Focus on the relationship — I always approach every deal cycle as something that can close today, but it could also be a year from now, or even 3. When you have that in mind, you do everything to try to close the deal now — share content, work on business value case, etc., but also, you focus on building the long-term relationship vs. doing the transactional sale. You try to create shared experiences and genuinely be helpful — with their hiring needs or even with advice on school programs for their kids. That mindset pushes you away from being pushy.
As a part of this series called “How to Be Great at Closing Sales Without Being Perceived as Too Salesy or Pushy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Haggai Levi.
Haggai is the CEO and founder of SetSail, an AI-powered Sales Platform that enables signal-based selling and a new way to incentivize revenue growth. Haggai joined a few of his colleagues in 2018 to found SetSail. His vision was to combine behavior science with data science to disrupt and transform traditional ways in which modern sales leaders drive and measure sales productivity. Prior to founding SetSail, Haggai spent 7.5 years leading data science teams at Google to accelerate revenue. While at Google, he rolled out a program that resulted in double-digit sales productivity growth and quota attainment. Prior to that, Haggai served as a consultant at McKinsey where he advised on growth and transformation initiatives across the world’s leading technology, media, and medical device companies. He holds an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University, MSc in Electro Optics from Ben-Gurion University, and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Israel Institute of Technology.
Thank you for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this career path?
I have always been fascinated by the idea of using innovations in data and AI to help people make better decisions. Early in my career, I joined McKinsey to do just that. I would use many analytics tools and elaborate frameworks to help top global revenue executives make decisions about the growth of their business. Soon, it became clear to me that the field of data science for sales is ripe for disruption. That’s when I decided to move to Silicon Valley and join Google. While at Google, I built a large team of machine learning experts to create scalable systems that increased the revenue contribution of thousands of sales reps. After 8 years of many “aha” moments and realization of what AI for sales is capable of, I and a few key members of my team decided to leave Google and found SetSail.
Our mission at SetSail is very simple: Empower sales teams with better decisions to increase their win rates. While at Google, we realized that no matter how many dashboards we built to increase win rates, something was missing. All the data we had wouldn’t do much to improve a sales rep’s performance. That something was human motivation to change their ways. When we implemented systems that incorporated AI-based motivation tools, the results were astonishing. In some groups, revenue per rep more than doubled. We brought that realization to SetSail to disrupt a few antiquated concepts in sales: the lagging approach to sales performance, the disconnected approach to compensation, and the quota-based approach to motivation. We do that by combining AI and behavioral science in one connected experience. We tie historical sales success data to micro-incentives that proactively reward deal progress, which in turn boosts the motivation of reps to perform at a whole new level as they are working the deals.
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us why you are an authority on sales?
All these years, I have worked alongside the world’s best revenue and sales leaders. I helped them look at the performance of their teams and make key growth and optimization decisions. When I founded SetSail, I also became its master salesman. Whether I want it or not, I’m constantly selling SetSail and I’m putting the learnings I’ve had over the years into practice. I came to realize that the best way to sell is to actually try to understand the customer’s problem at a very deep level and genuinely strive to help. So far I’m beating all the quotas. 🙂
As you know, nearly any business a person will enter will involve some form of sales. At the same time, most people have never received any formal education about how to be effective at selling. Why do you think our education system teaches nearly every other arcane subject, but sales, one of the most useful and versatile topics, is totally ignored?
Our education system teaches many things that won’t be needed 10 and maybe even 5 years from now. But the things that are needed to teach now — all the soft skills that build up the emotional intelligence, aren’t well programmed in our school systems in my opinion. Sales skills are a good example. I’m not sure there’s a need for a whole curriculum, but the basics could definitely be incorporated. While some people are born with an innate ability to sell, I believe many can be taught. It’s a life skill that’s necessary even if you are not in Sales. If you are a businessman, you sell an idea, if you are a lawyer, you sell an argument, and a teacher sells the benefits of education and discipline. I wonder sometimes if methodologies that we teach for Sales Teams — like MEDDIC, Challenger, and Sandler — are well suited to teach young people as early as High School. While you do need some life and business experience, these concepts are definitely well crafted for the students to understand.
This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesy”, is making an assumption that seeming salesy or pushy is something to be avoided. Do you agree with this assumption? Whether yes, or no, can you articulate why you feel the way you do?
I think we are in the new age of selling and marketing. People don’t want to be sold to anymore. They want the pull more than the push kind of selling. They like to do their own research. The rise of peer review sites like G2 and Capterra for business software is a great testament to that. Customers read reviews first before they call or email a salesperson. Or they ask their peers in one of their slack or LinkedIn communities. In fact 2/3 of purchase decisions are driven based on human-driven marketing. That’s why salespeople need to be extra thoughtful when prospecting and extremely well at listening when on a sales call. Because chances are, if the customer is on the call they have much more specific questions to be answered than your standard sales pitch.
The seven stages of a sales cycle are usually broken down to versions of Prospecting, Preparation, Approach, Presentation, Handling objections, Closing, and Follow-up. Which stage do you feel that you are best at? What is your unique approach, your “secret sauce”, to that particular skill? Can you explain or give a story?
I’m not sure I’m strong at any particular stage all the time to be honest. As I approach a prospective client in my network for feedback on our product, that’s where the relationship usually starts. From there on, I’m laser-focused on trying to understand the customer’s world and see how I can help them. We get introduced to many people throughout the selling process. And everyone has a different need. But all the time our goal is one: solve the customer’s problem — across the entire buying unit that is. And if at any stage we don’t do a good job of listening to the customer or matching our solution, that’s the stage we realize that we need to improve. Sometimes it’s prospecting, we approached a customer that wasn’t ready and kept carrying through. And sometimes it’s handling objections, we didn’t understand the customer’s world enough and didn’t anticipate the objections that came up. But that’s all part of the learning process.
Here at SetSail, we actually take the guesswork on what works best in your sales process and use data to show you that. For example, with one enterprise customer, our data showed that below are the things that worked across the sales process:
In the age of data, there’s no reason why lead generation, or prospecting, is one of the basic steps of the sales cycle. Obviously, every industry will be different, but can you share some of the fundamental strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
One word: hyper-personalization. As I mentioned previously, the world has changed. You can’t reach your customers with a blanket message anymore. Once you see that the lead is in your target market, and they are going through a rapid growth for e.g. And you know that in rapid growth, you need to put processes for scale and consistency in place. That’s where our product helps. I do a fair bit of understanding of the stage they are at, and how exactly we can help them scale to the next stage. Is it ramp time that we can reduce? Or rep attainment? And is it for their BDR team or AE team? I then start a conversation with a few assumptions in mind and try to correct them as we qualify a lead. You just have to put in the work even as you try to generate leads today.
In my experience, I think the final stages of Handling Objections, Closing, and Follow-up, are the most difficult parts for many people. Why do you think ‘Handling Objections’ is so hard for people? What would you recommend for one to do, to be better at ‘Handling Objections’?
When It comes to Handling Objections, preparation is king. You need to know the customer’s world. What stack are they using? Where do we fit? And why we are the right solution? From price to misconceptions of what our product is to their security and privacy questions, you need to have a solid list of objections that you are trained on and feel confident about the answers as well as going deeper in each. That requires preparation and constant adjustment as the market landscape changes.
‘Closing’ is of course the proverbial Holy Grail. Can you suggest 5 things one can do to successfully close a sale without being perceived as pushy? If you can, please share a story or example, ideally from your experience, for each.
Rather than five, I focus on the top three things:
1. Focus on the relationship — I always approach every deal cycle as something that can close today, but it could also be a year from now, or even 3. When you have that in mind, you do everything to try to close the deal now — share content, work on business value case, etc., but also, you focus on building the long-term relationship vs. doing the transactional sale. You try to create shared experiences and genuinely be helpful — with their hiring needs or even with advice on school programs for their kids. That mindset pushes you away from being pushy.
2. Get the buying team on board — if you involve more contacts of the buying committee in the sales process early on, you increase your chances to win by more than 60%. You have to be proactive on involving the entire buying unit. The key is to involve IT and Finance in that mix as early as possible.
3. Seed your chance to close early — The foundation for closing is actually laid in your first meeting. If you start off by positioning yourself as a relevant partner in the shift that’s happening in the customer’s world, your place in their mind is different than many tactical tools. For e.g. at SetSail, we realize that the biggest shift happening in the customer’s world is remote selling due to COVID. We start off by discussing that early in our conversations and tie our solution back to productivity, management, and motivation in times of a crisis like this. Not just a motivation tool. That positioning early on is critical. No ROI study can beat that.
What are your thoughts about ‘Follow up’? Many businesses get leads who might be interested but things never seem to close. What are some good tips for a business leader to successfully follow up and bring things to a conclusion, without appearing overly pushy or overeager?
The best reps are great at follow-up. They time their reach out, are brief, and helpful. Timing: you have to watch the 2-day rule before you have another follow-up. Brief: you can’t be lengthy or apologetic. Make it easy for the customer to answer by asking in a straightforward way what the follow-up is about — e.g. ‘would you like to move forward?’ Helpfulness: Always include a few ideas in which you can help move things forward. Don’t just ask as a nudge. You already have an idea what the hold-up is about. Help the customer unblock. Those are my 3 rules for a good follow-up.
As you know there are so many modes of communication today. For example, In-person, phone calls, video calls, emails, and text messages. In your opinion, which of these communication methods should be avoided when attempting to close a sale or follow up? Which are the best ones? Can you explain or give a story?
I don’t think any should be avoided. We live in a multi-media world, and every customer has different preferences. I would say big on video (sending follow up video messages) and engage with your customers on social in a relevant way. We are trying get better at those 2 aspects here at SetSail too. Community building and video chats are going to be the biggest channels for selling and helping in the coming decade.
Thank you for these great insights.