October 18, 2017

Brian Burns Interview: Sales Call Activity, Sales Process & Sales Theory

Making The Most Of Your Sales Call Activity:

Brian Burns, host of The Brutal Truth About Selling Podcast, interviews Eric Esfahanian, CRO of Gryphon Networks, to discuss the TOP 3 Things To Focus On To Make The Most Of Your Sales Call Activity.

It is shocking how many managers don’t know how many sales calls their reps are making every day. Phone activity is the richest source of intelligence for managers, and Eric Esfahanian, CRO of Gryphon Networks, touches on the importance of using this data to improve the sales management function and the activity of every rep.

Call activity data allows managers to understand what happened on the phone call, understand behavior patterns of positive or negative results, and determine who will be successful—and who is committed to your efforts. Getting your hands on the activity creates two-way accountability by giving managers access to the data, and prevents reps from gaming the system.

You can listen to the interview below or read the complete transcript.

Interview Transcript

BB: Hey, Eric. Thanks for joining us today. As a way of getting started, tell us a little about yourself and what you’re focusing on right now.

EE: Sure, thanks, Brian, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today. I work for a company called Gryphon Networks; I head up all front office functions—sales, marketing, customer service. I’ve been with Gryphon for about six-and-a-half years, which is an eternity in technology software times. And before that, I spent about fifteen years in enterprise software companies, both large and small, of the likes of which include EMC, Hewitt Packard Software, as well as Microstrategy.

BB: Hey, you wrote a great blog post, about measuring your sales team’s activity—what was your motivation for writing that?

EE: Well, I had been thinking a lot about ways to improve the sales management function. Even as an individual sales rep back in the old days, I noticed that there was a lot of guesswork, a lot of punches, that managers had to make to determine who was going to be successful at the end of the month, or at the end of the quarter, or the end of the year. And, once I started getting more exposure to the concept of business intelligence, I started to wonder why there was such a disparity between the way a sales organization is run, from a data perspective, and the way the other departments of any large company are run.

The other departments tend to be much more focused on using data, and using science, to optimize and drive efficiency in costs. Then you move over to the sales organization. They were still making a lot of decisions the way they always had, which was extracting data from CRM, spreadsheets, or weekly conference calls.

Most managers were running their sales operation, and then consequently the company was doing their budgeting and forecasting based on pipeline reports that were extracted from CRM reports, or even done manually. And those are not the best ways to improve the effectiveness of the team—measuring the outcomes, instead of measuring the activities that predicted those outcomes.

So, I started wondering if there were ways that we could use data in a smart, efficient way, that could elevate the way that managers hire. The way managers onboard, train, and coach. With the objective here being how do we systematically improve the average effectiveness of every rep on your team, instead of relying on the traditional gut-intuition management style of a lot of sales managers? And the 80/20 rule, where you’re getting most of your revenue from a few of your reps, a large segment of your reps aren’t contributing meaningfully to the top line.

BB: What I’ve always seen, it was typically managed by panic, and rollercoaster, where the beginning of the quarter, everyone would go off into kick-off meetings and strategy and planning, and trade shows and conferences. The second month, people would start saying, let’s get some proposals out there. And then the third month, we have to make our number, so how do we close this deal?

I always think, why don’t you just work smart and hard every day? Instead of trying to be that green beret or that navy seal the last two weeks of the quarter.

EE: You’re exactly right. If you hark it back to the late ‘90s, when they had the concept of these boiler room sales operations, where everyone was in a dark cavernous office, and they were all cranking out calls, Wolf of Wall Street style; I noticed how the managers of those groups—for better or for worse—they weren’t managing a pipeline report.

They were managing every activity that their reps were conducting, primarily phone calls, but they knew to the Nth degree how many calls were placed, how many conversations were had, and how many deals were closed.

They were able to control the outcomes much better because they were controlling the activities that were predictive of those outcomes. And I began thinking, when did we get away from that? And it turns out it was in the early 2000s when the internet became a little bit stronger and more ubiquitous when mobility came about. I look at what happened, which is that they moved everybody out of this boiler room and into the field, into the distributed environment.

Everybody has cell phones, and all managers are left with, in terms of that predictive insight of activity, is a CRM, where most of the activity that is logged—maybe thirty percent of the actual activity ends up in there—but even when it’s in there it’s manually logged, and it’s very cursory. That is the activity they were left with when they moved out of that boiler room. I said well, I know we don’t necessarily have a call-center type visibility, because field managers don’t have that kind of time or resource, to pour over data the way a call center does. But that doesn’t mean that having access to this data, at some level, can’t have a significant impact. When I went out and talked to some of our clients about this, I was surprised at the feedback they gave me.

BB: You are also applying the 80/20 rule, which is one of the core things that I always focus on. Because when I see pretty much 99 percent of sales experts out there—you take your quota, you divide it by the average deal size, then you multiply it by the number of calls that it takes to get the meeting. The win rate. But I’ve never seen that work in 30 years. And if that did work— maybe it does—when you’re selling renewals and transactional things that are more like the boiler room stuff; when you’re selling penny stocks or insurance policies. But, when you’re selling more complex things like when you’re selling what I’m selling, you have to find the right person, because not every person is identical. That’s the difference between marketing and sales—marketing has to work with personas, sales works with people.

EE: That’s exactly right. And nothing meaningful every gets sold without effective use of the telephone. I always tell my sales guys at Gryphon, you can have the greatest meeting with all the key players in the room, and you can give a dazzling presentation and have everybody giving you high-fives and “encore! encore!” at the end of it. But nothing will really change the state of your relationship with that client until you leave, and everybody goes home on their planes after the dinner, and you sit down at your desk, and you go, what next?

How do I move the agenda after that big event, that big meeting? And that, in my world, is where the heavy lifting comes in; in that continuous, day-to-day advancing of the sales cycle. And most of that, in a meaningful way, is done by telephone. What happens on that phone line is the richest source of intelligence that that manager is going to be able to get their hands on—if they can get their hands on it quickly, and interpret it in a way that makes sense, quickly.

BB: Your first bullet item is “statistics don’t lie.” Have you found that to be consistent?

EE: I would say yes, and I’m hesitating a little because there is always going to be those outliers, and the outliers tend to stick in our mind more often than not. But what I can say, is that you should know how many calls your average reps are making out there. You should have a decent idea. You don’t need to know exactly, but a handle on it is very helpful. And you should have an idea as to who is most effective at outbound accounts, or inbound call-backs.

You should know who spends the most time talking on the phone. You should know who’s the best at getting the optimal outcome when they’re talking on the phone. Because those types of data points generally correlate to the ones that are the highest performers. Not all the time, because you’re going to have some of the old war horses who are heavily face-to-face relationship salespeople—they don’t want you managing any of their stuff, they just want to be left alone—and you’re going to have to.

But at the same time, that significant middle 60 percent of your team, those activities are indicative of whether or not they are successful. If nothing else, it tells you how committed they are to your company—if they’re committed to your efforts, if they’re willing to do, day-to-day, what you prescribe to be successful—if your prescription is based on fact, and not based on oh, well this is the way that we always used to do it.

BB: The problem is the researcher effect, meaning that once the subject knows that they’re being observed, they play the game that you want played. And what ends up happening is you get false positives, and evidence of work instead of actual work.

EE: You’re absolutely right, and they’re gaming the system. And that’s where you’re making sure that the data you’re looking at is accurate, and you’re not relying on the fox to guard the hen house and give you their activity all the time. There’s a lot of technologies out there now that will capture all the activity on the phone, in the network, and make it visible to you as a manager without the rep doing anything more than making the phone calls that you’re asked to make.

Now, you can see a lot of calls, you can see a lot of contacts, and you can see a long duration of talk time. The next thing you need to understand, to get to your point, is what happened on the phone call—Was it successful or not? What did the rep say or do in response to the way the customer dealt with them? —in order to understand the behavior patterns that are getting positive or negative results.

If you see one rep is outstanding in setting appointments, for example, if that’s the optimal outcome, the next thing you need to verify as a manager is okay, are these really appointment sets, or is this rep characterizing them in a way that may not be all that accurate? In the old days, the only way you could do that is either sit in on the call with them live, which has its challenges, or have a call center environment where you have a supervisor who is roaming around and monitoring everything.

Those worlds have changed a little bit, technology has evolved a little bit, and analytics has evolved a lot. Now, you don’t need to have that resource dedication to figure out whether a rep is telling the truth or not, and you also don’t have to throw up your hands and go we’ll never know any of this stuff, we trust our reps, now let’s look at pipeline.

BB: Yeah, those are two ends of the spectrum. What I’ve seen gone wrong is managers, lazy managers, just looking at call time, number of dials, number of connects, and then giving that feedback without understanding why, what’s happening, and what’s really going on during those calls. What ends up happening is oh you want more connects? I’ll call the movie theatre and listen to what’s playing there.

I’ve worked at a company where the reps were gaming the manager because they were getting knocked, and they weren’t getting comped on results. They were getting observed, punished, and rewarded for things that should be really quantitative.

I think once you tell people this is what you are going to be observed on, you ruin it. Instead of managers taking this, and trying to find out what that recipe is for those B players; those lone wolves—who know what they’re doing—they’ll figure it out. The C players who just don’t fit in, you have to get them out.

The B players, they’re the ones that you want. They’re the 80 percent of your pipeline that’s going to blow you away, but you can’t have them focus just on stats.

EE: Well, the attitude that we have is that you should be moving these folks up, or you should be moving them out. And you hit the nail on the head, Brian, regarding managers. There are a lot of managers who retreat into what they’ve always seen work for them, and they fear that analytical approach. I see your point specifically around thinking that you’re managing by monitoring the stats of your team. But what we’re seeing is something a little different. We’re surprised at how few managers know how many calls reps are making. They don’t even know the basics—they don’t know the stats.

How many conversations does it take to get an appointment set? You would think every manager worth his or her salt would have that at their finger-tips. What you hear is what they think is going on. And then what we find is that if you measure that accurately, what’s actually going on is far less. The first thing you have to do is get your arms around that activity. Don’t fall into that self-delusion thinking that every rep is making 20 calls each day when in reality, they are making three. And you have 20 percent of your sales force that is making none. So what the heck are they doing?

Once you know what they’re doing all day, then you take it to the next level. You go from quantitative, to qualitative. Alright now I know what everybody’s doing, as awful as it started out, we’re slowly moving up and getting reps to make two more calls than they would every day. And those two more calls compound themselves into overall effectiveness. You start seeing the good reps, or the reps that are beginning to pull away, then you switch over into the qualitative aspects of their activity.

Things like the actual conversations, and you begin to identify what makes them successful, or you identify these reps are calling the movie theater, or their moms, and gaming the system. And we find something different. There’s less concern around the reps gaming the system when you start telling them that you’re going to have access to that activity.

From the second they know that this system is in place, and that their manager is going to see chapter and verse of what they’re doing every day, you’re going to see an increase in activity and improvement in overall quality of performance, just by the rep psychologically knowing that somebody out there is going to hold them accountable.

Because in today’s world, you’d be amazed. These people are like I can do whatever I want on the phone, nobody is looking, nobody is watching. When my manager calls me in at the end of the week for my weekly pipeline update, I’m going to tell him about all the great things that I did.

He’s not going to know any better whether I did or didn’t do it, and I’ll move on to the next week and hope this deal closes. That’s what we’re trying to change. This mindset, that we’re going to trust the reps to do whatever they want, and if they bring that number in, that’s great. And if they don’t, then maybe they’re not doing the right things—they’re getting fired. Because that shifts the accountability away from just the rep is accountable for making a lot of calls because they work for me.

The accountability can also go right back then to the manager. We call it two-way accountability. So yes, I’m going to hire somebody, and I’m going to say this is what the most successful reps need to do every day to be successful.

But if that rep does that, commits to that, and executes on what you laid out for them, and that rep isn’t getting the result that you expect them to, then that accountability shifts right back to the manager—to coach, to train them, or to look at the goals that they have set, and revise them to reflect more realistically on what they can expect. That two-way accountability is what’s opened by having clear visibility to this day-to-day activity of all your reps.

BB: I can see that happen. Because being good at anything is really a daily activity. Sales lends itself, either through lock opportunity, or desperation, to have this roller-coaster of super high activity, sleepy time, and recovery time. Especially if you sell big things, where you might be working on a big deal exclusively for a couple of weeks, and not have any time to prospect or work on other things. And then once it closes, you have to then recycle, and get back to prospecting mode. What works for you guys?

EE: Right. It may sound a little cliché, but I think the best thing we coach our clients to do—and we coach our sales folks internally as well—is prioritizing what you’re doing every day. When I have a big deal that I’m working on, that’s the lion’s share of my time, because it’s revenue, and it’s critical to the company. But it’s also prioritizing who you don’t work with. We say the most important stage of the sales cycle is the qualification stage because if you do that properly, and if you do that continuously at every stage, you’re always qualifying, always closing.

We say you should always be qualifying, because even when they’re saying the contract is illegal, there are four qualification questions that you can ask that point to better understanding where it’s at, and how long it’s going to take, and if there is any chance that the thing might fall through. Those are all questions you can ask, and that’s also qualifying.

We say that the more you say no to prospects, and say to them I don’t think you’re fit for us, the more you’re prioritizing your time. Instead of spinning wheels with a client that isn’t able to buy, or isn’t a good fit for you, you spend it with the most important nurturing you can be doing for your career in sales. And that is picking up the phone, sourcing, and prospecting qualified candidates.

BB: And how are you applying the 80/20 rule with your team? Do you do it recursively? One guy I talked to said “we do it once, then we do it twice, three times,” and what we end up finding out is you’re getting one huge client per year, and then a bunch of these big clients, and that’s just the nature of it. But that doesn’t lend itself to every business.

EE: Right. When we hire a new rep, what we typically tell them is that you’re going to come in, and you’re going to immerse yourself in the company, the product, the market, and our value proposition—and that’s going to be a period of a couple of months. Then you’re going to start picking up the phone, and you’re going to talk to low-quality prospects and make all your mistakes, and begin to get comfortable getting rejected. And begin to get comfortable articulating our value proposition and getting a more confident.

That’s going to result in, over time, getting some appointments set. And that’s going to result in, over time, getting some demos scheduled. And that’s going to result in, over time, small deals. And over time those deals are going to get bigger and bigger, but it’s always predicated on picking up that telephone and making a bunch of calls. Because that’s the start. And that activity, the high quantity activity, begets higher quality activity.

Higher quality activity begets low-quality revenue. And low-quality revenue begets higher quality revenue. So when we look at the 80/20 rule, we like to say, we try to turn Pareto on its head.

And yes, there’s going to be a subset of your sales reps that are the best performers. Let’s understand what makes them successful. What are the behaviors that your top reps exhibit? Because then we take those behaviors, and we use them as our training mechanism for the middle 60 percent.

That middle sixty percent now knows what success looks like and sounds like, and the goal here isn’t 80/20—it’s really 10/100. Let’s get 100 percent of our reps improving their effectiveness ten percent. If a rep isn’t going to be able to make it, well that’s somebody who’s probably better suited in another company or another path. But that pruning the shrub, to ensure that all the energy is going towards making the strongest shrub that you can get, is essential to it.

It’s not a matter of milking the 20 percent out of a little more revenue this quarter, because that middle 60 percent, or that middle 80 percent, is never going to do it. It’s saying, I want to make all of my reps five percent better, in knowing what the impact on your top line would be if you can do that.

BB: Now let’s talk about those top performers. Everybody who’s listening wants to know what the top performers are doing differently, other than just the knee-jerk reaction of ‘they work harder.’ What skills do they have? How do they manage their day? What do they do differently?

EE: Great question. I think what I’ve seen more is the top performers are naturally curious. They genuinely want to help a client, and I know that sounds pad, WORD?? Everybody wants to help a client. But, to help somebody genuinely, you have to be curious about how they’re doing things.

You have to be seeking if you can have an impact. And in a lot of cases, you probably can’t for a host of reasons. But that natural curiosity is essential. That willingness to not just get right into the sales presentation, but to really understand why your solution would even be a fit for this company. And then, how your solution could be a fit, and what would be the implications of it.

You should be doing the why and the how way before you’re doing the what. Because once you get to the what of your solution, you sound like every other vendor on the block and you’re going to be tuned out.

The best reps trade on that natural interest and curiosity in customer issues, and understand what they’re up against to see if there is genuinely a match—not just to create a scenario, like oh my gosh, what a surprise we can help you—but really understand that. I think that’s the first thing.

The second thing the best performers tend to exhibit more than anything else—and this is key in sales, I see a lot of people who don’t have it—they have an organizational system.

There’s so much information coming at you all the time, over the phone, via email. There are so many obligations that the average rep has today, which many reps simply don’t exceed expectations because they’re overwhelmed, and they don’t have a good system to deal with the avalanche of information.

They don’t know how to take an email and turn it into a task and move it out of their inbox. I see reps with a thousand emails in their inbox. I always just scratch my head and go how do you know what’s in there? How do you know where to put your priority? How do you know where to spend your time? And a lot of them don’t. They just look at what’s urgent and go to what’s urgent at that point in time.

The best habit system—and I won’t expound the value of any one system or another—but knowing how you’re going to process all this information is critically important, and it does separate the best from the folks that have a lot of raw talent and ambition, but they just don’t have a way to tackle all the information and the things they need to do to keep things moving forward.

Like we talked about before, you can prioritize the big meeting with the board of directors of your prospect, that’s easy to prioritize, but the next three follow-up touch points are a lot tougher to manage when you have eighteen other things—and you’re sitting with yourself, looking at your calendar, looking at all the other things you have to do. Those next three touch points could make or break whether you make the deal, so knowing when and how to respond to those is critically important.

I would say the third item that separates the successful from the unsuccessful is knowing what’s important from what’s urgent. I think that—what I would consider prospecting—I would consider that an incredibly important job for any sales rep. Whether they’re prospecting inside their target firm, perhaps is already a client, but they’re sort of winding their way through other departments, or they’re picking high-value targets within whichever industries you work with, or making a number of calls or emails to the right people, on a consistent-systematic basis.

I look at it like going to the gym—if you care about your health, you’re going to make it a priority to get to the gym, three, four days a week at least. If you care about your career in sales, you’re going to carve out time to do some of that prospecting, and that’s your sacred time, nobody can come in and step on it.

I think that idea is an anathema to a lot of sales reps, because they think oh I’ll do my prospecting when I’m learning the ropes, or I’m starting at a new company. But once I make it I’m just going to be managing my book of business and my clients, and prospecting is for the birds. The best reps don’t see the world like that. They’re always continuing to make that investment into their career by taking that time out and prospecting.

BB: That’s a great list. Are you a Covey fan? Is that where you got the importance in urgency? Or is that just organic?

EE: You know, it’s funny. I’ve read Covey. I think at my age, a lot of what I’ve read—I’ve read hundreds of these books, but my overall philosophy is a melding of all these things on some level or another.

We apply a sales strategy that I found out recently is similar to the Sandler sales methodology, and for almost a decade I was expounding this philosophy, never having any exposure to Sandler at all. One day I was hiring somebody, and I was explaining our overall sales approach, and he says to me “oh, that’s Sandler.” I’m like oh really, is it Sandler?

I went back and did some homework on Sandler, and that’s identical to my approach. I came about it just by trial and error, and learning what works and learning what doesn’t. And it just so happens I didn’t reinvent the wheel, the thing had already been there for many, many years, and is known by a large segment of the sales community.

It’s tough for me to discern where I learn this stuff because I’ve been doing it for so long.

BB: Hey, Eric, I appreciate you joining us today. If people want to learn more about you and what you’re doing at your company, where should they go?

EE: They can go to my Twitter, @sfahanian, or you can go to GryphonSalesIntelligence.com.

Excellent, I appreciate your time.
Thank you very much.

You can read our interview with Brian Burns Cold Calling is Not Dead; The Phone Has Never Been More Alive here.