Carl: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast, where our guests share how they stay connected in their professional and personal lives. I'm your host, Carl Lewis, from Vision33, and my guest is Steve Crepeau, CEO of True Sales Results. Steve, thanks for joining us. Please tell us about True Sales Results and your role there.
Steve: I founded True Sales Results 14 years ago. We deliver custom sales enablement services to fast-growing B2B technology sales organizations. That entails everything from building custom sales playbooks, delivering custom sales boot camps, and creating a lot of videos. It's all about how we can improve our sales performance as technologists.
Carl: You're the founder of the company and the CEO, but it sounds like you're involved in daily activities, too.
Steve: I am. I consider us a ‘boutique consultancy,’ and I was a former VP of sales for several years before starting True Sales Results. I've leveraged the best practices I used when I was leading sales teams. I helped companies improve their selling effectiveness by creating frameworks and tailoring them to the customers they sell to and companies they compete against.
Carl: They say nothing happens in any company until somebody sells something. This is a conversation every company has: How to sell more, do a better job in their sales process, generate more leads, etc. What are some trends in your industry? With technology changes and the fast speed of development, what's happening regarding automation techniques?
Steve: I've been selling technology to large enterprise Fortune 1000 companies for the last 30 years, and selling has never been harder. The data and research prove it in the number of sales reps attaining quota, the length of the sales cycles, the outcomes of sales cycles, etc. The win rates and quota attainment rates are at all-time lows. Technology is paramount in equipping your sales reps. You need a learning management system to onboard new sales hires, whether it's a sales engineer, sales rep, sales development rep, or sales manager. Depending on the arrangement of your sales team, technology is central to helping compress the long ramp-off cycle associated with complex B2B sales reps.
Steve: CSO Insights is one of the best B2B research firms. One of their studies was about the sales talent challenge we're facing globally in software. They estimate that the average time to ramp up a new sales rep is 9.2 months. It takes more than nine months to put them at full quota-bearing productivity. That's a significant investment to make before seeing an ROI. I talk with customers constantly about equipping sales reps with tools to make them more effective and engage better with their customers.
Steve: That's everything from the CRM system to a learning management system to AI and machine learning. It’s listening in on calls, looking for trends, and using data mining tools to find prospects and target customers. The average number of tools a sales rep uses is between six and eight. When I started selling, there was just the CRM. It was all around Salesforce automation. Now, the number of tools is adding to the complexity of the sale because your sales team must learn how to use the tools.
Carl: Steve, if a typical technology sales rep uses six to eight tools, what’s the biggest challenge?
Steve: There's a gross underestimation of creating and consistently refreshing the content. Say it's a learning management system. We help develop and deliver a custom sales playbook. Most organizations don’t know how to do that even though it sounds straightforward. There are amazing tools available, and the vendors have done a nice job. They have snazzy demos; everything is at your fingertips. Just use a mouse or interactive voice response, and the kernel of truth shall be delivered to you. But it's not that simple.
Steve: The biggest challenge is creating a strategy to prioritize the tools and content you need so they add value to your sales team. How do you curate and moderate the content so you don't end up with a Wiki or portal with so much unorganized content crammed there that sales reps can't find it? Because they'll lose faith in the tools and not use them. You need a coherent strategy and an editorial calendar where you constantly crank out new, fresh content based on what the sales team needs to improve their productivity.
Carl: It sounds like you're advocating for ‘less is more’ because you probably have the right stuff, but it's not up to date. It's not a one and done; you must maintain it. The more you create, the more there is to maintain, and the bigger the challenge is. Because it's hard for the sales guy to find what he's looking for when there’s stuff everywhere.
Steve: I agree, less is more. How you organize the content and make it searchable/findable for the sales reps is critical to a tool’s success. We create two types of videos for our customers. One is a sales best practices video vignette where I interview top performers off camera like an informal fireside chat. We organize the video so you get different renditions of how to articulate your value proposition. What's your elevator pitch? What are the common objections you’ll encounter, and how do you overcome them? We go through a battery of common sales questions, so if I'm a new rep or I’m trying to become a higher-performing rep, the first place to look is the videos for the people who had the most success. We cut those into short video vignettes.
Steve: The other videos are customer case stories. They aren’t like the ones marketing produces; they’re for internal sales purposes. You have tribal knowledge in your organization, and if you become geographically dispersed as the company and sales team grow, everybody has nuggets of customer case stories floating around in their heads. We capture that knowledge in videos and make it into a library so we can learn, for example, how we won the JP Morgan Chase deal.
Steve: What were our obstacles? Who were our adversaries? Who were our advocates? Who's the champion of the deal? Who's the economic buyer? Where did the budget come from? Did we encounter any challenges in negotiating with the procurement department and legal? We're looking for patterns for success. We're looking for worst practices. What’s driving the CEO and the board crazy at the end of every quarter with the deal slipping? Let's stop making the same mistakes. We capture those best and worst practices and put them in a concise video format.
Carl: That sounds like a smart way to take good salespeople and extend their ability to mentor by capturing their ideas and using them as a model for more people to see. How do companies get started down this road where they systemize sales training, education, and ongoing information processes instead of relying on the individual talent of a person?
Steve: It starts with the leadership. In our most successful customer engagements, the common denominator is a progressive, forward-thinking sales leader who isn't married to the weekly forecast. Too many sales leaders are forecast administrators, and they've lost the art of sales coaching. You mentioned mentoring. When I was a cocky young sales rep, some good sales mentors took me under their wing, which I benefited from tremendously. Now I'm on the back side of my career, so I like to give back. I have a pool of young enterprise protege sales reps I mentor biweekly, to give back my time.
Steve: But back to your question. It starts with visionaries – the visionary sales leader, VP of sales, VP of marketing, and CEO. Those are the executives we work the closest with. What emerges is a question: “What’s our winning go-to-market sales motion?” Consider the sales talent shortage. Even if you hire experienced sales reps, it still takes 9 to 10 months to ramp them up. How can we compress the ramp-up cycle? That's the primary focus. The beginning of every engagement is formalizing an onboarding program so we can shave months off the current onboarding process.
Steve: Our typical customer is getting nine, ten, eleven months average in terms of when a new sales rep is considered ramped. We want to reduce that by three or four months with focused content and micro-learning. Like ‘less is more,’ as we mentioned earlier. Micro-learning is getting bite-sized, digestible chunks of learning. It’s the key to success. Because the sales reps are busy. They travel. They have a quota to produce. It needs to be easy and fun to learn. Even the most experienced, 20+ year, high-performing sales rep considers themselves a perpetual student of the game. I’m still a student of the game. I still learn new things working with customers. The day you stop learning in sales is the day you should hang it up.
Carl: Absolutely. I was not doing podcasts a year ago. You keep adding to the résumé, no doubt about it.
Carl: Let me switch gears. Communication is a critical part of what we do. Particularly in sales, being an effective communicator is critical to the role. Is communication changing? Are you using different tools to communicate? If so, does that affect the ability of salespeople to ramp up?
Steve: Communication is changing. Customer communication. Intercompany communication. All of it. We work with many early-stage startups, so places where millennials make up the sales team. They're almost abandoning email. They use Slack. They text. They use social media. As a perpetual student of the game, I've had to adapt my communication style to mirror the customers’. A lot of startups standardize on Google G Suite instead of Microsoft office now. For years, I've done PowerPoint, Word, Excel. Who doesn't love a good spreadsheet? But now it's all about collaborating in real-time in G Suite.
Steve: Adapting our communication style to be compatible with customer communication styles is great for me because it forces me to learn social media. I've blogged for a while. I write about my professional work experiences and experiences I have with customers. I try to share insights. The most important thing about communication is sharing. If you post an article or a blog, share it. We talked about mentoring and giving back. It brings value and insight to the table. It teaches people something to help them sell more effectively. That's the core of good communication: bringing insights to the table in all your communications so there's integrity. You're building a personal brand around the way you communicate.
Carl: You’ve become a critical third party to a lot of companies, right? Someone on the outside they rely on.
Carl: What do you think, from their perspective, is the most challenging part of collaborating with a third party like yourself and True Sales Results?
Steve: Establishing trust. Unequivocal trust. Because I’ll be brutally honest in my assessment of what they're doing well and what they're not doing well. Sometimes it's hard to hear where you're failing, and some of the fundamentals where the sales team is executing poorly. It comes back to integrity in communication and collaboration. Trusting we're going to give you candid feedback, and sometimes it might be hard to hear, but we’re doing it to help you. You can't improve if you don't call out where you're failing.
Carl: I remember when we used to work with many consultants. I remember one guy on the team said, “You know, three or four times over the past several years, we've had these consultants, and they were brilliant, and we trusted them.” Then we hired that guy. Within three or four months, he became an idiot.
Carl: It's a privilege to be a third party. Some of that trust gets assigned on the front side, and you can grow it tremendously and be valuable to your customers. I like that perspective. Steve, in your business, everybody talks about automation and making life easier, reducing errors, etc. Have automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. affected your business?
Steve: We heavily leverage automation, so there are two answers to that question. One is that every new True Sales Results client has its own set of technology and tools. Depending on their maturity as an organization, we’re often guiding them and making recommendations regarding tools they should use because they're early stage and growing fast. Regarding AI and machine learning, the primary type of SaaS companies we work with are complex B2B software sales teams.
Steve: We've worked with some of the largest and hottest cybersecurity companies on the face of the planet. We've also worked with some of the hottest disruptive, innovative AI and machine learning health tech companies. We've done a lot of AI and machine learning in the last 18 months on the cybersecurity side because it's important with the cloud and big data. There's a cybersecurity component and a heavy health tech component. The challenge is that there's a lot of noise out there.
Steve: Anytime something's white-hot and disruptive, it's confusing to the customer. They hear the cliché Silicon Valley buzzwords and acronyms, and it only means something to us, the technologists. It doesn't mean anything to the customers. They have a business problem they need to solve, and they want someone to explain in plain English how they can solve that problem better than anyone else.
Steve: But please leave the cliché Silicon Valley buzzwords and acronyms. If you're talking about a conservative insurance company in the Midwest, it's a Fortune 500 company that's been in business for over 100 years. Some senior executives refer to those “whiz-bang features from Silicon Valley kids.” That's how they view it. I think you can seem offensive when dealing with prospective customers if you don’t put yourself in their shoes.
Steve: One of those white-hot cybersecurity companies I mentioned had to ramp up a sales team globally in 18 months. They were hiring huge numbers of sales reps, sales engineers, solution architects, etc. It's a very complex product they sell into data centers and cloud environments to Fortune 1000 organizations. It's a very technical, high-end sale with seven- and eight-figure subscriptions, and they're crushing it. They have disruptive technology. We built and implemented an internal sales academy.
Steve: We’re proud of the repeat business we have with our customers, and we’ve worked with this cybersecurity company four or five times. We can finish each other's sentences regarding what a sales enablement strategy and high-performing sales engine look and smell like. We created an internal sales academy from scratch, starting by designing the curriculum by role, then creating those bite-sized chunks of learning we talked about. Very videocentric. Then we evaluated different technologies in the market to find the right learning management system and sales coaching system to become part of their sales fabric and culture. That's one of the coolest projects I've worked on over the last 14 years. Super proud of that, and it was very cutting edge.
Steve: There are a handful of companies in the world doing sales enablement and onboarding and institutionalizing sales learning as part of their culture. When people leave a company like that, they look back on their career and say, "That was the coolest company I ever worked for. I learned the most. I had the most fun. I made the most money. We had the most success. That was a great ride." I was fortunate enough to have one sales job early in my sales career where I came on board as a plain number 10, and we went through a successful initial public offering. It was my first software sales job. I was only there for seven and a half years, but I learned so much.
Steve: We went through literally sea change technology movements, and we didn't know any better. If you were willing to take a dare and say, "I'll go open up the West Coast office, and I'll figure out how to crack the enterprise deals." That's the culture of the customer I'm talking about, and to build that culture, you need the best salespeople. There's huge competition for them. It's not just about the commission they can earn – they want to be part of something innovative. They want to be part of something disruptive and leading edge. That's what my customer has built, and that's been a super cool project.
Carl: We all want to be part of organizations like that, for sure. I've been fortunate to be at one for the last ten or eleven years. It's always fun when things are growing rapidly. The first day there, I was like the ninth employee. It's a very fun ride. Steve, what KPIs does the typical training sales enablement company look at? What methodology and systems do you have to track and report on them?
Steve: There's no shortage of KPIs and metrics in sales enablement and revenue consulting. One of the most common KPIs for our customers is how long it takes to ramp up a new sales rep before and after they work with us. What's fascinating is that we frequently ask, “How long does it take to ramp up a new salesperson?” when we kick off a new project or even in the discovery phase before they’re officially our customer. The answers are all over the map, and then they confess, "We don't really know." Then I ask, “What does a ramped-up sales rep look like in your organization?”
Steve: If they're honest, most companies don’t have a good handle on that either. The first thing we do is come up with a simple, quantifiable way to measure what it means when a sales rep is ramped up. I've worked with some smart customers, and we codified cool ways to define how you measure what a ramped-up sales rep means. Here’s an example of where context matters with a KPI or a metric. If you ask a lot of companies how they define a fully ramped sales rep, they say it's from their start date until they close their first deal. We're talking about an enterprise-class, not a transactional price deal.
Steve: They say that's a ramped-up sales rep. That's 9.2 months. When they're capable of giving demos themselves. But that’s misleading. If you think about a new sales rep, their first deal is usually led by their manager or an experienced sales rep. They're shadowing and learning, not driving the deal on their own. Then you celebrate when the first deal closes. The bell rings, kudos all around, and then, “Why is it taking so long to close their second deal?” Then you realize they didn't learn how to position and sell the solution on their own during the first deal. They really should measure how long it takes from the start date to when they make the second deal, after they're selling on their own.
Steve: That's a ramped-up sales rep. Unfortunately, that could be 13, 14, 15 months from their start date. But sales reps get antsy. They're not making the commissions they need, and there are tons of hot opportunities out there, so they leave. For example, in the CSO Insights study I referenced earlier, only 16% of sales leaders are confident their sales team has the talent they need to succeed. Only 16%. That means 84% are not confident their sales team can be successful.
Steve: What's making that problem an epidemic is that the average sales turnover for complex B2B salespeople is 15.7%. Ten percent of that is voluntary. Two-thirds of your turnover is people leaving, not you firing them – which means they left before you fired them. You didn't invest in them properly is usually one of the causes of that. Then, if it takes 3.7 months to fill an open sales rep job and you add that to the 9.2 months required to ramp up a new sales rep, you're talking about 13 months of lost productivity every time a sales rep leaves your company.
Steve: The first KPI around ramping up a sales rep has multiple dimensions because a great enablement program and ongoing training and learning for sales teams improves retention rates and ensures more high-performing reps to team quota. The old 80/20 rule. That's the number one metric – creating a definition everyone understands. As part of the recruiting process, I believe you should set expectations around having made a significant investment in enablement, onboarding, and ongoing training to help candidates be better sales reps and ramp up faster to make more money. It's incumbent on them as sales reps, even as very experienced sales reps, to make the investment and learn all this knowledge you've made available to them.
Carl: And if you're working with a company, knowing their real definition of being ramped up would change management's behavior and expectations and the company’s culture if they know a more detailed way to evaluate that effectiveness on the front side of a new hire.
Carl: Well, Steve, this has been a fascinating conversation. Everybody listening works for a company with a sales force. This will be an interesting podcast for folks to digest. Thanks for being with us; I'm positive listeners will really enjoy this. My goal is to keep these short and to the point, and we've done that today, so thank you. Maybe we'll have you back again later. Until next time, I hope everybody stays connected.