“Some B2B selling is essentially a person who is independent and operates on their own—the majority of the sales cycle finds them all by themselves. But in general with my clients, it is a team sport in that you’re working together as a team, and therefore the communication and strategy amongst the team is critical.
For all intents and purposes, the salesperson is the general who has to create the strategy to win the war. Then as they’re getting their team together, they’re marshalling their resources, organizing them, and fixating them on the target — on the objective they want to accomplish. Then they have to react to the competitor’s battlefield movements, so they become tacticians.
That’s what happening today, because when you think about it, in technology and some other businesses, there’s not one salesperson who can be an expert on the entire product line. It’s just impossible—someone in a big technology company representing a portfolio of a hundred different solutions.”
So begins our fascinating interview with sales innovator and sales linguist Steve W. Martin. Martin is the foremost expert on Sales Linguistics, the study of how salespeople and customers use language during the complex decision-making process. He is the founder of the Heavy Hitter sales training program and the author of the “Heavy Hitter” series of books on the human nature of enterprise sales. Steve’s books have been featured in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Selling Power Magazine and are recommended by the Harvard Business School. His latest book is entitled Heavy Hitter Sales Linguistics: 101 Advanced Sales Call Strategies for Senior Salespeople.
Steve has taught at USC Marshall School of Business since 2009, and was awarded the USC Marshall Golden Apple Teaching Award in 2012. He previously taught at the University of California Berkeley, Haas Business School.
We began our interview by going back and finding out how Martin found his way into this compelling field.
Pipeliner: Tell me a bit about your background. How did you get to your role as a sales linguist?
Steve: My background is rooted in technology and programming. That was literally my first position out of college—working in IT, and working with programming and computers. That teaches you discipline and structure of language.
When I transitioned my career into technology sales, I always approached it from the structure and discipline of language. The theory of programming is all about modeling, right? If you build a program on one computer, you should be able to take it to another computer, run it, and get the same repeatable, predictable outcome. So that’s kind of how I approach sales.
It’s a little bit different because a lot of people approach sales solely from a process orientation, or they approach sales from a personal magnetism orientation. As I said, this is all about language and how people use language, so we have to understand what language affects people and how they interpret it.
I spent the majority of my sales career as a salesperson and VP of sales, selling for Silicon Valley technology companies.
Then I wrote my first book about 13 years ago. My Heavy Hitter series of books is all about modeling behavior, and that’s what I write about: successful models of behavior, the human nature of complex sales and sales linguistics.
Pipeliner: In your experience, is the sales process itself critical to a successful organization?
Steve: Just taking it from the hundreds of organizations I have seen–in some organizations a sales process has been established and is rigidly enforced, and in those organizations there has been benefit in terms of salesperson productivity.
In other organizations the sales process has been established but not enforced, and that in some ways has had zero impact (one way or the other) on salesperson productivity.
In yet other organizations the sales process is maybe being mutually understood or informal and they have reduced productivity.
So in general, the overall correlation is: if you have an established sales process that is appropriate for the type of products you sell–that that is based in the real world, that it is not disconnected from the actual sales activities in the field—there’s going to be a correlation to increased activity.
There are some interesting exceptions. For example, I was at a sales organization the other day, and they don’t really have a sales process established. It’s because the nature of the interactions with their clients are mainly repeat interactions with clients they already know.
The difference depends on the complexity of the product you sell. If you’re selling a very complex enterprise-type product, the sales process becomes exponentially more important, as opposed to if you have a very point-specific sale that’s sold to one individual in the organization.
You don’t want a heavy, deep, incredibly complex sales process if it doesn’t match the sales environment you have. I’ve actually seen that happen with some clients—where their sales process really doesn’t match what the people in the field need to do. That has an impact on anything and everything, from how they forecast right down to the culture of the organization.
Pipeliner: So it sounds like the keyword there is relevance?
Steve: Yes. Relevance and applicability—not just a sales process for a sales process’ sake.
Pipeliner: What role does a CRM solution play in all this?
Steve: I’ve worked with hundreds of companies, and in those hundreds of companies I’ve only known of one company that did not use a CRM.
That company always stands out to me. What you miss if you don’t have a CRM is obviously all the reporting capabilities, and the understanding of where you are at and what is happening. But you really miss the ability to capture really important information about why you win and why you lose, and behavior over time in a sales organization.
You also miss the ability to actually implement any type of sales process. It becomes almost impossible when the CRM system isn’t tied into the forecasting system which isn’t tied into the behavioral system of the sales organization.
So to this day when I think about that organization that doesn’t have a CRM, I think about the sales reps themselves, and how every sales rep is operating under their own model.
Pipeliner: …And probably their own sales process?
Steve: Yes. And what you have is feast and famine, people who figure it out and people who don’t. When you onboard people it’s difficult because you’ve got to tell them to “go figure it out.” It’s not the optimum way to scale an organization.
Pipeliner: Talk about some of the qualities of a top-performing salesperson.
Steve: Wow, the answer to that question is very complex. But I will say in general there are personality attributes, and then there are selling style attributes.
When I think of the top personality attributes that come to mind, number one would be achievement orientation—meaning fixated on a goal. I would probably say number two gets into curiosity—the natural inquisitiveness of the person to understand what’s happening, the story behind the story, investigating this in qualifying an account.
I would also say something a little bit different than most might: I would say every salesperson is wired to be optimistic in front of people. In front of the customer you’d never be pessimistic; you’re going to be kind, good natured and likable. But I would also say there’s an inward pessimism that drives top salespeople to another level of deal inspection, to make sure all the “i’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed going through the sales cycle.
On the selling style side, a very key thing is something called situational dominance. Situational dominance is the ability, when you’re with that client, to ensure that your advice and recommendations are followed by the client. You have to become someone who is not just liked, but respected for your opinion.
I would probably say the second thing on the selling style side is verbal acuity. That’s why the study of sales linguistics is so important, because verbal acuity is saying the right words, at the right time, in the right way.
Then of course you get into the other aspects of the selling style: the practical, tactical, strategic things you need to be doing to win the account and differentiate yourself against the competition.
So at a high level I think about the personality attributes, and then how they translate into a successful selling style. Now I also have metrics and I do all this other stuff, but if you want to know the difference, that’s how I think about it.
Pipeliner: You don’t address this in your articles, but I want to ask you about it because you brought up the “trusted expert” quality. How do you see that crossing over into social media?
Steve: That’s a great question because the concept of my book is, in order to become a trusted advisor you have to be able to speak a variety of languages.
In the past, a salesperson sold in a very kind of reactive “I know the most about my product” way. It was very product-centric, reactive, and oriented around their own product.
That’s changed dramatically. Today every salesperson has a choice to make: you’re either going to be that product-centric salesperson, or you’re going to be a business-centric salesperson and represent yourself as a thought leader. That means you have to understand business, and you have to understand how your solution influences business.
I think social media plays a key part in this. For example, just yesterday I was with my MBA students in class, and we were actually going through how you create a LinkedIn profile that establishes you as a thought leader. That is absolutely critical for everyone today. It’s not enough to say you know your product, or you’re the best technologist. You have be able to say, “This is how I brand myself, and my brand is that when you meet with me, you know I know my solution set. I’m going to come in and help you understand the industry best practices and the best application of my solution set and how it improves your business.”
That’s what I think social media does so well. It gives you a platform by which you disseminate your personal credibility to people in advance of meeting you.
Pipeliner: Your studies touch on the quality of a sales organization relative to a salesperson’s performance. What would you consider great qualities of a sales organization in which a salesperson can flourish?
Steve: First and foremost is a “command and control” sales organization—meaning that it is, for lack of a better word, a hierarchal organization where strategy is dictated at the top level and driven through to the bottom level.
Second, it’s strong stable sales leadership.
I think without those two things the rest of the sales efforts struggle. I have found that to be true time and time again. Then you get into all the aspects of culture and morale and things like that—but off the top of my head those two things are absolutely critical.
Pipeliner: What part does setting quotas play in successful organizations?
Steve: Different parts, because it can be an individual motivator and a team motivator. The art and science of setting quotas is something that has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
In general high-performing sales organizations are little bit more aggressive about setting quotas, because they believe they can accomplish them. Interestingly high performing salespeople believe that fewer salespeople should make quota in their organization, whereas underperforming people believe that more should.
In other words, it’s okay to have quotas that are difficult to achieve because that makes them more meaningful to the achiever. It’s analogous to my kids playing soccer when they were younger—everyone got a trophy.
Pipeliner: In the studies you have done, how would you describe an ideal sales manager?
Steve: I’ve written about the seven types of sales management styles: mentor, expressive, sergeant, Teflon, micromanager, overconfident, and amateur. I think there is no ideal type, but rather combinations of these seven styles. They range from being a mentor, someone who is mentoring that salesperson, to an expressive, to someone who’s actually commanding that salesperson, to a sergeant, to someone who is very loyal to that person, and to a micromanager, someone who is micromanaging every aspect.
I think the best sales manager, at certain points during the quarter, has to be all of those things. For example, maybe more towards the end of the quarter you have to be a micromanager, or at the beginning of the quarter maybe you’re more of a mentor. Then it varies by the quality of the salesperson they’re working with. So my short answer is, I think the best sales manager applies their skills individually to each member of their team.