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EPISODE 163: WSB’s John Ryder Verbalizes How to Sell Speaker Services from George Bush, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Jack Nicklaus
JOHN’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “I have never regretted thinking Big. Thinking of these goals that far surpass where I was last year, where I’d like to be and never been daunted by what I need to do to get there. Just believe in yourself and ask others and constantly improve, focus on winning and I guarantee you will.”
John Ryder is the VP of Global Sales at the Washington Speakers Bureau, also known as WSB.
Prior to coming to WSB, he held sales leadership positions in the telecom space at AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.
We also interviewed Sandy Lutton, the former Chief Revenue Officer at WSB. You can find her show here.
Find John on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
John Ryder: Thanks, Fred. I’m privileged today to be working for the Washington Speakers Bureau, we represent talent that spans everything from astronauts, authors, former professional athletes, world leaders and business visionaries. Our sales agents pair those folks with customers for things like keynote speeches at annual events, board meetings and any kind of gather where they need to make an impactful statement. It’s an exciting industry to be in and I really love what I’m doing with the team here.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
John Ryder: Speakers are what we sell but more importantly we sell the experience. We look at the requirements of a customer or ask the customer, “When you walk away from this event, what do you want your people to be thinking differently? What do you want them to maybe be charged to go do?” That platform that we provide gives that experience that can really only be had through speech, probably one of the oldest and tried as truest ways of people learning.
Fred Diamond: What does it look like, what do you actually sell? Is it a one-time keynote speech for tens of thousands of dollars, is it a three day thing, is it a yearlong contract?
John Ryder: That’s a great question. We like it when it’s many, but it could be a package that could span a multi-day engagement for several speakers, it could be one that perhaps does an intimate dinner, does a keynote the next day and does moderated Q&A so really all of the above. We’re also looking at alternate revenue streams to do things over teleconferencing and other mediums.
Fred Diamond: Before we get into your story a little bit, who exactly do you sell to? Is it event planners, CEO’s, Chief of Marketing Officers?
John Ryder: Ideally it is a top level floor, someone who’s an executive that wants to make sure that message is delivered to their employees. Functionally, day in and day out could be a meeting planner, could be a business leader in a sales department who wants to promote change that’s going through their organization. It’s a variety of decision makers which is part of what makes it a lot of fun and also interesting and challenging at the same time.
Fred Diamond: Just before we get to your story, are there any people that we would know or people that you guys sell as speakers? Why don’t you tell us some of the names that people would come to the WSB to engage?
John Ryder: President Bush, Colin Powell, Platon, a famous photographer and authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin, athletes like Jack Nicklaus. It really does span the gamut.
Fred Diamond: If a customer comes to you and says, “We really need to motivate our people to sell more” you guys have a whole plethora of options of motivational speakers, past leaders, I wouldn’t mind sitting in the room with Jack Nicklaus for an hour.
John Ryder: Fascinating, really. Our speakers are very versatile, the message or how you want to deliver that message, that’s what we work closely with our client to make sure that that comes across just as they need.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about your background. Again, you came from the Telecom space and now you’re selling speaker services. Tell us about that transition, but first tell us about how you first got into sales as a career.
John Ryder: I graduated college and was living in the New England area where the economy was really soft. I started out looking for work and found that I was really selling myself to get work, and noticed that I actually enjoyed the process of doing that. Reading a book, What Color is your Parachute you might have seen many years back, it all pointed towards I should be looking at something in sales. Took that advice and ran with it, through a series of interviews was finally able to land my first sales job which ended up being in technology. The reason why I was attracted to it is that I saw an opportunity here for what would eventually become a commodity but then was a business tool that only very wealthy or high level folks within corporations had access to that I knew would scale. I could tell at some point everyone would have one of these so I can get in the bottom floor and took that risk.
Fred Diamond: How did you make the move from selling telecom products to selling speakers?
John Ryder: That spans a couple of decades, a couple of large corporations which you named earlier where I have been grateful to have received a lot of mentorship and leadership training and experience. This opportunity presented itself through a contact that I had and it had me paused. I’ve made different shifts in my career, I did move at one point to selling more telephony over to IT and I thought the skill set that I have is definitely transferable and this looked like a unique opportunity and was local to where I lived. Meeting with the team here I thought, “These are people that I can help build something great with.”
Fred Diamond: When you first moved into sales, what were some of the key lessons that you learned that have stuck with you till today?
John Ryder: There’s this one instance I can think of when I was trying to get into sales that really stuck with me. I keep on going back to it throughout my career. I probably had had a half a dozen interviews and I can paint the picture of around this time in the Boston area where the weather is terrible and I’m in a dingy hotel room meeting with somebody who really didn’t look like they were all that enthusiastic about talking to me or anyone, for that matter.
Towards the end of that interview and why I tell you this story, I decided to shift. I failed like I was failing these interviews and shift the conversations when he said, “Do you have any more questions?” I didn’t do the standard, “No, I hope you consider me, but thank you for your time” sort of thing. I said, “I do. In your opinion, what can I do to make sure that I get a job like this?” and I was really surprised by the reaction. The gentleman sat back in this chair, his eyes opened very wide and he said, “Don’t give up. Mainly don’t give up on yourself, you’re going to get there.”
I walked out of that interview, didn’t get a job but I learned a couple of things. The first one was to really listen to what people are saying and don’t just answer to reply but really to understand, and then you’ll develop a natural sense in all of us, a trust. That trust is the foundation for a relationship that you can leverage and with that, I took that forward and took those learnings and have applied them to this day, the listening and not giving up.
Fred Diamond: We’ve learned so much from the interviews we’ve done with the Sales Game Changers over the years and are continuing to do. Three key words keep permeating most of the interviews. One is mindset, you’ve got to have the right mindset, secondly is listen so I want to follow up on that, and third is persistence. You mentioned that with that lesson you learned to become a better listener, that comes up not infrequently, John. Tell us some things that you do for the audience listening to this podcast that they can become better listeners, which will then of course help them in their sales career.
John Ryder: I think for me, the best way that I can exercise my listening skills is to do a little bit of research. Also, you probably hear quite a bit of that but it’s really the type of questions that you ask and it’s the follow on questioning more importantly that clarifies the understanding of what the individual you’re talking about has conveyed and really shows empathy. It really shows that you’re aligning as if you’re on their team to solve their issue or their problem or their concern. Unless you get that connection to where they are and you go to where they are then you can take them where you want to take them, but if you’re just answering their questions or asking questions just to get to where you want to go I think it falters in the kind of connection you can make. I’ve found great success and have seen others do as well.
Fred Diamond: Before we ask you about your specific area of expertise and area of brilliance again I’m curious. I’ve been saying telecom but you said telephony, what were some of the differences that you found now that you’re selling speaker services versus selling telephony related products?
John Ryder: That’s a good one. There’s certainly a lot of commonality, some of these systems and services that I was selling in telecommunications didn’t necessarily reach to the highest levels or the core value of the company, they were either commodities or a means to an end. The messages that these speakers are delivering to corporations tie in right into their value system, they tie into change, they tie into a called action for employees. I think when I worked in telecom or IT often times we try to latch onto those values, sometimes we would but most times we won’t, it would default to what I’d mentioned earlier. This, if it’s done right, it’s a home run inside here.
Fred Diamond: It’s interesting, I’m thinking back as we’re talking here. I worked for Apple Computer for a long time and we had access to great speakers I’m thinking about right now, Ty Boyd is a tremendous speaker, a guy named Ira Hayes. I haven’t seen this guy in 30 somewhat years but these people, I remember specifically the things that they said in those types of settings and how your services can definitely impact you for your whole career. It’s pretty remarkable, do you feel that when you’re selling these services?
John Ryder: Definitely. If you’re able to attend and go onsite at an event there’s nothing quite like being there in person and seeing the actual body language and attitude shift and the people that are listening particularly usually during Q&A I see a lot of that. Just the gratitude at the highest levels of the side of these companies when our speaker has delivered that message and gotten them where probably they couldn’t have gotten on their own.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you, tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
John Ryder: Area of brilliance, I can tell you an area that I’m very passionate about. I’ve had the luxury and privilege of being able to work in a couple of different corporations that we mentioned earlier in building teams and in taking teams through change, turbulent times and getting to a place where folks feel like they can succeed and that they have the resources they need and more importantly that they believe in their own success and their team’s success. I think of many examples of that even more recently where I think some folks are daunted by the idea of maybe a turbulent environment, I actually think that’s where I thrive. I like the complicated challenge and I love the result.
Fred Diamond: John, before you came to the WSB again you mentioned AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, some of the most successful companies in the history of telephony, telecom and IT for that matter so you must have worked for some great people. Why don’t you tell us about a mentor or two and how they impacted your career?
John Ryder: I definitely had more than one, gratefully. I can think it spans over quite a bit of time. There was one gentleman in particular, his name is Frank Iovino who I worked for who really gave me a model of a sales process which sometimes that word “process” makes a salesperson cringe a little bit. The fact is we all need it in the end and how you define it with that person so that it’s literally tailored to exactly what drives them and then they’re fulfilled and you could ask them to actually step up a little bit and contribute a whole lot more for themselves and the organization.
He also taught me conflict resolution and how to speak to a client to make good on promises that have dividends back to the client long after you’ve deployed some kind of a solution.
That’s one in particular, another one that I would point to gave me some really great advice. She said, “You’re real strong tactically, strategically. The one thing I would tell you to do is find the couple of things that you can’t stand doing and you need to be experts in them.” I used to be a little frustrated with some operational items and things of that nature and now I find flash forward 15 years later it’s actually one of the things I like to do the most. I probably limited myself so I think it’s that open-mindedness, she was definitely a proponent of diversity inclusion so she had me leverage things that I never knew I’d had inside me or in others.
Fred Diamond: John, what are two of the biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
John Ryder: Definitely in this great economy, attracting and retaining talent. We have an incredible product line of speakers and experience that attracts the right people, but in this work force there are so many options and folks want things to happen very quickly. Keeping them here, keeping them directed and feeling like they have a career path is something that’s my highest focus.
Fred Diamond: Do you have a second one as well?
John Ryder: I’d say inside that it would be to sustain success for people that also are veterans to make sure that we’re respecting their institutional knowledge and building on that keeping it fresh for the folks that are coming in and for themselves to continue to feel valued and developed.
Fred Diamond: Talking about that, we’ve learned that so many times through all the interviews that the mission of the Institute for Excellence in Sales – which is the primary sponsor of the Sales Game Changers podcast – has become to help sales leaders acquire, retain, motivate and elevate top tier talent. You’re not the first guest that we’ve had that’s said that’s the biggest challenge.
John Ryder: I would imagine not.
Fred Diamond: Give us a little bit of insight into what are some of the traits that make a great sales professional in this space, in the speaker space or related event type services.
John Ryder: I think it’s a maniacal focus on the customer and that probably applies in most industries, but because the message that will come from our speaker and the experience is so personal and so important to that company. Folks need to really understand our portfolio as well as they can to make sure that that pairing or that matching is as best as possible. There is the knowledge of product but also it’s being extremely responsive and sensitive to the exact needs of that corporation because it will be tied to their values. If you don’t get that right, that could be tricky but most of the time we’ve got some really adept people that do get it right and it’s very rewarding. I think people who are able to stay true to that and then follow on and ask for more business do really well.
Fred Diamond: What might be some of the background, someone who’s in sales? Would it be having sold professional services? You made the move from selling telephony, what college degree for example might somebody have to sell this type of a service to be successful?
John Ryder: I’ve seen folks that are successful that have a wide array. I personally have a Bachelor’s, we have folks that have that IT background, sales background similar to mine, we have folks that started here from an associate level sales support. For me to say that it’s specific to any one type of a background, I’d say it’s probably not. I think it’s all about what you want to make of it.
Fred Diamond: I guess you have to love listening to speakers as well and reading and learning.
John Ryder: I think that yearning for being constantly in the know for current events is huge, and then keeping the pulse. It’s important to corporations either very specific to their industry also certainly is helpful, that constant thirst really.
Fred Diamond: John, take us back to the #1 specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of. Take us back to that moment.
John Ryder: This goes back a little ways and it’s definitely not the largest one that I’ve ever sold. We’ve got a little bit of a complicated backstory. I was the youngest national account manager that was hired at Sprint back when they launched Sprint PCS Print Spectrum which you may remember if you’re from this particular area. The VP had a little bit of question if I was the right person for the job, so he said, “I set up an appointment for us. I want you to go on it with me.” “Great, sounds good to me.” Flew out there, landed, got to the office and in that appointment it was pretty intimidating, it was a panel type setup and the VP I was with basically, “Your meeting, turn it onto me.”
Ripe old age at 24, I’m staring at people probably about twice my age and looked at it and said, “Tell me a little bit about your business. I know a little bit but I want to know what your pains are.” Very typical stuff and then quickly I noticed just in a second that I was connecting with one particular executive and I got that executive talking. I got them talking about their business, started down the path of laying out a plan for increasing efficiency and basically they stopped the meeting and then my VP said, “This guy is my friend and I was testing you, nice job.” I did turn around and actually sell that company a pretty large deployment at that time and also pass the test of proving myself as a younger buck in that situation.
Fred Diamond: We’ve heard some stories along the way as well with some Sales Game Changers about that type of an example where the VP has been taking the Sales Game Changer around and then one day the VP said, “I’m not going to make today’s meeting, but it’s at 3 o’clock at” wherever it might be. The people that we interview have had 10, 15, 20, 30 years’ career of success, being thrown into the deep end and having to figure it out pretty quickly. How did you feel after that?
John Ryder: I felt great. I’d always felt confident on my feet, but in that situation it felt good to actually prove it at another level. It gave me this sort of confidence that I think any sales professional should be able to talk to any level and be confident and believe in what they’re talking about. Once you establish that I think the sky’s the limit.
Fred Diamond: I like what you also said too is that you connected with somebody but you let them talk. We talked about listening before, but there’s so much an urge especially for the young people. We have young sales professionals listening around the globe to the podcast and a lot of them are on the phone in the first couple jobs now, you feel this need to be talking but the reality is you want to let your customer do the talking. What are some things that you do – again you talked about preparation, you talked about great questions – when you see that with your younger people? What’s some of the coaching that you do?
John Ryder: I would say that we all go into these conversations believing that we have a mapped out step A, step B, C, D and you hope to achieve something out of a phone call. Maybe it’s an appointment, maybe it’s an advance in the sale cycle, something in that nature. Step away from that, don’t confine yourself to that, someone could mention something on that call or in that meeting that could trigger a much larger opportunity. It’s earning that trust to be able to have that individual feel like you want to be on their team with that project. You’re not convincing them so much as you’re letting them talk to expose the sort of things that you can offer and align with, if that makes any sense at all.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question being in sales? It sounds like you got into sales pretty early in your career, what did you say your college major was?
John Ryder: Psychology.
Fred Diamond: We also talked before the show you’re a bass player, you’ve played rock and roll. Here you are in sales, a nice, great career, you’ve worked for some blue chip companies. Now you’re working for the premier speaker bureau in the country, the Washington Speakers Bureau. Did you ever question being in sales? Did you ever think to yourself at some point, “It’s too hard, it’s really just not for me”?
John Ryder: There have been some external factors like in 2008 when the economy started tanking where it had been about a 13 year run when I had never missed my quota. That hit pretty hard, I think that hits the soul of anybody who is in sales, just not hitting your number even if it’s for a month. That made me think, “Am I insulating myself?” But whenever I ever go near anything like that, I remind myself to never give up and just realize you just need to talk to more people. You need to find another target, keep moving, keep it fresh, look at it from a new perspective. If you’re having a bad day, the best thing that you can do is go see your customer.
Fred Diamond: John, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening to today’s podcast around the globe?
John Ryder: I think I’ve said most of it throughout this discussion and I keep it that simple, it’s just being maniacally focused on your customer. We talked about the importance of listening, if your customer has something going on in their industry that’s important to them, challenging to them or an important opportunity, or it’s change or it’s turbulence, any of those things are a great way to partner up with a customer and to get on their team to get them to come to understand your solutions and adopt them.
Fred Diamond: John, give us an idea for the people listening on the podcast today. Probably few of them have sold speaker related services before, tell us what a home run is. What would be for one of your salespeople, what does a great deal look like? Is it getting Colin Powell to go speak somewhere in Hawaii or is it a year-long thing? Just give us an idea of what looks like a great hit for your team.
John Ryder: I think that it would start with the partnering and the planning to getting to the highest level you can within an organization to understanding exactly what they’re trying to get out of these sessions. Again, is it a call to action? Is it going through change, is it increasing efficiency, productivity? There’s a number of them. Then having them have the faith in you to where they do turn around and say, “You did such a great job in this suggestion” and maybe it was a speaker that they didn’t go in wanting. Often times we have an alternate that we talk to them about that they’re even more pleased with, “We want you to handle all of our series for the year.” That’s definitely a home run. Revenue behind that of course, we want to sell the more expensive ones but I’d say it’s earning that trust and being able to be looked at as adviser for all of their business.
Fred Diamond: Just curiously, are people coming to you for a specific speaker or is it the other way around where they’re coming to you, “We want to motivate our people” or, “We just need someone to talk to our executive staff”?
John Ryder: It’s all of the above. Often times as I mentioned earlier they will come wanting a specific speaker, the fee range might not be exactly aligned with theirs or the availability of the speaker might not be there so we look at alternatives for them or they could come with a message. They could come with a forum that could come early in the process, that could come really late in the process and say, “We put this off, we’re in a jam, can you help us out?” It makes every day a little different.
Fred Diamond: Just curiously, do you represent hundreds or thousands or dozens? How many speakers do you guys represent?
John Ryder: Hundreds exclusively, but we have access to a plethora of more of them that are not exclusive to us but like working with the Washington Speakers Bureau.
Fred Diamond: What are some things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
John Ryder: I spend an awful lot of time on LinkedIn reading articles. I go to your site, I’ll tell you I find it very handy and for me hearing other sales professionals’ or even other business professionals’ challenges and successes and sharing that information is really what keeps me freshest.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
John Ryder: One of the things that we pride ourselves at WSB is our world-class service onsite and a world-class service from the time we’re contacted with a customer to the time an event is played to debriefing afterwards and ensuring that continued success. I’m maniacally focused at the moment on making sure that our support around our sales staff and our customers is top notch, looking at ways to bring that to a new level.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got to imagine if you’re an event director and you have some big name person coming and you’ve advertised it, that’s got to be the most stressful thing. Making sure until that person is in the building or off the plane, wherever it might be. How do you work with your customers to make sure that, “He’s definitely coming” or, “She’s definitely going to be here, nothing to worry about, we’ve got you covered”? I imagine it’s like a soup to nuts service, it’s not just, “We’re going to get this great author to come speak” but, “His flight is flight number United 1422, we have the whatever it is set up.” Do you guys do all of those things as well?
John Ryder: We have a group speaker relations that has an event management team which is just world-class and some of them are dedicated to some of the speakers and some of them are dedicated to these events. They ensure a large part of that along with a lot of our agents make the time to be on site to perhaps hand off a speaker to a top level executive and to really make sure that all that customer has to worry about is their event and how great it’s going to go, not things like flights and other things you mentioned.
Fred Diamond: Last thing before we ask you for one more tip: do you also manage speakers as well or are they all good, first class, world-class athletes? They’re ready to go, “Just tell me where to be and who the customer is” or is it also part of what your team does is preparing the speakers? Working on tips, training, social media potentially.
John Ryder: I would say that the bulk of our speakers are highly flexible to meet any kind of requirement and we support them around events and things that I mentioned, and making sure that their calendars are full with engagements. By a large, these folks come ready to roll.
Fred Diamond: John, sales is hard. You’ve worked in some interesting places, you worked for AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and now of course you’re the VP of Global Sales for the Washington Speakers Bureau. You’ve given us some great insights here, but sales is hard. You talked about 2008, you get these macro related things where all of a sudden people aren’t having events if something, god forbid, happens. Hopefully not, but people don’t return your phone calls, they don’t return your emails, they probably think in your space that they could just find the speakers themselves and that’s always a problem because of all the service that you guys provide. What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
John Ryder: I have always looked at sales like having my own company without necessarily the overhead or the tax ID. For me, it’s what you want to make of it. Every day, every year, every plan that you have constantly can be adjusted and revised and it’s up to you to drive it and in the end the reward is so great.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us a final thought to inspire our listeners today?
John Ryder: If I could leave with any final thought, I have never regretted thinking big. Thinking of these goals that far surpass where I was last year, where I’d like to be and never been daunted by what I need to do to get there. Just believe in yourself and ask others and constantly improve, focus on winning and I guarantee you will.