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EPISODE 032: Grow Your Sales with Lessons Learned on the Gridiron from Rapid Advance’s Mark Cerminaro
Mark Cerminaro is the chief revenue officer at Rapid Advance, an industry-leading FinTech company that provides small-business owners access to capital to grow their business. He’s responsible for partner sales business development, strategic expansion, and revenue generation.
Prior to that, Mark served as senior vice president of sales and marketing, building out all sales and marketing functions and infrastructure and directly managing both the internal and external sales teams. Before that, Mark was a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley.
Find Mark on LinkedIn!
Mark Cerminaro: Our core focus is providing capital to small businesses. We are an online FinTech company, so a little bit more of a newer industry in the word of lending. We’ve been around for a little bit over 11 years now. I’ve been with the company a little bit over 10, so I’ve been here pretty much since inception. We provide the accessibility to capital to help small businesses grow. It’s something that’s exciting because you can see the impact of what you do on a daily basis.
We see the success stories of our clients not only accessing our capital but expanding, growing their businesses and sharing their livelihoods with us. Because small-business owners are very personal in running their business, we’re able to foster great relationships. So it’s an exciting thing every day to see what you do is impactful.
Fred Diamond: Very good. So how did you get into sales as a career?
Mark Cerminaro: When I graduated college, it was something that I always wanted to get into. I was by nature a very competitive person, and the idea of sales and the ability to control my own destiny, to be able to embark on a career where my success, my ability to earn my income, everything I would do would be determined based on my ability, my desire, my work ethic, and not so much on somebody tapping me on the shoulder to say, “You’re promoted.” So that was one thing that really interested me about it, the ability to be dependent on myself to be successful
Fred Diamond: Take us back to some of your first sales jobs. What were some of the key lessons you learned that have continued with you in your career?
Mark Cerminaro: One of the key things I think that anybody when they embark on sales learns very early—and I learned it very quickly—was you’re going to hear “no.” And you’re going to hear “no” a lot. It’s something you have to be able to have a thick skin about, to be able to be self-determining, to be able to steer through the nos and find the yeses.
[You also need] to take a hard look at yourself and realize what you do well and what you don’t do well. The only way you’re going to strengthen yourself is to really understand that concept and find ways to improve the areas that, even if you are good at, you can be better. That’s really where I found that with sales there was a lot of an introspective where you really have to be able to say, “This is where I need help” and “This is where I’m really good.”
Fred Diamond: Mark, tell us about what you are an expert in. Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Mark Cerminaro: I think the areas that I’ve excelled in and that have been my strength in my career are problem solving and strategic thinking. I’ve had the ability, and that’s really been a very strong basis in being successful with sales.
When you look at it, when you enter a sale—whether you’re selling a tangible, an intangible, whatever it is—there’s a problem. You want the client to become a client, or you want them to buy what you’re selling. You have to figure out and be strategically thinking about how do I bridge that gap.
I’ve had the ability in growing a company now to really approach it from looking at identifying a problem, being able to make the business case, and explaining to others, “Hey, this is why this is a problem.” Be able to really dig into the problem to understand the underlying contributors to it and quickly come up with solutions that can help resolve those and ultimately be able to solve the problem.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to the beginning of your career. Let’s talk about some mentors you had over the course of your career and how they specifically impacted your career.
Mark Cerminaro: One of the things that I think has helped me be successful is a thirst for knowledge. The way I’ve always looked at mentors is it’s something that should be ongoing. You may have many of them throughout your career. I’ve been very fortunate that early on my parents, my sister, my family were big influences on me from that hard-work perspective, which is really the foundation to be successful in sales.
When I started at Morgan our branch manager, Jerry Castro, was an individual who I wanted to emulate. He was an individual who embraced hard work and always said the phrase, “I may not be the smartest guy in the room, but I’m always going to out-workeverybody else in the room.” And that’s something I now find myself saying to my salespeople. But even through there, that kind of gave me a foundational limit.
When I got to Rapid, I found a whole new level of mentorship. It was a whole other arena. We were building a company. Our CEO and general counsel, Joe Looney and Jeremy Brown, were two individuals who helped me as a mentor to understand how to build a company. It was something that I’d never been in the arena for. Again, I was identifying things that I didn’t have an expertise in and wanting to learn and really growing through seeing the way they approached business and had very different philosophies than I did in sales but really being able to blend it to it to be successful.
And that has continued to grow. Our CEO, Will Tumulty, who joined us two years ago is a very analytical person. That’s an area that I needed to develop, and I looked to him to be a mentor to help me be able to analyze problems a little bit more, dig in from a data perspective. So really the way I view mentorship from a sales perspective is it’s something that should be ongoing. As a salesperson, you should be always looking to individuals who have different areas of expertise who can help you and guide you to become better in those areas for yourself.
Fred Diamond: We just walked on your floor. I know you also have an office in Detroit,. You have a whole bunch of people here who are in sales. You’re the chief revenue officer, Mark Cerminaro, at Rapid Advance. Do the people come to you? Do they seek you out for mentorship? Is that a common thing here?
Mark Cerminaro: It’s definitely something. One of the things that I think is extremely important as you get into sales leadership is to build relationships with your people. You have to build trust. They have to look to you to as somebody who when you’re being constructive, they genuinely believe it to be constructive feedback to help benefit them, or else they tend to not fully engage in what you’re saying. You have to be the first person to congratulate them when something is good. Not just big successes, but little successes.
One thing I’ve always been a fan of is quoting a scene from Any Given Sunday, a movie with Al Pacino, where he talks about the inches being everywhere. Because really in the world of sales, success is defined by being good at the inches around you. It’s not just the big things but it’s the inches around you that help you be successful in perfecting those. So I found that individuals do seek me out for guidance, and I always am candid with them. People know me as being very direct and telling what I think, which I think people respect because they know that when I am giving them insight it is to help them.
Fred Diamond: What are two of the biggest challenges you’ve faced today as a sales leader?
Mark Cerminaro: One of the biggest things I think is—and anybody should find this as a challenge, because you should be constantly challenging yourself in it—time management. Time management is one of the things you should never become complacent in. You should always be striving to be better at because as you get more and more efficient and grow as an individual who can be organized and be able to manage time, it allows you to do more.
I think one of the things that a lot of people fall back on in many cases as an excuse is, “Oh, there’s just not enough hours in a day for me to get everything done.” Well, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, world leaders have the same 24 hours that you do. It’s your ability to manage your time and be efficient that allows you to get more done, so it’s something I’m constantly challenging myself with. It’s something I always identify as a big challenge. I think another thing is—and it’s really been for the past couple of years—the availability of data. Data is more available now than ever in the history of corporate business, and I think a lot of times people can get drowned in it. And it’s about being able to identify what is the data you want to bring into your sales teams to help guide them and be more efficient.
Data gives an objective view into your sales pipeline: This is where you’re successful, this is where you’re having issues. It allows you to dig in a little bit more intimately and be more targeted with things like coaching and training and helping people build. But you also don’t want to inundate people where you basically are doing analysis to paralysis. You’re getting nothing done. So it’s a tight line to walk, but it is really one of the strongest tools to be able to pinpoint inefficiencies and make salespeople successful.
Fred Diamond: Speaking of data, give us some of the metrics that you’re interested in as a sales leader, as it relates to staff optimization and making your people as successful as possible.
Mark Cerminaro: It can be everything as little as how quickly do they get to an incoming lead, what is their response time, where in the sales process are they moving people down the pipeline, and where are they finding breakage. Are they good at certain elements of the sales process? When you look at sales, it is a process. It’s not a singular event; it’s a process of moving somebody along a path.
But again, there are going to be pitfalls along the path. The better you can identify those pitfalls and maybe a conversion of certain area of business, that’s going to help your team be more efficient. What you can do with that is tailor your coaching to a specific individual. We all hold sales meetings and motivational meetings that are kind of holistic in the message of the company and the sales goals, but you’re able to really target individuals and have better one-on-one conversations with them and make that individual more successful, which helps your overall team be more successful.
Fred Diamond: Mark, what is the number-one specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of?
Mark Cerminaro: About two years ago we had an opportunity to approach Office Depot, a national corporation, to get them to introduce our product to their clients. They service small businesses, we service small businesses, there’s an alignment from a conceptual standpoint.
Now, when you’re approaching a national corporation that is kind of set in the type of business that they’ve done, bringing in a new type of engagement with their client, not only a new concept but also a brand-new industry… there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. And we were able to get in front of them and have a discussion. From a sales perspective it was “How do I cultivate the message, the value-add of what we do to this specific group?”
And once we got that buy-in from some of the more senior-level individuals, we then had another series of sales around the same concept, because then we had to meet with different divisions of the company. We had to discuss how our solution could help their individual division. Then you get lawyers involved and all of the aspects of going back and forth and coming to agreement. So it was really a sales process that had many different adjustments that we had to make along the way.
We had obstacles that were unforeseen. Staples announced that they were going to try to acquire Office Depot in the midst of our conversations with them. It was really about the persistence of negotiating something and selling something over a year that took us to get to finalization and actually come to agreement and introduce the product that really tested different sales abilities… to almost be a chameleon and adjust your message to the group that you’re speaking to while keeping the contextual basis of what you’re trying to get across.
So that was one thing that I was proud of myself, our team, for putting that relationship together. We were actually one of the first ones in the industry to ever strike that type of agreement with a national corporation. A lot of the things we do are kind of entering uncharted territory, being a newer industry, so it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s exhilarating to be on the front line of those and to recognize those successes.
Fred Diamond: Let me ask you a question about that. One theme that has continued to come through on the Sales Game Changers Podcast is the need to provide more value for your customers because they’re struggling. Every company out there is struggling to transform, to rethink how they provide value for the customer. What was the value message that you communicated to Office Depot during that process for them?
Mark Cerminaro: A lot of it was a new way to present their brand to their small-business clients. An ability to transform how their clients thought of Office Depot, in a world with Amazon and severe competition for the end client. The ability to adapt and grow for every business is imperative. No business should ever be comfortable in the way they have historically done business. They should be thinking with the evolution of technology. It’s becoming a faster environment. The game is constantly changing. You need to be forward-thinking: “How do I approach business?”
When somebody asked Wayne Gretzky what made him successful, he said, “I always went to where the puck was going, not where it had been.” And that’s one of the things when I’m looking at business, I’m always looking at my competition in three metrics: Where are they today? That tells me where I need to be competitive one-on-one with them. Where do I think they’re going, where do I think they’re going to try to grow into, what markets, what segments? Because I need to approach those markets to stay on an even pace with them. And then, Where do I think they’re not going? Where can I have that first-mover advantage? What markets can I go into? Because that’s going to give me one up on my competition and allow me to excel.
You really have to look at the sales game in both short- and long-term ideology. You have to figure out “How do I get to a long-term goal but achieve short-term wins along the way?”
Fred Diamond: Have you ever thought that this is the right industry for you, or was there ever a moment when you thought to yourself, “It’s just too hard”, “It’s just not for me”?
Mark Cerminaro: That’s a great question. I think everybody in sales should be asking themselves, “Is this too hard?” Because that means you’re challenging yourself, and when you challenge yourself you’re going to face failure. And part of being successful is being able to come across failure and move on and be successful. So there were various times throughout my career where I’ve just said, “This is too hard” or “Is there something else I could do?”
Sales is a very unique art. It’s something where it’s not just a matter of filling in data in a spreadsheet or doing a kind of continuous work event over and over again. It’s something that you have to continually grow in, and it’s something where the key thing is you have to challenge yourself. And again, with that you should be questioning, “Is it too hard?” If you’re not, then you’re probably limiting your potential. You’re not realizing how successful you can be, because you’re not taking the risks and the challenges that are necessary.
Fred Diamond: What’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their careers?
Mark Cerminaro: I think one of the key things for sales professionals they have to recognize is that this is their profession. If they were professional athletes, they would be practicing their craft every single day. They wouldn’t just show up to a game and say, “Okay, I’m playing today.” They would be watching game film, they would be practicing, they’d be critical of themselves.
You really have to do the same thing in sales to be successful. Salespeople don’t do enough of recording themselves and listening to themselves. The way they think they sound selling is not really the way that they actually sound. You have to have that desire and that investment in yourself to practice and try and try again to be a better sales professional. That’s one of the things I think that people miss in joining the sales profession and probably one of the reasons a lot of people aren’t successful in it. It’s about that investment in yourself to practice over and over again to be successful.
Fred Diamond: You were quarterback at Georgetown University. You just didn’t do a play for the first time in a game; you must have practiced it hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It’s the same thing in sales. We hear often that sales reps will try something for the first time in front of the customer; you’re invariably setting yourselves up for failure. What are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Mark Cerminaro: A lot of it is, from a personal side, reading. Reading and getting information from other thought leaders out there or successful salespeople. Not necessarily try to replicate what they say or what they do, because obviously their personality, the way they sell is very different from the way I sell. But really to get the underlying concepts to then be able to apply to my personality. One thing in sales is you always have to be very genuine. I think if you are just trying to emulate the most senior person in the corner office, it’s going to come across as very disingenuous, and it’s going to fail, fall flat on its face.
So I’m constantly looking to read and get ideas from other individuals. One of the biggest things that I do, though, to try to sharpen my saw is constantly talk to our salespeople. Have conversations with them and get feedback from them, because when you move into different roles in your career, your view of what is going on changes.
As a sales leader, there are things that I think are great processes or the way I envision things are occurring on a daily basis that may not be perfectly aligned with the actual way that the salespeople are doing things. And I think getting that communication, that feedback from them allows me to think more in depth about how do I want to develop our sales process in a company to get us successful. Plus they bring a whole new element of ideas and views, and I think being able to look at things from multiple lenses is something that really allows you to become successful.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Mark Cerminaro: A lot of it is being in a growing company, answering the question “How do we continue to grow?” How do I look at the landscapes and the opportunities that we may want to pursue, and how do I craft a strategy that will allow us to penetrate different markets or grow different areas? How do I put that into kind of a tactical plan that then feeds down into the sales team that they can execute on? That’s one thing I’m constantly looking at, how are we going to strategically grow our company.
The initiatives that I really focus on are the big picture. Looking at where this company can grow to, what we can get to from a success level, what are our measures of success, and how do we adjust those as we adjust our business. So that’s one of the key things I’m always looking at from a strategic perspective: the how. How do we grow?
Fred Diamond: Mark, sales is hard. People don’t return your phone calls or your emails. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Mark Cerminaro: I think a lot of it is the ability to always be in control of how I measure success. Being able to approach and engage with different individuals, build relationships with different individuals. One of the unique things about sales is you engage with all different types of individuals, and you get to learn and craft relationships that you otherwise may have never had in life that allow you exposure to different ways of doing things in business. It’s not a monotonous routine, it’s an evolving game every single day. it’s something that you have to be able to constantly grow and learn in.
And what we do as a company is exciting to me. That impact that we have is something that constantly drives me to want to do more. How can we do more with our small-business owners? How can we help them grow more? What are the tools that we can give them?
And I think from a sales perspective, it’s the coaching aspect of working with sales guys. I got into sales leadership because I have a coaching mentality. I want to see individuals grow. The greatest enjoyment I have is seeing the people who work with me become successful. Seeing them buy houses, grow their families, buy cars, build a lifestyle over the things that I’m in some small way helping to contribute to their success and that’s one of the key drivers that makes me excited about what I do every day.
Fred Diamond: Mark, give us one final thought that you can share to inspire the sales game changers listening today.
Mark Cerminaro: When you’re a salesperson and a sales professional you have to understand that you are embarking on a unique career. It’s a career that not everybody has the fortitude to be successful in, but it’s something where you eliminate a lot of the obstacles for success from a limitation perspective. You control your own destiny, and in the world of business that is a unique position to be in.
You can contribute and have the ability to bring concepts and ideas that are new and fresh and inspire others. If you’re a sales professional, passion is the underlying ingredient to be successful. But you have to be passionate about people. And being able to impact individuals and see the way that your direct actions impact others is something that’s very rare in the world of business. So it’s something that if you should embark on, you should have a full heart into and really focus on doing with all of your ability.