Lessons from an executive: Charlie Atkinson

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BY KEVIN HESARI

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with Charlie Atkinson about managing relationships, working with technical talent, and some of the key habits he had that helped him get to where he wanted to be. Charlie’s background includes being both a Marketing leader at organizations like Sharp and Kodak, managing some of the largest relationships for Xerox as a Major Account Executive and eventually becoming the Canadian leader of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Highlighting our conversation there are 4 key takeaways that I wanted to share:

1.“It’s not about the sales cycle. It’s about the customer lifecycle.”

Too often and I have been guilty of this too, as sales reps we get “happy ears” and the second we believe we have uncovered a pain point, we jump pounce into selling mode.  It’s all about positioning your solution as the answer to your customer’s problems to help them avoid or take away their pain. It’s essential to have thorough discoveries with your clients and get to know what’s distressing them. One of the keys to his success was understanding the industry drivers of the major accounts he was working with and what influenced his customer’s customer. As the old saying goes, you have two ears and one mouth and if you focus more so on listening to your customer, rather than just working on the perfect “pitch”, you’ll be able to accurately qualify your prospects as a lead that should or should not be utilizing your solution.

KEY NOTE: The most distressed customers are often the ones who are most interested in finding solutions that will give them a competitive advantage. It’s not just about collecting logos… Your job as a sales rep is to find the customers that NEED your solution and the only way you can really decipher this is by understanding their problems, not just what your solution does and what generic “benefits” it could potentially provide their business. Stay focused on the customer lifecycle.

2. “Live the brand, don’t just represent the business.”

Trust, Integrity, Commitment and Excellence. These traits describe sales reps who thoughtfully follow-up with their clients, even after the sale is done. Too often reps simply walk away from their clients and revisit only once they believe they have something else to sell them and don’t thoughtfully follow-up with their clients to see how the solution has been working for them, what their clients current problems are, and often treat accounts as a “one-time deal” rather than a long-term business partnership. Charlie had mentioned the importance that every voice-mail, e-mail, or time he left a new business card, he was picking up where he left off. Trust is built through consistently following up with your clients, being thoughtful and listening to their problems and serving as a facilitator who brought

KEY NOTE: Just like all of us in sales, Charlie had customers and prospects who would sometimes give him hell. During his time as a Territory rep selling copier solutions he dealt with bad moments like these by always having a large bucket in his trunk, which included: Q-tips,  wipes, tape, and FRESH business cards. He would go back to his old clients and voluntarily clean up their machines for them, asked them not just about how the machine has treated them but how is their business is doing, how they are and what has been happening. The conversations were not surrounded on him or his solutions, he knew that their environment was always changing and he needed to stay up to date with their problems, not just focus on his quota. At the end of each visit, there was always a new business card on each machine because he looked at every visit, message, and the way he presented himself (including his business card) as an extension of him and his brand.

3. “Invent the process and stay disciplined.”

Having a process for how you open your calls, follow-up with prospects, how often you are visiting your clients, and how you qualify potential buyers is the sales reps responsibility NOT your managers or organizations. Meticulously analyzing every single KPI will help you accurately forecast how much of your pipeline you should expect to close and give you an indicator for what you need to do in order to reach your milestones. “Failure to me is success inside out” -- what Charlie meant by this is that the sales reps who so called “fail” the most, tend to be the ones who finished on the top of the boards. If you know that based on your stats it takes 10 demos to get 3 closes and on average you book 2 demos for every 20 cold-calls, it suddenly doesn’t become such a daunting task to cold-call 200 prospects… Embrace the failures that come with sales and stay disciplined, stay disciplined, and implement a process for keeping up to date with your prospects, clients, and your contacts.

Key Note: “There’s nothing more powerful than referrals”.

As Charlie continued his career he found himself with binders full of references from each role he was in. A book of business is created over time through discipline and by genuinely solving your client’s problems. By staying focused to your client’s issues, you have inevitably created a greater chance of gaining referrals simply by staying on top of your tasks and demonstrating your competence in your field. The correlation between those who craft reference letters and the same people who referred over a business you may need your solution is incredibly strong. Through being diligent and disciplined you will earn each referral.

4. “People buy from people.”

They buy from YOU first, your company second, your product/service third, and the price is the final reason your client has decided to invest in your solution. Credibility is built through consistency, which can definitely be frustrating for any sales rep measured on quarterly or monthly quotas. The key is that by consistently delivering value through providing insights into what your client cares about, finding ways to help them convert their own prospects into clients, and through thoroughly following up and assessing how you may (or may not) be able to help them solve their problems, you can build credibility. Charlie had mentioned a time where he went as far as working in the call-center of one of his major clients to see how crucial the software they were providing was to their employees. On one end it allows him to empathize with the frustrations of irate clients when the solution isn’t working, but on another it showed the client that he’s not there for one sale, he’s there to help ensure the solution he’s offering help his clients reach their targets.

KEY NOTE:

“Take care of your people and they will take care of you.” Charlie was the first to note he was maybe the least technical individual in HP. A key piece of advice he gave is that your implementation team doesn’t know what you had promised or shouldn’t be expected to implement the best solution for your client because they weren’t there during the discovery process! As a facilitator Charlie was the bridge between his technical team and the client’s team who needed the project completed. He knew at all points where the technical team was during the implementation stage, would work with his team anyway he can. Whether it be giving detailed notes from all of his conversations with the client or simply BEING THERE during the implementation on weekends to run errands and take care of his team. Due to the effort he was putting in to ensure the project ran smoothly, he often found his technical team very appreciative and even watchful of the clients for him. He had mentioned a few instances where some of his teammates helped initiate key meetings which served as the catalyst to some of the most lucrative accounts he worked with, simply because they felt that they were working in unison rather than a divided unit of the pre-sales and implementation teams. He maintained credibility by essentially being his own project manager and bridging the communication between his teams and built credibility with his own team by demonstrating he wants to help any way he can and isn’t above showing up on evenings or weekends or taking on a different role to help his team. His clients, implementation team, and pre-sales team had great trust in him and ultimately his technical team became his ears in field, letting him know of opportunities and his clients continued to work with Charlie through the relationship he cultivated with them.

If there’s one way to summarize what I learned from our call it’s to focus on the process not the outcome of what you are trying to achieve. Focus on the process for thoroughly following up with your prospects and clients, focusing on their problems not your quota, finding ways to solve their problems and if you can’t then you need to be honest with them about it. Aside from these points having your own system in place and staying disciplined will ensure long-term success.