Co-founder and CEO, Tom Williams, speaks to the method of buyer-centric selling

In this episode of the Great Sales Leaders Know podcast, we chat with Tom Williams, Co-founder & CEO of about the importance of sales & marketing collaboration, how a buyer-centric selling approach can significantly improve your sales teams conversion rates, and how to teach your sales process to new hires.

Stefan: Welcome to The Great Sales Leaders Know podcast. I’m joined today by Tom Williams, Co-founder and CEO of located in Portland, Oregon. Now Tom, I usually introduce my guests by listing info about their past, but you have such a detailed background full of great experience, I was hoping you could introduce yourself by telling us a few of your key highlights throughout your sales and marketing career.

Tom: Thank you so much for having me on. I think my favorite story of my past is that I was the VP of marketing at a company, and we were in a board meeting because sales were down and the VP of sales said, “I don’t know what the hell happened.” The very next week, I became the VP of sales and marketing. I think that is a really instructive lesson both for me personally and for the rest of the world which is, when you go into a board meeting you really should know why sales are down, but it also gave a good introduction to the power of having both sales and marketing report to the same person.

Stefan: What was that initial driver that made you choose a sales career and ultimately stick with it?

Tom: I started my career in marketing and I liked trying to figure out what somebody’s problem is and how can we fix it. Ultimately, that’s what marketing is about; finding that right product fit and then getting the messaging to help them understand it. But there was that lack of endpoint touch. So, I’d make all these fantastic messaging exercises and I wouldn’t see them really pay off, and not just because of the messaging itself but I also didn’t get to interact with the people who I was helping. So, it was kind of hands-off and the thing I love about sales is when you actually connect with somebody and you’re actually figuring out what their problem is, and actually helping them, there’s a real rush to that.

Stefan: What has the transition been like moving from a junior level role when you started your career, to now being in a leadership position?

Tom: I definitely remember when I was younger, I signed for some kind of purchase, it was like a $10,000 dollar authorization and my superior said, “You’re not allowed to sign for that level of authorization.” But I always took the initiative and I figured out through trial and error what am I allowed to do and what I am not allowed to do. More often than not, if you do that then you get the authorization to sign for that level because people want to promote people who are forward-thinking and are willing to step forward. So, if you see something that needs to be fixed and you say, “There’s something that needs to be fixed, and here’s how we can fix it.” That person’s going to get ahead a lot faster than the people who ask, “What do I do now boss?” The other thing is that even before anybody asked me, I was running a budget. When I was just a marketing executive, I still had programs and stuff but I would keep really close track on the budget, both how much money I was spending, and how much ROI I was getting. That really helped in the future. One, I was comfortable with the budget, and two, it showed that I liked to connect the dollars and cents to the value, and if you do that then you should promote that person.

Stefan: It sounds to me like you’ve always had more of a holistic viewpoint of whatever business it is that you’re working with. What I wanted to talk about quickly is your sales and marketing experience. What I’ve learned in my research is that in one study of over 500 small and medium-sized businesses that have both departments, only 8% claim to have strong alignment between the two departments. What’s more is that companies that do have strong sales and marketing alignment can experience revenue increases of up to 34%.

Stefan: Given your experience, what are some tips on how companies can bridge the gap between sales and marketing, and how they can work more harmoniously together?

Tom: Well, at the organizational level, I really like the VP of sales and marketing role or the CRO role. A CRO typically has the customer success team reporting in there as well, but I like it when both organizations are reporting to a single person because that person is responsible, not just for the messaging and the outbound information, but for actually closing the loop and getting the sales. And beyond that, an important feature is to make sure that sales has a place at the table when marketing is doing their thinking, because it’s really easy to grade marketing in terms of how many white-papers they put out or how many downloads there were, but I think you’ll be a lot more successful if you connect that to sales as targets such as “How many meetings do we have?”, “How many did we close?” and “What was the average revenue for those different sales?”, “What’s the up sale on existing customers?” If marketing is aware of those numbers and has to be measured against them as well, then they’re less likely to have what I call vanity pieces which makes the VP of marketing look good. A quintessential example is getting your boss on the cover of Time Magazine. That doesn’t help sales necessarily, it may have been way more effective to put more effort into a case study which is less fun and less award-winning but going to end up helping the salespeople more.

So, ask the salespeople what they need, don’t necessarily believe them, because they’re going to say the thing they need is the thing that they needed like 20 minutes ago. So, have a longer-term view of what they need but make sure that they’re at the table when you’re making your decisions.

Stefan: That’s an interesting point and over here at Sales Talent Agency we’re blessed because I’m on the marketing team myself, and the sales team works about five feet away from me. It is easy to connect because we’re very open and transparent with each other and any content that we make, we’ve collaborated on what it needs to be and how it’s going to help them. One interesting study shows that 70% of all B2B marketing content created is not actually used by the sales team, now that could be because the sales team doesn’t know where to find it? They don’t know how to use it or maybe the content that’s being created is just not relevant which definitely is the case in a lot of instances. Do you think it is a good idea to have sales and marketing in the same room collaborating on content and strategies?

Tom: Yes, especially when you’re working on the quarterly marketing campaign, you have to listen very carefully to both the objectives of the sales team, but then also what they’ve been using. In my experience, the sales reps will have two or three go-to content items that literally live on their desktop, and I know that they’re happy to use anything that works, so I don’t think it’s animosity that they’re not pulling marketing content, I think they’re just are going with what works and they’re under a lot of pressure and they don’t really want to dig around in your knowledge base for something else.

But if you present good content that could be pertinent to a particular circumstance they’re a lot more likely to listen and take advantage of what you’re creating, but you have to ask, “Where are your sticking points in the sales process, and what kind of content can we have to unstick that?” that’s way different than, “I want you to use this brochure.” You start with the question of, “Where are you guys getting stuck?” and then put your thinking hats on as marketers and say, “Well, how can we either get rid of the objection in advance with a nice piece of content or have something available that can soothe the concerns of that potential buyer.”

Stefan: That seems really well laid out, I like to think that we use practices like that over here, and it really helps with transparency, when the final product finally comes into play there’s less time spent fixing it and tweaking little areas of it because we’ve collaborated in the creation stage and it’s pretty much ready to go to market as soon as we want to.

Tom: The funny thing is, as a salesperson, marketing should be using the same series of “yes” with their sales team. So, identify what the problem is, that’s sales 101, and then say, “If I could fix that problem would you use my solution?” and get that quick “yes”. Then ask “Is there something that would meet your need?” and then they say “yes”. Then you can say, “Well use it!” You definitely use the same techniques that you would use to close any piece of business with closing sales to use the collateral. it iss exactly the same process. Ultimately, it’s about helping somebody do their job better and it’s the same principle.

Stefan: Yes, and at the end of the day, as a sales marketing team, you do have a common goal, right?

Tom: Ideally yes, you really, really should.

Stefan: In your experience, what is the biggest disconnect between buyers and sellers and where does it come from? I suppose what I’m asking is, why do deals fail?

Tom: So, I think there are two big disconnects, one is early on in the deal and one is a lot later on in the deal. The first big disconnect is when the rep launches straight into, “Look how cool my product is!” and it’s so easy because you know your product backward and forward, you can practice on the product and you can practice the demo until it’s perfect. Then the customer says, “Hey! That’s really cool!” because it is, you probably are selling something that’s cool. However, the disconnect comes when the seller interprets that as being, “I’ve got a sale, this guy is going to buy my stuff.” But, there was no connection to the customer’s problem. Yes, it’s a super cool piece of technology and the buyer could totally see how that would help them but they are not focused on that right now. That’s the first disconnect, when you don’t ask what they are working on or where they have concerns and you barrel straight into what you have to offer.

The second disconnect is when you have successfully established that value because it would fix their problem, they’re really interested, they would like to do it, but the seller thinks “My work here is done, I just have to get them to sign the contract.” But in fact, when the buyer says, “Yes, I want to buy it.” That is actually one third into the deal because the actual buying process is probably going to be complicated and the buyer has probably never bought your product before, so they don’t know what it takes to buy and implement it.

So, if you don’t have a clear expectation from, “Yes, I want to buy it” to what it takes to get it to the finish line, then there’s a very good chance that it’s going to die because of some unrelated problems. Oftentimes, an inexperienced seller will forget to do that due diligence of what needs to be done to make the deal happen so the deal falls down. The heartbreaking part there is that you spent all this time trying to get that value across to the customer, they said they want to buy it and then it falls down because of some unrelated issue.

Stefan: That’s interesting and let’s just go back to the first disconnect, if I have a cool product but it’s not something that my buyer needs. Experienced salespeople are hopefully qualifying leads before they call them. Do you think this issue of reaching out to the wrong person gets better as sales reps become more experienced and they start to be able to recognize the needs of their lead before they even spend any time reaching out to them?

Tom: Yes, I mean you can certainly have your SDRs ask some pre-qualification questions and I think you can find out pretty quickly if it is worth it. One of my favorite questions is, “Why did you take this call?” because instead of automatically going into your feature product, you started by listening and you can tell pretty quick where the person is at and if they really are worried about a problem. And if they’re not, then with the caveat that you have a fat pipeline so you can go work on something else, it’s a lot easier to let go of something early because it doesn’t sound perfect.

Stefan: How does the notion of buyer-centric selling help salespeople connect with their client?

Tom: I think there are three legs of buyer-centric selling, first of all, is “What does the buyer need”? Second is “Who is the buyer team” and third “What is the buyer process”. Kind of what we talked about at the beginning is understanding what their initiatives are and then connecting to them or anchoring to them is the most important skill in sales because you’re fixing their problem, you’re not selling your features. It can take a lot of trust to get them to open up so there are all sorts of sales strategies to get them to open up, like sharing a good story about a fellow person in the industry that had the same problem, but ultimately you’re doing all that work to get an understanding into what are they working on both at a business level and then also what their initiatives are at an emotional level.

Once you’ve got a good sense of what their needs are then you can advance to learning more about who you are talking about. The buyer is not a single person, there are multiple decision-makers on the other side and what’s really confusing and complicated is that they may well not have the same needs and priorities but you still need to understand them because anyone of those people could kill your deal. You need to understand what are their focuses for the different people that you’re selling to within an organization.

Once you’ve understood what that is then you can dig into the actual buying process and this is my favorite part of it because you actually have an advantage over them. You’ve sold this product a hundred times before but they’ve never bought it. So, you can present yourself as a guide to them who can say, “This is how you buy this stuff, you need to get the VP of finance involved, you may need to have legal checking up.” Whatever it is that makes them feel really good. If you don’t have all three of these forces working with you, then there’s a very good chance that one of the three pillars is going to fail you and you’re going to end up putting an awful lot of time into a deal that was ultimately doomed.

Stefan: Just to go back to the idea that it’s a team effort in order to make this sale, what is the best way to make sure that you are speaking to the right people and the right people are involved, without sounding pushy?

Tom: Yes, you can’t say in the first meeting, “What’s the name of your CFO?” Because that’s not going to go well. But I’m a big fan of mutual-action plans where you agree with the buyer, here are the steps that we need to take in order to get this deal across the line. And it has advantages in itself in that there’s a lot more clarity and there’s more transparency, you’re more likely to have an active forecast. There’s a really nice pay off to understanding who the buyer is as well, because when you’re working through the steps of “What does it take to get this thing over the line?” you can say, “Well, who would sign off on the budget?” It’s way different to say, “Give me the name of your VP of finance!” in a barking order, than to ask, “Well, who would be signing off on the budget?” because you’re working together to get this deal across the line. So, they’re a lot more likely to share the actual name of that person, or at the very least they’ll say what the role is, and then at least you’d have some more actionable information should you need to go upstairs.

The second technique I heard that I really like, although I haven’t done this myself, is when you’re getting stymied and having difficulty talking to the more senior people inside the buyers organization then offer to your champions there, “Are there any questions that you think your boss may ask that you’re not equipped to answer?” And they’re probably thinking, “Well, I don’t know!” and then you say, “Well, why don’t we just take three minutes with your boss and find out what those questions are? And then you and I can huddle and provide the answers.” And so, you commit to not answering any questions to the boss, not getting in the bosses way, but respectfully asking for literally 5 to 10 minutes to hear what their questions are going to be so that you can arm your champion, and the cool thing there is that you’re honouring your champion as being your person in the operation. 

Stefan: I really like that, because in my sales experience oftentimes when you’re selling to that initial contact, a lot of times they’ll say, “Okay, let me bring this to my higher-ups.” Which totally makes sense, but it gets to the point where they’re almost selling your product for you and obviously nobody is more – hopefully, nobody’s more versed in your product than you are, so it becomes tricky, right? Because all of a sudden you have somebody else trying to sell your product and I can only imagine that’s the last thing you want to have happen.

Tom: Think of it more like you’re the best person who knows how to fix their problem, it’s a big mind-shift if you can think, if it was a consultant they hired, they would willingly bring in the consultant. So, just kind of emotionally put yourself in the position of, “I’m a consultant, now, I merely have one solution which is ‘buy my thing'” but the mindset is thereof, “Let me help you fix the problem” and then, of course, it makes sense to bring the expert in to talk to senior people, because they have a perspective, they’ve seen the same problem a hundred times and they can share what they saw other people do to fix it.

Stefan: That definitely makes sense, consultant mindset over a sales mindset is always a healthy way to go about it when you’re buyer-focused and this sounds like this is something you’ve put a lot of time into. Tell us what you’re doing at and what are some of the offerings that you guys have and how can you help the buyer journey?

Tom: We believe really strongly in transparency. I used to run sales teams and I would see that the sales team would just have a radically different interpretation of where we are in the sales process compared to prospects, and I realize it’s because the sales team had sold this thing before and they have Salesforce telling them where they are in the process and then where it needs to go next.

If the buyer could have that same level of awareness then everybody would be on the same page and either you’re more likely for the deal to close successfully or you’re able to say a lot quicker, “This deal is not working out, let’s put a pause and go chase some other business.” To that end, DealPoint makes it a lot easier to get the buying team and the selling team on the same page by using a deal room and specifically what we helped with is that mutual action plans, so, “Yes, I understand what your value prop is but what I actually need to do inside my organization to make it happen”?

Tana Mcdermott from Workiva, who’s not a customer, is really big on mutual-action plans and she told me that no buyer will argue with clear expectations and I couldn’t agree more. If you can get on a piece of paper the steps needed to get the deal over the line in the next six months then your buyer is going to get those resources a lot faster. It’s going to be a lot easier for them to sell internally because you have just delivered near infinite levels of credibility by saying, “I’ve done this before, I’m honest and transparent, here’s the work that needs to get done.”

If you try to hide it or if you don’t know what the work is to get done then it’s probably going to fail but you put all this effort in so, what we do is we have a mutual-action plan tool where you can layout a crystal clear timeline all of the steps that need to get done for a particular deal, share it with the buying team and then track progress so that if it does start to go off the rails you can have an opportunity to say, “We’re not going to hit your external deadline that you said you really wanted to hit, we need to re-align with you on what you want to do.”

And that’s a way better conversation than, “I’m just calling to follow up.” Now you are helping them meet their initiatives with your solution and it’s all playing to see for all of the different buys, where we are at in the sales process and what they need to do to make it happen and why they’re working on this deal in the first place.

Stefan: That’s a really interesting platform and I think it obviously improves the overall experience for both sides of the parties. Do you find it also decreases the time it takes from the initial phone call to the time a deal is closed?

Tom: Yes, absolutely. Because what will happen in a non-mutual action plan deal is that somebody won’t realize that they need to get a resource together and the task would be due next week and then, “Oh, I haven’t even thought about who’s going to work on that.” And so, deals end up stretching. The other thing that happens is, when there’s not a clear alignment with a priority inside the buying organization then it’s really easy for deals to slip. So, by putting everything on a mutual-action plan including the external dates that are driving your buyer’s business, it becomes a lot easier for them to get priority inside their own organization to make your deal happen because the boss isn’t saying, “What is this thing?” They’re seeing that return on investment.

And I’d like to emphasize, you can do all this stuff in a spreadsheet, there’s a lot of value just to doing this exercise of a mutual-action plan on a spreadsheet and sharing that with your buyer. You don’t need to buy software. Of course, I’d prefer you do! It’s easier if you do and it looks better and more consistent. But anybody who’s listening, if you’re an individual contributor or a sales leader, just try laying out those four to five key milestones and putting them in front of your customer and saying, “This is what it’s going to take to close this deal, are you in?”. When they say yes, watch that conversion rate, it’s going to go through the roof compared to when you try to sneak the deal past the buyer.

Stefan: I want to close by asking one final question, it’s something that we focus on at Sales Talent Agency in helping our clients find, attract, hire and retain the best salespeople on the market. We see it all the time over here, rockstar candidates that are hired by companies that promise the world and look great on paper but they have no real process for ramping up our onboarding salespeople? And they have no tools to equip them to be successful.

Stefan: What have you learned over the years that you consider to be crucial when onboarding new sales hires?


Tom: Even before you’re onboarding them, you need to have a consistently understood sales process that your team uses. It doesn’t matter what that process is but you want to work with your best sellers to find out what they’re doing and replicate that across the team. Of course, I’m buyer-centric, so our process is making sure you understand what the person’s initiatives and problems are and connect them, et cetera. But if you don’t have that kind of consistency from the get-go then it’s really hard to scale because you will find your magical sales rockstar every now and then that figures it out themselves, but those other salespeople leave, and I would hate to have to rely on finding magical unicorns and then keeping them happy. You’ll be way better off having a consistent approach. So, make sure that your sales process is easy to understand. It’s not a powerpoint, it’s a philosophy, make sure they understand what your philosophy is.