EPISODE 193: Clarabridge Sales Leader and University of Maryland Wrestling Star Tom van Gorder Says These Lessons from the Mat Can Help You Achieve Remarkable Sales Success


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EPISODE 193: Clarabridge Sales Leader and University of Maryland Wrestling Star Tom van Gorder Says These Lessons from the Mat Can Help You Achieve Remarkable Sales Success

TOM’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Any young professional that is interested in a sales career needs to find one or two mentors, somebody like myself, you or others that are willing and able to give them some advice and some coaching as they move along in their career.”

Tom van Gorder is the Vice President of North America Sales at Clarabridge.

Previously, he held sales leadership positions at FranConnect, Arxan and VERISIGN.

Find Tom on LinkedIn!

Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?

Tom van Gorder: I was a Division 1 college wrestler at Maryland, started my career and my first job opportunity was working at the White House. It was really from working at the White House that I transitioned to my first sales opportunity and have been in the DC area for the most part ever since the early 80’s.

Fred Diamond: That’s great, we’ve had some past guests who’ve worked at the White House. During what administration did you work at the White House?

Tom van Gorder: It was during the Carter administration that I was there. Great story, I was in a fraternity at Maryland and came home one day, one of my fraternity brothers came in and said, “Who wants my internship at the White House?” and I was the first guy to raise my hand. Off I went and really just had a lot of fun, I grew up pretty quickly working at the White House.

Fred Diamond: You actually worked in the White House itself?

Tom van Gorder: I did, I worked in the west wing and worked for one of the senior people on his staff, a gentleman named Hamilton Jordan, Chief of Staff and just really had a lot of fun.

Fred Diamond: I didn’t know this as well, you were a Division 1 wrestler at University of Maryland?

Tom van Gorder: Yes, that’s what brought me down to the area from Pittsburgh.

Fred Diamond: Take wrestling, how does that apply to the sales career?

Tom van Gorder: It’s a great question and I use this analogy when I’m interviewing all the time. If you think about a Division 1 wrestler, any wrestling level, there are 10 weight classes and it’s a team sport but quite honestly it’s an individual sport. At the end of the day, you or I are walking out in that mat all by ourselves. My teammates are on the bench cheering away having a great time but they rely on me to make sure that I’ve lost or made the weight, that I’m mentally prepared, physically prepared, I’m wrestling basically somebody who weighs the same, has me as roughly the same experience level and then it becomes very much a mental game at that point from preparation.

If you think about it, it’s not really too different from a sales organization. If you think about it, every day in a sales team an individual contributor has got to wake up, they’ve got to make way, they’ve got to be mentally prepared, they’ve got to do all the things that a wrestler would have to do in order to be successful in their particular bout, that particular day, month, quarter, year. If the majority of the team is successful in doing that then the team wins and that’s exactly the same analogy in wrestling. If 6, 7, 8 people out of the 10 weight classes are focused and doing what they’re supposed to be doing in preparation to wrestle then the team wins but quite honestly, it’s very much an individual sport.

The difference being – and I always explain this to new hires – here at Clarabridge you’re really not on the mat alone, you have every member of the executive team here, every senior leader inside this business willing to help jump on a plane, get on a call, go visit a prospect. You really do have a little bit more support than typically walking onto a wrestling mat by yourself.

Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that?

Tom van Gorder: It’s a great business. I came to Clarabridge really not knowing a lot about our market or our technology. We are the leader in text and speech analytics for customer experience. To oversimplify it, we basically capture and analyze any way a customer would talk to or talk about a business, whether that’s in a social post, a rating and review, a survey, a phone call, a chat, an email. Regardless of the type of communication, we capture all of that, analyze it and give that feedback back to a particular customer to say, “Here’s how you can improve your customer experience in all parts of your business.” Whether it’s, “I’m a large multinational bank releasing a new mobile application” and you’re getting all kinds of feedback about what works and doesn’t work, being able to give that feedback back to the product teams to improve the product or things back into a customer service center, contact center about how to help them improve their performance in the contact center.

Fred Diamond: A lot of people listen to the Sales Game Changers podcast, they like to know who our guests sell to. Is it a tech sale, is it to the social media team, to marketing, to customer service? Who are your customers?

Tom van Gorder: It’s a combination. Originally the business started selling traditionally to a Chief Marketing Officer who, for the most part, would be responsible for a survey program. Let’s face it, everybody does survey but it’s a declining mechanism in terms of people giving feedback. It’s then transitioned into Chief Customer Officers, Chief Customer Experience Officers and even more recently in the last couple of years into the contact center where the contact center for a particular business has really become the customer experience hub for a company. There are more interactions, conversational analytics, conversations, email, chat real time where customers are giving you feedback about what’s working and what’s not working versus in a survey which typically is in your rear view mirror. That’s something that happened a month ago, two months ago versus real time interaction analytics which are happening every single day in the context of a contact center.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned you worked in the White House, you were also a collegiate wrestler. How did you first get into sales as a career? 

Tom van Gorder: I was in the White House and obviously the particular administration I was working for didn’t win so I was out of a job with about 20 thousand other people here in Washington DC. It was really through a friend that I had an opportunity to join a very small business, a couple million dollars, actually a printed circuit board manufacturer and one of the largest manufacturers in Fairfax County, a company called Automata. I came in both as an individual contributor but really managing the sales team. I did not have much of a career as an individual contributor, my initial role was right into sales leadership and I spent about 7 years there – probably 3 or 4 years too long, but I did and grew that business to about 60 million. Ultimately the owner of the business ended up selling the business, but that was really my first experience and selling to large companies like Hewlett Packard, IBM, anybody making any kind of instrumentation that required a multi-layer printed circuit board.

Fred Diamond: What are some of the key lessons that you took away from that first sales job?

Tom van Gorder: I didn’t have any formal training whatsoever and it wasn’t a transition from an inside position to a field position to a management position. I was literally thrown into a position that had national responsibility so I learned very quickly on the job both in terms of the whole aspects of traveling as a salesperson and understanding that to calling on Fortune 200, 300 companies from a manufacturing standpoint. I grew up pretty quickly in a sales context and it was all on-the-job training, really didn’t have a former mentor, my boss was an ex-partner of Andersen Consulting so really didn’t have any sales background except what he may have learned selling professional services for Andersen Consulting. It was a lot of fun and a lot of growing up pretty quickly over that 6-7 year period.

Fred Diamond: I keep thinking about you as a wrestler so I’m going to go back and ask you some questions along the way.

Tom van Gorder: Sure.

Fred Diamond: You just mentioned how in your first job you didn’t really know about sales, you just got thrown in, didn’t really have a mentor along the way. On the wrestling mat is it the same thing where you have to constantly modify where you’re going or do you go in with the plan and does the plan always stick? One thing we talk about on the Sales Game Changers podcast throughout is that it’s not a straight line, there’s a lot of variations that happen along the way and we talk about all the various reasons why that happens. Is that a similar type of thing on the wrestling mat where you’re constantly modifying where you go?

Tom van Gorder: You really are. Again, if you think about it back to that wrestling analogy, I’m wrestling the same weight, roughly the same experience but they have different styles, they have different body sizes and shapes. One day I’m wrestling a guy that’s a foot shorter than me and the next day I’m wrestling a guy that’s maybe 6 inches even taller than me and their styles are different. You really have to learn how to adapt to be competitive, but on the other hand you are relying on the things that got you there in the first place. As I said, being physically prepared, mentally prepared, those things really are what carry you through to be successful. Again, sales is not any different, from my perspective there’s a lot of personal accountability.

I think that’s a theme that I’ve carried throughout my whole sales career being able to personally take the responsibility to understand the products, the services, the markets that you’re selling into, the personas that you’re selling to making sure that you understand those things. Some of the business will teach you that, you’ll learn that but a lot of that is really left up to you as an individual that you need to take responsibility for and wrestling again, is really no different in that regard. Great coaches, great experience, great teammates that you’re wrestling with every day but you’ve got to learn on your own.

Fred Diamond: Tom, what are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.

Tom van Gorder: We had a funny conversation about that right before the podcast started. I don’t know that I consider myself an expert in anything but I am pretty passionate about a couple things that have some connection to sales, one is fishing. That’s an absolute passion of mine and the techniques and the preparation, lure selection, tackle selection, all of those things are important and again, no different than going out and being successful in your sales role day in and day out. How you prepare, how you’re focused, how you’re mentally excited about what you’re doing every day, that you’re still just charged up coming in. That’s certainly the way I feel about Clarabridge, there’s not a single day I don’t come in the office that I’m excited about what I’m doing and who I’m working with. Those kinds of things really play themselves out quite well in a professional setting.

Fred Diamond: What do you fish for, what kinds of fishing do you do?

Tom van Gorder: Two kinds of fish principally, Small Mouth – and I fish in the Potomac River here nearby the office – and then a fish called Musky. I grew up in northwest Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh and had a small summer cottage up there and learned to catch it. It’s called The Fish of 10,000 Casts so you’ve got to be pretty patient and focused to land one of those fish.

Fred Diamond: We mentioned before that your company was recently named one of the coolest places to work. What’s so cool about working at Clarabridge, while we’re on the subject?

Tom van Gorder: I have this discussion with new hires and interview calls, there were three things when I joined the company that really impressed me significantly, not in any particular order. One is the people I work with day in and day out and not just the people on my team that are really spread out throughout the country. Most of them are home-based so it’s not like I see them every day but it’s the people here in corporate, the cross-functional teams, engineering, the development team, services team, the SE team, the man-gen team. The people here are passionate, they’re excited about what they’re doing every day and obviously success breeds success, we’re growing like a weed, we’re profitable, we’re healthy and the business is doing very well. I give credit to the team in general, the people are just great to work with every day.

The second thing that I’ve really been impressed with the business that again, I just get excited about is our technology. There is absolutely nothing like it in the marketplace and that’s really evidenced by a couple different metrics. One, Forrester does what’s called Forrester Waves which is much like a Gartner Magic Quadrant and they do three Forrester Waves in the customer experience marketplace. We’re the only company listed in all three and we’re a leader in two out of the three and a strong performer in the third. Again, we’ve got great validation by Forrester but then the greatest validation is really through our customer base where 50% of my sales bookings on average quarter over quarter come from existing customers. Our renewal rate last year in North America was in the low 90’s for an enterprise SaaS business which is off the chart, so again, the validation by our customers is really tremendous. I don’t think I’ve been in a single meeting where a customer said, “I wish your technology did that.” We got a great product team that’s got a great road map so again, the technology is just best-in-class.

The last thing that I’ve really been excited about is our customer base, our customer base reads like a who’s who, you see a lot of those names on the website. I’ll give you anecdotally a fun story. You always have customers that are willing to be a reference, take a phone call, whatever. Last year I had an experience with a customer of ours, very large healthcare company in the Midwest that actually hosted a prospect of ours for a day on their site, on their dime, on behalf of Clarabridge to basically tell them and show them everything that we were doing for that particular customer. From a career standpoint that just doesn’t happen very often where a customer is willing to host them at their corporate headquarters – and we’re talking a Fortune 100 company – to actually host a prospect in a totally different industry. In fact, that’s actually going to lead to a sale.

Fred Diamond: Let’s look back on your career again along the way, have you had any impactful sales career mentors? If so, how did they impact your career?

Tom van Gorder: I really haven’t. I’d say the most impactful experience for me personally has been the wrestling experience, the discipline, the focus, the preparation. Those are quite honestly life skill sets, I really carry those with me throughout my career. As I mentioned, my first sales role I was thrown into a sales management position and I really never looked back. Every career step at that point forward I was managing people in a sales context for the most part. I really never went back in any way, shape or form to an individual contributor role. I’d say that’s been the most impactful, and then the other thing is I’ve done a fairly good job of networking with other sales professionals. A good friend of mine, Mark Blair was a VP at Adobe for a while and he’s somebody that I’ve spent a lot of time with trading notes and experiences. I try to do a fair amount of that with other peers, sales leaders in the DC area.

Fred Diamond: As a matter of fact, I think you were actually introduced to us originally by one of our previous guests, Carl Grant.

Tom van Gorder: Right.

Fred Diamond: Tom, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?

Tom van Gorder: To no surprise I’m sure, #1 is hiring and I always say I’m never in a hurry to hire the wrong person. I was sharing with you earlier where we’re two head counts short in our 2019 plan but we’re far exceeding our plan for the year. We just want to make sure that we’re bringing in the right individuals in a variety of different ways from a cultural fit perspective. Also back to that accountability, somebody who really brings some experience in being personally accountable for their career, for their results and somebody who’s able to really articulate that in an interview process. I’d say hiring is still the biggest challenge for us to really get great A players out in the field, the best athletes I can feel in a sales team.

I’d say the second issue is back to this accountability, I’ve seen all too often where you hire some starts yet at the end of the day they just don’t have that internal fortitude to be disciplined and to be a strong team player yet really take that responsibility managing a territory, managing accounts in that territory and managing opportunities with those accounts in a territory. At the end of the day we’re all entrepreneurs managing our own business. I’d say those are the biggest challenges, hiring but then making sure that’s the right profile for our business.

Fred Diamond: Tom, before we take a short break why don’t you tell us about the #1 sale success or win from your career you’re most proud of?

Tom van Gorder: I’d say one recently which has been a lot of fun and a great success was my time at a company called Arxan in the application security space. We were venture funded, actually technology came out of the national security agency, very interesting use case where we were protecting software on things like weapon systems, intelligent systems. We were able to ultimately commercialize the technology and the business absolutely took off. We had a wonderful exit 8 years after I started with an acquisition by TA Associates and that was a great success.

We had a couple really outstanding customer successes, Google signed a long-term agreement with us, companies like Medtronic and others, we had some best-of-class customers that were using our technology. In fact, I would venture to say that you probably have three or four applications on your phone today that have that same technology protecting software on a drone, for instance or on a weapon system.

Fred Diamond: Tom, did you ever question being in sales? Again, you worked in the White House and I’m just curious, what was your major in college when you were there?

Tom van Gorder: I was a business major marketing in a political science minor, so I was creative enough to leverage my internship for about 12 credits in college. Business marketing major and as I said, got into the sales side of it almost unexpectedly through a personal relationship, this partner at Andersen Consulting who left the practice. That was really my discipline and I never looked back, I think every one of my professional settings save one, maybe two, were absolutely direct, indirect sales, sales management and principally the first part of my career was in professional publishing. The latter part of my career has now been in all technology-based businesses.

[Sponsor break]

Fred Diamond: Tom, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the sales professionals listening around the globe to today’s podcast to help them take their career to the next level?

Tom van Gorder: I think something I missed when I was younger was the ability to network and to really find whether it’s friends of the family or friends of colleagues, somebody that you can go to for advice. I play that role today, I probably have anywhere from 6 to 12 young guys or gals that are early in their sales career that from time to time pick up the phone and call me, “Hey Tom, what do you think?” and I’m in the position to give some advice in that regard. In fact, my son played four years of college soccer in Hampden-Sydney and I hired one of his teammates this summer as a sales intern. He’s interested in a career in sales so I’ve been spending a lot of time with him in addition to hiring as an intern just helping him get ready for graduating this coming spring to move into a sales career.

I think any young professional that is interested in a sales career needs to find one or two mentors, somebody like myself, you or others that are willing and able to give them some advice and some coaching as they move along in their career.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned before that you do a lot of networking. What are some types of places where you as a sales leader network?

Tom van Gorder: I’m a maniacal networker on a personal level, everything from making sure that I keep strong contacts with everybody that I’ve worked with, I’m very active in an organization called the High Tech Prayer Breakfast here in DC with Carl, in fact and that’s a great network environment. Again, really then spending time personally making sure that I stay connected to people and helping when I can, the connection is all about making sure you can do things for others as well and occasionally then asking for help for yourself.

Fred Diamond: Tell us about one of your selling habits that you’ve employed that has helped you continue to have your success.

Tom van Gorder: A couple things in not any particular order. A good work-life balance, I’m a big believer that if things aren’t good outside the office they’re never going to be good inside the office or it’s only a matter of time that they’re not going to be good inside the office. You’ve got young kids, you need to go to school, I know when my kids were younger I was in the computer land for a great school for all three of them making sure that I took time outside of work to have a good, healthy balance. Let’s face it, there are going to be times where work is way out of balance and that happens, but to make sure that you’re anchored outside of the workplace whether it’s hobbies, whether it’s family, something. I think again that has served me very well over the years and I’m a big supporter of that.

The second thing again, getting back to accountability and modeling it. I make sure that my personal values, professional values are the same and integrity is really important in a business context. I want to make sure that anybody that works for me, they don’t have to guess how Tom’s going to respond to a particular issue, they’re going to know by how I carry myself, by how I conduct myself in good times when you’re making your numbers and bad times when you’re not. I think just good communication, I’m a pretty transparent guy and I think being over-communicative and not being afraid to have those tough conversations but also to make sure that you’re really encouraging and supporting those and celebrating success.

Fred Diamond: Is there a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?

Tom van Gorder: For me in the business we’re actually rolling out a new sales methodology, that’s a big initiative for us at least as it relates to Clarabridge, a company called Value Selling you may or may not know about. I spent about a year making sure to look and understand the business before I brought one in and we’re excited about rolling that out. Executive team is on board and in fact, I just had every member of the executive team go through training about two weeks ago and all the leaders from the different functional departments so that everybody can be talking the same lingo, looking at opportunities the same way and really make sure that we culturally accept Value Selling as our sales methodology. That’s a big initiative for us this year.

Fred Diamond: Good luck on that. Tom, it’s been great having you on the Sales Game Changers podcast, you’ve given us a lot of great advice. Before I get your final thought, 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 has kept you going?

Tom van Gorder: Again, back to that wrestling analogy, winning. I’m very competitive and I hate to lose, I’ve got thick skin and I’m used to losing, I’ve certainly lost matches during my career and sales is no different. You have to be excited about what you’re doing, believe in what you’re selling. Let’s face it, there have been times in sales situations where we’re selling a product or service that we don’t believe in but you’ve got to believe in yourself, you’ve got to be focused and you’ve got to stay at it and be thick skinned. That’s all there is to it, and really celebrate your successes.

Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you back to the wrestling which is fascinating, you’ve given us a lot of great insights into how you prepared and your mindset, how you’ve had to adjust and modify to be successful at wrestling. Has being a college wrestler helped you actually in your sales career? Is there a wrestling network, have you done any business with other people who were collegiate wrestlers? I’m just curious if that has continued through your career.

Tom van Gorder: There actually is, it’s called the Wrestler’s in Business Network all over the country, absolutely. It’s business professionals that were college wrestlers and high school wrestlers, etc. Once you get it in your blood, trust me, it never leaves regardless of what level you’re at. There is and yes, I’m an active role member in that as well.

Fred Diamond: We’ll provide a link to that as well if there’s any wrestlers. We have a lot of young people around the world listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast and we’ve had various people with various skills and interests looking for additional connections. Tom, this has been great, I really appreciate your insights today, you’ve given us a lot of great value. Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe?

Tom van Gorder: I’d have to say at the end of the day people buy from people. As much as we see automation taking over a lot of different jobs and different activities, I’m still a firm believer that people buy from people. That personal relationship and how you conduct yourself, how you carry yourself, the integrity in which you deal with people day in and day out, that will be a true measure of your success. Understand that relationship selling is maybe oversold a bit more but there is that aspect I think that’s important on a going forward basis.

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