There’s no shortage of sales advice for rookies. We can all talk about how to make a cold call or write the perfect prospecting email until we’re blue in the face. But we can do better than that. Sales Engine seeks to help salespeople sell more efficiently and effectively at all levels so we decided to launch a blog series that provides an insightful resource for salespeople early on in their career. The “My Start In Sales” series “tells it like it is” (namely, that we’ve all been there and done that — and that’s a good thing!). We will feature one veteran salesperson in a standard Q & A format every few weeks. We’re excited about sharing these successess and failures with you.
Current location: Chicago, IL
Current gig: Currently Independent Sales & Marketing Consultant
One word that best describes how you work: Pragmatic
Current mobile device: iPhone 5
Favorite to-do list manager: The right side of my notebook (I know it’s dated but I’ve tried them all and can’t seem to convert)…but haven’t missed anything in quite a while
Tell us a little bit about what you do now & whether or not you currently work as part of a sales function at your company.
I am currently an independent sales and marketing consultant…meaning, I am selling my own services to help companies become better sellers. I’ve worked across a dozen industries with everyone from FORTUNE 50 companies who have plateaued…to PE firms looking to fix what’s broken across the portfolio…to start-ups looking to just figure it out.
As I’ve spent half my career in direct sales and sales management and the other half in consulting, my approach is very “operator-based” with an eye for simplicity. There are always little things companies can do better in order to create momentum. Seldom do they need to throw everything out and start over.
What was your first sales role and how did you get the job?
My first sales position was an Account Executive position for PR Newswire (PRN) out in San Francisco on the front end of the “dot com” boom. I was handed a territory and told to “go get em”.
My first job out of undergrad was a junior writer position for a marketing services firm that was trying to expand into PR. As I was the writer in charge of press releases and eventually wanted to become a PR professional, a colleague connected me with the local PRN rep who walked me through the distribution process. I was more excited about what the rep was doing so after the meeting, I asked my colleague to quietly reconnect me about any open positions. With my PR training and considering the booming market, I was a natural fit to help companies with their press releases
Did you picture yourself working as a salesperson before you started?
Never! I actually took the job because I figured…what better way to meet all the PR people in the Bay Area than to be a service provider and of course someone would hire me within a few months. But once I got my “sales legs”, that PR dream was long gone.
What do you wish you had known before you started selling?
I wish I knew how much self-discipline it took. Not only the ability to stay self-motivated but how to balance what I focused on any given day. As anyone who’s managed a territory can tell you, it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in all the wheel spinning activities. Just because you’re emailing and having hundreds of conversations, it doesn’t mean you’re spending time on the RIGHT activities.
Do you have a story to share about a mistake you’ve made as a salesperson? What did you learn from this situation?
My biggest mistake provided two lessons. My first territory held a big account that was notorious for being “high maintenance”. The primary contact would call sometimes 2 or 3 times a day and asked the same questions over and over. But because it was big, I always felt like I had no choice and I NEVER said no when he asked for something special…which was daily. In any given week, 10 hours could be dedicated to this account. As you can imagine, all this time spent farming this one account meant other opportunities were falling through the cracks and actual hunting time was almost non-existent.
This eventually got me in quite a bit of hot water with my manager because while this account was up, my overall territory was down. Hence, the first lesson was that I had to learn how to balance hunting with farming.
The second lesson…after 3 months of this, my primary contact left after an acquisition. I always assumed he was the overall decision-maker but never actually asked. Since I had no relationship with anyone else, the business was immediately switched to a competitor. So, if the account is that important to spend as much time as I did, make sure you have multiple relationships at all levels.
Have you ever encountered the “sleazy salesperson stereotype”? How do you respond to this?
Of course! Especially with people who aren’t used to being sold to. The best way of getting past this stereotype is to tell them exactly why you’re there. Prospects know you’re not calling because you’re trying to make friends so why be coy on the front end? I like to tell them who I am, what my company does, and ask for their time to see if it makes sense to work together. This immediate honesty tells them I’m open to “no” if the solution isn’t right. I won’t sell them something they don’t need.
What is one tool or resource without which you would not be able to do your job?
I don’t know how I did my job without LinkedIn. Sales is a people and relationship game. Calling the switchboard to get the name of Contact A is a slog and seldom results in meetings. The warm or at least tepid intros and the company information you can get through LinkedIn make the job much easier.
What are you currently reading?
I am not a business book person but am a voracious reader of the social content and posts now available across the various platforms. I don’t want novels of text as much as I like all the individual perspectives based on experience. What’s a better way to learn than to read a few paragraphs from someone who’s just come across a specific business situation and has thoughts on how it was or could have been handled?
Are you an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert?
I’m probably more an extrovert than anything. But every once in a while I need to go dark and get things outlined in my head before I can move forward.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
About 10 months into my first sales position, I was put on a “PIP”…which meant they had started the HR process of firing me for poor performance. Of course, I felt like I was getting “railroaded” by a manager who didn’t like me but the stress of the process caused me to shut down instead of double down. About 2 weeks before what would be my final notice, I was ranting to a more senior colleague in management about how my manager hated me and he stopped me and said, “Steve, it doesn’t matter how unfair you think this is…YOU are the only one who can get yourself out of it”.
From that day on, I’ve always been able to look in the mirror and ask what I could be doing differently. If I’m not making my numbers, it’s up to me. If one of my sales reps is failing, I need to do something different in developing them. As a result of that guidance, I quickly turned things around and not only earned the sales person of the year award the following year, but also held that same sales director position I complained about.
Steven Baumgartner is a seasoned sales person, leader, consultant, and entrepreneur. He specializes in building, managing, and fixing sales functions and teams for companies of all sizes and dedicates time as a mentor at the 1871 digital technology incubator in Chicago.