Lessons in Sales Leadership with Alice Heiman

Alice Heiman interview

Our second episode of Ready, Set, Sell, recently aired featuring Alice Heiman, Founder & Chief Sales Energizer of Sales Strategies for CEOs with Alice Heiman. In case you weren’t able to tune in, not to worry. We’ve got a recap of the podcast below, covering major themes such as:

  • On starting her own business
  • Re-framing sales for modern customers
  • What makes a world-class sales organization
  • How CEOs can affect change from the top down
  • How sales leaders can level up their teams (Hint: coaching is key)
  • How sales leaders can evolve their own skillset
  • What’s a winning sales strategy?

Who is Alice Heiman?

Hannah: I’d love to just start from a place where you can share a little bit about your career background so far, but more specifically the things that have happened that have been like the biggest catalysts over the last few years.

Alice: It’s surprising to some people to find out that my career started as an elementary school teacher. They’re like, “Wow, from kindergarten to CEOs, right?” That was a long, long time ago because I have had my own company since 1997. So working with small children was wonderful. I loved it. As you can imagine, it was engaging and fun. There are a lot of great things about it, but I have this Dad who owned a company called Miller Heiman, and he was always asking me to do projects for him. And so even though I was teaching, I was learning about his business and doing projects for him and learning about sales,  sales training, the complexities of strategic selling, and all of those things. Eventually, he talked me into coming to work for him because I never, ever dreamed in a million years that I would be in sales or be a salesperson. This career path never even occurred to me. So I sort of got catapulted into the world of sales from elementary school as a special ed teacher and a reading specialist. I had a master’s degree in education but got catapulted into the world of business through Miller Heiman, and I love it.

Tony: So, Alice, that’s that’s a great background. Obviously, the connection with Miller Heiman is huge. Having that diverse background, what really drew you to the world of sales specifically?

Alice: I think that I had an epiphany. I’m not sure exactly where it was because at first I was not really thinking of it as, “Oh, I’m going into a career in sales.” I went into the business to help grow the business. And actually, my Dad hired me to work on the curriculum, which is something I knew because I was a teacher, right? So I wasn’t really thinking of myself in sales still. And I probably had the same idea about salespeople as most people who don’t understand sales do – they’re pushy, manipulative, they try to trick you, they guilt you. You know, all the things we hate about sales, right?

Tony: We’ve never heard that before.

Alice Never, never. So I think that when I started to understand that the Miller Heiman processes are so customer-focused, there’s so much about helping, I was like, “Wow, this is just like teaching.” To me, sales is a helping profession, and that is what drives me every day. I wake up and I get to help my customers solve complex problems. So my brain is busy all the time and I get to do something different every day. I feel like I’m making a difference and you know, when companies do well because their sales are good, everybody benefits from that. All the people internally in the organization benefit, the customers benefit, the whole economy around them benefits. So I feel like I’m making a huge impact.

Compare that to teaching little kids, I love both, but I love this more and I’ve stayed in it a lot longer. I was teaching for 13 years and now I’m not going to tell you how many years I’ve been in sales, but 20 plus years, right? Doing what I do now, I wake up every day and I cannot wait because selling is helping, guiding, and solving – and those are things that I love to do.

On starting her own business

Hannah: That just led me to think about your consulting business. You’re taking what you love and you’ve now transformed that into an incredible consulting business. Your website speaks directly to CEOs saying, maybe you’re stopping sales. I love it. So just share a bit more about why you decided to take that leap and start your own business.

Alice: The reason I took the leap is because I found out my father wanted to sell the company. He and Bob Miller started the company, my Dad bought Bob Miller out and it eventually got to a point where it was a bigger company than he wanted to run so he decided he wanted to sell. I helped them get the company ready to sell and then I went off on my own.

Now, when I first left Miller Heiman, I still had a lot of my big clients; Fidelity Investments, Dow Chemical, Hewlett Packard, AT&T, some real giants. But a funny thing happened––the dot-coms. Remember those? If you’re old enough, you remember the dot-coms. We now call them the dot bombs. People were just throwing money at these dot-coms and the people from companies like Fidelity, GE Capital, and my other clients, the Senior Executives were leaving and going to those companies – and they were some of the founders of those companies! Then, they would call me to help and I’d say, “Miller Heiman doesn’t do that. We do sales training for Fortune 500 companies,” and they’d respond by saying, “Can you help us start up a sales team from scratch?”

So we did. I started working with CEOs and the senior leaders who had led these big, big companies to set up their sales from scratch. I’ve always really focused on the CEO, but I had positioned myself in the market more as a sales generalist because I think I didn’t understand, I was growing and learning, and that’s what I did. I did do some other things back then that I don’t do now, but it became clearer and clearer to me that sales is changing so much and the buyer has shifted. Our brain still works the same way when we make a decision, but the way we’re buying things has changed so much because of the internet. We’re digital beings.

It’s more than just sales and the sales leaders, it’s more than just customer success, it’s more than just the marketing, the operations. Each of them in their own silos is not giving the customer an exceptional experience.

Only the CEO can orchestrate all departments so that they are focused on the customer, the way the customer wants to buy, and that exceptional customer experience.

So I decided to turn away everything but my focus on the CEO and helping them understand their role in sales and how they can support sales. But when I say sales, I don’t just mean sellers, right? I mean the way the customer wants to buy from you and that includes a much larger group of people than just our sellers and a larger group of processes because we have to put things out there on the internet to draw the customer in and engage them that have nothing to do with sellers. So it’s so much bigger, and that’s why I focus on the CEO.

Re-framing sales for modern customers

Tony: You’ve worked with so many diverse companies. Is there an overarching mission or aim that you really focus on when you’re talking with folks? Is there anything you really like to focus on from an overall perspective?

Alice: I think that my main focus is, What are you doing to help your customer buy? Let’s look at things differently. One of the things that people hear me say often is, “What have you done today to make it easier to be your customer and harder to be your competitor?” If you stop, pause and ask yourself that question, some interesting things are going to come up. And if you walk out of your company and look back from the buyer’s point of view, from every point of contact, did you make it easy or did you make it hard? And so I want to focus on the customer experience and have the CEO understand what that is. So here’s a really good example. So how often do you take a cold call?

Hannah: Maybe twice a week.

Alice: OK, and you picked it up by accident or you intended to do that?

Hannah: It’s always an accident.

Alice: Gotcha. Tony, how often do you take a cold call from someone who wants to set an appointment with you for their ae?

Tony: I think the last time I took a cold call was in 1997.

Alice: You and me both. And so when I asked CEOs that question, they say, I never take your call unless it’s by accident. Right? So why do you, the CEO, have people dialing the CEO or any senior executive’s phone numbers? You don’t answer those calls, so why would they?

Think about the wasted time, effort, and money they could have spent doing something that would actually intrigue and engage the proper people to want to have a conversation with someone at your company? It might not even be a salesperson that they want to have a conversation with. Could be a sales engineer, could be customer success, could be somebody else. But what we’re doing is saying, OK, we’re going to go out and sell the way we don’t want to buy. What? I’m confused.

How many emails come into your box every day trying to sell you something and how many of them do you delete? Most of them, right? So here we go filling up the internet with, thousands and thousands of emails being sent out that are being deleted. So if we regroup and think, what does the customer want? Well, they certainly don’t want another spam email and they don’t want your cold call. So what are we going to do? The CEOs have to have to get their mind wrapped around it first so it can trickle down through the entire organization. It’s great if it bubbles up from the bottom too, but salespeople are going to do what you tell them to do for the most part. And so if you’re telling them to send more emails or make more calls – that’s what they’re going to do.

Give them something better to do, have marketing start creating demand, and allow the buyers to buy the way they want to buy by meeting them where they are – which is on the internet. They’re Googling you, they’re on your LinkedIn or they’re on your website trying to find out what you actually do, which is why most websites suck. They’re terrible. You cannot figure out what a company actually does. So if you think about some of the things that we do and make it so difficult for people to buy, it’s unbelievable.

So really, I just want to get everybody’s mind wrapped around, what does your buyer do? And that may be different for everyone. I’m just a human being trying to do my job the best I can every day. And I’m trying to buy something from you and it happens to be 10 o’clock at night because now my day is over, I’ve put my kids to bed and I can go look at your product and have some time to think about it but if I can’t even find how it works, I’m off to the competitor. Sorry, you’re done. I need to go where I can get the information I need. You don’t even have a chat that works and your website doesn’t have a good explainer video or a demo. It has nothing for me. I have the only choices. Book a demo. I get why you want me to book a demo because you want to talk to me. Got it! But that’s not the way I buy anymore.

What makes a world-class sales organization

Hannah: So you’ve mentioned a lot about making it easier for your customer to buy from you. You mentioned a couple of examples about explainer videos, chatbots, and the need to do research at 10pm. Can you highlight a few things that really make a world-class sales organization today?

Alice: We have to flip our mindset to think sales equals the way the customer wants to buy. Sales is not just about the sellers. It’s much, much bigger and when we’re trying to sell something to somebody, it encompasses a lot of things, right? Marketing! Marketing is from hello to I’m your loyal customer. Marketing should be threaded through the entire lifecycle of a customer.  I’ve had some companies that I work with that start with customer success, not with sales because they’re a find/try/buy model because they’re a software of some type. So they find try, buy, and then customers success is who converts it, not a salesperson because they’re more concerned about the user adoption.

So you have to map that customer journey to be able to understand how to build a world-class organization because a world-class organization meets the customer where they are. They use sales, marketing, customer success, and whatever else they need to do that.

They make sure that their sellers can sell in any situation; at a trade show, at a one-to-one, in a large group, via camera, on the phone – whatever it may be. Your salespeople have to be prepared to sell in any situation. And so that’s the kind of thing that you want to ask yourself, “Are we world-class?”

How CEOs can affect change from the top down

Tony: You’ve mentioned CEOS several times throughout the conversation so far. I think a lot of people in sales aren’t really thinking about the CEO specifically. They think more about director or VP level. So was there anything specific that made you really focus in particular on the CEO role?

Alice: In a lot of organizations I would see what I call blaming and shaming. “What are they doing over there in sales? All they ever do is golf and go to dinners.” What we hear is a lot of kind of sales bashing and what I realized is sales can’t do it without the support of the rest of the organization. And when you really start to look and diagnose where the buck stops, it’s the CEO. And so I guess that’s why I’m so focused on them. There’s no other single person in an organization who can orchestrate the whole thing. So if sales aren’t going well and you go ahead and say to the sales leader, “Do this and this and this,” but no one else in the organization is helping them, they can’t do it. Sales needs support from the entire organization, and that’s the CEO’s responsibility. The role changes as the company matures, and the CEO has to understand that role and take that role and make it work.

Tony: As the sales world has evolved over the years, Alice really made a smart decision to carve out a niche for herself by focusing specifically on the role of CEO in her consultancy.

Hannah: Yeah, I really like the focus on the CEO because essentially they have the power to bring each of the departments together and create an exceptional customer experience as Alice does.

Tony: Yeah, I think that was really smart by asking the tough questions like, what have you done today to make it easier to be your customer and harder to be your competitor? I think Alice really creates opportunities for those at the CEO level to take an honest look at their methodologies, what sort of things they’re doing, and really zero in on what it takes to make them stand out from the crowd.

Hannah: It’s completely true. You know, creating an exceptional customer experience is essential for sales organizations today, where we know the buyer’s journey has changed immensely over the past few years. So sales leaders need to up their game if they hope to stay competitive.

How sales leaders can level up their teams (Hint: coaching is key)

Tony: Next up, Alice shared more tips for sales leaders and CEOs looking to up their game in 2022. For sales leaders beyond just the CEO, what do you think that they could be doing a little bit more often? Or maybe even more importantly, what are the things that they should be doing a little less often?

Alice: A couple of things and some of these are not necessarily very easy. But sales leaders, I want you to think about your CEO as your customer. And what do customers need today? They need insight. There’s so much going on out there, but you as the sales leader, are in it every day seeing the customer. You know what the customer saying, what they need and want, what’s working, and what isn’t. You need to bring those insights to your CEO. Not just say, we need more this or that. Bring them insights on what’s happening in the market, what’s happening with the customer. Bring them specific examples of success that’s happening with your customers and their failures as well. So if you, as a senior leader, are regularly reviewing your wins and your losses with your team, I think it’s much more important to analyze your wins than it is your losses because we learn so much from our wins. Why did they buy from us? We need to know that right? We did it. Well, let’s be able to do it again.

Focus on the wins and then be able to bring those insights to the CEO so that you can paint a picture for them. Because as humans, we learn from stories and pictures. Paint that picture. Tell that story to the CEO so they understand the context for the asks that you have of them.

We need a tool. We need more people. We need a different type of structure. Whatever it is. That way, your CEO can really understand, and they can take it to investors to get money to do the things that you want to do. So senior leaders need to really learn how to tell a good story. Pull the information together, tell the story that brings insight to the CEO and that will help tremendously. Now in day to day, a senior sales leader should be really focused on making it easy for the customer to buy. So I would like them to ask that question to their peers and to their teams. What have we done today to make it easier to be our customer and harder to be our competitor? And answer it. Every once in a while, ask yourself that, and then when you do it, applaud it. Right? We did it. We made it easier. Fantastic. So I think that that’s something that you can do.

And then coaching is so crucial today. I wish the word “manager” would go away. Yes, people have to be managed, but when we coach them and help them change their behavior, then we don’t have to nag and micromanage them.

So what we want to do is look at the behaviors we want our salespeople to have and figure out what is the best way to get them to have those behaviors and deploy that.

And if it doesn’t work, get rid of them. Just get rid of them. We hang on to salespeople who are not a good fit for way too long. They’re not bad salespeople. They’re not a fit for your organization and they need to go. So stop looking at it as something bad. Set them free to their next adventure. They’ll be successful somewhere else. But you still have to give them a chance.

You have to make sure that you have defined clearly what it is you want them [sellers] to do. You’ve trained them to do it. You’ve repeated that training. You’ve encouraged, you’ve rewarded and you’ve guided, right? And then your job is much easier.

The biggest thing I come into in the organizations I work with is a total lack of accountability. Nobody is held to anything. We tell them, go to your salesforce. But when they don’t do it, we don’t do anything about it. We don’t dock their pay, no tax or commission. We don’t say, “Hey, go home for two days and think about it and come back.” Either update your Salesforce, or you’re gone. Why keep asking them to do something they’re not going to do? It’s crazy behavior and we drive ourselves crazy. And then we hear things like, Oh, that salesperson drives me crazy. Why would you let someone drive you crazy? We make it so hard because we love people and we want to give them lots of chances, and I get that.

If you would coach your people to change to the behavior that works best for the customer and the organization, everybody’s happier and the salesperson is wildly more successful.

How sales leaders can evolve their own skillset

Hannah: I love that you pivoted to coaching. It’s huge, and there’s so much talk around the enablement of sales leaders, that to be better sellers, sales leaders are trying to transition to coaching. What more could they be doing to improve their own ability?

Alice: So that’s probably the most important thing, right? Look, we’re not very good at hiring salespeople most of the time. We really don’t hire people that are the best fit for our company, and that’s one of the biggest problems. So I would say, learn how to hire salespeople that are a good fit. How do you do that? Well, there’s all kinds of research out there. There are books you can read. One of my favorites is “You’re Not The Person I Hired” by Barry Deutsch. It’s my go-to guide for everything hiring. But there are plenty of others specific to hiring salespeople. Do something to help yourself learn how to hire great salespeople. What we tend to do is hire people like ourselves, that we like or that talk a good game. But we don’t interview them hard enough to really know whether they can do what they say they can do. So I think that sales leaders should learn how to hire and then get the resources and tell their CEO why they need specific resources. Bring the story in and tell that story and then be able to do a better job hiring. So you’ve got to go find that information. Train yourself to do it. One of my favorite books for sales leaders is “The Sales Manager’s Guide to Greatness” by Kevin Davis. It lays out specifically the things that a sales leader can do to help their salespeople be successful. And that’s what every sales leader should be thinking. How do I get a team that all hits quota? You know.

What’s a winning sales strategy?

Tony: So you talked about peak performers. I think that’s a great segue to talk a little bit about sales strategy. So when you think about peak performers and that sort of that top-down approach where you’re hiring the right people, you’re getting the people in place. What do you think are the pillars for instilling a very successful sales strategy within those teams once you’ve got the right people?

Alice: Once again, I go back to the CEO. A CEO with a clear vision and who has done the proper planning with their senior team and knows their vision, their mission, their values, their purpose – they know what they believe, right? When you have that, it’s really easy for the sales team to move forward. I mostly find these teams are struggling because there is no clear strategy. At the top level, some companies go years without doing a strategic plan of any kind or even just having a few values and sticking to them, such as, “We don’t do business with people who treat our people poorly,” and “We don’t do these kinds of things,” you know, like just some basic values, right? But I see companies go four years where I’m like, Well, do you guys have a vision? So that doesn’t work. It’s hard for sales to do their job because they’re just out there selling with no strategy. So it comes back to the top. Leadership has to have a strategy for the growth of the entire company. What does that look like overall? And then we can tuck our whole go-to-market strategy into that.

Salespeople do need to be strategists but at an account level, at a level where they’re positioning themselves to close a deal. Right in the complex sale, they’ve got to get positioned to close that deal and there is some strategy involved there.

If they have a territory, whether that’s verticals, geography, or whatever it may be, they need to have a little bit of strategy around how they’re going to work that territory. But most salespeople don’t need to be highly strategic. They definitely need to be a bit more tactical. So the strategy has to be from the top and then we have to drive the demand based on the strategy. So that demand gen is based on that bigger strategy, and then the salespeople are working their territories based on that strategy so that we are bringing in the types of customers that are ideal for us. We serve them well, which serves us well because we grow. When we just bring in accounts to be closing deals and get new logos – some of those logos won’t stay and some of those logos are a pain, so we don’t want them. But we were so pressured to close business, we took business that wasn’t good business. Now we can’t retain them. So we really have to be careful what we wish for, and we definitely need to have that strategy start at the top and trickle down.

Sales podcast rapid fire quesitons

Hannah: So I wanted to segue into our quick-fire rounds. So this is going to be a little bit of fun. We have a timer. No, I’m joking. We have no timer, but we do want to ask you a few questions. And just like without thinking, just give us your answers, right? So the first question is, what is your sales philosophy in just three words?

Alice: Serve the customer.

Hannah: And what is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?

Alice: Listen.

Tony: What would you say is your top productivity hack?

Alice: I don’t have any productivity hacks. Oh, let’s see.., coffee for sure. I would just say block time, that’s the only way I get big projects. Just block time on my calendar.

Tony: What would you say is your top prediction for the sales industry in 2022?

Alice: I think that we’re going to become more human or get back to being human in our approach. I think people are finally hearing that buyers don’t want to be spammed, buyers don’t want robotic messages. They just want a human being to talk to them about their problems and see if they can help. So I predict we are hearing that message and we’re going to be more human.

Hannah: The best bit of career advice you got was “listen” right? So if you need to turn that around, what would be the best career advice you could give to salespeople today?

Alice: Invest in yourself. Don’t sit around waiting for anyone else to give you the training you need, give yourself the coaching you need, the mentoring you need. Go get it.

Tony: There are so many sources of information out there right now, and I’m sure that the Ready, Set, Sell podcast will quickly be climbing that list of sources. But if you could get where do you typically go to get your sales industry news?

Alice: Well, Gartner and Forrester both put out a lot of really great industry news. Corporate Visions is excellent.

Tony: What would you say is your favorite industry conference?

Alice: I love Sales 3.0, but of course, I’m on the EMC, so I should love it, right?

Hannah: What skill or which set of skills should a salesperson be focused on over 2022?

Alice: I think they need a different skill set than they’ve been training for in the past. And people talk about soft skills and hard skills – look, you’ve got to learn how to do these things in order to be a good seller. The skill I think is needed most now is the skill of orchestration. Back to the sales leaders and one of the ways they can have peak performance is to help their salespeople understand how to orchestrate and how to understand a day in the life of the person that they’re selling to.

What we learned

Alice really had some excellent insights to share about the role of the CEO in the sales organization, about staying accountable, and strategizing for success. CEOs have a unique role to play within a sales organization. Not only are they the only key leader with the ability to view the organization as a whole, but they are also the final decision maker when it comes to the overall customer journey. Everyone within a company is a part of the sales team. As Alice noted, sales is about much more than just the sellers. It really encompasses everyone under the company umbrella. But she has reminded us, analyzing your successes and failures will ultimately help to drive your business forward. While it’s essential to take both wins and losses into account, she did stress the importance of gleaning insights from your wins so you can continue replicating your success in the future.

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