I’ve spent my whole career in sales. Two years ago, I decided to apply everything I learned in those 30+ years to a new role, CEO of Emissary. As I think back to where I started, making hundreds of cold calls a day, it’s clear that while much remains the same (E.g., selling is still about trust between humans), much has changed too. Today’s sales process is longer, more complex, and more cluttered with competition. This puts pressure on sellers, their organizations, and the profession as a whole to keep getting better to be successful in sales.
My father influenced my first step towards a sales career. He was an engineer by trade; but he ended up in the sales department of a large paper manufacturing company. Never forgetting his engineering roots, we spent many weekends taking something apart or building something together. The two-seater airplane we built still hangs in his garage. My father’s perception of sales was not about the drive to achieve quota as much as it was the act of solving a buyer’s problem. He saw sales as a puzzle that needed to be put together, and that resonated with me.
After graduating with a degree in Journalism, I started my career as an admin at The Advisory Board Company in DC. The Advisory Board was a high-growth research company founded by David Bradley, who subsequently purchased The Atlantic. David recommended that I move into an SDR (sales development representative) role because of my way with words (Thanks Journalism!) and my drive (Thanks Dad!). This was the mid-1990s. So, the role consisted of hundreds of dials a day…every day. Thankfully, I was comfortable on the phone, quite happy to tell our company story to prospects. From that SDR position, I grew into account manager and sales rep jobs, ultimately taking on sales leadership.
While not the career I had initially planned, sales clicked with me in the same way it did for my father. By deeply understanding their challenges, I could help solve buyer problems which, in turn, allowed them to help their company. I know some still view “sales” as a four-letter word. But I have always viewed sales as a noble profession. When done well, sales solves human problems, which solve organizational problems which can change the trajectory of a business or even a market. There is honor in delivering that kind of impact!
But a sales career isn’t right for everyone. To be successful in sales, and more importantly to genuinely enjoy it, I’ve found you need several key characteristics:
- If you’re not curious about what the buyer does or why they do it, you can’t help them effectively. The foundation of any sales transaction is understanding complex problems and their context.
- Just having an understanding won’t pay off unless you demonstrate that understanding to the customer in a way that forges a connection. This means deeply listening — being able to actually feel the impact of customer problems.
- Sellers need a strong internal drive to overcome obstacles, again, again and again. They need to pick themselves up and navigate the unrelenting complexities of their customer’s organizations – and their own.
- Agility. Finally, I look for agility. The amazing thing about working in sales is that every day is unique with different actions required to engage with different people and solve different problems. If you like routine and sameness, sales will make you miserable.
At one time, those traits would have been all it took to be successful in sales. But today, they must be combined with both skills and seamless process execution to yield consistent success.
When I started my career, the sales process was relatively straightforward. You had one decision-maker who needed their problem solved and minimal sales steps between discovery and close. Now, of course, the sales process is far more complex involving large buying committees, empowered procurement teams, quantifiable business cases, and cross-functional consensus. Not to mention, buyer expectations have gone through the roof. Buyers expect their sellers to be experts in product knowledge, business acumen and next generation technologies and to have an almost telepathic understanding of their needs. Simultaneously, in an effort to create predictability, the sales organization demands more documentation from sellers, more administration, and more internal tasks.
That complexity is driving the next evolution of sales…How do we make it easier for sellers? How do we reduce the noise, eliminate the wasted activity, and give sellers more chances to do what they do best and solve their customer’s problems?
This is playing out across two dimensions:
- Money is pouring into sales velocity tools.
Customer acquisition costs continue to escalate, and sales organizations are desperate for tools to help sellers work more effectively and efficiently. New AI and ML technologies are evolving the sales tech stack- allowing companies to take advantage of unstructured data and other previously untapped insights. The markets are investing significantly in these new tools, placing multiple bets to spur the innovation
- The sales tool market is consolidating.
With this flood of new tools comes a very fragmented market covering over forty distinct kinds of sales tech. But, as helpful as they are, there are only so many tools you can fit into a seller’s workflow. As a result, the marketplace is starting to consolidate with sales enablement and sales engagement solutions combining (formally, or via partnerships), threatening to overtake CRM as the anchoring backbone to the sales tech stack.
This is why I love leading Emissary. It is such an incredibly exciting time to be in our space. Emissary’s human intelligence network provides a new source of intelligence, beyond what AI tools can scrape from publicly available information. The customer insights we provide can be the glue which holds these emerging tool ecosystems together.
My entire career has gotten me to this point. When I came to Emissary in early 2020, it was at a time when the company was readying itself for the next stage. We were just on the edge of growing up. Having worked in sales for decades, it could not have been a more natural fit. I understand exactly the hole Emissary fills. I lived it for thirty years. I can only imagine the customer problems I would have solved, if I’d had access to former executives, Emissaries, from my target accounts.
So, what’s my advice to be successful in sales?
Take honor in what you do. Take pride in the obstacles you have overcome, these last two years in particular. Know that you impact the world – not only by contributing to your own company’s topline but by helping your clients meet their goals and that of the businesses they serve.
THANK YOU. It is a fantastic thing that you do.
I’m excited about the shifts in sales. I know these changes bring both opportunity and tremendous challenge. And that is precisely what gets me up every morning.