Jill Konrath: Women in Sales Talk Productivity
In this series, we delve into the personal and professional dimensions of female high tech sales leaders to explore their views on productivity and sales effectiveness.
Cien spoke with Jill Konrath, advisor to growing tech companies and best selling author of four books: More Sales, Less Time; Agile Selling; SNAP Selling and Selling to Big Companies. LinkedIn selected Jill as the #1 B2B Sales Expert to Follow in 2018 and Salesforce.com named her one of the most influential sales experts of the 21st century. Jill’s clients include Microsoft, IBM, GE, EY, Staples and Hilton.
How did you find the energy to be an entrepreneur, a speaker and an author? Was being a woman part of that motivation?
I was a high school teacher for four and half years. I had good students in a good school district, but doing the same thing day after day didn’t fit me. So, I don’t define it as courage, I define it as choosing to live. I wanted to find something that would stimulate me, excite me and get me to wake up everyday.
After a year spent researching, I came up with an idea for a company and put together a business plan. I also got some friends involved. We went to SCORE, an organization of retired executives that gives free counseling to young businesses. They told us that it was a great plan, it was well thought out and it was timely.
Then they turned to the three of us, and said, “Now which one of you three is going to be doing the sales?” I was stunned. I looked at the execs with anger. I said, “I thought you said this was a good plan!” They said, “It is, Jill, but somebody has to sell it.”
Since I was the driving force behind the idea, I said I would do it for one year. I was 26 years old when I said that, and I’ve been in the sales field ever since.
Was this before your time at Xerox?
Yes. Xerox was the job I took to learn how to sell. I ended up staying for five years. What happened was that I discovered that sales was completely different than what I’d initially perceived. It was interesting, challenging and exciting. I could set my own benchmark on how well I performed.
Then I moved into technology sales. After that, I started my own sales consulting practice focused on new product launches. More specifically, I primarily worked with technology companies who loved their technology too much.
What is it that you enjoy about sales and how would you explain your success?
Initially I simply enjoyed the challenge to see if I could do it and be successful at it. I became a sponge in terms of being a learner and I was constantly asking questions and observing other people.
When you say you’re going to learn everything in one year, you become very focused. I experimented with various techniques and strategies. I tried new ideas to see how they’d work. Before long, I was meeting my quota—which was a huge relief. But once you’re successful, you worry about your ability to repeat that success. You think to yourself, ‘can I do it again?’
Beyond that, I discovered that I liked to solve complex sales problems. When I was in technology sales, I loved figuring out how to jumpstart the sales of new products at launch time. It’s such an important time for a company. So much depends on a company’s ability to shorten time to revenue. Ultimately, that became a niche of mine when I started my consultancy.
I loved the ongoing challenge of working with new companies, new markets and new products combined with different buyer personas and varying buyer journeys. Figuring out how to help my clients get great sales results in the shortest possible time was exhilarating.
Are there other external factors that you believe contributed to your success?
Starting out at Xerox was a huge factor. They were the best in the world at training and developing salespeople. So many sellers don’t have that experience; they’re hired one day and sent out to call on customers with virtually no direction from their manager beyond “go get ‘em.” The fact that I was hired by a company who really invested in salespeople and understood what it took to be successful was a huge factor in my personal success.
What company do you look up to in terms of sales training today?
Most big companies have full plans in place to develop people throughout their career and that’s very important. The smaller companies have more of a challenge, because they don’t have staff. What I see with smaller companies is, the good ones are really working off of a playbook. The playbook becomes a living document and people are constantly testing that.
Top performing sales organizations create an upward spiral by engaging their salespeople in constantly finding more effective ways to handle every aspect of the sales cycle. For example, they’re always asking: “How can we make our proposals more effective? How can we make our demonstrations more effective?” There’s a constant experimentation with improving effectiveness – not just efficiency.
How do you reconcile all the different aspects that make up a playbook to come up with best practices?
There are some basics that transcend personality. For example, you have a value proposition and it’s how you impact your clients. Your sales people should be able to articulate it. They should know that different buyers need different value propositions because their job expectations are fundamentally different.
Also, there are certain questions that you must ask in order to understand your customer and their business needs. Salespeople should know what these questions are. They should also know the best sequence to ask them in – and why. If a company leaves it up to their salespeople to figure out what to ask, they’ll often miss crucial areas of discovery. For example, many newer salespeople are uncomfortable asking a business person about their objectives, issues or challenges. These need to be asked. They should be part of the playbook.
In the world of B2B sales, what has and hasn’t changed over the years?
The buyers have changed significantly. They have total access to information, they don’t necessarily need a salesperson. Because of that, their expectations of salespeople have fundamentally changed. Unless a seller can add value by bringing ideas, insights or information to the conversations, they’re quickly dismissed. Sellers who aren’t value creators struggle to get follow-up meetings and their deals get stalled out.
It’s not just B2B buyers that have changed, we’ve all changed. We have to be focused on aligning with our buyers business values. We have to know as much as we can about them before making contact. Salespeople have to help buyers see new ways to achieve their goals that they haven’t thought about before.
That’s similar situation to a promising company like Cien are in. You’re selling a new product. Nobody’s saying, “I need AI”. However, they’re interested in AI and a lot of them are nervous about it.
What is it about AI that you believe makes sales leaders nervous?
Anytime there is new technology, people are skeptical. Technology companies adopt technology first. They have lots of data that they need to sort through. They’re also scared of falling behind, which means they’re willing to take more risks and try new things to get a competitive advantage.
However, the general market is still slow. These buyers want to make sure that AI is really working and delivering measurable value. They need to see use cases featuring companies similar to themselves who are realizing quantifiable business results. That’s human nature.
Are there any advantages or disadvantages of being a women in sales? Or is that a chimera? And, in today’s world is there still a gender divide?
There’s a big gender divide in hiring salespeople. Some companies think women can’t do the job. They have a hard time sourcing quality female candidates. And honestly, they prefer to hire people in their own image (e.g. male, tall, athletic, competitive).
I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s just a comfort level. In many cases, I don’t think women see sales as a career choice. So many sales positions have job descriptions that say, “Quota-busting, hustler, who can knock ’em dead and ask killer questions.” A lot of women don’t see themselves in that role; it doesn’t align with their own self perception. And even worse, these characteristics are not necessarily correlated with success in sales.
What lots of people don’t realize is that recent studies have show that a) women outperform men in sales jobs. Not by a lot, but they do outperform men. And b) women stay a year longer. With the high cost of turnover, this alone should be a wake-up call to companies to look for more women candidates. It’s an economic decision. We need to invest in women.
Another issue I see is sales managers are more quick to lose confidence in their female sales hires. Women are much more outspoken than men about their fears and confidence level. Men who are new in a sales position typically zip their insecurities shut. When a male sales leader hears that a young female sales rep is unsure of her own ability, they lose confidence quickly in her—which leads to a negative self-fulfilling process.
What would you say the high tech industry can do to help women be more successful in their careers?
Companies need to promote more women. If you get more women in leadership positions, you get more women on your sales teams. And, you have to have confidence that women can do the job.
When I began my career at Xerox, they did not want to hire women. But new federal regulations require that companies wanting to do business with the government have an employee/sales pool that reflected their community. Within a couple year period, Xerox went from zero women to 50% women on the sales force plus they hired tons of minorities. I would not have been hired without that law. People will say it’s not good to have quotas, but unless you expect people to hire a diverse perspective, they’re not going to do it.
What advice would you have for organizations that are trying to build a strong performing sales culture?
A focus on continual learning is vital. Leaders need to continue to learn, grow and inspire people to tackle AI. The more you can get people to experiment and try, it creates an upward spiral in the whole organization. The culture of learning is so crucial to be successful. I don’t think the “bro culture” does anything to be successful except make a bunch of guys feel cool.
What advice would you offer to other women who aspire to be as successful as you?
Find other women in sales and get to know them. You need a group of people like you to be a support system. They don’t even have to be in your own company. You may need to venture out and just talk. Talk about what we as women can do to grow and learn.
The reality is that, nowadays buyers want characteristics that women are typically stronger at. Women are better at asking questions and they’re better at creating a collaborative atmosphere. Women come in more prepared for meetings. They’ve thought through things. They’ve figured out what they’re trying to do. Women may not be “quota killers”, but as I said earlier, they do outperform men—even if it’s just a little bit.
Women need female role models. They need to women like them that are successful.
Is there a particular female sales leader that you admire or has played an influential role in your life?
There are some really neat women out there, like Trish Bertuzzi and Lori Richardson from Women Sales Pros. There are some really top notch sales experts in that group. It’s a great place to see talented women speakers, consultants and authors.
What would you recommend in terms of an organizational design for women who are leading a very hectic career? Is there a way a woman can organize themselves properly?
Salespeople are so tied to their devices these days; they’re constantly checking their emails. We don’t realize the impact this is having on our productivity. We think we’re staying on top of things by constantly checking, but the reality of it is, research shows over and over that our brain is incapable of constantly switching tasks.
Research shows that 50% of emails are attended to within six seconds of arriving in your inbox. Meaning, you check to see if the email needs to be responded to. But what that does, when you leave whatever you were working on, it takes your brain 10-20 minutes to get back to the job you were working on before. A person can save an hour or two a day by stopping this addictive behavior.
Also, at the beginning of the day, take 15 minutes and ask yourself, “What’s the most important things that I need to get done today? What are the things that will have the highest impact on my sales results?”
Once you’ve decided, then block those important things on your schedule and treat that time as precious time. It can not interrupted.
If you do this—and schedule time to check emails—you’ll get a lot more done. You get higher quality work done, because you’re not constantly jumping from task to task. When working with customers, you become more creative and more strategic in your thinking if you invest dedicated time to that task.
Look at how you’re using your time and become cognizant of how precious your time is. It will help you do your job better.
If you weren’t in the B2B sales industry today, what do you think you’d be doing professionally?
I want to use my sales skills to change the world. I think there’s a lot that needs to be done and since my skill is words, I’m looking into some initiatives that I can get involved in where I can make a bigger difference beyond the sales field.
The political situation in the US is not good. Our country is very divided, and the most important thing I want to do now is bring people towards the middle. I don’t think we can solve any of the world’s problems if we are apart. One person can’t change the world, but we all have our own assignments depending on who we are, what we love to do and what our expertise are. I feel that it’s my turn to do my part.
About Jill Konrath
Jill Konrath is an international sales speaker with over 1/3 million LinkedIn followers. She challenges sellers to up their game, out-think their competition and win more deals. Salesforce named her one of the most influential sales experts of the 21st century, LinkedIn selected her as the #1 B2B Sales Expert to follow in 2018 and she was featured in “The Story of Sales” documentary. Jill is the author of four bestselling books—More Sales, Less Time; Agile Selling, SNAP Selling and Selling to Big Companies. Her clients include GE, Microsoft, IBM, EY, Staples, Hilton and numerous mid-market firms. She’s also a business advisor to growing tech companies.