EPISODE 314: Women in Sales: Susan Apgood Shows How Even the Smallest Sales Activity Can Get You on the Sales Success Journey

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the WOMEN IN SALES Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales and hosted by Gina Stracuzzi on January 6, 2021. It featured media relationship expert Susan Apgood.]

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EPISODE 314: Women in Sales: Susan Apgood Shows How Even the Smallest Sales Activity Can Get You on the Sales Success Journey

SUSAN’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Start with one outreach, perhaps to that one person you’ve been thinking about. Drop them an email today and you’ll be amazed about what that can lead to. I can’t stress enough to start small, one or two actions per day but then have that 20-mile framework set up so that you’re able to work within that as you move forward. These tiny little steps, all of a sudden you look back and you’re like, “I’m almost at the South Pole and my 1,400 mile journey is almost over.”

Fred Diamond: It’s the beginning of 2021, hope everybody has a tremendous 2021. It gives me great pleasure and honor to introduce to you the Program Director for the Institute for Excellence in Sales Women in Sales Leadership Forum and the host of the Women in Sales webinar, Gina Stracuzzi.

Gina Stracuzzi: Let’s get started on this really timely topic starting the year off on the right foot, I would like to welcome my guest, Susan Apgood. Susan, hello, how are you?

Susan Apgood: Good.  I am the founder of a company called News Generation, we are a media relations company focusing on broadcast. We work to get our clients on television and radio in news and public affair shows, we work hard for clients that have great issues to tell that need to get into that news programming. I own the company, I started it right out of business school in 1997 and I just sold the company mid-pandemic last April to a company called 4media and what that has allowed us to do is offer more services, we do advise, we do digital outreach, we do surveys, broaden our offerings which has helped stretch my sales muscles. I also am an adjunct professor at the American University here at Washington D.C. and I teach in the business school there two classes per semester, it’s called Intro to Business, the very first class that our students in business school take. Lastly I am a facilitator for a group called Her Corner and that is a group that helps businesses starting out to grow their strategy, their sales, their planning, their elevator pitches, it’s a mindshare group for women that are looking to launch a business or grow a business.

Gina Stracuzzi: When you and I first started talking, I was blown away by your approach to business development and selling and that’s why I wanted you to be on the program, because I love your philosophy, take us into it. I’m going to fess up right away, folks, I put up the title Think Like a Sherpa and Susan reminded me yesterday that it’s really more like an explorer. Talk to us a little bit about what you mean by the explorer aspect of 20 miles or actions a day.

Susan Apgood: This is a constant movement of business development. Let me tell you a little bit of a background story, there were two expeditioners that were looking to reach the South Pole in the early 1900s, in 1911. Amundsen and Scott were the two explorers that led these huge expedition teams to get to the South Pole and they had two very different philosophies. One was Amundsen’s which was, “Every day we’re going to go a certain amount of nautical miles.” It translates into roughly about 20 miles of a journey and the thought was, “We will go for this amount of time so if it takes us 4 hours, 6 hours, 8 hours, we are going to get it done because we have that commitment to this journey.” Whereas Scott and his team, what they did was an easier day of hiking if it was clear, if there were no obstacles, hills, traverses to get over, they would go for as long as they could. What would happen is they would go for as long as they could and the next day they’d be exhausted and so they would stop.

Then they would have a rough day where the terrain was not agreeable so they would then take a day or two off. The two different schools of thought got them both to the South Pole, Amundsen got there much faster and was able to be that explorer that was much more methodical, much more thinking in terms of increments rather than, “This is easy, I’m going to go farther today” or, “This is really hard so I’m going to pull back.” It just became this cadence of planning in which the first team was able to plan out exactly when they would get there whereas the second team wasn’t able to because they didn’t know what the weather would be like 10 days from now. They were playing everything a little bit more by ear so that became this rule that I adopted that I received at the right time.

What I mean by that is I just read the book When by Daniel Pink and this was probably two and a half, three years ago and at the same time in the Her Corner group that I was in, we were talking about this 20 mile journey and how every day you have to be methodical and planned. I looked at when I’m the best and that’s what When is about. When you are at peak performance, if you know you’re not a night person don’t leave harder tasks for the evening, do your harder tasks in the morning. I’m very much a morning person so what I decided to do was I was going to come into the office, work for about 2 hours on, as I call it, the hurricane stuff – emails that have to be answered, responding to internal requests, etc. Then at 11:15 I found that that’s the time when I sit down, I can be really focused, I know I have a couple of hours so I work on my business development for 90 minutes each day.

So from 11:15 to 12:45, that is my time, what I do during that time is I make a list typically a couple days before of when I have to check in with people and I just start working down that list. The reason I do it is because it creates clear performance markers for me, it allows me the opportunity to say, “I need to reach out to Bo today and Lauren on Thursday because they have a project coming up.” It allows me to be more planned in my thinking and get ahead of some of the potential crises that might be coming down the pipe with client engagements.

I also present these self-imposed constraints. It’s not as if Bo or Lauren or whoever I’m reaching out to is saying, “I wish Susan would contact me today.” I am the account executive, I am the one that is driving them to my business so I create this time of day where I’m constantly reaching out to people. The reason I do it in a self-imposed constrained time is because that’s when I’m focused, there’s nothing else on my calendar during that time that I am doing. It has to be appropriate to the individual or to the business itself, the reason I do it at that time is because I’m just a better performer during that time. 90 minutes is a time that is doable each day and it just allows me that time to say, “I’m going to focus right now as hard as I can on these items.” If there’s outfall afterwards where I have to make a client call because I have something scheduled at 4 o’clock, that’s totally fine but that’s my window of, “I just have to keep the train going.” That’s the way I look at it in my head, I’m this explorer trekking 20 miles between 11:15 and 12:45 every day.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s amazing and so simple.

Susan Apgood: It’s simple – not easy, but simple [laughs]. It’s largely within my control. Obviously today we’re doing this during my key time, I shift my times a little bit later during those days.

Gina Stracuzzi: But you still do it.

Susan Apgood: I still do it, it doesn’t give me the excuse or the opportunity to not do it, it just allows me a little bit of a time shift. I’m going to stress this item because in Her Corner when I facilitate groups I talk about this a lot. 90 minutes might seem super overwhelming, I couldn’t sit there for 90 minutes and call people and email people and get on conference calls, that’s too much, start with 10 minutes. We’re at the time where we’re at the beginning of the year, it’s always great to add time, it’s hard to subtract things and what I mean by that is if we start off in the new year and say, “I’m going to run a marathon” and on the first day we go out and we run 10 miles and the most we’ve ever done is 2, we’re never going to get up the gumption to run the next day because we’re going to be so sore. Start off doing that one mile walk, doing two calls a day. I have a member in Her Corner who is like, “I just want to do two engagements a day. Two engagements a day, that’s ten a week, that could be over 500 including vacation time per year.” That’s a lot, so my thought is let’s chunk things out into tiny little but very impressive bursts and then we allow ourselves the opportunity to relax a little bit because we know that that is our “on” time, as we say.

Gina Stracuzzi: I love that thinking and I really applaud your teaching the idea of not starting off so big that you fall back because then you feel defeated and you start beating yourself up like, “There I go again, I’m not going to fulfill it” or whatever it is that you say to yourself, and we all say things. Starting small and working up fulfills so many levels of satisfaction and gets the job done, so that’s great thinking.

Susan Apgood: Doing 10 minutes is much better than doing 0 minutes and that 10 minutes might lead to 15 and like I said, this is very concentrated time where the focus is there and there’s nothing else that matters. It’s not phone calls, it’s not emails, it’s what I’m doing to put out there in my professional development or my business development mindset to put it out to the sales universe and then work for the next 24 hours to reap the benefits of that until it comes up the next business day.

Gina Stracuzzi: I know for myself that once I get a couple calls under my belt I’m done and so eager to talk to the next person. Starting small actually can help you because then you get in the groove and you’re like, “I’ll just do one more.”

Susan Apgood: Right. I used to have a client who has since retired but she was so mean and I hated calling her. What I would do – and this is on my tip sheet – is I would make sure I had a home run right after that because I would always feel very defeated after talking with her. She would question everything and I felt like she was doubting what we did. I know the work we did was good, it was sound and we did great work for her but she was just that type of person. This was early on in my sales career and I thought, “If all people are like this, I’m not built for this.” Then I realized she was an outlier and she was unhappy about a bunch of other things that had nothing to do with me so I didn’t take it personally. I would talk with her but then I would call somebody else who I knew would be delightful to talk to. That’s another mechanism to help with this 20 mile journey on tough dates.

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s a good philosophy, if you know you’ve got a tough client, put them in between nice people [laughs] it’ll make you feel a little bit better.

Susan Apgood: Yes. Another thing is this is self-imposed by the individual or the organization depending on if your organization works with this model. You have to be very disciplined to do this, you can’t do it one day and then not do it, it’s a lifestyle, it’s the way that I help to promote myself as a salesperson and just to put things out there. You have to be very consistent, you have to commit to that consistency. One thing is, of course, as a salesperson and juggling may different items we all have a lot going on and this allows me the opportunity to say, “I’m going to take that time”, this is exactly what that time is allotted for. It’s amazing when you’re consistent how much you can achieve in short periods of time. Some days – I’m sure both explorers felt this – you feel like you’re not doing anything, you’re not getting through to anybody but then all of a sudden one day when you’re not really trying that hard, you get three or four sales which is a big day for somebody like me in my environment. There are days when you put it all in and you think, “Today’s going to be a great day” and it’s not, and then there are other days where the opposite happens and you get a great outcome from not a lot of effort. I think it’s weighing those days and that consistency is so key. If you have a great day and go, “That was great, now I can rest for 5 or 6 days” you don’t have to worry about it, but I’m back at it the next day. I think that’s the difference here.

Gina Stracuzzi: Especially in a corporate environment, one of the things that we hear from women a lot is that their time isn’t always respected the way they would like. I think it’s really inherent that we put something on our calendar and it is not changeable. If you let everybody know, “From 10 to 11:30 I’m doing my sales calls, there can’t be meetings, there can’t be budget reviews, any of that stuff. This is my time to do a key function of my job and this is when I’m really good at it.” Use those words to let your bosses or whomever know that this is your time to do this fundamental piece of your position. They will respect it, I’m sure.

Susan Apgood: I try to put certain things on my calendar so people can see and respect the time and sometimes I put things on my calendar where I really have to close my door or shut off my Outlook or whatever it is because I know that there are other distractions going on. People tend to be very respectful of that, with technology we can share each other’s calendars and see what’s going on with other people. It allows you to create that pressure on yourself – pressure is not the right word, but the opportunity to actually do those. “I couldn’t reach out to those clients, I haven’t heard back from them or they haven’t reached out to me”, in sales we have to make things happen. If we’re not making things happen and we’re waiting for the phone to ring or the emails to come, they’re not going to come.

We have to be the driver of that and set that in motion and then if the client is interested, they’ll engage and if they’re not, they won’t. Sales, as we all know, is a numbers game so we have to get out to more people than we actually think we’re going to do business with because not everybody is going to do business with us. It’s really important to make sure that you’re super consistent no matter what your mood is, what your to-do list is and what your schedule is.

The schedules shift, as I had mentioned, doing things a little bit later or a little bit earlier in the day is totally fine. Sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll have my list of who I’m going to call and if it’s a tough call and I know I’m not in the mood for that call today, I might move it to tomorrow but I have to replace it that day and that’s the important thing. Then when 12:45 hits, I allow myself the opportunity to go, “That’s it for the day, I’m good” and my whole list for tomorrow starts at that 12:45 time and I spend from 12:45 to about 1 o’clock figuring out who my list is to call since everything is fresh in my mind for the next day.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s brilliant, I’m going to start using this.

Susan Apgood: Good. Then I just have a couple of tips, making it fun. I make it like a little game for myself, I have little things that are up, “Put through one order per day, three new prospects per day, 8 proposals per week.” I have things that are little games to me that I can put in the green column, the yellow column or the red column, I need to work on that some more. It’s really fun to think about things – I’m a very data-driven person, I always have been – being able to look at my sales sheet on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to do with the revenue itself, it’s just the acknowledgement that I was able to move this much activity in business doing a super stressful time or doing a pandemic, presidential election, social uprising. There’s a number of different items that you can do to keep yourself motivated and it’s all, like I said, a self-motivation play for sure.

We talked about this, sandwiching the hard things with some of the easy things. I have a call today, I know the client is going to sign on to get something done so I’m going to make a tough call right before that, somebody that I know I need to reach out to but I probably haven’t reached out to them in a long enough time that it’s not going to be one of my easier calls.

Gina Stracuzzi: Those are awkward calls and for some reason we keep pushing them to the right, as if it’s going to get easier somehow.

Susan Apgood: Yes, there’s a book that Mel Robbins wrote a couple years ago called The 5 Second Rule and it’s things that you are procrastinating on and how you have to count them in your head and do it. She talks about it from a personal level, she was having a lot of motivation issues personally and financially and one day she just got up and was like, “I just have to do these things.” The tough calls, the tough employee conversation, the awkward whatever it is even if it’s a doctor’s appointment that you’ve been putting off making, things like that, making sure that you get them done. If it’s on my list, it’s going to get done. I can’t put it in there unless I know in my head I’m actually going to get it done and then we talked about starting small and growing from there, start with two people a day.

One thing I started doing during the pandemic is at the end of my day, usually I try to leave the office because I’m actually physically here in my office and I live just a couple blocks away. One of my last actions of the day is I set a timer and for 15 minutes, I spend time connecting people on LinkedIn, if I know somebody’s looking for a job I look for a couple of opportunities and send them to them, if I know somebody is working on a project I’ll look for an article that might help them. It’s this connection karma and it’s just one of those things where I probably will never do more than 15 minutes because I know if I say, “I’m going to do this for an hour” it just won’t get done. My connection time is I’m starting small and I’m not actually even going to grow from there, that’s just the time I give for that and it’s been very helpful and fulfilling for me and it makes me very grateful for all of the great connections I have. It makes some of those calls that you’re talking about, Gina, a little less awkward. If I know somebody that I haven’t talked to in a while that their firm is hiring, I might reach out to them and say, “My friend Sarah is looking for a job, do you mind if she reaches out to you?” Rather than calling and going, “Hey, do you have any business for me?” Making all of those connections is a way for me to feel like if I’m putting stuff out there, I’m definitely getting way more in return. That’s how my connection karma works.

Gina Stracuzzi: I like that thinking too. We have a question from an audience person, Kelsey would like to know, “What advice do you have for getting the rest of your team aligned with your sales strategies and tactics?”

Susan Apgood: That’s a good question. I think it’s publicizing what your goals are as a salesperson. I have right next to me a bulletin board that has all of my goals and they’re clearly stated so that I can look at them all the time and sharing them with people is really important. I think another thing is also celebrating successes and that is not just at the point of sale but during the way as you’re working on a project. Internally here we use Yammer and we had a Kudos Board. If somebody does an outstanding job on a project or  a client says something about a team member going the extra mile, we post that with a funny GIF – because we’re not together so we have to make ourselves laugh – allowing people the opportunity to know that the client is satisfied. It’s really helpful because it gets people motivated.

I think also just letting people know what you’re looking for. We have a sales brainstorm every Wednesday at 2 o’clock and everybody on our team brings two sales leads, two clients that they think would be a good client for our company. Sometimes we have themes, the one last week was what we’d do for New Year’s, the one before that is as we head into 2021, what are some new political stories that we’ll be hearing? We sometimes have a theme and we sometimes don’t. Then if the sales comes through and that lead is taken up by a client, we have an internal bonus that we provide to people so it makes people feel like they’re part of that process in doing sales, which nobody really ever wants to have to do that job. We all know sales is a tough job but everybody is always selling no matter what role they have in a company, they are a salesperson whether it’s a front line worker who is taking care of a patient or providing somebody with a meal to the CEO. Everybody is always a representation in selling for their company.

Gina Stracuzzi: I would think too, especially if you’re leading a team or even if you’re not and you want to try this and you’d like everybody else to is you could make a little contest out of it. Everybody try it for two weeks and let’s see who’s got the best outcomes and have those little victory dances along the way where you give shout outs and let other people know what your successes are so they see that this strategy works. I think the idea of figuring out what time of the day works best for you, because we all know instinctively when we’re on our best, that could even be fun in a meeting. Who’s on top in the morning and who’s better right after lunch? Which is usually nobody [laughs] but there’s probably somebody out there that’s really best after lunch. Then there’s cover for other activities within the company if not everybody is doing this at the exact same time. It could actually be beneficial in many respects to try it as a team.

Susan Apgood: Absolutely, everybody functions a little bit different so whether you are marketing support or you’re doing operations work, everybody can incorporate this in some way into their work, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the sales initiatives, it can be fill in the blank, writing is a big one. In my industry people are like, “I’m a great writer at 2 o’clock in the morning” or, “I’m a great writer at 5 a.m.” or, “I need you right after lunch.” Whatever it is, finding your time is probably 80% of it and just knowing when you have the most energy to give and the most enthusiasm in your voice, in your outlook, it’s so important.

Gina Stracuzzi: Kelsey, I hope that answers your question. We have another question from Anita, she wants to know how you’ve measured the difference since you’ve started using this system and how your sales has grown since then.

Susan Apgood: I measure by the revenue that comes in. 2020 of course was an anomaly because we were acquired and we had a global pandemic but my sales went up about 14.8% last year. Some of it was because of the acquisition I was able to sell a few more items on the spectrum of sales, I don’t know how it would have gone down if I hadn’t had an acquisition or if it would have gone down. I started this in early 2019, I have about just 2 years of data and then in 2019 I had a big sales year as I was preparing for the acquisition. I just had enthusiasm and people can read that, I had enthusiasm at the thought of after 22 years in business, somebody thought my company was of such great value that they wanted to pay for it and take all of my employees. Many people’s end goal is to have that affirmation so that year my sales went up just under 10%, about 9.8%. The year before that I think part of the reason why this resonated with me was I had a dip from the previous year and it was about 5.6% and at I at the time wholly owned the company and I’ve got all these employees I’m responsible for and they’re now getting married and having kids. I took that responsibility very seriously and that was a driver for me to really make sure that I was able to grow the business in 2019 into 2020.

Gina Stracuzzi: It put you in a good spot to go into a pandemic for sure.

Susan Apgood: It sure did, yes.

Gina Stracuzzi: I have to say kudos to you too that this is a fine piece of selling in my book. You sold your company and maintained control of it, that is some great negotiation, congratulations.

Susan Apgood: Thank you. I think 4media, our parent company understood the value that we had in the industry. As I mentioned, they sell research services and they did some research and found out that our brand name which has been in the US, 4media started over in London but we have a lot more brand recognition so they wholly kept the name and we’re just part of 4media Group. That helped me especially with clients who were like, “What does this exactly mean? Am I going to see you less? Am I going to be passed off to somebody else?” What it allowed me to do was the opportunity to not do any of the back end work, the invoicing, the HR, making pay roll and all of that stuff. It opened up the opportunity to do more business development and sell more, meet with clients on Zoom a lot more and then of course opened up that Her Corner opportunity for me as well.

Gina Stracuzzi: We’re lucky because that brought us to you, or you to us, I should say. We have another question, Kelsey again wonders if you could talk a little bit about mentorship and how your women peers have helped you in your career.

Susan Apgood: I think the biggest thing with mentorship is do it early. That is one thing that I did not do, I started my business in 1997 and there were not a lot of entrepreneurs at that time, period. I was actually just on a call this morning with my American University colleagues and one thing we were talking about is the class, when I got my MBA, used to be called New Venture Management. Entrepreneurship wasn’t really a word that we kicked around at that time, there were very few people starting businesses because the barriers to entry were much higher because of technology not being there yet. There certainly were not female entrepreneurs around. What I did – and I made a mistake – is I did not reach out to women or anybody for help because I thought it looked like I didn’t know what I was doing, that people would say, “Susan reached out to me because she doesn’t know how to handle this employee issue” or, “She doesn’t know how to start a payroll relationship” or whatever it is. I spent a lot of time figuring out all of this stuff for myself, do not do that.

It took me about 7 years into my business which is right around the time I started having my children, I think that was a turning point for me because I realized, “I can’t run a multi-million dollar business and have these very small children at home.” I had one son and then 17 months later I had twin boys, so I had three kids within a very short amount of time and it was right then that I joined up with a group of women. We go to a spot together once a year, there are 8 of us. My twins are just about to turn 14 so I’ve been going for a while and we talk about everything from starting a website to what’s your exit plan to retirement to your will, how to strategically plan for growth. We’re all at different stages of our career and we all mentor each other, there are women who are in this group that are 20 years older than me that are just starting to retire, some forced retirement because of the pandemic. Then I have a lot of students that I work with that I’m mentoring but they’re mentoring me back about other things like social media. I know that’s such a cliche but I learned so much from my younger colleagues about social media, what’s important and what’s not. I think mentorship goes two ways, I don’t think it’s just, “I’m here to mentor you.” I’m on two boards and that has helped a ton as well because those are my go-to people. If I ever need anything, a new contact, a photographer, I go to this board of advisers of people that I trust and it’s not a formal mentor relationship but it certainly is a way for me to get what I need and to get them what they need.

Gina Stracuzzi: It could be hard to find mentors in corporate environments unless somebody offers up. Maybe reaching outside of your company or finding women’s groups, anything where you have some commonality and you feel free to talk honestly and openly is a key to really great mentorship.

Susan Apgood: I think my lack of finding a mentor or thinking it was a sign of weakness I’ve overcompensated for in the last 13 or 14 years to a point where now I’m a facilitator for a female group. I’m actually putting together a course for American University on women in leadership, things like that have kick-started me to say to people, “Reach out.” I have coffees with tons of people, one of my colleagues at American or Washington Women in PR will say, “Will you please have coffee with this person or a 15 minute conversation?” I never say no because I was never that person that asked for that conversation way back when. The fact that we’re even asking for those conversations is a huge kudos to people that are reaching out. I wish more people did it because I always feel great about the chat with somebody to help them get into different directions and open their mind to different ideas or different possibilities.

Gina Stracuzzi: Thinking about the groups that you’re involved with, if somebody’s looking for a mentor there’s a lot of way to find them. Alumni groups might be a great way to start or as you say, I used to be involved with Washington Women in PR many moons ago when I lived in D.C. and I went to American University. Through that whole network I got very involved and got some great gigs out of it. You’ve got to think out of the box a little bit and figure out who it is that you feel like you might have the most in common with to do the first ask and then that can lead you down that path to other people or even just someone you know.

Susan Apgood: My first board ask, when I was asked to be on a board my company was just a year old and I was like, “Oh my gosh!” and now I’m one of the older people on the board. I was on the board and then I went and did a whole bunch of other things with a different group and now I’m back on the board. I left as a newbie and I came back and I’m the one that everybody looks to when a tough decision needs to be made and it’s very empowering. I’m so happy that I’m able to come back into this role because I remember when I was the newer person on the board, the younger out of the spectrum and I used to think, “I want to be like Kate Perrin when I grow up or Sherri Core.”  Now those women are my dear friends and on the retirement track, and here I am working with the next generation of PR professionals coming up that ladder. It’s really exciting to see it all come full circle.

Gina Stracuzzi: We’re just about out of time, is there one piece of advice, one actionable effort that people can use today, put into place today that can get them started down this path?

Susan Apgood: Start with one outreach, that person you’ve been thinking about, drop them an email today before you finish your work day and you’ll be amazed and what that turned around looks like. I can’t stress enough, start small, one or two actions per day but then have that 20 mile framework set up so that you’re able to work within that as you move forward. These tiny little steps, all of a sudden you look back and you’re like, “I’m almost at the South Pole and my 1,400 mile journey is almost over.” Appreciate your successes which is something I did not do early on in my career, I’d succeed at something and then I’d be like, “Okay, here’s our next goal.” Take some time and be very thankful for what you’ve achieved and look ahead with great excitement.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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