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How to Increase Your Sales Effectiveness, with George Brontén [Episode 347]

Joining me on this episode is George Brontén, Founder and CEO of Membrain, a sales effectiveness platform based out of Sweden. Among the many topics that George and I discuss are include whether there is a global crisis in sales effectiveness, war stories of sales gone wrong, and the factors that help a sales professional to be more effective.

Key Takeaways

  • George started selling at age eight, repairing bicycles in the neighborhood. Next, he sold loudspeakers, and then, the “For Dummies” book series. He started his first company at age 24.
  • Membrain went ‘live’ in 2012, with the idea of cloning how someone sells and putting it into a system.
  • George believes there is a global crisis in sales effectiveness — the Internet has made sales global; buyers self-educate; and sellers are not involved until late in the process.
  • The percentage of reps meeting sales quotas continues to be too low. Are realistic expectations set for quotas?
  • How to identify and manage the stakeholders in a complex sales process.
  • Will the buying process become streamlined to the point of being fully automated and eliminating the need for most salespeople?
  • Why increased competition, and product complexity, require more detailed knowledge on the part of sales professionals.
  • A demo and a quote do not qualify leads. How should sales discover the buying process for its prospects?
  • It’s not just the type of person, but what that person knows to do, that helps them to be successful in sales.
  • Why promoting a sales rep who didn’t hit quota into a sales manager position will create problems.

More About George Bronten

What’s your most powerful sales attribute?

My smile.

Who is your sales role model?

Richard Branson.

What’s one book that every salesperson should read?

Dirty Little Secrets: Why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell and what you can do about it, by Sharon Drew Morgen.

What music is on your playlist right now?

Magic Mushrooms.

Episode Transcript

ANDY PAUL: Hello and welcome to Accelerate. I am excited to talk with my guest today. Joining me is George Bronten, founder and CEO of Membrane, a sales effectiveness platform based out of Sweden. George, how are you today?

GEORGE BRONTEN: I’m fine. Thank you. Thanks for having me on the show.

AP: So take a minute and introduce yourself. Tell us how you got your start in sales.

GB: I’m currently running a startup called Membrane. I started in sales probably when I was like, eight repairing bicycles in my neighborhood for a fixed amount.

AP: So you’re a mechanic?

GB: Exactly. Professionally, my first job was selling loudspeakers, because I love sound. I was a bit of a high feed nerd a while ago. Someone told me to be a true salesman you need to sell books. And I said, “Well, that’s weird. But yeah, if you say so.” So, I started selling the For Dummies series and we took those to Sweden. I was working at the publishing house who translated and sold the books. That was quite fun for a while and they wanted to make me into a manager for our small sales team. I would  have made less money and had more responsibilities, so I quit and I started my first company. I think I was 24 at the time.

AP: So it wasn’t the more responsibility that was scary it was the less money. Now you own your own company where you have less money and total responsibility. Ironic.

GB: Yeah, I worked from my home and I had several ideas. The one I jumped on was creating a portal for dentists, which was just a completely stupid idea. Dentists aren’t the most tech-savvy people so they didn’t even know what internet was at the time. That wasn’t a really good venture money wise. One thing led to another though, and I started another company called upstream and we sold software. That whole journey with a company and hiring and firing salespeople was really interesting for me and I sort of came to the conclusion that I was good at selling, but I wasn’t very good at helping other people sell. I was making a lot of mistakes and, specifically, I think I was assuming that people knew how to say I was buying into that whole concept of you’re born a salesman, and it’s something you have in your genes. If you’ve sold something for someone else, you could be selling for me and my products. I learned the hard way that that wasn’t true. I really sat down and reflected on this and said, these people that you’ve hired and fired can’t be the problem. Really, you must be the problem here. It took me a while to realize that, but that was back in 2008 or something. I started the Membrane and we went live in 2012 with the idea of how can we clone how someone is selling and put that into a system to structure the way we sell? So that was sort of the birth of Membrane, which is the company that I’m now running.

AP: So you’ve written not that long ago that you believe there’s a global crisis in sales effectiveness. So what’s the crisis?

GB: I was a part of it, I think. I guess that the world is changing and buyers are changing. Buyers can self-educate, sellers are not involved in the buying process until X percent is already been completed and all that and then, of course, you have the globalization going on. All of a sudden, you’re not just competing with companies in your city or in your country even. They’re from everywhere now. So I think this whole situation is one aspect, globalization and infinite information availability. Also, I mean, when I’m looking at what the mistakes I did are, those are very fundamental mistakes and had really nothing to do with the outer world or the extrinsic parts. It was more really bad knowledge about the fundamentals of selling and sales management. When I wrote this article, I was looking and referring to the CSO insights reports that they publish once a year. The level of people that are reaching their targets has gone down year by year. One would think with all the new technology, and with all the new books that are coming out on selling, and all the experts out there, we should all become more and more effective in how we sell, right? But that’s not happening.

AP: Isn’t one of the issues sort of controlling the variables so we can make sense out of that measurement? I’ve read the same reports, and there’s so many factors that go into that number about the percent that makes quota, I just wonder how much we can really learn from that that number in that report. I mean, in aggregate, I agree. It’s a little bit alarming, because the number is not very high to begin with. We were talking about how less than 50% of sales reps apparently make quota. We also don’t know how quotas are established. Are the quotas reasonable to begin with? I’ve certainly seen over the years how companies I’ve worked with have difficult quotas and the quota setting is oftentimes driven by kind of irrational expectations.

GB: Yeah, I would agree. I think that’s a part of the problem as well. How do we set quota? We should also be looking at these percentages that come out of the research with some skepticism, of course. But still, I think it is alarming that if they’re asking the same group of people every year – which I assume they are – they should be moving in the right direction, not in the wrong direction. We need to look at why is this happening? Why aren’t we being more effective in the way we’re doing things? I see a lot of tendency to make shortcuts. So technology may be one of the troublemakers, because it’s often sold as some kind of shortcut. What I’m seeing is that people are making the same stupid mistakes that I did before I sat down and realized, “I need to really start thinking about this. Maybe I’m not doing it right.”

AP: One of the problems that we see with technology and the increasing reliance on technology in sales is this tendency to substitute the judgment of the technology for our own. After all, we are still a person selling to a person. While automation is incredibly valuable to a point, there is a point at which it comes down to a person dealing with a person. It seems that we’ve reached this point where we’re asking, “How do you get sales people to act less robotically, to use one one phrase or less?” We need to be less scripted and blend the technology with the art of selling to help the customer move through the buying process more quickly and make the right decision at the end of the day.

GB: That’s a key point you’re bringing up there because it’s really about someone making a buying decision. If we’re looking at these numbers that are published out there, we’re also seeing a trend that more and more people are involved in the decisions. I think that has a pretty natural explanation because everything has become more sophisticated. So the finance department is more sophisticated, the production unit is more sophisticated, both technology wise and process wise. So, as a seller, I think that you really need to hold the buyer’s hand and really educate them on how you can help and how you differentiate yourself

GB: So I what a seller should be doing is helping the buyer buy. Sometimes when you look at selling, we’re looking at the activities and the efficiency of things. How many calls have you done? How many quotes have you sent out? How many demos have you done? We’re not looking at these activities in a structured way, though, because if you’re just sending out quotes, but you haven’t positioned yourself correctly and you haven’t understood what the client really wants to do, then you’re just making yourself a disservice and probably the customer as well. How you do things, when you do things, with whom you do things – all of this could feel like common practice to someone who has been in selling for for many years, but it’s not. It’s very complicated stuff.

AP: We’ve talked about this effectiveness with the CSO studies and so on. One research projection that’s commonly talked about says that by the year 2020, that 20% of the business to business sales jobs will disappear. So we’ll just put that out as a as a data point. Then you have CSO insights saying that the percentage of reps making quota is declining. Assuming that industry in general sort of continues on its current growth path, in developed countries it’s saying that in four years when supposedly 20% of the sales reps have gone away, the individual rep productivity will have skyrocketed.

GB: Yeah, possibly.

AP: But that doesn’t make sense, right? The circle doesn’t work, right? I don’t see that happening. I think we have this issue of sales productivity, more so than effectiveness. How do we address this issue of not just increasing the number of reps that are making quota, but also increasing the amount of revenue that each rep can produce within the given amount of time they have?

GB: Hmm. I think what’s happening is also we’re seeing a lot of polarization of the selling. If you can transactionalilze your sales efforts, if you don’t need to have a person involved because you can make that whole buying process so streamlined using technology and using the information, then I think that those jobs will go away. I think that’s just inevitable. I think that that’s going to happen, and we’re going to see more selling become automated. On the other hand, if what you’re selling isn’t possible or if you don’t want it to be commoditized, if you want to keep your margins and you want to provide value above a commodity product, you will need to design a whole product that is more than your core product. You will need to offer that through professional salespeople that are led by professional sales managers. Just the whole level of professionalism in that chain will need to rise with the productivity. Do you think we will see a lot of salespeople lose their jobs?

AP: Yeah, I’m actually not as convinced to that. For the reasons I said before, I’m just not sure the math adds up. Certainly, there is an increasing evolution of products that go through a life cycle or they become more commoditized, but then there’s new products coming into the mix all the time through innovation and so on.

GB: Yeah, definitely. That’s where it becomes interesting because of those reasons and because of the globalization and the increased competition. The requirements of those salespeople that are working in those environments will increase significantly or will have to increase significantly, I think because how you sell is becoming your first differentiator.

AP: I mean, that’s what I believe. That’s what I write about my books. It’s the first differentiator. It does call into question how our current sales models evolve. Even with our newer sales models like the SAS sales model and so on, there’s some change. I’m not sure what that is, right? I mean, naturally, because we kind of projected 10 years ago, we’d get the spot where we are today. I’m fascinated by what that might be.

GB: In my world, I think what I’m seeing out there is that there’s so much to be done on the fundamentals of selling. So when I was selling an IT automation product to IT service companies, that product could help a company go from no profits to delivering 30% profits, which is an amazing accomplishment. Of course, if you could use automation in that sense, but what I did when I hired the salespeople, I did all these mistakes. I didn’t train them. I didn’t provide them with a process. I didn’t really make them understand how this buying decision will be made, who the stakeholders will be, which are key to convince about what and how. They were just stepping on landmines. So they were going to the owner and saying, “Hey, do you want to go from zero percent to 30% margins or profits?” Then they would send a quote. Of course, their tech people when the CEO went to ask them, “Hey, I’m considering this automation platform. What do you think?” They’d go nuts; they would be very fearful of it because they thought they were going to lose their jobs. So because of that simple mistake by the salesperson not to engage with the tech people and tell them how much easier their lives would become by using this technology, they became a problem, so to speak, in the sales process. I see that happening all the time with selling today that sales, especially maybe in SAS and these younger companies, they do a demo and they quote. They don’t qualify correctly. They don’t engage the right people. They don’t understand the buyer fully. There’s so many mistakes being made and the fundamentals are being missed. I don’t think we really need something new. We just need to be more disciplined in doing the basic stuff. I’m convinced that will increase the revenues for most companies by double digits.

AP: Okay, so let’s dig down on that then. So what are the basics? What are the fundamentals that form the base?

GB: Stakeholders are probably the key one and especially now, with inbound marketing and marketing automation, we see that you have a lot of buyers educating themselves, but who are these buyers? What we’re seeing is that they’re usually someone who was tasked with finding someone out for someone else. So the CEO said, “Hey, we need to really ramp up our marketing. Go find a system of this sort.” That person goes out and does all the research and he gets captured in all these systems, and he gets the salespeople calling him or her and they’re calling this person and speaking to that person. They’re doing demos and they’re sending quotes without even engaging the people that would really make the decision. So really understanding how a buying process for each client would look like, which people are involved, what will need to happen for them to be able to make a decision? When should we do B? Should we do c if we haven’t done BMC, mbna, etc. So just having a staged and milestone-based sales process is a key thing from my perspective.

AP: Really the fundamental, as I see it, is really not identifying the stakeholders. The fundamental behavior is having the curiosity to know that you need to go find out who they are and talk to them.

GB: We are assuming that you should know that, which is what I did in my previous company. I was assuming they would know that because that’s common sense, right? Any salesperson who has selling as their profession should have that curiosity, but they don’t always. So, I think that’s why we need some kind of structure. That’s where I see the sales process being important. Of course, fundamentals is a big word. It’s even more fundamental to have the right attitude, of course, and the curiosity to actually do those things.

AP: In terms of having the structure or well-defined sales process, that is a roadmap for sales reps, but what has to precede that is I think what’s overlooked increasingly these days. There is an assumption that we’re hiring people that have these basic behavioral traits, basic habits, and basic disciplines. We sort of overlook the idea of the fact that, yeah, these people have some shortcomings so we can help with that and we can coach them through and insert them into this process. This process is well defined and will certainly give them a structure to help them succeed. We have to start with what I consider the real fundamentals, though.

GB: Yeah, of course. When you’re recruiting people, you need an understanding of what type of person you need. If you’re involved in complex b2b selling with long sales cycles, multiple stakeholders, and big numbers, you will need a very different type of person than the person who’s going to sell a $50 a month SAS subscription. So of course, you need to have the right people. I think coaching is a real hot button for me as well because that’s something that’s really not done well, today.

AP: Why?

GB: I think the main mistake we’re making is that we’re promoting the best salesperson into a manager, but we’re not providing that person with the right training resources to become a good manager or even knowing that that person could succeed in that role or want to succeed in that role for reasons other than money? I think that’s the number one mistake. Then, you can train them in coaching, but if they don’t have the right mentality – if they don’t want to sell through people, they want to sell themselves- then they’re never going to become good managers or good coaches. Back to the fundamentals, do we have the right people with the right motivation to do the specific job they’re supposed to be doing? I think in sales management today, there’s a big glitch. There are a lot of people that are in sales management roles that either shouldn’t be there, don’t want to be there, or haven’t been given the resources and the training to be able to do a good job.

AP: You raise an interesting question. So let’s say you’re looking to hire somebody from within your sales team to become a frontline manager. If you want to hire the best ones, what are the criteria used to select one of these people?

GB: That’s a very interesting reflection, I think. More than anything, you need to have that will to want to help your team sell. That can be your best salesperson. I’m not saying that it’s always wrong to promote the best salesperson, but I’m seeing that it’s often wrong. I think it’s critical for a sales manager to know the skills it takes to be a successful salesperson, but I don’t think they need to be the top performer. I think you could definitely take a middle-level performer who has the ambition, will, and traits to become a good manager and be a good manager.

AP: Yeah, in my mind, they would have to at least hit quota though. You’re not going to get the respect from your teammates if you don’t. I think another thing that we sort of overlook when we talk about promoting salespeople from within to be frontline managers, is we haven’t given them the opportunity to find out whether it’s something they would enjoy. A lot of times part of the reason these high performers do so well is because they’re kind of ego driven. Nothing wrong with that, but they haven’t really had the set of experiences to realize that’s not really for them. For some companies I’ve worked with, we implemented peer coaching. People that that we think have knowledge to share with other other reps take on some of that frontline coaching responsibility from some of the managers in terms of tactics, strategies, and, and so on. You get a chance to see them in action, and they get a chance to have some level of responsibility for someone else and see if they have that desire to help another individual succeed in sales as opposed to going out and just continuing to help customers.

GB: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. I love that idea. I think it’s also like you said, it can also be a matter of timing. From my perspective, the older we get, the less egocentric we are. Maybe not all of us, but I think that’s a tendency. Maybe once you mature into your role you may be more interested in going into that position as a manager and help others. If you’re still early in your career, you want to really prove that you can sell and be a great performer. So yeah, it’s timing and everything.

AP: George, welcome to the last segment of the show where I’ve got some standard questions I ask all my guests. I think you may have been through some of these questions before so we expect great answers from you. The first one is a hypothetical scenario. You’ve just been hired as vice president of sales by a company whose sales have stalled out and it’s time to hit the reset button. During your first week on the job, what two things would you do that would have the biggest impact?

GB: First off, I would just listen to the customers. Why are they not buying? Why are they buying? As a second action, I guess I would just brainstorm with the team to get everyone’s opinions and ideas on the table to have what I need to make a decision.

AP: Excellent. Alright, so I’ve got some rapid fire questions for you. You can give me one word answers if you wish or elaborate. So the first one is when you are out selling Membrane, what’s your most powerful sales attributes?

GB: My smile.

AP: Who’s your sales role model?

GB: That’s such a difficult question and I’ve been asked it before. I really wonder if I have one. Richard Branson.

AP: That’s a good answer. Other people have used that too. Richard Branson. So what’s one book every salesperson should read?

GB: I’ll have to pick The Dirty Little Secrets by Sharon drew Morgan. I think that has some nice insights in it that are has always been relevant and maybe even more so today.

AP: All right, excellent. Okay, last question for you. What music is on your playlist these days?

GB: Magic Mushrooms. It’s a techno style music. Play it loudly in your car before meeting with a client and you’ll be pumped up

AP: Excellent. Are they Swedish?

GB: No, I have no clue where they’re from actually.

AP: Good then. Well, George, thanks for joining me. I look forward to having you back on the show again, because we didn’t get through but a fraction of what I wanted to talk to you about. So tell folks how they can connect with you and find out more about Membrane.

GB: Yeah, thank you too. Thanks for having me. LinkedIn is probably the place where I spend most of my time. So just search my name there. On Twitter, I’m George Bronten. George@membrane.com if you want to email me.

AP: Okay, excellent. Well, thanks again. And remember, friends, make it a part of your day every day to deliberately learn something new to help you accelerate your success. An easy way to do that is to make this podcast, Accelerate, part of your daily routine, whether you’re listening during your commute, in the gym, or part of your morning sales meeting. That way you won’t miss any of my conversations with top business experts like my guest today, George Brenton, who shared his expertise on how to accelerate the growth of your business. So thanks for joining me and until next time, this is Andy Paul. Good selling everyone. Thanks for listening to the show. If you like what you heard and want to make sure you don’t miss any upcoming episodes, please subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or stitcher.com.  For more information about today’s guests, visit my website at andypaul.com