By US-China Investment News contributor Andy Bodrog
- What I have learned about sales processes in different roles
- The evolution of sales and the technology in it
First it was sales. Then business development. Now it’s partnerships.
However you say it, the saying “everyone is in sales” rings true. The way capitalism and the economy works is there are companies that add value with services or products, which in some shape or form need to be sold, moved, pushed, pulled along the pipeline. The almighty sales pipeline. It is our job to find the target market, deliver that tailored and custom message at the right time and then diligently follow up. Being aggressive enough to “move” the product, but not being too pushy to make the customer go radio silent. That grey area right before a deal closes, all the back and forths. Will they back out? Will they stick to their promise? Will they negotiate? That delicate balance, the constant hustle we salespeople live by daily. What can we learn from this? What have I learned from all this?
If one phrase summarizes the world of sales for me, it’s ‘FLOW’.
B2C SALES – The Trenches
It was London, luxury fashion early 2010s. Handbags & shoes for one of the premier brands in the LVMH umbrella. A world I was never involved in, but nonetheless a great experience.
No technology, just pure face to face customer service. Looking sharp, delicate body movements, gestures and talking when a customer walked in and asked for handbags or shoes. Remembering the shoe sizes in the back while juggling the ladder and shuffling through hundreds of shoe boxes. Always being ready and alert, always treating each customer like they are the first of the day. Lunches timed to a tee, couldn’t be a second late! And always standing… I remember walking around in circles when there was no customer and wishing I was able to sit down, just for a second. Even the backroom where the shoes were stored had a camera that the manager could fast forward to see our days’ activity. There was no escape, sitting down was a luxury one could not afford being on the job. If there ever was a physically exhausting sales job, being on the shop floor in London’s Selfridges was it. However the team and the process was professional: counter, packaging, every details perfect, dropping off the cash at the end of the day from the register, accepting all major payment systems etc. all worked like clockwork.
At the end of the day, I was there for one main reason: practicing my Chinese, selling Chinese customers using my Mandarin as well as getting an intro into how customers with different cultural intricacies make buying decisions about the same products: Middle-Eastern women came in with girlfriends, had measured and quick look arounds and bought whatever was new. Russion women, Swiss women with boyfriends, Chinese millionaires creating piles after try-ons etc.
LESSON: Body movements, questions, slight articulations were all building blocks of the sales process. Zero technology but 100% interaction based. The product sold itself with the right environment and personal presentation.
B2C – Broker Sharks of Manhattan
After the training ground of in-person shop floor sales I went on for a spin in the real estate world of Manhattan.
Oh, the glamour, the splendor, the broker open houses in penthouses, sipping champagne, looking flashy and acting cool. Keeping up the image with the next broker. The beefed-up instagram profiles. Got to maintain, got to maintain, fake it till you make it! I remember thinking that if I got into the prestigious brokerage that basically runs Manhattan, I’d be set. I’d be one of the youngest hustlers and probably the only one at my age speaking close to fluent Mandarin. The perfect side hustle, I could do it next to my corporate job on the weekends. Easy peasy, let’s get that cash flow rolling. And then you wake up to reality…
Looking back, I got pushed off of a few multi-million dollar condo deals in FiDi after doing multiple open houses (after all it wasn’t my listing, go figure), showed a Dallas family 3 days long over 20 units for their son to buy as he finished college, worked with many first-time homebuyers for days all to hear: they will wait a few months to save more cash. People scheduled hundreds of rental showings, I walked my legs off on the scorching summer pavement daily for hours with prospective buyers & tenants and at the end of it all I was barely able to pay my Chelsea studio rent. I wanted it quick and easy. I didn’t understand the intricacies of advertising on Zillow, Trulia, mailers, building a personal relationship based pipeline, the constant emails for birthdays/holidays, having a solid rolodex of movers, mortgage bankers, appraisal and other professional relationships to turn to when a client was in need, to actually being an expert on a specific area of the City. Now I know, but back then I thought people would flock to me when I relayed I was a broker.
The tech used in the realtor sales process is heavily dependent on each brokerage’s internal systems as NYC is one of the only cities without an actual MLS – common listing site. Brokerages act like a marketing powerhouse, a foundation on which the agent should create a personal brand. New agents must do a LOT of prospecting. The lead gen, the scheduling, getting listings is the sole responsibility of the broker. The agency provides some “collateral”: market reports, buyer’s guides and pitch packets as tools in the “sales belt”. Other than that, it’s a free for all. Agencies use a myriad of 3rd party vendors and some of their own tech. CRM systems, photographers, videographers, moving companies, mortgage bankers. The trend of tech infusion in the real estate business as agents get more creative in marketing listings and customers are also more tech-savvy, always online with mobile phones: VR tours, 3d floor plans, soon augmented reality, virtual staging, drone videos and other tools are all essential parts of a broker’s offering. The sales process is a mixed bag of outbound prospecting, marketing your brand, follow ups, CRM and keeping up with tech trends.
LESSON: It is definitely not for the faint of heart and the amateur salesman. The grind is real with no paychecks promised. You have to sell yourself, your expertise, your connections, your time, your…everything in this business.
B2B SALES – Global Market Data
London and New York at one of the world’s largest financial services firms. A major change from circling around in my luxury suit on the shop floor to circling around one of Europe’s largest finance sales floor: a couple hundred salespeople and account managers responsible for driving terminal and related data-feed, charting product sales in the EMEA region. The pulsating heart of this global Corporation, blinking stock tickers and charts all day. From all day standing to all day sitting. With my keen interest in finance, Chinese/EM economy, trading, global commerce I felt like I hit the jackpot, I was home.
The role was more of a hybrid account management, customer service track in a management development program, focusing on explaining our financial terminal to asset managers, equity traders in the UK and Ireland region. I was flying to give demos to large groups, sometimes 20-50 traders a day after a few weeks into the job. “How do I add stocks to my portfolio? Can you do this or that vs Bloomberg? Show me NAV and compare this to the Japanese bond yield” – were questions I often heard. At the end of the day, it all went into Salesforce’s CRM. At the time, I had to actually learn to input client details into a complex customized global company-wide CRM and make sure the managers/account managers saw it and it was approved. We fed warm leads to the sales guys who would re-target those bankers that could potentially use our terminals. Bells rang when some major bank had extra sales. Retention was the name of the game. The second year I was in New York and worked in a more analytical, strategy role that didn’t have any direct client facing aspect. It felt prison like so I was soon off to see some real…clients.
LESSON: All in all, I learned the insights of the world of account management, large company politics and some insight into B2B: long contract times, procedures, multiple layers of decision makers, importance of relationships, flawless product and systems, deep customizations to fit a specific customer need, drawing on multiple layers of a large company. And most importantly, in a large organization, no matter my output, I was just a small part of the puzzle, always replaceable. Can’t affect much on the overall bottom line, no matter the hustle. The rise is real, but slow and uncertain.
TOOLS: mainly large CRM systems like Salesforce and everything else own proprietary company systems
B2B Sales – Spearheading Global Expansion
From being an ant I went to being a “giant”. It was frightening at first to switch from a multinational where I never said hello on the cramped elevator to anyone to knowing everyone – since we were no more than 50 people. I was the #2 sales hire, quickly rising to creating my own sales team. What a thrill. It was the ultimate experience. Interviewing in a small almost garage sized office, to moving into a Soho Loft and eventually upgrading to a modern floor office, envy of the NYC fintech scene.
The beauty of the role was taking the market data terminal expertise to another level, directly being responsible for all the efforts. If there were no sales only I was to blame. If there were sales only I was awarded. The strategy, the methods used, the time frame I created, the pipeline were all up to me – with occasional management input. Once we found a target audience and had warm leads, the scheduling, meetings, and demos took place. Every new PR coverage about us brought in a flood of interested banks, asset managers, investors, traders that were eager to see how our software works. My CRM grew from a few dozen to a few thousand clients within months. Days went by with end to end excel and software webex demos, negotiating price, connecting the dots to higher level decision makers. Market data can’t be bought, it is sold. Explained, taught and customized to the end clients’ need. Half consulting, half sales.
Being small but at the forefront of fintech innovation meant that everywhere we went, clients have heard of us or wanted to see how we compared to the incumbents, Bloomberg or Reuters Eikon. I remembered back to the days at the previous job when I was demoing teams of asset managers in Dublin/London and moving their spreadsheets, portfolios into a new system, showing them how to create historical economic charts etc – with a large product and sales team helping at every step of the way. Now I had to do it all myself, no help. Real deep water, fast pace. Hunt or be hunted, you ate what you killed.
Once at a conference in Chicago, I had the opportunity to visit one of the most cutting edge hedge funds with a large trading floor. The demo was supposed to be for the department head, but suddenly most of the floor assembled in the demo room. I had to whip up a product demo on the fly and take all the questions that came at me like a bullet. These guys didn’t have a lot of time and they were not kidding. They did not buy the fluff or the marketing spiel I described our software with. Our customers were busy money managers and had very specific needs. “Show me the Japanese bond yield vs inflation. Where do you get your open-ended fund data from? Can you show me all the aluminum price sources you pull from?” You never knew what would come at you and that was the thrill of it. “Can I import my chat contact list into your solution?” After a while I knew what questions were coming before a client even asked them. Practice does make perfect or at least in sales makes you really be in tune with your customers.
After I segmented different groups of customers, I realized that the educational segment is ripe for our offering: slower pace, lesser needs, welcoming towards innovation. Professors and students love financial data and software tools for research and there are massive accounts to be won. We can also create a more educational public image for our company and win our end customers in school before they join the large banks and become institutionalized. Smartly crafting a finance professor be a champion of the product helps mitigate the university world’s slow decision-making hierarchy. I had slowly built an army of Champion Professors: those who used our software to teach their classes. Testimonials, budget requests, demos to a whole finance class via webex were my new sales weapons, and they started to spread like fire. The best part of this customer segment was that almost all schools and finance classes had the same need, same questions and close ties to each other; providing referrals, community tie-ins (public libraries). Sales could ramp up without much customization and contract negotiation hassle. Also, we hired a team for me as the whole sales process was easily replicable.
Fintech B2B sales meant a lot of spearheading the software into a firm and then upselling. The hardest part was getting through the door. Managing your funnel, constantly keeping it healthy with written or spoken commitments, having proposals out en-masse and following up, closing the deals diligently. CRM, emailing tools, excel, time management, honing the message, custom demos, PPTs were tools that provided results. With time, customers’ expectations also grew and our product had to constantly keep pace. Fintech is fast, innovation rampant and there were new kids on the block, tweaking certain aspects of market data: html5 charting, AI driven portfolio analytics, messaging APIs, alternative data etc. Pace so fast, that one day we were the pioneers the next day we couldn’t keep up with the new tools out there eating our…lunch.
LESSON: A good salesman can sell anything but a half-baked product will hold your potential down due to cancellations and sour taste in customers’ mouths. You can only go so far in sales with your own efforts, the other half is the product. SaaS sales is half product half time/customer management.
TECH TOOLS: Calendly.com scheduling tools, Leadberry.com, a new site helping pulling down leads, Hunter for email extracting from Linkedin, Boomerang email responders, Prosperworks CRM, Hubspot for marketing and many more. Heavy reliance on personal excel sheets with a long flow of customer data, notes startup style.
B2B2C – Channels, Strategy, BizDev
From the world of B2B and direct efforts, welcome to the world of B2B2C direct efforts with indirect results. In the fintech SaaS space I have come to understand the role of timing: initial outreach, demos, trial, proposals and contract negotiations. Managing time and being persistent is all it took from my part. Now I was in insurtech a new realm of fintech; different lingo, different customers, different sales strategies, and focus. Adventure awaits!
One of the first things in channel sales I learned is the role of strategic thinking and patience. Straight shooting and hustle in terms of building the top of the sales funnel were still important, but the end result wasn’t as much about my own energy that I put into closing deals: there were no closed deals here (wait, what then?). Channel sales meant identifying large firms that directly were in contact with our end customers and creating a relationship with them, motivating them and periodic rapport. The actual sale was in their hands. B2B2C. Patience, strategy and end of the funnel became the key words here. Never seeing the end customer, but being the creator of that invisible channel to them.
The name of the game is patience and understanding your partner’s flow; what motivates them, how to structure a tiered payment plan that will have incentives for them, how to make them…tick. How can I make someone be as excited about this as I am and then transfering the message?
- The Balance: Talking to the right person – who will sign the agreement? Don’t be arrogant, be confident! Don’t be pushy, but don’t let them lead.
- Timing the placement of the insurance product: Small window of opportunity when there is intent to buy at the end-client end. This is a crucial component that we understand but our partners rarely do. The good partners understand this small window of opportunity. Bad partners? Well they don’t really understand anything.
- Psychological strategies: instead of following up and creating urgency like in B2B, now I was going for the “No”. Is now a bad time to talk? – instead of is it a good time to talk. Saying no makes people feel safe, in control so trigger it. “Have you given up on this project? It seems like you want this project to fail”. No, no, we have everything under control, don’t worry.” Strategies that make the partner revisit and say “No” to regain control.
- Lot of grey areas: Understanding proper facts about partners is hard – how their leasing, communication flows works with their clients/users. Making them verbally promise on launching our partnership. Once a partner was established, the actual sales was in their hands. Big loss of control from the world of SaaS direct sales.
- The excitement of automating sales with channels, API integrations and then monitoring the channel flow, activity, success. Providing data dashboards to keep partners motivated. B2B2C to the rescue! All the magic email sequencing can provide.
LESSON: The tech world is growing ultra-fast and its influence is truly impactful. Machine learning, API integrations, artificial intelligence are buzzwords until you see it working. Seeing first-hand tremendous growth is empowering but also humbling. Coming from straight shooting B2B sales into the world of channel sales requires a mindset switch and re-focus. It requires a salesperson’s closer brand alignment and a more long-term approach of the sales flow. More passively managing customer pipelines and constantly building out a robust channel. Segmenting heavy volume channels and spacing in lot of smaller but more active channels.
TOOLS: Welcome to the new age of tech abundance; widgets, dashboards, add-ons. MixMax email sequences and analytics, Email extracting, Hubspot CRM and custom deal flows, Chartio data analytics, SimilarWeb website traffic.