to get deep into what does a professional do. What does it mean to be a professional? And for those of you listening, or reading the transcript, some things you should be doing to truly become a sales professional. Joe, let’s get started. What is the definition of a sales professional?

Joe Markwordt: That’s a great question, Fred. Back when I started in sales back in 1984, I’d had a degree. I got my bachelor’s degree in computer science and my master’s degree in computer science. After a couple of years of programming, I decided to move into sales. I was totally unprepared. I had no training to be a salesperson. Hewlett Packard did a lot of product training, but they did very, very little sales training, virtually no sales training at the time. I had a lot of friends that I graduated with who were moving into what we would all consider to be the professional professions. Friends of mine that were in medical school at Hopkins, friends who were finishing up their law degrees, friends that were sitting for their CPA. I started to look like, “They’re considered professionals. I want this to be a career. I want it to be a professional career. What do they have that I need to do?”

I came up with seven categories that made them professionals that I wanted to emulate. First was, they had very formal educations. Back in those days, there were no sales programs. Now there are, but back in those days, there weren’t. You couldn’t get a degree in sales. You couldn’t get a bachelor’s or master’s degree in technology sales. They weren’t available. Those guys could go out and get them. The second one, they were tested, licensed, and certified by a state government board. They have things they can hang on their wall that says, “I am a professional.” We didn’t have that in sales.

Now, the next couple ones we could do, they were competent, skilled, and structured in what they did and how they approached their jobs. A consistent methodology and technique. Ongoing training and enablement, domain experts. That’s why people pay professionals what they pay them, because they’re domain experts. Here’s a good one. Most of them live off referrals. They live off referrals. In my mind, if I was going to be a professional salesperson, I had to adopt these characteristics and sign up to that kind of discipline to eventually become a sales professional.

Fred Diamond: We’re both familiar with the Sales Education Foundation, and their job is to promote colleges and universities that have some type of sales curriculum. I think the stat I heard recently is that there are over 5,000 colleges or universities that have a marketing degree. Here it is 2023 and there’s about 130 to 140 that have some type of either a major or a minor in sales. Where you’re going, the sales class you’re going to be teaching, is part of the marketing curriculum. You’re right, it isn’t taught at the college level. There’s some movement to get some more.

But it’s interesting also, you mentioned some of the companies where you worked at, HP, Digital Equipment Corp, Silicon Graphics. I remember I interviewed a guy named Gary Newgaard for the Sales Game Changers Podcast. He was at Compaq when Digital was integrated with Compaq, and worked at Sun and worked at Oracle. When I interviewed him, he talked about how sales at the enterprise level is the NFL. Everybody’s competing. It’s a huge market, but you got to be on your game. You got to know the customer, you got to understand the process. The companies that you worked at, you couldn’t succeed unless you, in essence, were a professional, right?

Joe Markwordt: Well, yeah. The thing is, there’s a hierarchy in sales, and in technology sales in particular, but basically in all sales. It all has to do with the number of stakeholders that are engaged in the sales process. Less complex sales have less stakeholders involved in the decision-making process. But as you move into enterprise class selling, for example, you’re selling an enterprise application at Oracle, or you’re selling a Salesforce platform into a government agency. There are hundreds of stakeholders, and decision makers, and influencers, and the best, most professional salespeople that excel, they have a very, very systematic way of doing these jobs.

Fred Diamond: It’s like I say sometimes, on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, we typically interview people at the senior director or sales VP level. If it’s a sales director, if it’s just how the title is used at their company, and you didn’t flip burgers yesterday and then become a VP of sales at Microsoft. It’s been a 15, 20, sometimes 30-year run of success of larger engagements, of more important customers for the company to have gotten to that point. Let’s talk about some of the characteristics of a sales professional. From your perspective, Joe Markwordt, tell us some of the characteristics of what it takes to become a sales professional.

Joe Markwordt: Well, unlike the professional professionals, we can’t get certified by the state. There’s no certificate hanging on the wall. We have to be very intentional about becoming very competent, skilled, and structured in the way we do our job. Sales professionals deploy a consistent methodology and technique in the same way a doctor might prepare for surgery, or an attorney for a hearing. They’re not winging it. Salespeople don’t wing it. They do participate in ongoing training enablement, some of the things that your organization has brought to the marketplace. It’s like, no, you don’t rest on your laurels. You always are getting better, because you better believe you want your doctor to be getting ongoing training and enablement. You want your attorney to be up on the latest laws. You want your accountant to know the latest deductions that are available and the ones that aren’t. We need to adopt that same kind of discipline.

We’re experts in selling the same way the other professionals are experts in their domain. We could teach the way we do it to someone else. We could teach it. Here’s a key. We should be getting referrals. There should be prospects and customers saying, “Hey, this is a great sales professional. This person came in, listen to me. They provided unbelievable business value and they provided an unbelievable solution. You should talk to them.”

Fred Diamond: It’s interesting, as we’re talking here, you’ve been at the VP level with some great brands, you’re now going to be teaching this class. You’ve had to have done a lot of right things, and you’ve learned, of course, along the way. We’re not saying here that to become a professional, there’s no mistakes. Obviously, you lose accounts, you win accounts. You have to figure out. I posted a podcast today from one of our previous guests who talked about how she lost a big deal with a huge account and she was considering leaving sales, and then she came up with an idea to present to her customer, which the customer liked. Eventually it led to an enterprise level deal. We’re not talking about being flawless as a professional. Even baseball players, they typically strike out seven out of 10 times, the good ones. What does it take to become a sales professional?

Joe Markwordt: Well, I think the number one thing it takes to become a sales professional is to choose a methodology and technique and become an expert in it. There are tons of them. Sandler, MEDDIC, SPIN, you can be a Solution salesperson, a consultative sales, you can be the Challenger, a relationship, account based, social value. There’s a ton of them. Here’s the dirty little secret of sales. They’re all kind of the same. There’s a little different spin on them, but the bottom line, it really doesn’t matter which one you choose, but whichever one you choose, become an expert at deploying the methodology, and practice it every time you go into any sales situation. That’s what makes someone a professional. They have a methodology and a skillset that they’ve practiced. That’s why they call it practicing medicine, because you’re always getting better at it. The best salespeople have some sort of methodology, technique that they used to manage and track and progress their deals. Most importantly, if you ask me, what is the number one skillset that a sales professional should have? All the greats, they know how to qualify business.

Fred Diamond: Explain that in a little more detail. What exactly does that mean, qualifying business?

Joe Markwordt: Well, when you’re a salesperson, there’s a lot of prospects, there’s a lot of maybe folks calling in, or you’re getting referrals, or doing a lot of prospecting, so you’re having these conversations. The best salespeople are the ones that can qualify opportunities. When we talk about qualifying opportunities, it’s the basics. Am I talking to the right decision makers? Do I understand their requirements? Can my product meet their requirements? Do I understand the decision-making process? Do I understand the timing on the deal? Are there compelling events associated with this opportunity? Do I understand all this? Have I covered all the stakeholders? Have I progressed this deal step by step? Some people say, always be closing. I say always be qualifying, because sales professionals know when to cut their losses. They know when to disqualify a deal and say, “Hey, we’re not going to get this one. We don’t have the right product fit. We don’t fit into their budget. Our competitors have their relationships.” They can move their energy, their talent, their time to a higher quality opportunity to increase their close rates, increase their hit rates.

Fred Diamond: Joe, when we think about true professionals, there’s some pressure. For example, we talked about doctors. If you’re a surgeon, obviously there’s pressure to make sure that you do a great job, and it costs a lot of money in malpractice insurance in case you don’t, but you have to learn a lot. There’s new things. We just came through a pandemic. There’s little twists on care. You’re an attorney, you’re going to court, you’re fighting for your client to ensure that either they don’t go to jail or get fined a lot of money or whatever it might be.

Sales profession, there’s also a lot of pressure as well. You got to make your quota. You got to qualify properly so that you’re going to bring in the revenue that your company needs. Especially now, coming out of the pandemic, it’s the sales organization that is leading the way finding new customers, which is very, very difficult always. It’s very, very difficult right now because all of our customers are also trying to figure out how do they be post-pandemic. Talk a little bit about the pressure that a sales professional in this case would deal with, and how do they deal with the pressure? You’ve been under pressure a lot, I presume, you’ve had some big accounts, you’ve had big numbers you’ve had to crack on a quarterly basis. Tell us a little bit about how professionals handle that type of pressure.

Joe Markwordt: Well, see, I never really felt a lot of pressure because I relied on my sales methodology, my sales skills, and that was all about qualifying. One of the big problems that a lot of salespeople have is they don’t know where to spend their time and energy because they’re not doing a really good job qualifying business. I’ll give you an example. As a first line sales manager or a second line sales manager, if someone came in to do an account review with me, the first thing that I would ask them to do is show me the org chart and to basically do what is known as an influence map or an opportunity mapping of the opportunity. What I was looking for was relationships. Where are we, how far are we, how deep are we? I could pretty much handicap that deal based on the number of boxes that were circled in that org chart and the number of people that we had built relationships, either positive or negative. Because you need to know the folks in an organization that are aligned against you or aligned with another competitor.

To me, the pressure comes when you’re not prepared. When you don’t know what’s going on, when you haven’t qualified your deals, because then you’re just guessing. That’s pressure. When you’re just guessing and you’ve got a pipeline, and it’s a poor pipeline. If you remember from 48, I said focused activity equals a quality pipeline. That’s how you get manageable revenue. That’s how you get your goal attainment. If you’re not good with your activity and you don’t know how to qualify deals, when your sales manager says to you or your sales AVP says to you, “Are we going to close this deal?” and you’re just guessing, that’s pressure.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned practice. Let’s talk about some of the habits that sales professionals should practice. You’ve managed a lot of people, you’ve led a lot of people, led some great organizations, some very, very successful ones. Talk about some of the habits that they should practice and some of the things that you recommend people listening should regularly be practicing to get to that level of confidence that you just described that you had. As a professional, you know what you’re doing, you’ve seen it before, you know how to handle new things that come about. Give us an answer on that, Joe.

Joe Markwordt: As I mentioned, the best salespeople are masters at qualifying deals. I would say to all sales professionals, basically folks that are just starting maybe as BDRs, as inside salespeople, even folks that have been around sales for a long time, is really do some self-inspection. Are you good at qualifying your business? Now, of course, to be good at qualifying business, you have to be good at the blocking and tackling. Are you doing really good discovery? Are you going through the qualification process? Are you willing to disqualify a deal? Like I said, you’ve heard always be closing. I’m always be qualifying. Keep that top of mind. Use the methodology every day. Don’t wing it. Continue to get trained and enabled, learn new things. Be a meticulous sales call planner.

When I was at Salesforce and before that, if I were going to be brought into a meeting, the salesperson had to provide me a planner for that meeting. Who are we meeting with? What are their roles and responsibilities? What are their hot buttons? What is our outcome for the call? What questions do we want to ask? What questions do you want me to ask? Or do you want me to just shut up and listen? A lot of times managers come in and screw up deals because they say the wrong things at the wrong time. I was very like, be meticulous about call planning, whether you’re prospecting, or you’ve met for this.

See, I think a lot of times salespeople take for granted relationships. So, “Hey, I’ve met with this guy 20 times. I don’t need to plan for that call.” Yes, you do. Here’s the bottom line, is sales professionals don’t do anything without it being a part of their plan. Even if it’s a quick phone call, how does it fit into your plan to close the business? Don’t wing it. It’s got to be a part of the plan. Build those influence maps, build those opportunity maps. As your deal’s being built, understand the organization. That is something that gets lost. These are simple things that if folks do on a regular basis, they become muscle memory and then it’s just the way you prepare for the job, the way you do your job.

Fred Diamond: I’ve seen so many salespeople, I’m going to say, versus professionals lose deals because they didn’t know what was going on. They had one person who was the champion who was feeding them whatever they were feeding them. Maybe it was for all the right purposes, doesn’t really matter, but they didn’t know about anyone else who was in the buying decision. What else was going on, other things that were happening that professionals truly know about. Joe Markwordt, we get a lot of people who listen to the Sales Game Changers Podcast who are early on in their sales career, especially right now. Again, we’re doing today’s interview in July of 2023. A lot of people are starting their new jobs this summer or in early fall, if you will. What are two or three things that you recommend people starting out in sales right now? A lot of the jobs they’re going to be doing are BDR type jobs, getting appointments, assistant type stuff to the account executives, so they’re not quite at the level where qualification might be the most important thing. But what are two or three things that you recommend people knew to the type of sales that we’re talking about start doing?

Joe Markwordt: Well, anyone that knows me knows that I believe in planning. Planning is really important. You have to have a plan. If you don’t have a plan, you become a part of someone else’s plan. I think that folks coming up, they need to think about like, “What is my role? How can I be more effective in this role? How can I have more control and influence over the things that I’m doing every day?” That means you’ve got to develop a methodology. Now, fortunately, a lot of the newer folks coming in, a lot of the organizations are much better now at sales training and starting people. Don’t take for granted that training, invest in it, study it just like you would be studying for your bar exam or your CPA.

Here’s the thing, is you can start with one methodology and get really good at it. As you evolve, for example, you get into enterprise selling, you might need a different methodology, like a SPIN training or something like that. There’s a ton of them out there. But pick one, become really good at it, and practice it, become a domain expert. Even if you’re a BDR, an inside sales rep, know your job. Know how it works in your function. Understand how the CRM’s being used. Understand how you’re documenting deals. Understand how you’re qualifying deals. Learn from the people that you’re working with.

Fred Diamond: Joe, you’re giving a lot of great advice about how to be a great sales professional. What about focusing on an industry? Do you recommend that? I tell people all the time, people say to me, “How can I become really, really very successful at sales?” I say, “You know what? The people who live in those really big houses in the nice neighborhood in your city, that’s the guy who’s selling Dell to the Navy. It’s the guy who’s selling screws to United Airlines.” They understand. The reason they’ve gotten to that point, you and I are both in the mid-Atlantic, government’s big, it’s where you spent a good part of your career. The people who’ve done really, really well in this part of town, they’re servicing the government, fortune one, but you have to really understand the nature of the business. Before I ask you for your final action step, talk about that a little bit. How important is it as a professional to be a participant in your industry? Do you believe that’s important?

Joe Markwordt: Well, specialization is always something that will increase your value. I’ll just tell you a story. It’s not really about the technology. A lot of times it’s about the customer. Now, I’m assuming that we’re talking about people that are meeting the criteria of being professionals. Then it’s a question of, do you want to become a domain expert of your customer or do you want to become a domain expert of the industry? I’ll give you an example. I live up in Maryland. NSA, back when I started it was the Maryland Procurement Shop, no one mentioned the name, but I knew sales guys that spent their entire career just selling to that customer. They were domain experts of that customer, and they were very valuable. They could go anywhere they wanted to go. Any tech company would be happy to have them because they were domain experts. Domain expertise was about the customer. I sold to the VA for years at Salesforce, and you meet this entire community of salespeople in all different industries, they know the VA, that’s their domain expertise. It really doesn’t matter what they’re selling, because what’s important and valuable is they know their customer. That’s one side of it.

The other side of it is becoming extremely skilled in a particular discipline and then becoming the domain expert in that. That’s one of the things I mentioned earlier on. You’ve got to become a domain expert. Domain expertise is key. The foundation of sales, you’re a sales domain expert, and then choose, like, “Am I going to be a domain expert on the customer, on a particular technology?” That sort of thing.

Fred Diamond: It does. I remember when I applied for one of my first sales jobs, it was at Apple Computer, and the GM for the division said he’s looking for someone who could just change business cards. The guy who’s been selling the Navy for companies like you mentioned before, DECK, IBM, Xerox, now he’s going to switch it to Apple. I want to thank you for the great insights. I remember when I first interviewed you way back when I was going to people’s offices with my mics and my recorder, you gave some great ideas. You were very helpful in helping us understand at the Institute for Excellence in Sales, how we should be servicing our customers. As you know, Salesforce is one of our big sponsors of our Women in Sales Program. We wouldn’t have gotten there if it hadn’t been for you. I want to acknowledge you for all the great leadership you’ve provided to hundreds, if not thousands of sales professionals along the way, and how many customers you’ve serviced along the way. I’m excited for you right now for your new shift teaching this class at Loyola. I wish the kids well because they’re definitely going to learn from a true professional. Good for you on this shift and thanks for the great ideas here.

Joe, as we like to do, give us your final action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas. Give us something specific that our listeners should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Joe Markwordt: Well, I would say this, I started my career on April 1st, 1984. It took me about six years to become what I would consider to be a sales professional, and another five years to earn what I consider to be a PhD in sales. You might say, where do you get a PhD in sales? Well, you get it in the University of Hard Knocks, and that’s where tuition payments are the commissions lost on deals that you could have won. Here’s my advice. Learn from your mistakes. You mentioned that early on, learning, you’re going to lose deals, you’re going to blow calls, you’re going to mess up. Every time you do that, you’re paying a tuition payment into getting that PhD in sales. But you got to learn from it. You’ve got to incorporate the learnings into the next thing, so the next time instead of spending six months on a deal you’re going to lose, you cut the bait after two months, you disqualify, and you move on to the next deal. Learn, continue to learn. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because, hey, that’s how you learn, especially in this kind of business where you can’t go to some school somewhere, spend four years practicing, get your certification. Then you come out and it’s like, “Okay, I’m a doctor now. Give me some patients.”

Fred Diamond: Once again, I want to thank Joe Markwordt. My name is Fred Diamond. This is the Sales Game Changers Podcast.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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