As business owners and leaders, we all want more sales. How do we get that? Is it by hiring better sales people? Lowering our prices? Better marketing material? Before you take any of those steps, you need to understand the customer journey, which has changed dramatically over the past year. In this week’s episode, we chat with Tom Morgan, sales trainer and consultant, on the role of the salesperson in your organization. We talk about the customer journey, the impact of COVID on the sales process, and the one thing that’s missing from most successful sales teams. If you’re looking to generate more sales from your ideal customers, stop what you’re doing and hit the play button now on this week’s episode!
Rich: My guest today is founder and CEO of Breakthrough Sales Solutions and brings over 25 years of successful sales management experience and sales performance leadership to serve businesses throughout New England. He helps businesses create sales strategies, sales processes, and sales team direction, to achieve their business growth goals.
He has an extensive background with high growth companies, such as Converse, New Balance, Reebok, Puma, Keds – he’s really got a sneaker thing, doesn’t he – and Life is Good, and uses these experiences to help businesses increase sales and create long-term, sustainable, sales performance. He also enjoys mentoring local businesses through great organizations like Top Gun, MCE, SCORE and Greenlight Maine.
He and his wife of 33 years, Kim, reside in Ocean Park, Maine, and have two grown children; one in the other Portland, and the other in San Diego. Two beautiful places. Let’s dive into what owners need to know about sales, with Tom Morgan. Tom, welcome to the podcast.
Tom: Well Rich, thank you very much for having me. Quite an introduction.
Rich: Thank you. Very energetic, yes. Tom, as you look back on your long career, what was your first job?
Tom: The first job in sales, I was the Converse sales rep for upper New England, but the state of Maine was my favorite territory. And I used to go and call on shoe stores, independent stores, and call on high school local basketball coaches, college coaches, and just try to get them to wear and promote Converse basketball shoes.
So that was a fortunate job for me to get coming out of college because most of the people that got that work were former basketball players or coaches. And while I loved basketball, I’m not really a former player. I just, no one wanted the territory. So I took it and traveled extensively for the first three or four years of my career and just got to really know Maine. And that’s why I came back to Maine is it was always my favorite place to travel and do business.
Rich: That’s really funny, because as you tell that story, I realized that I moved to Maine back in 1999. And the reason was, I was doing sales at the time and nobody wanted to come up to Maine to service our two clients up here. And I’m like, spend all day in the car and then meet with a couple of people and have the entire thing paid for. And I had a couple of friends up here anyways. It worked out great. So sales led us to Maine.
Tom: Yeah, driving out to Calais. And then we had a hardware store out in Calais that used to be a very big Converse customer. And taking that ride from Ellsworth over and it just was always fun. Because at that time, the Canadian border was vibrant for sneakers. The exchange rate was perfect. So people would bus teams over from New Brunswick to Calais, and they’d wear old shoes on the bus. They’d get to Calais and they’d throw away their shoes, they’d buy new shoes and go home, so they didn’t have to pay the duty.
Rich: So when you got into this, did you have a background in sneakers or an interest in anything, or were you just looking for work out of college and this just happened to be something you found, and then you were like, ‘Hey, I actually, I’m good at this’?
Tom: Well, it’s interesting. If I wasn’t doing this, I would probably be coaching basketball somewhere or teaching at a high school. So those are the kinds of the paths I was looking at coming out of school was getting into being an assistant basketball coach. And this opportunity came that it was an industry I loved, the activity I loved, and what I found out in doing it is that actually, I love sales. And then as I grew my sales career, the strategy of it, the tactics, all the things you do every day, it became like coaching. So it’s like I morphed from wanting to be a college basketball coach to morphing into being a sales coach, and finding it just as rewarding. So it kind of evolved over time. Bur I think I really love the freedom and I really love the interaction with people that sales brings and it’s really a great profession. So I love it.
Rich: So tell me a little bit more about what you do now for companies when people call you in. Because you have your own business, but they bring you in as a consultant or vendor. What kind of work are you doing these days?
Tom: I focus a lot of my work on sales strategy. And that’s what does your sales strategy look like? What are your unique selling propositions? Have you done the work on that? What channels of distribution are you going after? Who are your customers? What are their personas? And then we dive from that into, does our sales process and the things we do match the activities that you say you want to do? And really what most of my work dives into is making sure that the teams that I work with are practicing their process, that are executing the process then in getting it in place, using the same words, using the same terminology.
You know, what you find a lot of times in organizations is the sales team can be kind of a more emotional aspect. Managing a sales team gets emotional because you’ve got all that customer interaction. You’ve got all the rejection. So really building a strategy and a process that is clear to everybody in the company takes away the emotion and then starts getting a little bit more fact-based. Salespeople can all have their own style, but I think salespeople really should only have one process. And that’s one of the things I really focus on.
I don’t know if you’re a fan of the movie Drum Line, with Nick Cannon back in the day. But the band leader said, “One band, one sound”, and it’s an approach I take with my clients. There’s one sales process. We can have lots of different people playing different instruments, but you’ve really got to have that one consistent process that supports the company strategy.
So I spend a lot of my time doing that and it’s fun because that could be industry agnostic. Usually, as you said, my background was sneakers, and how does that apply to some of the firms that I’m working with, the fields that are totally different to what my background is. But at the end of the day, they’re not hiring me to work in their plants, they’re hiring me to work on their sales. And I can come at it from a different point of view because I’m not emotionally involved in the politics of their company or just other aspects. I just listen to them. Sales process, sales strategy, are we on it, are we off it? And how do we get back on track?
Rich: Tom, there was a lot of good stuff to unpack in that answer. I want to go back to the very beginning, actually. You said something about you’re helping companies figure out what makes them different. And there’s a lot of different ways of saying that. Do you find that a lot of businesses haven’t done that upfront work, that they’re just like, ‘No, we just need to sell product’, and they haven’t figured out what makes them unique or why their customers might find them valuable?
Tom: Yeah, it’s interesting. And a lot of times they’ll have a mission statement that’s up on their board and I’ll ask them like, ‘How does this mission statement apply to your sales process and your sales strategy?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we really haven’t put much work into that. This was sort of an all company asked effort to get a mission statement.’ So it’s something that I don’t think enough companies take the time to appreciate.
And there’s so many great resources to help with it. You know, firms like yourself that really work with customers on trying to find their voice. I mean, it’s about finding that voice. What I try to do is when they have it, how do we make sure that gets integrated into their sales presentations, their sales collateral, to make sure that we’re constantly repeating their unique selling propositions.
It’s interesting, I thought more people would have it, but I think it’s just one of those things you get caught up in the day-to-day, you get really busy and trying to do your business, manage your customers, and you forget what makes you unique and how to leverage that.
Rich: You also talked a little bit about having one process. Can you speak a little bit more to what that means?
Tom: Well, if you look at it and everybody can do it differently. People sometimes will sign on to a CRM thinking that that’s a sales process. I mean, a CRM helps you manage your process, but you know, everybody has a phase. Typically everyone’s got prospects or leads they’re pursuing. So, you know, the first stage of the process is you’re out trying to generate and find new customers, new leads. The second thing you do in a process is usually once I’ve got all of this, how do I qualify them to find out if they’re viable to my business, if they’re interested in what we do, and once they’re qualified, what are the steps? Do you have a discovery meeting, and then does it get to demonstration, and then does it get to negotiation or do you have to send out a bid? And if it’s one of those, where’s the bid process in it?
So what I do is I help companies take every stage and say, what are the six to seven stages. And most people have six to seven stages of their sales process. What are the steps that have to happen in each? And when one thing happens, when do we proceed to the next stage of the process? And then we can start monitoring how long we spend in each stage of the process, our probability in each stage that there’s going to be a closed deal.
So from a process standpoint, what I try to do is, there’s no cookie cutter way to do it. Everyone’s going to have five or six steps depending on what they make, what they sell or what they do as a service. It’s really listening to them and saying, these are the things you’re saying are your stages, let’s start identifying them. Let’s start diving in and putting some definition on it, and then start getting into probabilities and how do we move things through the cycle faster.
Rich: If you could give us some of the top phases. Are these universal, do you see these different phases? Sometimes it may be five, sometimes it’s seven or nine, but what are some of the phases that you’re talking about that you see in most company’s sales process that we should be aware of?
Tom: Okay. Yeah. That’s the first thing is everyone’s gotten a lead generation process. Whether you’re using a service or whether you’ve got outbound marketing, whatever you’re doing, there’s a lead generation process. So that’s always going to be a step.
Then there’s sort of a leader qualification. We have all these names, we have all this information, how do you go about qualifying that they’re a viable customer for you. So those two things seem to be pretty standard.
Then when a lead is qualified, that outreach can be different for each company. But there comes a point where you’re going to do outreach and start having calls. And what I find is that initial outreach is where there’s some gaps. People think I’ve made a call to this qualified lead and I haven’t heard back. Right now it’s taking 12 to 15 outreaches to a qualified lead to get feedback. So that’s a gap. We usually see and spend a lot of time with in the sales process.
And then once you’ve made that connection or that contact, then you’re going to get into, is it a discovery meeting, or is it just an exploratory call, a networking call? So every company has a little bit different depending on what you make. And then as you work through, a lot of times, someone’s going to want to see if you’re capable, they’re going to want a demonstration. And then you start getting into the negotiation. So at each phase, there’s always at some point after discovery, someone’s going to ask you for something, either a proposal or a bid. So at that phase those seem pretty clear.
So you have a lead, you generate the lead, you qualify the lead. You have some sort of discovery. You send them a proposal of some sort. And then you negotiate the proposal. Those seem to be pretty consistent across the board. Some of your more intricate products or services have a number of steps in between because they have some due diligence they have to do, or it’s a high worth of a proposition that they’re working on, so there’s a lot of steps. But for the most part, those are the four primary things.
Rich: All right. Now as you’re working with different companies, what do you see as perhaps the biggest misconception around sales, or what is it that companies are struggling with when it comes to sales today?
Tom: I would say that the pipeline and their network in their pipeline or their lead list is just too small. They don’t anticipate what the close rates are going to be. They haven’t spent a lot of time going through the probabilities that. This is not baseball where you’re going to get a hit 3 out of 10 times. In some sales cycles it’s going to take you 10 meetings to get one customer. So I think there’s just an underestimation of the number of leads that you need to have and the number of touches that you need to make to those leads.
As I said earlier, you can take up to 12 to 15 touches to really move a lead forward, and how does the team build time for that and make sure they calendarize it. But those are usually the two biggest gaps, is not having a big enough pipeline and not doing enough touches to that pipeline.
Rich: When I was doing medical sales before I started my company, so we’re talking about the 1990s here, I basically was given a list of all the nursing homes – we sold to nursing homes – all the nursing homes and I would literally just go through that list and call and make appointments and stuff like that. It feels like, and maybe this is because I run a digital agency now, that so much more of the lead gen is through marketing as opposed to cold calls. Is that just my experience, or do you find that there’s been a seismic shift in the way that we bring leads to our sales team?
Tom: There’s been a pretty good shift. I mean, I say there’s a lot of lead generation services. There’s a lot of lead generation activity. I think where the gap is, is how we qualify those leads and how we do the number of outreaches. It’s still there’s always that classic fight between sales and marketing where marketing is not getting the leads, and marketing says sales doesn’t do anything with the leads. You know, I get them and it’s probably true. But the fact is, I think sometimes sales underestimates the number of touches it takes. Even though you’ve got a lead list, it doesn’t mean they’re qualified, they’re interested and they’re ready. So, you know, there’s going to be a time threshold.
So the lead generation is much more automated now, but there’s still a right amount of research once you get a lead that needs to be done. There’s a great amount of outreach. Just because you have a lead to say a nursing home, are we getting to the decision maker? Each organization is going to have multiple complex steps to try to do business. So that’s where I think the gap is, is the resourcefulness and the networking to take that lead and qualify it and move it along the pipeline.
Rich: So obviously we’re hopefully coming out of COVID right now. We were talking a little bit before we started recording, things seem to be getting better, but some of the things that changed during COVID is people stopped calling and started Zooming, like we’re doing right now. And obviously you can’t do as many in-person sales calls perhaps as you used to be able to, just dropping in on people unannounced. Do you think that has fundamentally changed the way that sales are taking place? And do you think that some of these things that we’re doing now such as Zoom calls – because maybe people don’t want to use their home phone to make sales calls – do you feel that those are things that are going to stick around and become part of the sales process? Or is this just something that once we get back to a post pandemic lifestyle, we’re going to go back to the old way of selling and calling on people?
Tom: Yeah, it’s an interesting question because sometimes it depends on the industry. But I will say that the trend towards more digital outreach, more video outreach, was happening a little bit before, but COVID has just accelerated this by five to seven years. So we’re at a state now where we’re almost operating sales like it’s 2024, 2025 in how digitally and electrically the market would be.
So what I’m finding is there’s a couple of things that happen. One dynamic is the roles of people who actually buy have changed. So in a lot of organizations I’m working with the people making the decisions on buying who used to be purchasing managers. So it used to be a sales rep to call up a company, “Let me talk to your purchasing manager”, they bought everything. That’s not happening. A lot of your purchasing now has been departmentalized. So if it’s a marketing collateral, the people in marketing were making that decision.
So the decision making process has changed. And as that’s changed, the dynamic of sales has changed. So you’ve got to meet those people where they’re at. So what we found is that over like 70% of customers are saying that they prefer in many ways to look for new products, new services, in a digital manner.
So McKinsey just did a study that said we were not going to be going back to the way it was. Buyers are fine with some of the steps being made. So in person is still going to be important in a number of industries and dealing with a number of buyers. But sales teams have to be prepared that there’s going to be a number of cases where they have to get really good at using the digital tools. Companies have to be thinking about ways to make it easier for their customer to interact with them in a digital manner. Having their catalog up online so people can buy online. Having more information on their websites so that it’s easier for customers to make decisions about whether their company is the right fit. And the salespeople have to be leveraging those tools.
And it’s interesting, phone calls are still the best way of sales cold calling. It’s still proven that a phone call is best, but your salespeople have to be using all their resources; social media, email, texts, phone. Being purposeful in their communication with people because there’s still going to be a high level of remote activity going on for the near future. And many of your buyers are finding they’re much more productive buying this way. So the time they used to spend maybe two to three hours with a salesperson, they now can go online, have the experience with that product, and make a buying decision much faster.
So your sales teams need to be ready for both. I’m trying to coach organizations on, yes, you’ve got to be really good in front of customers and be really good in person, but you’ve got to really adapt to these digital tools that are out there because your customers are going to be using them more frequently than they had in the past.
Rich: So we’ve got salespeople who are out there and they’re going to need to make in-person calls, they’re going to need to make phone calls, they’re going to need to be comfortable on video conferencing. What do you feel is the most important quality of a good salesperson?
Tom: Right now, I would say resourcefulness. Just being able to think through all the avenues, think through all the different methods that they could do something. And, being organized in that resourcefulness, there’s all different kinds of ways for a salesperson right now to be successful. And if you’re open-minded and you’re open to learning new things, you’re going to thrive in this environment. Because a good salesperson is always prepared to present the product well, developed great rapport with their customers.
But now you have to do that in different environments, so how do you become resourceful in doing that? And I’m seeing some examples of some salespeople that I work with that are just unbelievable at it. They figured it out. And I think part of it is either you can resist the change, or you can lean into it and dive into it and you’ll get better at all the different resources and tools that are out there. So I think resourcefulness, for me, is a very big thing for the salesperson to be successful.
Rich: All right. A little earlier you were talking about the customer journey. And as a marketer, I often think about the customer journey and where people go for information or advice. And then help either myself or my clients create content that will help the customer along in their journey, all towards my business or my client’s business. That’s from the marketing side of things. And obviously there’s a little bit of overlap between sales and marketing. What does the customer journey look like from that sales perspective?
Tom: Well, you look at your sales process and you try to match your sales process actually to the customer journey. So it’s where your customer is at. And I think one of the biggest things that has been evolving, but I think COVID certainly accelerated to the forefront, is the need for empathy in sales, an empathy based sales approach. Really understanding where your customer is at in the journey, not just physically, mentally, psychologically, emotionally, but really knowing where they’re at. So understanding your sales process and then understanding your customer and where they’re at.
One of the things we’re doing, which is a marketing ploy that marketing has done consistently especially in consumer marketing, is personas. But spending a lot of time on creating buyer personas and helping salespeople to think about their customers as people. So that when they approach their customers, they’re thinking about what their needs are, not just what they’re asking. And that’s an exercise we do as part of our sales process, but I’ve had examples where the persona training has helped some salespeople because they can figure it out. Going through COVID there’s one client I was working with and we built some personas and one of the sales reps was able actually to think about that persona when they were dealing with the customer through COVID, and never even had to share the proposal. The customer basically signed off on the proposal because the questions the salesperson was asking, he really met that person where she was at. And because of it, she built trust, and respect, and rapport, and she trusted that the proposal that he was putting out was fine. So there was no negotiation.
So really understanding where people are at in their journey and using empathy. It’s really important right now. I mean, the steps are really understanding what makes you special, understanding who your customer is, and what makes you special meets that customer where they’re at in their journey.
Rich: Right. We’ve talked a lot about businesses and some of the feelings or some of the language you use makes, and some of the companies you work with feel like larger companies. Are there different approaches you should be taking if you’re selling for a startup or a small to medium-sized business, versus a larger, more established company?
Tom: Well, I think for a startup, most of your larger established companies, the challenge there is usually they’re established so that’s getting them really into the new business development and the searching for leads. Because now if you’re successful and you’re large, you’ve got a pretty large customer base. So it’s that all, you know, doing more with the existing customers. How do you get them to do more? So a lot of the focus there is on your business development. Are you spending enough time on it? Are you doing enough touches? Because we want a blend of keeping our current customer satisfied with bringing in new business. So that’s usually what your larger company is about, finding that balance of sort of how we hunt for new customers while we continue to mine and grow our existing.
With startups it really is more of building the base, building the pipeline. In all cases, it’s matching your unique selling proposition to the customer of where they’re at. That’s similar all the way through, is how you approach selling it. But I find in startups, it’s much more about building the pipeline and figure out who your ideal customer is and getting after it. And many times with startups, it’s the realization that your best salesperson is your biggest believer in a startup.
And when I deal with a lot of startups that I’m mentoring, just get them to understand that you’re not going to be able to just go hire a salesperson that believes as much as you. You’re going to have to be the salesperson. And that can be a struggle sometimes, especially some of the startups if you’re coming in a highly technical area or you’re an educator, scientist, and you’ve built this product, training them on the fact that they just have to be the best salesperson for it. It makes them look at it in awe, but it really has to happen in a startup that you have to be a bit more scrappy. And your founder and your biggest believer has to be your salesperson. In a bigger company it’s more about keeping them mindful of having a pipeline for new business.
Rich: One of the things, the trends that I’ve noticed over the last 10 to 15 years, is there’s definitely a growing group of people who believe that sales reps should have salary, but not commission. That it’s in the best interest of the company to keep everybody just at a set salary so you maybe avoid some diva personalities or some infighting. Have you noticed that one method, commission versus salary, works better or worse when it comes to motivating salespeople and getting the best results?
Tom: Yeah, I think it’s, for me, results are a balancing of both. I do a lot of compensation work with my clients and it really comes down to, what are the behaviors and the activities that are going to make the company successful. And they’re going to make a sales rep successful hunting for new business. Is it taking care of the customers we have? And then how do you build an incentive plan? And ideally the best ones for salespeople are usually 50/50. That you’ve got that base to do the things that you need to do. You’ve got that consistency and then you’ve got the opportunity. If you execute the behaviors that the company is looking for to be successful, a combination of leading and lagging indicators. So not just base your compensation solely on just delivering a number, but there’s a number of steps along the way to that number.
I find those are the best plans that really tie back to the salesperson’s MBOs. So you’re creating a consistent company culture. You know, the 100% commission variable, if you’re using a 1099 type of outside rep, I mean, that model still works to a certain degree, but if you’re a startup going out and hiring an independent rep that’s got 20 other lines, that’s not usually the best path.
But I find for companies that it really is the study of what’s best for that industry, what’s best for the company, and how do we get the sales team really behaving in a manner that’s going to move the company and the business forward. So it comes down to if we had it in the sales strategy and the sales process, what are the important things to make it successful? And how do you build a compensation plan that matches those behaviors to the person? It’s a lot of work because you have to have somebody to manage them. So a lot of people try to go with a simple route in their compensation plans because you’ve got to have clear… in order to have a good compensation plan for a sales rep, you’ve got to have clear targets, clear goals, clear metrics, clear dashboard to track it. And that’s usually where the work is before you can build the commission plan. Sometimes you start with a commission plan, you’ve really got to start with what are all your metrics? What are all the keys to your success? And then you build your compensation plan from that.
Rich: All right. Tom, you obviously see a lot of different sales organizations out there. We’ve covered a lot of ground today. What do you think that are some of the biggest problems you’ve seen with sales out there right now that you’d love to fix?
Tom: The biggest thing for me at the end, especially here in Maine, there is not a robust pipeline of new people coming into the sales environment. And it could be maybe the entry level sales jobs that used to be out there and some of your big, packaged goods companies and those training grounds like P&G, there used to be all these… I remember when I was starting in sales, I had a lot of friends that were with General Foods and J&J and they all had these little starter territory servicing, and it doesn’t seem those roles are as robust there as needed out there.
So I see a lot of sales organizations that are looking out 5 to 10 years and wondering what does my bench look like? It’s not too different than Belichick not having a backup for Brady. There’s a lot of sales organizations. What’s your backup plan in three to five years when some of these great sales reps that have been doing it for years start to think about retirement. So having that bench of great sales talent that’s building and growing.
And there’s just some industries that, maybe it hasn’t been a profession that kids coming out of college really want to get into. And one of my passions is I’d love to see just more people getting into the sales environment, getting into the sales world, billing it as a career. It’s been really great for me. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve traveled the world because of sales. And salespeople I know that are at the end of their career talk about how fulfilling and satisfying and spend to get to know customers. And I think the one gap I see is there’s just not a robust enough pipeline of people coming in to sales, especially in the state of Maine.
Rich: It is interesting. Because I think a lot of people who don’t realize that we’re all doing sales, feel that sales is this dirty job. And honestly, when I look back at my life, probably the best thing that ever happened to me was falling into a sales job for a medical supply company. It completely changed my trajectory, completely changed my level of confidence. I found myself able to go up to just about anybody and have a conversation. And for the people who have only met me as an adult would have no idea what I was like as a teenager and probably couldn’t believe what I was going through. So sales was fantastic for me, and I definitely recommend it as a career if you have the right mentality for it.
So, Tom, one thing that we ask all of our guests here on the Fast Forward Maine podcast is, what one thing would you change if you could to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?
Tom: Well, it’s a pet peeve of mine and a passion, but I think there’s got to be a college or a couple of colleges or community college that starts to offer sales as a major for students, so we can start building this pipeline of people who really know that sales is a noble profession and that it’s something they want to get into. I think it’s happening in other areas of the country. I’m speaking next week with a professor from the University of New Mexico, he’s got a sales team on his campus. They travel just like it’s the big 10. They go travel and have sales competitions. And, you know, out of these schools, 20, 30 great new salespeople are coming out every year.
And I think it’s a great opportunity for the state of Maine, based on the fact that we’re an aging population and a lot of our sales teams that I deal with. I mean, you’ve got people that might choose to move on in their careers in three, five, seven years. And you know, those great new salespeople are heading into college now, and there’s a great pipeline. So for me, it’s just a pet peeve of mine that we’ve got all these business administration majors and why there isn’t more of a sales focus, sales education.
One of my dreams is to have the Maine sales team go to the national competition and win. And then we’re building great salespeople for the future of Maine. So it’s a pet peeve of mine, but that’s why I do so much mentoring and why I like to get involved with all these organizations. Because the more I can put sales out there as a noble profession, maybe I can get more people interested in doing it. So that’s really my mission, is to make sales a noble profession.
Rich: Awesome. For people who are listening now and might be thinking about improving their own sales process or building out a better sales team, and they want to talk to you or just learn a little bit more about what you’re doing, where can we send them online?
Tom: Actually I have a website through Sales Xceleration. But if you just go to a Sales Xceleration website, so that’s sales acceleration with an x, .com, and Google me, and you’re hitting my name and I’ll come up. And you can fill out an assessment and I can meet you from there.
Or you can just call me, my number is (978) 996-6030. Just call me and I’m always willing to talk to people about sales. And as I said, I love working with my clients. I’m very busy doing that, but someone wants to talk sales and talk about their sales team. I’m always ready and willing and ready to go.
Rich: Awesome. And we’ll have all those links in the show notes. Tom, this has been great. Thanks so much for coming on and talking about sales.
Tom: Well, thank you very much. And thanks for bringing sales to the forefront and getting people talking about it. The more they talk, the more interested they’ll be.