EPISODE 616: Championing a Buyer-Centric Sales Approach with Altrata Sales Leader Khris Fenton

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Khris Fenton is the VP of Sales Development and Partnerships at Altrata.

Find Khris on LinkedIn.

KHRIS’ TIP: “Beyond just the focusing on yourself as a sales professional, realize that you’ve got to have that discipline and balance in your total life in order to be a more effective professional. Play the long game, invest in yourself, do good by others, and generally the universe will reward that.”


Fred Diamond: Khris, I’m excited to have you on the show today. You were introduced to us by our good friend, Morgan Ingram, who actually spoke live at the Institute for Excellence in Sales in the past. I get a lot of people who reach out to me. We get like 40 requests per week from people who want to be on the Sales Game Changers Podcast. YesWare named our show one of the top sales podcast in 2022. I get close to 30, 40 inquiries per week from people who want to request either their customer or their client to be on the show. But when an inquiry comes from a guy like Morgan, who we’ve had on our stage, who we respect and appreciate, obviously we take a close look at it. Appreciated him introducing us to you. Tell us a little bit about your background. Tell us where you work, and we’re going to get into this conversation about the buyer-centric mindset and what that’s all about.

Khris Fenton: Exited to be here. I currently lead sales development and partnerships at Altrata. You can think of us as a company that’s focused on helping businesses connect with people based on maybe some wealth attributes or relationships that they have. In my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to see things from an individual contributor standpoint, leading RevOps, now in my role leading a few different sales teams. But at the end of the day, I started to pick up in my career around what it feels like when selling and what feels good and maybe what feels a little bit more uncomfortable, and started to think about putting myself in the shoes of buyers. For me, that was a game changer around how to sell effectively, but to not feel that pushy salesperson that maybe gets a little bit more personified from the days of old, and so become a passion of mine to help train and lead new salespeople to understand a different way of selling that is in my opinion a way to better connect with people and to help them make progress.

Fred Diamond: We’ve always spoken about the need to be customer-centric, you need to think about the customer. But the reality is I don’t think it really kicked in with a lot of sales professionals until the pandemic happened. Then the reason is everybody had the same challenges. We all had, of course, the health and the lockdown related challenges, and then we had financial challenges that resulted from the pandemic, if you will. For the first time, it wasn’t really just about us selling you something, or even you being a customer, because the customer was challenged with their customer and with their customer’s customers. Everybody all of a sudden became familiar with this whole concept of not just what’s needed for us, but how do we be of more value to everybody down through the supply chain.

Talk a little bit more about what we actually physically do. You mentioned WealthEngine and tell us a little bit about who buys your solutions. Then I’m curious on what your customers are thinking about as they’re approaching people that are in your database, et cetera.

Khris Fenton: You mentioned WealthEngine. WealthEngine is a company that’s been acquired under Altrata. We have a few different companies within this niche that we’re building a platform around. Our customers can vary. They can be nonprofits that are thinking about raising their next major gift and thinking about how they can really connect with a potential donor. They can be on the very extreme flip side, an investment bank that is looking for opportunities to work or to sell a business. We work with a lot of different industries typically around this more business development use case of connecting with people. I think that’s really at the core of being buyer-centric, is understanding your buyers, being able to connect with them.

For all of these organizations, what they’ve learned through COVID and through competition is that sometimes it’s not necessarily just what you sell. Oftentimes products and tools, whether it’s physical or software, can be commoditized, but it’s really about how well you understand and connect with a buyer and how you can help them navigate through their journey. I think that that’s really how sales has changed a lot over the past few years, is it’s oftentimes very complex or the issues behind why there’s a problem or change that’s being envisioned are complex as well. All of our customers are really trying to figure out like, “How can I be useful? How can I create value in context and create also a longer term relationship?” Because as you know, sales used to be about that initial sale, but now with the advent of SaaS, it’s not about that initial sale. It’s about building success, helping create progress, and then working closely together as you get to those proof points.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk again about buyer-centric mindset. I’m just curious, was there an aha moment that happened for you when you said, “I’m not doing this the right way. I need to shift towards that”? One of the challenges that’s happened over the last decade or so is with the advent, of course, of the internet and social networks. Customers don’t believe that they need to talk to a sales professional like they used to. Sales professionals in the ‘80s and ‘90s used to be walking billboards. You had to talk to them because it was the only place to understand product roadmaps, and the industry, and how the tools really worked in an overall environment, so to speak. Now you can just type into your search engine, what’s the best data analysis platform to use, or whatever it might be, or digital acquisition platform. You just Google it and all of a sudden everything you need shows up. The sales professional needs to shift. We’ve done over 650 episodes of the Sales Game Changers Podcast. We must have spoken about this on at least 600 of them, on how the sales professional needs to flip. I’m just curious, once again, was there an aha moment? If not, which is fine, tell us more about what the buyer-centric mindset means.

Khris Fenton: When I started out my career in 2012, I actually started selling copiers. Copier sales is very much one of those areas where you jump in, you cut your teeth. For the first year or so, I was banging my head against the wall trying to understand, how can I not be like everybody else? Because it’s a very commoditized sale. You’re selling copiers, fax machines. Most people don’t wake up in the morning thinking about, “Hey, I can’t wait for this call with my neighborhood copier salesman.”

I read a book at the time by Mike Weinberg. That book called ‘New Sales. Simplified.’ It started to help me understand a little bit more from the buyer’s perspective, like what they expect from a meeting and some of the things that we might be doing without realizing it that are turning them off or making them more guarded. That really started me down a path of really focusing more on the psychology of sales, of creating trust with people. I started to see an immediate breakthrough as far as I start to elevate my game from helping buyers make progress versus focusing on myself, my quota, my competition, that I was able to really break through and be like a circle in a sea of squares.

That’s where I really started to believe that how you sell, how you engage with clients is oftentimes going to be the differentiator. It just felt better, honestly, when I didn’t go around thinking that everybody needed my solution. I was actually taking the flip side of putting myself in the buyer’s shoes and thinking about what they may need to think about, some of the obstacles they were going to encounter, and help them see around corners that I understood from working with dozens of people like them. That was the moment where it flipped.

Fred Diamond: That’s a good point. Mike Weinberg is a good friend of ours. He’s never been on the podcast, but we’ve had him speak at the Institute for Excellence in Sales. When you had this revelation, tell us some of the things that you started doing, because it’s easy to say, “I’m buyer-centric, and the customer is always first.” It’s interesting, when people ask me for one bit of advice, and I’ve talked to tens of thousands of sales professionals over the years that we’ve been running the Institute for Excellence in Sales. Once people ask me, “What is the one thing that you recommend?” I say, “You need to become the expert in your industry,” or an industry. Right now you’re selling X whatever it might be. You need to become intimate with what your customer’s industry is going through.” As a matter of fact, Khris, some of the top sales professionals that I know, they’ve been selling to the government for 30 years, and not just the government, but maybe just Department of Defense. They’re part of that community and they’re selling, or they’re in the hospitality space, or they’re selling to the financial services space, but they’ve been doing it for 20, 30 years and they’re entrenched in the industry. Tell us some of the things that you did and give us some advice for the sales professionals listening on what they should be doing to really understand this buyer-centric mindset.

Khris Fenton: The first thing that I started to change was, again, not making the assumption that my solution was right for the customer, and instead being very focused on where I can make the biggest impact, and really not being as focused and being as truthful and honest around, “Yeah, that doesn’t really sound like something that I can do, or that we’re going to excel at if it matters to you.” That mentality shift, I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, really changes the dynamic of the conversations that you’re having when you do have that right prospect. It takes discipline to say no or to flag potential issues.

One of my favorite analogies is, in a sales conversation, you might hear a red flag or you can think of it as a yellow light. In sales, typically you see the yellow light and you speed up and you go through it, instead of when you’re driving a car, you see the yellow light, I’m going to slow down, I’m going to pause here. I think I’ve applied that methodology to really try to create a different dynamic where as I hear something as a salesperson that maybe isn’t the best fit for me, I want to slow down. I want to understand how well my vision aligns with theirs. I want to understand how important that thing may be to them. In essence, in doing that, it really starts to lower the walls that buyers create because they are used to being sold to, somebody trying to convince them, somebody trying to tell them that their way is the best way, versus a more collaborative conversation that you can have. That’s on the tactical side.

But thinking about, to your example, being an expert, the flip side of this, the vitamin to that painkiller in a way is really asking the customers that you have some very specific questions that break down the fourth wall. It’s really focusing on the why’s behind the why. Why they bought or what the specific problem was. It’s when they realized they had a problem, what went from, “Yeah, this is annoying,” to, “No, I want to talk to somebody. I want to fix this.” It’s understanding the anxiety that happens through a sales process where you may not realize it as a salesperson, but in almost any purchase, as you get further along, there’s anxiety. “Is this the right fit? Should we do this? What are some of these things that maybe pop up that might slow a sales cycle down or derail it completely?”

I think having those conversations with existing customers is best, but it’s something you can also do with people you’ve never met depending on your style and how you engage. Being really open to that is what’s created for me a better connection with buyers no matter what industry that I’m in, where I can know the acronyms, know the inside jokes, understand some of the things that maybe don’t get said on a sales call, but actually do drive their behavior. What the interesting takeaway for me has been is a lot of those things are actually more emotional than logical. In sales we’re very much thinking about, “Well, it’s ROI. We’re going to sell ROI.” It’s not actually at the end of the day why somebody’s going to make a change. Change is costly, change is intimidating. The logic comes in later. But that was one of the biggest takeaways, is when I started to get into these conversations, it wasn’t so much about logical reasons to make a change. It’s really about it could be somebody trying to get promoted, move in their career, make their work-life balance a little bit more healthy. It really surprised me.

Fred Diamond: Actually, it’s great advice for some of the younger sales professionals listening to today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast. You raise a really good point, and there’s a couple of factors there I want to touch on. One is, in a complex sale, it’s not one person you’re selling to on one call. Sometimes there’s four or five or as many as 10 people who may be involved in the decision. People at the company, at various places, finance, operations, program management, somebody may love you, really sees the value. But then there’s people on the finance team who say, “We need more value,” if you will.

Then there’s also drivers. Everybody who’s buying something in a corporation has a career path that they are open to achieve. Yes, they are there to serve the company and to help their company achieve whatever it needs to achieve, of course, to be more productive, save costs, make money, treat their employees better, whatever it might be. But they also have personal drivers. Especially if they’re bringing in a newer complex technology, there’s the factor of, “Is this going to be helping me in my career?” That’s why a lot of people who work for startups, they’re excited because of this new technology. But if I’m a director of IT at an 80-year-old company, I’m not necessarily looking to get rid of the tried and true for something that’s brand new. There’s career risks.

Talk a little bit about more of that. How do you find that information? Especially if you’re relatively new to sales and you’re armed with a list of features and maybe your marketing team has given you some success stories that you can tell. You’re so primed to tell your story, but in reality, you need to be listening to what the customer may or may not be saying.

Khris Fenton: Yeah. I agree with all of that. I’ve had a lot of experience in the startup going to get from the 1 to 10 customers. One of the biggest pieces is calling out the fact that somebody may be taking a bet on you, and that there may be some risk involved in that. Again, going back to that analogy around yellow lights, it’s acknowledging that elephant in the room and bringing it up so that you can at least engage with a conversation like that instead of it being had without you in the room, not being able to shape it. I think that that’s really key.

What’s great about the era that we live in is there’s a lot of different ways to engage with buyers, and to understand how they think about the world that they’re in. One of the best ways that I’ve seen is to go check out reviews. Check out reviews of competitors, check out reviews of your company, and start to pick out some of the emotional ways that people describe what a product does. I think that that’s always interesting. We’ve talked a little bit about conversations. Sometimes you have existing customers, sometimes you’re just trying to get your first. I’ve found that the universe rewards action. Oftentimes if you send somebody a cold email or a LinkedIn and say, “Hey, Fred, I really want to understand more about how podcast hosts think about their day-to-day and their schedule. I don’t want to pitch anything, I don’t want to be on the show, but I do really want to understand what makes you tick. It’s going to be about 10 minutes. Here’s what it would look like. Is there any way you can help me out?” You’d be surprised at who will actually take that 10 minutes and pay something forward because they’ve been helped out in the past. Those have been two of the more tried and true.

The last that I think is a little bit newer is technology and AI. ChatGPT, for those that aren’t using this when this drops, is a really great resource for plugging in, here’s what I do, here’s what I sell, here’s what I think some of the problems are. Can you tell me a little bit about how X persona in X industry might be connected to that? I think that leveraging some of the tools that we have with AI helps us really connect a lot of those dots. You can never replace conversations with customers. You can never replace the verbal and non-verbal cues that they give you and how their eyes light up in one way, or you can sense a shift in another. But you can start to really give yourself and make yourself an expert by utilizing some of the tools, whether it’s message boards, forums, or reviews, ChatGPT, even job postings, quite frankly, can tell you a lot about an organization and a person’s motivations. Then it’s up to you to connect the dots.

Fred Diamond: I really like the example you just gave with ChatGPT and to understand what some of the challenges that the customer in their industry could be going through. It’ll definitely give you some great feedback there. I want to ask one final question before I ask you for your final thought. As a sales leader, for people who are listening to the show, who are leaders, who manage teams, who manage people, again, if you have some very excited young people on your team, they’re really gung ho. They just came out of onboarding, if you will, or maybe a couple of years ago they’ve had some success, maybe as an SDR or a BDR or something, but they have this enthusiasm.

They don’t understand in some cases why a customer wouldn’t want to become a customer. I have this great tool, I’m so excited to be a member of this company. We have great snacks in the break room. I’m so impressed by our CEO, and that’s cool, that’s great stuff. But the customer, like we talked throughout the course of the day, customer has their challenges that they need to deal with. Give some advice to the sales leaders on how to lead their talented young sales professionals into this mindset of being more effective buyer-centrically.

Khris Fenton: I think there’s a few things that sales leaders can do. Number one, it’s being really defined about who is the best fit for your products or your services and who’s not. Having a really laser-focused view of that to the point where you could explain that person’s life to them and how they get through the day, and even the tabs that they’re going to have up on their screen better or as well as they can. That’s the first piece that’s a responsibility for leaders, is you have to be able to really know where you’re strongest, where you’re weakest, and help to educate around some of the day-to-day issues that somebody goes with.

You really start to incorporate that into the next piece, which is messaging. I think that a lot of us as sales leaders sometimes miss the reality that buyers typically talk in the language of problems. Oftentimes problems are easier to relate with than a future vision. Many of you have had a conversation with coworkers, sometimes you talk about something annoying, traffic, this or that. It’s easy to connect over problems. As leaders, we have a responsibility to train salespeople in the language of problem-solving versus product-pushing. That’s cultural. That’s something that has to be from top down.

You as a leader have to be okay with losing opportunities that might be potentially something that you could convince or twist somebody’s arm and really focusing on more healthy revenue and healthy opportunities. If you created that culture, everything works out in the long run and you start to really help your go-to-market folks communicate in a different way that’s also going to help them throughout their career. We lose sight of building some fundamental skills that ultimately can be utilized forever, versus the hot methodology right now or whatever it is, or the email trick that’s working today that’s a sugar pill that’s not always going to be working in the future.

Fred Diamond: You have to be there. The customer’s no longer interested in you showing up and just throwing features, benefits, and even stories that are obviously part of a script. You need to understand what they’re going through. Everybody, Khris, is going through challenges right now. Coming out of the pandemic, everybody’s had to continue, not necessarily to pivot, but to respond accordingly, because their customer is still responding and their customer’s customer is still responding. The successful sales professionals are the ones who put themselves in the customer’s shoes, who study their marketplace, and understand how they can bring them solutions. Khris, you’ve given us so many great ideas, I applaud you for this. Thank you. Give us one final action step. Briefly, something that people should do right now, sales professionals, to take their sales career to the next level.

Khris Fenton: If I’m a sales professional today and I’m restarting my career, the main thing that I would cite is it’s playing a long game by educating and investing in yourself. I think that that can mean a lot of different things depending on the scenario or the person, but for me personally, it was finding and seeking out mentors. It was books, it was podcasts, it was paying for courses that really helped me understand and get ahead. But beyond just the focusing on yourself as a sales professional, it’s realizing that you’ve got to have that discipline and balance in your total life in order to be a more effective professional. Play the long game, invest in yourself, do good by others, and generally the universe will reward that. Anybody can take that to mean to them what it may, but it’s really focusing on yourself and moving forward and making that progress that you’re looking to make to your customers and prospects.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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