EPISODE 495: Preventing AI From Taking Over Your Enterprise Sales Job with Tom Polivka

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers LIVE virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on April 8, 2022. It featured an interview with Flosum VP of Sales Tom Polivka.

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TOM’S TIP: “Look at everything you produce, whether it’s a PowerPoint, a website, an email, or a lecture, and honestly ask yourself, how different is this from what your prospect is getting from the competition? Is it dramatically different? Look at it. If it’s not, change it. Be dramatically different, change it, do something different. Otherwise, you’re just going to be swept up with the rest of the competition.”


Fred Diamond: I’m excited, we’ve got Tom Polivka. He’s the VP of Sales at Flosum and it’s going to be an interesting conversation. We’re going to talk specifically about how artificial intelligence (AI) has impacted the enterprise sales profession. I’m excited to talk to you about this because you’ve given this a lot of thought, and we’re going to be talking about ways that enterprise sales professionals can not only still stay valid, but can also provide more value to their companies and to their customers. I’m really excited about that today.

Good to see you, let’s get right to it. How are things looking right now for your sales organization and the business?

Tom Polivka: Thanks, Fred, I appreciate you inviting me on. Actually, things are going pretty well, I have to say. Like a lot of companies, COVID has certainly had an impact on our sales and sales process. The human sales level, I think we’re all missing the face-to-face interactions because that’s why we chose sales in the first place. I know that’s why I got into sales, besides just closing deals. I like getting together with people and talking to them. At the product sales level, it’s had some interesting impacts. We’re in the business, we have a Salesforce DevOps platform. What we do is we promote collaboration among developers on Salesforce, and so we’ve seen certainly an increased demand from the larger enterprises because their teams are so dispersed. They need something that’ll bring them together, it’s that remote work phenomenon.

We also are getting ready to launch a Salesforce security platform, and the interest to that has increased dramatically. With the remote workforces you do have a heightened security issue. We talked a little bit before about The Great Resignation, from a CRM perspective you can imagine the security issues around millions of people leaving, changing jobs, and things like that. It’s had a dramatic impact on our business from a human and from a product standpoint.

Fred Diamond: We’re going to start talking about how artificial intelligence has impacted the process, but tell us right now what are the top priorities? As a sales leader, what’s your main focus right now?

Tom Polivka: We’re a SaaS vendor, and like a lot of SaaS companies out there, there’s constant pressure to increase the new logos but just as importantly, we’ve got a portfolio of companies that we’re already dealing with. We want to maximize the net dollar attention there to keep introducing new products into that base. We want to increase the average recurrent revenue, that’s a huge metric for SaaS, and we want to shorten the sale cycle. It’s more or less how all ISVs in our market are measured, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that hiring top talent is really something that is a top goal for us. We’re growing so quickly, and like a lot of folks out there, it’s becoming a big challenge. Not a lot of people out of work, so I would say that’s a huge priority for us.

Fred Diamond: As a matter of fact, the mission of the Institute for Excellence in Sales is to help sales leaders attract, retain, motivate, and elevate top tier sales talent. We have our Premier Sales Employer designation which was designed to help IES members and sponsors be positioned like that. We want to talk about artificial intelligence and how it’s impacting enterprise sales. Let’s tee this up a little bit. This shouldn’t be new to a lot of people listening today, but pundits, Forbes.com, wherever you look, if you google AI in sales, they’re predicting that millions of sales jobs may get lost to automation. Of course, as e-commerce platforms proliferate and as companies make more and more investments in AI and cognitive technologies, we also talk a lot, Tom, about the fact that salespeople need to bring more value to their customers than ever before. Customers don’t need sales professionals in a lot of the ways that they did 10, 15, 20 years ago. They don’t need a salesperson to tell them features, benefits, and specs, they need to help them find solutions.

I’m curious, for you, is this growth of AI going to be the end of human-led sales as we know it or is it a possibility? Is there a promise of a new lucrative model for savvy sales leaders and the teams they’re molding?

Tom Polivka: My first answer would be a little dramatic. I’d say it’s certainly the end of sales as we know it, but not always in a bad way. I think for transactional sales, there’s going to be a lot of replacement. If you look at some of the lower end products, especially in the retail industry, I think that it’s already occurring and we’re seeing that. If prospects can collect enough data online, they will, and if they can make the decision that way, they will. And let’s face it, chat box can gather a lot more information on a retail prospect and they’re available 24/7, so there’s a lot of things to like about that method. They are replacing some of the sales rules.

I have operated for pretty much my whole career at the enterprise sales level and in theory, AI should really remove some of the more mundane tasks. We’d like to think it’s not going to replace the highly skilled advantages of an enterprise salesperson, almost equivalent to Web MD versus going to a doctor. Will it ever completely replace that? No. There’s obviously a strong human element, they went to school for a long time, there’s insights, there’s commiseration, there’s a lot of human elements that go into it. I don’t think it’s going to replace enterprise sales. I think the promise is that it will remove some of the mundane tasks like prospecting and demand generation, things that take time away from the things enterprise salespeople should be doing, that they get paid good money to do, and that is to negotiate, to close large enterprise deals.

Fred Diamond: I’m reminded as you’re answering the question there, in the early part of my career I was a technical editor for McGraw Hill Publishing and the big topic was the paperless office. One of the pundits once said the paperless office is going to be as real as the paperless bathroom, and that’s one thing we talk about every day – not paperless bathrooms. One thing we talk about every day on the Sales Game Changers virtual learning sessions and podcasts is how do you succeed as a sales professional in a constantly changing world? Not just with AI, but so much has changed over the last year, and there are so many things that are impacting the world.

Question for you is if AI has already “changed” sales as we know it, we have to get used to it, right? So, how do we get used to it?

Tom Polivka: We need to recognize the promise. For us, and we’re by no means unique in this way, you create a multi-tiered strategy where you may have researchers and BDRs on the left end, you’ve got veteran account executives on the right side. Then in between you have a product like an account-based marketing product that has brought AI into the solution in order to be able to better locate prospects and things like that. That’s what I see occurring, that’s exactly what we’ve done here at Flosum. It can actually be incredibly effective. I think the AI part of it is out of all these potential prospects, which are the ones to really focus on, or even more importantly, which ones to avoid?

As our target market has increased billions of dollars, everybody’s like, wow, that’s great. Okay, that gives us a lot more good prospects, but it gives us even more bad prospects, ones that we shouldn’t be going after. Our cycles get wasted and everything else. For us, the account-based marketing tool is amazingly important with its AI. It helps locate those customers, but it doesn’t get you to the customer exactly. You still need human beings to help locate those customers, and then obviously, at the veteran AE level, they’re the ones that are going to be negotiating, closing, and going through all the nuanced processes that they’ve been practicing and training for years to do.

Fred Diamond: Tom, I’m going to ask you a question I usually ask towards the end of the show, but I want to ask you now as we’re putting this in context of what your expectations are. What are your expectations of sales professionals right now? Again, you’re leading a growing organization, you’re a very important piece of the Salesforce DevOps infrastructure, as Salesforce becomes way beyond what people still think of it as, as a CRM and salesforce automation. It definitely is a development platform for critical solutions. Actually, at the Institute for Excellence in Sales we do a big award event every year, and on June 1st we’re going to be recognizing Dave Rey who’s the President of Salesforce Global Public Sector because of a lot of the innovation that is happening at Salesforce.

What are your expectations? You said you’re looking to hire some more people, what are you expecting from salespeople right now knowing all these changes are going on?

Tom Polivka: I don’t focus as much on a technical acumen and being able to dive into the weeds, and we sell a very technical product. What I tell my people that I’m recruiting is, regardless of your technical acumen, I expect you to be able to develop what I call a preferential relationship with a prospect. You don’t need to explain technically, you need to open the door. Let them open the door so we can bring in the smart technical people and explain technical merits of the solution. What I mean by preferential relationship, though, is there’s no surprises. Throughout that complex sales process, I want them to be very honest with us. How are we doing? Where do we sit? Et cetera. We’re not just this anonymous vendor out there, and they need to be able to do that, and it’s not as easy as it looks. That’s what really good veteran salespeople do.

One of the best salespeople I’ve met actually works for one of these ABM companies. She had a really good quote, she said, “If you’re not texting back and forth with your prospect, the deal might not be as certain as you think.” Texting, not calling, not emailing. You are on a text-to-text basis, that’s what you should look for. The ability to form that level of human relationship that they will trust you with certain types of information and guide you along the way until yes or no at the right time and not waste your time. That’s what I expect, it makes my life easier, it makes the AE’s life easier. It’s as simple as that.

Fred Diamond: One thing we talk about every day is if you haven’t crafted a more intimate relationship with your customers over the last two years when the whole world was being vulnerable and transparent, you better rethink that ASAP because people need that. They don’t need you to talk to them for two hours about the mental health of their teenage child, but you want to be able to break through and texting is definitely a way that gives you that degree of trust. I agree with you a thousand percent.

I want to ask you another question as it relates to artificial intelligence. We talk about the fact that AI can remove some of the drudge work type of activities. We had a guest on the show, his name is Mark Silverman, about a year ago. He talked about how he became a seven-figure salesperson and one thing he did is he outsourced everything. And again, he worked for companies, he wasn’t a solopreneur, he wasn’t a business owner, he worked as a ranked sales professional for some well-known companies and he paid people to do things that he didn’t want to do. Things like expense reports. He said that was something that was a $25 an hour task, not someone who’s trying to make a million bucks, which means you’re $500 an hour. He paid someone to do it. I’m curious on your thoughts for that. Maybe not how you direct, but what would be some of your guidance for sales professionals to sometimes avoid the stuff that they don’t want to do that’s not going to make them successful? Or are there things that they should be doing that are hard?

Tom Polivka: No, spot on. I am a huge believer in outsourcing as much as you possibly can. I love the expense report, by the way. If I’d thought of that, I would have done it. It is one of the things that I hate for the last over 20 years is sitting down and actually making the time to do that, so I will think about that. But that’s a great one.

I have been experimenting with outsourcing for a number of years, even when it became a thing and a lot of it has to do with research, even before ABM was really a thing. It was like, okay, here’s all these companies and here’s the criteria. Can you put them together? Can you do the research? Can you use the tools that are out there? There’s a lot of tools out there, but it still requires a lot of research and human intervention. Candidly, I’d even use my kids when they were in college and things like that because they were smart enough to be able to do the research and I’d pay them. I’m a total believer in that.

When I hire experienced sales executives, I’m paying them a good bit of money, I want them to focus absolutely on the things that they do best that in some cases only they can do. I don’t want them spending time on some of the research, demand creation, and things like that. When we set up our CRMs, there’s this careful balance between making them put in too much information and not enough, and I really focus and study that carefully because I don’t want them just being admins all the time. I want them in touch with the customer as much as they possibly can be because that’s their special skill set.

Fred Diamond: We have a question here that comes in from Lester, “Okay, enough of the problem. What can we do to get better?” Thanks, Lester. I appreciate the question. It’s probably a good point for us to make the transition here. We’ve talked about how AI has taken over a lot of the tasks and it makes sense from a lot of different reasons for companies to do that, cost and scale, 7/24 support as compared to whatever. Really focusing your sales professionals on things they need to do. What is some of your advice, Tom, on what should sales professionals be doing to stay not just valid, but valuable?

Tom Polivka: I would focus on looking at the whole team that you have available to you. One of the things that bothers me the most and the personality type that I have come across in the past is the lone wolf, “I don’t need anybody else’s help.” In our organization, we’re small, fast-growing, but we have a BDR team, we have a partner team, we have a marketing team, and what I find is the best reps look at all of the advantages that can come from those places. They get together and they set up the cadence, they become the quarterback. They sit with their BDR counterpart or team at least once a week at the beginning of the week and say, “How are we going to handle this? We’ve got all of these potential targets, we’ve got all of these chores. I’m going to handle this, you’re going to handle that,” and they orchestrate that. And without that level of orchestration, you’re just not going to get there. There’s just too many things to consider and too many things to do.

Again, getting back on multi-tiered process, I think that’s become table stakes for an enterprise sales organization. You have to have multiple roles, and you also have to realize that ABM is not a panacea. I made this mistake when I first implemented an ABM product. I did not have the resources to get to that last mile. They would say, “Somewhere around here is a good prospect,” but we couldn’t really find it, we didn’t have the research capacity. We built that now, I’ve realized that. You have to realize that the tools are still tools and you got to know when to apply the human interaction and say, “I need a human being, but the tool can help them.” You have to do the role definition and how it’s all going to work, and then you just monitor it and say there’s got to be constant interaction amongst these players on the team.

Fred Diamond: Tom Polivka, we started doing a show two years ago called the Optimal Sales Mindset show. Every Thursday at 2 o’clock Eastern time I’ve brought on a mindset expert, an athlete, an entertainer, a motivator, leadership coach, and we talk about that side of sales. What people historically have called “the soft side”, emotional intelligence and stuff like that. I’ll tell you, those things are becoming harder, but they’re also becoming hard skills because people want to be treated as human beings. Talk a little bit about some of the uniquely human aspects of sales. How do you guide the people in your sales organization and what is your guidance for people listening about utilizing those types of skills to be successful?

Tom Polivka: I think we covered part of it, and that’s the ability to form good, trusting, personal relationships with your customer and there is a human element. I’m a big believer in the whole Simon Sinek philosophy of there’s gut decisions, I study sales and marketing science a lot and it’s amazing how many big decisions are made, they’re justified, but deep down, it’s a gut decision. It’s like, as a human being, do I trust you as a company? We go through exercises on how to get that trust, how to keep it, how to win it.

I neglected to mention when I was talking about getting the teams together, customer success is now huge. It used to be customer service, now it’s customer success. One of the things I demand from my team, and believe it or not, this is not typical in enterprise sales still, is bringing in a customer success person at the beginning of the sale cycle and saying, “I’m going to make you see what it’s going to be like to be our customer before.” I would say that 70% of the companies out there are doing this in the very end and saying, “Okay, we’re about to do the deal, let me introduce you to my customer success folks.” Because to some extent, that’s where the relationship and the interactions continue to exist.

In our company, the AEs stay obviously involved with their customers, but we have a regular cadence with customer success as well to make people feel like we care about them, and that all of these rules still apply to anybody that interfaces with that customer. They’ve got to be able to trust you, and it’s amazing how many people tell us, “Nobody else even brought in the customer success person, we never met him until the very end.” I think that’s a huge advantage and it’s so easy to do. If you have a customer success organization, insert that into your sales process. There should be a deck, if you’ve got a portal, show them the portal. That’s one of the changes that we made up here in the last 6 months and I think it’s had a huge benefit because especially in the SaaS industry, churn, losing a customer is terrible. It’s bad anyway, but churn kills SaaS companies.

You have to be right on top of them, so I think that’s one of the things that gave rise this whole customer success model, the way it’s done now. You can’t afford to lose customers, not even one. It’s huge, but again, use that upfront as well. Use that to convince the customer that you’re going to cater to their needs, you’re a more human type of operation, human company. I like to introduce them to as many people as they will possibly be interacting with, because it puts more of a human face in the company. It’s not just, “We sent you a PO and we’re dealing with somebody on the accounts side.” I would say that’s a huge trend right now and it’s certainly one that we’re embracing.

Fred Diamond: Let’s pursue that for a little bit here, talking to customers. You talked about customer success, but what are your customers expecting from you? One thing we touched on is the fact that everybody is dealing with ramifications of the last two years, everybody on the planet. Not just your company and your partners, but your customer, and not just your customer, but your customer’s customer, and your customer’s customer’s customer. We have to be socially conscious about that. What are some of your customer conversations looking like right now? How are you guiding your sales team to be having them and what is some of your advice for the thousands of sales professionals listening to today’s Sales Game Changers podcast?

Tom Polivka: I think it’s great that you asked the question that way, because a lot of people think it’s the answer of, “What are they expecting from your product?” and that’s not really what this is. It’s about, “What are they expecting from you?” Unfortunately, people are deluged with messaging, a lot of it’s the same, they see a lot of the same patterns. Salespeople, unfortunately, I think sometimes expect to just lump everybody together. “All these vendors, they look the same, they talk the same, they got the same messaging, they use the same PowerPoints and everything else.” Because of that – and there’s all kinds of studies that have been done along those lines – I try to really insist that my team is able to differentiate themselves. Not just the company, the product, but I want them to think differently about you than anybody else.

“There’s three companies over there, but these guys were really different, interesting,” and there’s a whole lot of techniques that go into that. A lot of people know about the Challenger model, we’re very much of a consultative sales organization. We don’t start with the product, we start with, “Let me tell you what we hear from people we talk to every day.” You establish that consultative approach, and then we talk about problems that people see which, again, it’s a little different because people don’t want to go negative and say, it’s really hard to get people to do that. But then you pull them back and say, “Here’s why you don’t go down that path, this is what we hear.”

We spend a lot of time being comfortable with that, and then finally, it’s like, wait for it, wait for it, here’s the product. And it’s amazing, just that alone, people are like, “That’s something I haven’t heard of before.” Because what they’re used to seeing is, “Here’s a picture of our corporate headquarters,” it’s like, so what? Let’s do something completely different.

Differentiation, we talk about it constantly. My guys get sick of hearing about it, but it’s like, use dramatic differentiation and graphics, we talk about how to do PowerPoints, and just be different. That’s all I’ve got to say, so they will remember you. There’s so much that goes into that if you can stay away from being the crowd that they lump you together with. The faster that you can do that from the very, very first… It’s one of the things that when I took this job we focused on and I said, if we change a few things, we can really do that. It’s really paying off, that differentiation, the tricks, the consultative sales and things like that. I think it’s a good way to go.

Fred Diamond: Absolutely. You need to differentiate yourself. The customer is getting so many inquiries, not just from your “competitors” but companies that are offering complementary things. I tell this to people all the time when they’re like, “I’m struggling to get through to the CIO.” I’m like, the CIO, he or she, they have their staff. They have their people they report to, they have some top vendors they need to deal with, then they have secondary vendors, then they have vendors in play, then they have their family, so the fact that you’re struggling to get a message across when they have so many of their conflicting messages, you have to figure out a strategy to be different, see different and to get through that.

Tom, I want to acknowledge you and applaud you for the answers and for the way you’re leading your team. We had a couple people reach out to us and say, “Fred, you interview great sales leaders, you definitely should think about getting Tom on your show.” Like I mentioned, we’re very acutely aware of what’s going on with Salesforce as we’re recognizing Dave Rey with our award and Salesforce is also a Gold Sponsor of our Women in Sales program. We’re always looking to meet more people in the Salesforce ecosystem. Congratulations to you, your success, and for the great job you’re going to do at Flosum. We like to end every Sales Game Changers podcast episode with an action step. You’ve given us 20 great ideas, give us one specific thing people should do right now, Tom Polivka, after listening to today’s show to take their sales career to the next level.

Tom Polivka: Thanks, Fred. It’s segued from what I just said before. Whether you’re in sales, marketing, business development, or anything that touches sales, I give everyone the same advice. Look at everything you produce, whether it’s a PowerPoint, a website, an email, or a lecture, and honestly ask yourself, how different is this from what your prospect is getting from the competition? Is it dramatically different? Look at it. If it’s not, change it. Be dramatically different, change it, do something different. Otherwise, you’re just going to be swept up with the rest of the competition.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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