“We all love to learn and grow as individuals.” With Mitch Russo & George Donovan

I have a strong belief that closing should be a non-event. The best way to avoid a pushy or adversarial closing is to sell smart — if you have aligned the buyer’s process with your selling cycle, then closing should be a no-brainer. As a part of my series about how to be great at […]

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I have a strong belief that closing should be a non-event. The best way to avoid a pushy or adversarial closing is to sell smart — if you have aligned the buyer’s process with your selling cycle, then closing should be a no-brainer.

As a part of my series about how to be great at closing sales without seeming pushy, obnoxious, or salesy, I had the pleasure of interviewing George Donovan.

George is responsible for Allego’s customer acquisition and sales goals. A proven sales leader with over 20 years of sales, marketing, operations and management experience, George is a sales enablement enthusiast who loves tools and systems that empower people. Prior to Allego, George served as the Chief Sales Officer of Compete during its rapid growth from $30M to $110M. Previously, he was the principal owner of a Sandler Training franchise in Marlborough, MA. George holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Saint Anselm College. He was also voted Father of the Year an unprecedented 20 times (by his family).

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?

From the age of 15, I knew I wanted to be a salesperson — I can’t imagine another career besides sales.

As a young salesperson I was fortunate enough to have several fantastic mentors that taught me invaluable lessons of humility and patience, which are big parts of the sales process. But the most important lesson I learned was “people buy from people, not corporations.” Understanding customers’ motivations and goals are critical to success. I stuck to this advice as I transitioned from a salesperson to a trusted advisor, where I focused on consulting prospects about their buying journeys rather than just trying to sell things.

For the last 20 years I have been sharing the lessons I’ve learned with other salespeople. Nothing motivates me more than seeing the career progression of the people I have taught, mentored or managed. It’s incredibly rewarding to see a team member buy their first home, get promoted, double their income, and achieve personal goals.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Very early on in my career I was selling fax machines in Boston. We made 50 cold door knocks/walk-ins and 50 cold phone calls a day. As you can imagine, I dealt with plenty of rejection doing that job.

One day was particularly difficult but incredibly pivotal in my career: First, I was physically removed from a building that had a no solicitation policy — they didn’t like me riding the elevator floor by floor making my sales pitch to each office. I was okay with this, but it was coupled with another event that shook me a bit.

That same day I made a walk-in cold call to a law firm. When I approached the front desk there was no one there, so I asked out loud if anyone was around. A well-dressed woman in a business suit came out from her office to greet me. I gave my 30-second sales pitch and she declined, but I was trained to get 3 “No’s” before giving up, so I kept talking. Again, she said, “No, good day.” I then asked to speak with the top partner of the firm, and she proceeded to come towards me with a large legal book in her hand. Before I knew it, she took a giant swing with the book and connected right upside my head. When I regained my composure she was standing over me and said, “Get out or get the book again.”

I vividly remember riding the subway home that day, my lip quivering and nearly bawling my eyes out. That was the day I hit rock bottom in sales, but it was also the day that calloused my mind. I became mentally tough and, since then, no other rejection or lost deal has hurt me. I learned that failure and rejections is a critical part of success.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! A big challenge that comes with investments in sales training and sales productivity tools/platforms is accurately measuring business impact. In other words, what was the overall impact on sales as a result of investing in training and/or tools? That’s the question everyone is rightfully asking when it comes to maintaining or growing their budgets, but it’s been very hard to answer in terms of increased sales or a greater percentage of people achieving quota.

Advancements in technology are now beginning to solve this puzzle. At my company, we are actively working on cracking the code, aiming to help our customers identify how, when and where to invest money in their sales teams. Artificial intelligence (AI), along with integrations into Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, will show the correlation between investment and return. We will be able to see how and what the top performers are doing and then replicate those behaviors and skills in other salespeople.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am very grateful for Gail Sears, my sales manager when I worked at Corporate Software and Technology years ago. Gail hired me when I was under-qualified and much younger than my teammates, but she saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself, and she ended up giving me confidence I never knew I was capable of. I remember one specific incident that propelled my sales career and I owe it all to Gail.

I was still relatively new in the role — maybe 9–12 months with the company — and Gail and I were conducting a presentation with a big prospective client. We were co-selling with a partner, who lead the first part of the meeting. They did a great job, and the prospect seemed to be engaged and positive. I remember feeling excited, but mostly intimidated, about presenting next. How would I do compared to our partner? Was I too young? Was I credible enough? Did I have enough experience? All these thoughts were racing through my head as we took a short break before I presented.

Gail must have sensed my nerves. She looked me in the eye and said, “You are a much better salesperson than [the partner]. People connect with you. You’re going to do great.” My nerves instantly calmed and I got in the zone. As the story goes, we closed the largest deal in company history a few weeks later. I’m convinced to this day that if Gail had not said those words, the deal would not have been successful and perhaps I would not be in the position I am today.

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority on the topic of sales?

I’ve been very lucky to have gifted mentors, sales managers, CEOs and co-workers during my career. I also believe that years of experience helps drive expertise, but sales is always evolving. I’m constantly trying to study the art and science of selling and learn from other experts.

As for my personal experiences, I was a successful salesperson (top 5 of 100 for 5 years straight at Corporate Software & Technology) and a technology sales leader for many years. Additionally, I owned and operated a Sandler Sales Training franchise for almost a decade. To be successful in that business you must be able to sell, consult and train, and my partner Pete Oliver and I were recognized year after year as having one of most successful Sandler Sales Training franchises in the world. The CEO of one of my clients said he hired me because “you were the only person who was better than my best sales person.” That always stuck with me when I was prospecting for more clients — I simply had to be better than their best salesperson or sales leader.

For the last 5 years, I’ve been helping build a company called Allego. Allego is a software platform that provides learning, content and collaboration for salespeople. We have enjoyed tremendous growth and we have created a market that supports the evolution of the modern salesperson.

Let’s shift a bit to what is happening today in the broader world. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our families and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

We all love to learn and grow as individuals. It’s a fundamental part of human happiness. Most of us have more free time now that we are not commuting, traveling or working in an office, and I’ve been so impressed with some of my friends and family who are investing that extra time to try and learn new things.

Anxiety and fear can be soothed in part by distracting yourself with something you’ve never done or experienced before. Cook a new recipe, learn a new language, teach yourself to play an instrument, learn how to code, try meditation — there are so many different, exciting things that can be done in the comfort of our own homes amid closures and stay-at-home orders.

Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. 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?

This is a legacy problem. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of bad salespeople who have tarnished the reputation of the industry. The word “salesperson” can create a negative image for some because they have encountered poor or unethical salespeople in the past.

However, I think this problem is finally improving. We are starting to see colleges and universities include sales as a major area of study. I have a person on my team now with a degree in sales, and they were fundamentally well-prepared for their career from their first day of employment — they’ve accelerated through 3 promotions in record time and have increased their earnings by 400% within 5 years.

Most people understand that sales has changed quite a bit, especially over the last decade. Our approach today is much more consultative and professional. We align with the buyer’s journey to support their needs rather than focus solely on what we want to sell.

This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesey”, 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?

Yes, I agree with that premise. There is a fine line between being pushy vs. being assertive. There is nothing wrong with being assertive in a sales process — especially during an intense negotiation — but being pushy is not the right approach for the modern seller.

Buyers are incredibly well-informed today, aided by technology and readily available buyer reviews. This has fundamentally changed the role of the salesperson. Providing basic information about your product or service along with some price quotes is not enough. Today’s successful seller must bring value to the buyer’s journey instead of just sell. To do this, you must be well-trained on your product or service, understand your competitive differentiators and have the knowledge needed to help your prospects solve problems along their buying paths.

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?

This question magnifies why sales is such a wonderful yet challenging career. As a seller, your day can vary dramatically as you work with prospects and clients in each of these stages. It’s very difficult to be great at all these stages, as techniques and strategies change over time.

For me, the approach is my favorite stage of the sales cycle, and I’ve been told it’s my strongest. I personally refer to and define the approach as “discovery,” which encompasses the initial conversation(s) with a prospect to uncover what’s going on in their world. I purposely say “their world” rather than “their business” because I believe that, in order to add as much value as possible to their buying journey, you need to truly understand what’s going on with that individual in all aspects.

In each of us there are two types of buyers: the intellectual and the emotional buyer. Our intellectual buyer wants us to make the right decisions by analyzing options, comparing prices, and ensuring that the money we spend will solve our problems and give us returns on our investments. The emotional buyer is very different.

Our emotional buyer is focused on making a purchase to fulfill a basic human need, and this decision could be driven by ego, fear, excitement or pain. A simple consumer example of this is automobiles. The reason why there are so many different types of cars is because it’s an enormously emotional purchase for many of us — if it was purely intellectual, we would all buy the same car that gets us from point A to point B as safely and efficiently as possible at a modest price.

My “discovery” step in the selling process is very thorough. I have a saying with my team, “slow down a sale to speed up a sale,” which reminds them to take the approach slow so they can learn as much as possible about their prospects to determine how they can best help, and to ensure our product is a good long-term fit.

I approach each prospect as if they see me as a typical “pushy” salesperson. If I ultimately want this person to open up and share what’s going on in their world, I first need to get them to trust me. I’ve already done homework on them before we even meet to understand their communication style (I use the simple model of Extended DISC). I can often tell what type of communicator they are before we even speak. Do they like to be in control of the conversation? Are they very detail-oriented? Are they highly emotional? During the first 5 minutes of the live call or meeting I can confirm what their style is and adapt my own style to make them comfortable speaking with me.

Once they are comfortable and our communication style matches, they tend to relax. At this point, I’m starting to build trust by asking thoughtful questions that are relevant to understanding them, not questions designed to sell to them. As their internal defensive walls drop and they begin to find me a credible resource, my questions get deeper and more personal. Most prospects will share their intellectual buyer thoughts and answers easily: “I’m looking for this feature,” “We need a solution in place by July 15,” etc. This is the easy part. The harder part is understanding their emotional buyer. To me this is critical — if we can connect and understand both the intellectual and the emotional buyer in each person, our odds of winning their business increases dramatically.

To have success with the emotional buyer you have to earn it, and timing is very important. You can’t ask emotional questions until the prospect is ready. I see this as a challenge for some salespeople, as they are not able to connect with the prospect and earn trust. They then ask the wrong questions at the wrong times, and they complete very little discovery as a result.

At the right time I’ll ask questions like, “Why is this initiative important to you personally?” It’s not uncommon to get responses such as, “I have a bonus riding on this,” or, “My last learning platform was a disaster and if I don’t get this right I’m in trouble.” When I hear emotional responses like these combined with the easy-to-gather intellectual responses, I then truly understand the motivations of the buyer and I can best serve them and their individual needs.

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?

I have two key strategies: 1) Always try to find a warm introduction for a new prospect & 2) If the prospecting is cold, you must do your homework on the person you are approaching.

LinkedIn is a fantastic platform. It allows us to research our prospects and see if we have any mutual connections. If there’s a connection, always take the time to ask that person for a warm introduction to the prospect, as referrals are the easiest way to begin a potential sales cycle with credibility. If you are referred to the prospect — assuming your referral source is viewed favorably by the prospect — you instantly gain some credibility.

If you don’t find a mutual connection and your prospecting is cold, take 5–10 minutes to research the company and person you are calling. Targeted, personalized messages have a much higher rate of success than general, wide-reaching pitches. There are also all kinds of treasures in press releases that will help your outreach: new executives hired, promotions, mergers, acquisitions, product releases and business performance, to name a few.

Good research before prospecting not only helps you find the best-qualified leads, but it also helps you jumpstart your selling cycle by sounding credible and not too salesy.

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’?

The key to handling objections is to listen intently. Salespeople often mistake a prospect’s self-talk or statements for objections; for example, “The price is high.” This is not an objection — this is a statement. Because of misunderstandings like this, salespeople will often try to address the prospect based on a false premise. The right thing to do is to stay silent and wait for the prospect to add more color or explain themselves, or simply ask the prospect a question yourself: “When you say the price is high, can you clarify what you mean?” The answer often surprises us. Their response may be something like, “It’s just more than I was anticipating, but based on the value it will offer us, I can justify it.”

But let’s assume the objection is legitimate. The same principle applies — listen intently. What are they really saying? Why are they saying it? Is it emotional or intellectual? The salesperson should probe deeper into the objection to understand the real issue at hand; for example, “Why do you think the price is too high?” could uncover, “It’s more than I budgeted for and I can’t go any higher — can you fit your offering into my budget somehow?”

In this situation, most salespeople do one of two things in error: 1) They take the easy route and lower their price, often when they don’t need to, or 2) They start on a long rant trying to justify their price, which is addressing the wrong issue.

‘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.

I have a strong belief that closing should be a non-event. The best way to avoid a pushy or adversarial closing is to sell smart — if you have aligned the buyer’s process with your selling cycle, then closing should be a no-brainer.

A salesperson’s goal is to have a prospect buy their product or service within a specified timeline and price. It’s all about setting expectations during every meeting and phone call, meaning there is no room for fuzziness or assumptions. The salesperson must validate everything they expect: Have I uncovered enough of a need for them to buy my product? Am I dealing with someone who can make a decision? Have they confirmed a budget and timeline? Have I eliminated any roadblocks? Have I inoculated myself against the competition?

I find that closing is rarely the problem when deals are delayed or lost. The true problem comes from the salesperson not following a sales process and making too many assumptions along the way.

Finally, 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?

I’ll answer this in two ways: 1) An early stage lead who inquired about your product but hasn’t engaged yet, and 2) A lead you spoke with who expressed interest, then vanished.

Early stage lead: Research shows that most of us need 7–9 attempts before we respond to a salesperson, even if we have some level of initial interest. But some leads are hot and the prospect has a burning need for your offering, so they respond instantly.

The great majority of leads are not burning hot. These leads are the ones we need to work for, especially since prospects are busy and their interest can evaporate quickly. We have a policy at Allego to respond to leads within 5–15 minutes whenever possible. Many times the prospect doesn’t respond to the first attempt, but there are great sales tools that can help salespeople manage this cadence of outreach by prompting them daily to call or email specific prospects.

We have had many prospects say something like, “Thanks for keeping after me, I’ve just been busy.” Worst case scenario, they simply don’t respond.

Engaged prospect that vanished: You have to remind these prospects why they had interest in the first place. Many salespeople follow-up with “are you ready to buy now” or “what will it take for you to buy this month”. I personally don’t like those approaches; they seem a bit salesy.

I’d prefer a communication that inquiries about the challenge or opportunity uncovered earlier in the sales process. “Kate, when we spoke you mentioned turnover of 35% of your sales team in the first year. You estimated this was costing you over $10m in lost sales and you have a goal to reduce turnover to 15%. You were interested in Allego to better train and coach your team so they are more successful. Is this still a priority for you?”

This approach is more consultative and focused on the prospect rather than the seller.

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?

A best practice is to ask the prospect how they like to communicate. I find that it varies dramatically from person to person and most people absolutely have a preferred mode.

When it comes to closing, I always recommend doing it in-person or over video, as it increases your ability to “read the room.” A phone call only allows us to hear words and tonality, and texting is tough because it only gives us words, which can often be interpreted in many different ways.
Face-to face or video communication gives us body language to interpret in addition to hearing their tonality and their words. Additionally, video or face-to-face communication gives us better opportunities to answer questions and handle objections on the spot. I find that most people are tougher negotiators over email than they are in person/video, but it’s very hard to satisfy the emotion of buying over email.

Ok, we are nearly done. Here is our final “meaty” question. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If we think about the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow and his model called “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” we understand that as humans we need to make sure our basic fundamental needs are met before we can focus on higher level thinking or altruistic endeavors. People who don’t have food, water or shelter can’t focus on much anything else — such as virus precautions or fighting social injustices — until those baseline needs are met.

There are 7.6 billion people on earth and 850 million are malnourished. That’s 11% of our population who are struggling to survive, which is a tragedy. Most of these people can’t focus on learning and education because they are too busy simply trying to survive the day. Most of these people are unable to help others because they themselves have not been helped. I can’t help but think about the loss of human potential. Imagine if food, water and shelter were widely available to everyone on Earth — these people, according to Maslow’s model, could then focus on education, work and taking care of others. How many of them have the potential to do great things, but are stifled because of their living conditions?

It’s wonderful to see influential people like Bill and Melinda Gates and the rock group U2 recognizing this issue and supporting it with their time and money.

How can our readers follow you online?

Social media is always a great way to stay in touch.I’m on both Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m also a member of the Forbes Business Council, where I regularly publish articles on leadership, management, customer engagement, technology, and more.

Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!

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