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EPISODE 050: Susan Lee Offers Strategies Women in Sales Should Take to Proactively Move Their Career Forward
SUSAN’S CLOSING TIPS FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “I would just say never stop learning, be open to new challenges, if you’re in a place where you’re not happy, find a new opportunity. There are lots of opportunities out there and we sell in everything that we do. The simple things in life, think of how many things you do at home to sell every day. Be fearless, never be afraid and the sky’s the limit in terms of accomplishments. Challenge yourself yearly, challenge yourself every 5 years, challenge yourself at 10 years and go for it.”
Susan Lee is the VP of Sales for MOI, she’s been in the furniture industry for 22 years and she began her career selling copiers with Xerox. She’s faced many challenges along the way as a woman in sales leader and she’s also a cancer survivor.
She has had great success in the office furniture industry at companies including Herman Miller, Knoll and Haworth. She was a featured panelist at the IES Women in Sales Selling Edge Conference.
Find Susan on LinkedIN!
Fred Diamond: I first met you when you spoke on a panel for the IES women in sales. It was part of our Selling Edge Conference and you told some amazing stories and you gave some great insights, so I’m very excited to hear more in depth about your journey into sales leadership and also I’m very excited to get some of your tips. Tell us what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Susan Lee: Our company provides solutions within an interior space. We work with architects and designers, we work with project management firms and many of the brokers and the Washington, DC, Baltimore, Richmond and Virginia Beach area. We provide work spaces, we provide seating, we provide floor to ceiling walls, just many products that make users comfortable in their space.
Fred Diamond: We’re actually doing this interview in your office and there is a tremendous buzz. There’s a tremendous energy that you all have built in this office so good for you. Why don’t you tell people before we continue what the website is for MOI so they can go and see some of your services?
Susan Lee: www.MOII.com
Fred Diamond: We mentioned during the intro that you started off with Xerox selling copiers. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you first got into sales as a career?
Susan Lee: It’s really interesting. When I was in college I did an internship at a company and I met a woman who was in sales. She had a nice car, she wore nice clothes and I thought, “Why go to law school? I’ll just skip all the details of that and go into sales.” So I was probably one of the few students who requested to interview for sales positions in college.
Fred Diamond: Where did you go to school again?
Susan Lee: I went to South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Fred Diamond: Very good. What was it that attracted you to that particular woman? What was it about her that led you to say, “This is what I want to do.”?
Susan Lee: She was energetic, she was vibrant, she I guess had a very flexible schedule and I liked all of those things.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about your first job. Was it Xerox? Was that your first job out of school?
Susan Lee: It was.
Fred Diamond: Good for you, because that has historically been the home run for sales, so what are some of the lessons that you learned in the early part of your career with Xerox that have stayed with you until today?
Susan Lee: The first thing I learned is build your network. One of the things that held to me – my first territory was in a place called Florence, South Carolina. Nothing wrong with Florence, it’s a great town, but when you’re 21 years old or 22 years old coming out of college and your first territory is a very rural area, it’s very difficult to establish yourself. One of the things I learned was to tap into the resources of people that had been there already, build your network and actually leverage that network to meet people.
Fred Diamond: As you do that today, what are some of the things – and I’ve met some of your team and it’s a vibrant team, and it’s a successful, progressive, energetic team. What are some of the things that you tell them based on what they’re selling to do to build their relationships and networks?
Susan Lee: The first thing is to be out in the industry and the space where people are actually meeting other people and not necessarily to go to the places where there are common people, people that are in the common field, but to go to places that are a little bit outside of that to expand their network to meet people that aren’t necessarily in furniture. That’s one of the things that I talk to them about.
Fred Diamond: What might that look like? What type of entities do you tell them to go meet people in?
Susan Lee: Actually one of the things that I recommended to them was going to attend IES seminars. Going in where like-minded people are that are in different industries so that they can build their base of connections. Most of the times when there’s a new building people are buying phones, they’re buying video conferencing, they’re buying copiers and so connecting with people in sales outside of this industry allows them to actually learn information that they might not know.
Fred Diamond: We mentioned that you’ve had a nice extensive career in furniture sales. What are some of the places where you have networked at that have given you the biggest bang for the buck? A lot of people ask, they don’t want to go to the wrong places, they don’t want to waste time, but what are some of the examples that you’ve had in your career that have been profitable and worthwhile for you?
Susan Lee: I find that going to places like the Green Building events or going to events that deal with wellness and health are good places to me. People that are concerned about their space just like we’re concerned about space. Actually thinking outside the box a little bit and going places where it’s of interest to you where you can learn something as well as you can network with other people.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned people who were involved in space, so furniture suppliers, I guess obviously interior designers, who also is part of your continuum that you have forged relationships with over the years?
Susan Lee: We have relationships with general contractors, construction companies and it’s really interesting because my oldest daughter just graduated as a civil engineer and she works with a construction company so that’s a network just within my own home. Also architectural firms, design firms, project management firms, brokers and users.
Fred Diamond: So all of those people expanding that wide breadth if you will can expose you to places, to companies that might have your need?
Susan Lee: Yes, and clients that have purchased and had a good experience are our best resource for information because they want other companies to experience the same thing they’ve experienced by working with us.
Fred Diamond: Susan, why do you think some reps, some sales professionals out there might be hesitant? What don’t they know about building a network and building strong relationships?
Susan Lee: A lot of times people are afraid of rejection, they’re afraid of putting themselves out there and walking into a space where they don’t know anyone. What I would say to any young professional out there is be courageous. Take the step out there, try something different, try something new, challenge yourself in different ways. When you do that you might be surprised at what you find out and who you meet.
Fred Diamond: Have you helped sales professionals transform from that where they’ve been reluctant or reticent for those reasons get beyond those fears?
Susan Lee: In our office we have people that come from different trades into sales. We’ve had people that have come from the project management side, from interior design, some people are naturally shy. People that choose sales to go into right out the bat, they tend to be more outgoing but a person that might come into it in a different way or want to increase their career and try something new might go into sales.
And the one thing that I want to make sure that most people realize is, “Don’t be afraid of hearing the word no.” A lot of times people make decisions or take steps in fear of hearing the word no, but the word no is just an opportunity to understand more about what a client is trying to do. So not to take it personally and definitely not to let it shy them away from actually pursuing more information.
Fred Diamond: Have you learned that along the way or did you kind of know that intuitively when you first got into sales?
Susan Lee: No, I learned it the hard way. Being in Florence, South Carolina I got a lot of no’s. I’d practice my pitch, I’d go in and the first thing I’d hear is no and you’d literally had to pick me up off the floor. I wouldn’t know what to do next, I didn’t know what to say to overcome the objections and I learned over time just stay in there, ask more questions and don’t give up.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you are specifically an expert in. Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Susan Lee: People, my area of expertise is people, understanding what drives the person. It helps to know that when you’re dealing with clients. Generally, understanding and getting to know your client, understanding what their business is about, I find that a lot of times sales people don’t just take the time to sit down and ask a person, “What do you do here?”
We’re so busy trying to go for that sale and tell them everything we know about what we provide but in order to do a better job in selling you need to understand what a client does and where their pain points are.
Fred Diamond: What do you want to know about your customer? How is that going to help you get to know them better to be a more valuable asset for them?
Susan Lee: In this day and age in my industry it’s all about people in a work environment and keeping your people happy and allowing them to be functional at their job. What we provide are solutions to that to allow people to do that.
What we try to understand from our clients is what are the areas where there are concerns. Are you losing people? Are you trying to attract people? What are the challenges they have in doing their job. How does technology integrate into that? So when we find out what the challenges are or what their concerns are, we’re able to provide solutions for that that allow their employees to be more productive and happy in their space.
Fred Diamond: That is actually a tremendous answer, your job isn’t to sell furniture, your job is to help them keep their employees happy.
Susan Lee: Exactly.
Fred Diamond: And to be more productive and to want to continue to work and grow in that company.
Susan Lee: Exactly, and to maintain the relationship so that as they grow and change we grow and change with them.
Fred Diamond: Let’s go back to certain parts of your career when you’ve actually had an impactful sales career mentor. Susan, tell me who was an impactful sales career mentor for you and how did they impact your career?
Susan Lee: I have to tell you, it was my father. My father was actually in human resources and the one thing that he taught me through the whole process was how to deal with people, and I would call him crying if something happened and he’d say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. This is what you’ve got to think about.” He was just a great coach and a great mentor to me, he didn’t need to be in sales, he just needed to understand people.
Fred Diamond: I have to ask you this question, you’ve mentioned Florence in South Carolina a number of times. I’m sure it’s a beautiful town but what was next? How did you get out of Florence? How did you get to Washington after starting your career in Florence?
Susan Lee: Once I realized that this was not a place that I wanted to live for the rest of my life – No offense to Florence, guys – but I wanted to be in a more vibrant city. So what I did is I made a deal with my manager at the time at Xerox that if I increased my number, if I was at 110% or better that he’d support me to go anywhere in the country that I wanted to go. And so what I did is I got together with the technicians that service the copiers, I gave them incentive to help me find the copiers that needed replacement, I then went in to make sales with the technician and it allowed me to exceed my quota and my manager supported me to coming to Washington DC.
Fred Diamond: So you went right from Florence to Washington?
Susan Lee: I sure did.
Fred Diamond: Good for you, and actually a very creative way to find new sales opportunities. Susan, what are two of the biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Susan Lee: Finding good people and keeping good people.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you’re doing to find good people? And I’ll be honest with you, we ask the same questions on the Sales Game Changers podcast. Recruiting top tier talent continues to be the #1 challenge facing the Sales Game Changers that we interview, so tell me a little more about how you’re solving that particular problem.
Susan Lee: Well, because we have such a diversified workforce, we’ve got what I call legacy reps who have been in the industry for 20 years or more, we have the mid-level that have been in 10 to 15 years and then bringing in new reps who may not know anything about the furniture industry, we try to mentor them with another seller so that they can learn from that. Furniture, believe it or not, is a very complicated process so bringing someone in maybe out of college or having worked for about three years and allowing them to work with another rep who’s experienced has been what’s worked really well with our company.
Fred Diamond: Just as a follow up, you mentioned that selling furniture is very complex. Why is that? What is complex about selling furniture?
Susan Lee: Well you’re not just buying a desk or a table, you’re actually buying comprehensive furniture that might have floor to ceiling walls, it may have technology integrated into it. It may be work stations that come in parts and pieces that go together so that’s what makes it a little more complicated.
Fred Diamond: Susan, you’ve had a great career in sales. You’ve had a lot of success. You started in sales with probably the pre-eminent selling company in the history of sales, Xerox. I’ll even make that statement. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s just too hard, it’s just not for me.”?
Susan Lee: I’ve never had that thought. I’ve known from the beginning what I wanted to do and I actually like the challenge of a sale. For me, when a person tells me no, that gives me the initiative to actually pursue it more. When you’re entrepreneurial in spirit, one of the things that it gives you is the ability to constantly want to do more and learn more.
Fred Diamond: We talked in the introduction about your success as a woman in sales and some of the challenges that you’ve had to overcome. Could you talk about that for a minute or two? What are some of the things on the journey that you believe that you’ve had to overcome to become a successful woman and sales leader? And I need to say, one out of six interviews on the Sales Game Changers podcast is with a woman, so I’d love to have 50-50 whatever but there are less that have made it to the level you have leading sales organization. So tell us a little bit about that.
Susan Lee: I think what I found is it’s important for women to find their voice and to stand firm in what their beliefs are. I think a lot of times you sit at the table – especially in sales, everybody has the answer or the solution. Part of being an effective leader that happens to also be a woman is to be able to listen to what the issues are but also be strong enough to speak and stand on what your recommendations are. So I think just getting that voice at the table and being heard and being recognized as a valued source is everything.
Fred Diamond: What would you recommend to a young woman specifically who wants to pursue her career in sales?
Susan Lee: Do it! Be a good listener. Find solutions, never take no and walk away, pick up your bag and try again when you make a mistake, learn from the mistake and keep going. Challenge yourself to be the best person you can be and make sure that you don’t compromise your values in the process.
Fred Diamond: Susan, what is the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Susan Lee: One of the things I tell them is learn as much as you can from people that are in your industry. Find a mentor and work with that mentor. Allow that mentor to guide and direct you. Don’t think that you know everything because none of us know everything and we can always learn, so be open to learn at all times.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Susan Lee: I learn from some of my employees. I learn from my directors – I have four directors -they’re awesome and they have ideas and suggestions of ways to do things better and I’d listen to them. I stay open to learn.
Fred Diamond: As a sales leader, how do you do that? Open door policy, text, email, fax, I mean, how do you get messages across to each other?
Susan Lee: Well, Fred, just like we’re sitting in this office and you can see I’ve closed the door and I’ve turned my back to the door because people will come in, and I keep that open. I’m open to learn, I’m open to new ideas even from the sellers that I have. You can’t stay stale, you can’t be stagnant, you’ve got to always look to change and the people that can help you change are the ones that are on the streets doing this every day.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Susan Lee: One of the things that the president of our company is doing is looking at what else can we get into. How should we diversify and how can we compliment what we currently do with other avenues of resources so one of the things that we’re doing is not staying the same. We’re realizing that you can’t be that traditional furniture dealership that’s out there. We have to be progressive and that attracts new talent into the company as well.
Fred Diamond: Once again, I have to say, we’re doing today’s interview at the offices of MOI and the energy is just incredible. Matter of fact, your back is to the door and people keep walking by wanting to say something but they see that you’re in the middle of this interview. Susan, you’ve been in sales for a long career, right out of college. You knew that you wanted to be in sales. Sales is hard, people don’t return your calls or your emails, why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Susan Lee: Well, I’ll start with unlimited income potential. I think that many people might be driven by different things, I have always been driven by money and that’s not a bad thing, you know? It’s actually a good thing because that allows me to live the type of life that my family wants to live. It also gives me the flexibility to leverage my time to do different things. As a mother of 3, it’s very difficult to balance children with work and having the flexibility of time that sales gives you gives me the ability to do that. As a new mother coming out I did that, and as a mother of a college student, a college graduate and a high-schooler it still gives me that flexibility to actually not miss that my children do.
Fred Diamond: As long as you perform, right?
Susan Lee: Absolutely.
Fred Diamond: You’ve given us some great things to think about talking about how to build relationships, how to be more proactive in your career and build those networks and learn and grow, understand the needs of your customer so that you can go to them with solutions that’s going to help them make their people happier. I never really thought of selling furniture with that intent that you’re in the business helping people retain and grow their employees.
Susan Lee: Absolutely.
Fred Diamond: That’s great. Susan, what’s a final thought you would like to share to inspire our listeners today?
Susan Lee: I would just say never stop learning, be open to new challenges, if you’re in a place where you’re not happy, find a new opportunity. There are lots of opportunities out there and we sell in everything that we do. The simple things in life, think of how many things you do at home to sell every day. Be fearless, never be afraid and the sky’s the limit in terms of accomplishments. Challenge yourself yearly, challenge yourself every 5 years, challenge yourself at 10 years and go for it.
Transcribed by Mariana Badillo
Produced by Rosario Suarez