Episode #15: "The Best Salespeople Do What Great Brands Do," with Denise Lee Yohn

Hosts: Tim Clarke & Tiffani Bova

When buyers know more than ever, what should great salespeople do? Learn from the greatest brands. Join Denise Lee Yohn, branding savant, speaker, and author of What Great Brands Do: The Seven Brand-Building Principles that Separate the Best from the Rest and most recently Extraordinary Experiences: What Great Retail and Restaurant Brands Do. She’ll lay out the specific steps for salespeople to stay ahead in the ever-changing world of sales.

Read the Harvard Business Review article that inspired the conversation: The Best Salespeople Do What the Best Brands Do.


Episode Transcript

Tim Clarke: Thank you for joining The Quotable Podcast. Today we’ll be discussion how great salespeople do what great brands do with Denise Lee Yohn. Denise is a brand-building expert, speaker, and author of What Great Brands Do: The Seven Brand Building Principles That Separate the Best from the Rest, and her newest book, Extraordinary Experiences: What Great Retail and Restaurant Brands Do.

Welcome Denise.


Denise Lee Yohn: Hello.


Clarke: Denise, I came across your book and the HBR article which we’re really going to be focusing on today, but for people who aren’t familiar with some of your work could you give a bit of background on yourself?


Yohn: Sure. I’ve been an independent consultant, speaker, and writer for about 12 years or so, working with a full range of brands, including a lot of retail and restaurant brands. Everything from Jack-in-the-Box Restaurants, to Target, to Dunkin’ Donuts, Jamba Juice, etcetera.


Before going independent, my last corporate job was with Sony Electronics, setting up brand and strategy. Before that I worked at a couple advertising agencies and then in product marketing, marketing research roles.


Clarke: Perfect. Thank you. I’m Tim Clarke, Product Marketing Director at Salesforce. I’m joined today by our guest host, Tiffani Bova, former VP and fellow at Gartner, and now our Global Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist with Salesforce.


Welcome Tiffani.


Tiffani Bova: Thanks for having me, Tim. Welcome, Denise.


Yohn: Hello.


Clarke: Let’s dive straight in. I referenced the article there on HBR, so “The Best Salespeople Do What the Best Brands Do.” I know this is a great article, it’s drawn a lot of attention. As I referenced earlier, the way that you tie in the seven principles that great brands follow to salespeople is fascinating.

So just talk us through a bit of background. What let you to really apply these brand principles to salespeople?


Yohn: It was a combination of things that came to a head. I’m always talking to people in the business community. I’m networking, or I’m meeting at conferences when I’m speaking, etcetera. Often times when I’ve been talking with salespeople the last few years, it’s been very obvious that the whole sales process and sales strategies have changed so much, given the disruptive dynamics of information and access that customers have now.

That’s always been fascinating to me because I have never been in a sales role and I always love to learn from hearing what other people have to say. Then I read the book The Challenger Sale, and that really opened my eyes to a different kind of selling that I think I had experienced and had done somewhat on my own, but having kind of the framework and the research and the examples around that concept just really got me very excited about what great salespeople do.

Then it all came to a head when I was recently asked to speak to group of people, it was a media agency, and I was speaking to their salespeople and actually I ended up having three different meetings, or three different sessions, with three different groups within their company.

The organizers asked me to come into their meeting to talk about brand building because they wanted to help their salespeople think like brand builders. So they could go into their clients and help their clients, who were advertisers, figure out how to build great brands through their advertising programs.

What ended up happening is, what the people kept on asking me about as I was speaking and doing Q and A, etcetera, was more about how they themselves as salespeople could embody the principles I was talking about.

So there seemed to be kind of like I said, this combination of things that were on my mind and I thought, “You know what? I really do believe that the best salespeople do what the best brands do.” I had the opportunity to write the article for HBR.


Bova: Denise, ironically we’ve had Brent Adamson from CEB on Quotable Podcast. I know “The Challenger Sale” has really been important to many sales professionals and many businesses, right? I feel like it’s this generation’s “Solution Selling,” right? Or SPIN selling.


Yohn: Yes.


Bova: Right, and it’s okay. I think every generation needs sort of a new approach to the new buyer. So I’ve got a question for you. Do you think that the changing behavior from the buyer is because of the strength of the consumer brands? Because you’re a brand expert, right? And the consumer experience, right, because I think this B2C, B2B blend is happening a lot because of the experience that brands in the consumer space are delivering, and business customers and businesses are struggling to keep up.


Yohn: Certainly I think that the role of brands has really changed for companies in general. It used to be kind of like a symbol for quality or trustworthiness, and now I think that it’s becoming much more of an active tool that companies use to position themselves and to align everything they do with their identity.

Because I think that shift has happened, the same thing has happened in the sales process in the sense that we don’t need salespeople to tell us this product is great. We can already find out whether it is or not on our own.

There’s this overarching shift in the way that brands are viewed by customers and in the way that brands are used by salespeople that has led to this movement, I guess.


Bova: Well, if you take that one step further and you talk about that information, and the volume of information, that salespeople may be producing on their own and customers, or consumers, are consuming, what about the trust in the information that is becoming so readily available?


Yohn: You know, that’s a difficult issue, right? Because you don’t know really whether the sources that you’re reading are legitimate and reliable and quantitative or conclusive in any way.

That is a big issue. I don’t know if I have a way of solving it. I think that that’s something that as more and more content is produced, it’s going to become more and more of an issue.


Clarke: One of the other things that was really interesting to me was, moving a little bit more into the metrics side of things now. Going back ages ago I guess looking at “Always Be Closing,” and it was always about the deals that you’re bringing in.

Then it started to evolve into pipeline generation and how much coverage you’ve got on your pipe to make your number. Then we’ve really seen a number of companies that have really started to focus on customer success, obviously a massive thing for Salesforce as well, but how do you not only win those customers, then retain those customers?

In the article you say, “True sales success isn’t the number [or] size of deals closed, it’s measured by getting and keeping the right customers.” Can you dive a little bit more into these? How do you apply this to sales organizations that perhaps have such hard metrics about getting these deals closed? They may be resistant to your piece here.


Yohn: Yes, certainly. Forgive me if this is too strong, but I almost feel like just measuring numbers, size of deals closed kind of lazy in the sense that we live in an age where there is so much more data and information about where our customers are coming from and what happens to them after we engage with them, that if you are not using that data to really understand the impact that you’re having and how to improve that impact, then shame on you.

I think that it’s much easier just to measure and compensate a salesperson based on the deals that they close, but I think if you want to truly understand and then improve the impact that you’re making with your customers, you need to dig into the data. You need to follow that chain and really be able to establish the entire arc of your impact.


Bova: Denise, I would pile on to that and say that when you look at the arc of the impact, which I think is a great way to frame it, I believe that the connection between marketing and sales now has to get closer.

Sales is going to measure deal and size. There’s no way to get around that, right? While your harshness was accurate, it’s the truth. So the question becomes, okay, well what are the things marketing needs to measure as it relates to the brand? Is it promoter scores, customer success, etcetera?

And then how does that feed into what sales measures, and how do you create a much more symbiotic relationship between the two as leading with brand and experience becomes more prevalent?


Yohn: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. At least one of the comments that I’ve gotten on the HBR article was that this idea of linking what salespeople and what brands do is really what this integration of sales and marketing needs to happen.


Bova: Any suggestions for somebody on the brand side? Because you’ve worked at an agency, you’ve worked in brand, you’ve written this book, this is what you do all day. When you’re talking to marketers, or those responsible for brand, are they thinking about new KPI’s, key performance indicators, or metrics that they want to start to manage that they’re finding it difficult to manage in order to show the progress of the brand?


Yohn: I spoke to a client group earlier this year that was in the call center, customer support space. Part of the reason why they asked me to talk to them was because they wanted their clients to be thinking about these new metrics. With new ways to engage customers, you have new metrics, so they wanted me to open their clients’ eyes to that.

When I speak to marketers I think that there’s still more emphasis on the marketing funnel, and then it kind of ends at a certain point and it’s almost like they things over the fence over to sales. I’d like to see more of a holistic view, or that end-to-end view, where it’s sales and marketing working together to identify, and then collect, the data they need in order to track the success throughout that arc.

I think that there still is that divide, “Well these are the things that I can track. I can track conversion rates through different points of funnel, but I think that marketing doesn’t necessarily go to the other side of the funnel, or the end of the funnel, to then really get into more of the sales metrics and the post-sale metrics.”


Bova: For those people listening that happen to be marketers, or sales leaders, right, and they want to walk into the marketing meeting on Monday morning, or they’re a marketer and want to walk into the marketing meeting Monday morning and say, “You know, let’s just think about How do we track this one thing?”

What do you think that might be in this conversation between sales and marketing? Between brand, funnel, pipeline, lead size, volume, kind of all those things, but from a marketer’s perspective to help sales be successful. What would be that one thing?


Yohn: Oh gosh, Tiffani. You didn’t tell me you going to ask hard questions. I don’t know. I would love to hear your thoughts on that. To me, something in that customer success area is probably what I would want them to be focused on. Because you can do all the marketing that you want, but if you’re not actually producing results for your customer, or your customer’s not achieving their goals and objectives, then there is no value.

I feel like it’s probably something in that area, but I don’t know enough about that area to know exactly what that metric would be. What do you think?


Bova: That’s a tough one, right? I get asked that a lot. The joke is if marketing is going say that they’re going to own more of the process, that they should own part of the quota. But that gets tricky. I think that promoter scores, and customer success, and just the brand value, and social listening, and lots of things that are going on between that hand-off are ways that we can at least start to improve the behavior for sure.


Yohn: Right. I agree.


Clarke: I want to move a little bit into some of the principles that the great salespeople really should apply. Obviously, your book, you talk about seven brand-building principles and these are also instrumental to almost restoring sales to its role in being key and valuable. I’m going to jump a little way through the list, first of all, because the one that out to me is that great brands avoid selling products.

You mention that towards the start. The great salespeople are really cultivating these connections with their customers. That’s obviously one of the things that we’re extremely passionate about here with some of our Quotable initiatives.

The term thought leadership is clearly used a lot, but where should we start here? Just for organizations that may be really heavy product organizations, what should they be doing differently?


Yohn: I think the first thing is to see your customers as people. Even if you are in a B2B setting where you’re selling to a very large organization and you are dealing with one person in front of a ten, twenty, a hundred-thousand-person organization, but as to really see your customers as people and really trying to value that they have emotional needs.

And that you are not going to be effective with them if you don’t understand those emotional needs, and then you don’t fulfill them as a salesperson. Simply just having that mindset is really important.

On the flip-side is to then have change in your mindset about what you are selling yourself. Certainly again, and especially with technology sales, there is a lot of product feature, solution set, differentiation that you need to make sure that you are drawing out in the sales process so that people understand your product or your service.

But I think that, at the end of the day, you need to be thinking about ultimately what does this accomplish for my customer? What is the difference that this product or this service makes to them?

It’s kind of again going back to what Tiffani asked about. What is the outcome that we want to see? What is the customer success that we want to see? And how does our product or service fit into that?


So a lot of it first is just kind of a mindset change, both about your customer being human beings with emotional needs, and then about your product being more than just a feature package.


Clarke: Building on that, Tiffani, a question for you.

You joined Salesforce but whenever I follow you on Twitter, you’re not putting out these different product announcements. You’re putting out this content that’s much wider than that. What’s your view on Denise’s point here, Tiffani?


Bova: If I’m talking products, something’s gone woefully wrong. Let me just start there. I think that it’s about the art of what’s possible now for salespeople. They have a completely different role in this buyer journey, and they tend to confuse it with the sales process.

That emotional connection with a customer and with a brand comes when a salesperson takes the time to be knowledgeable about either their vertical or their industry.

Or more importantly, and one thing I like to often say, is that the only thing a salesperson really has control over is their own behavior. So the content I push out is, how do I help salespeople, as individuals or leaders, be better every day when they show up so that when they’re in front of a customer they’re more prepared to be effective and really emotionally connect?


Clarke: Perfect. Let’s move on to the next one then. This is point that you have around selling. Great brands start inside, great salespeople sell inside first as well. What have you seeing them do within their organizations? Again it kind of comes back the point around the alignment of sales of marketing, but almost wider than that.

If you’re bringing a product to market, making sure it’s the right product. If you interacted with customer service or the marketing team, just how do you get everyone aligned around the core need?


Yohn: To me it is kind of shortening the distance between people in your company and customers. So as much as possible I think a salesperson, rather than being kind of like almost the gatekeeper and saying, “No, I own this relationship. Let me be the one who’s talking to the customer.”

I think it would behoove salespeople to open up the door and allow marketing people, or allow product development people, or whoever, to actually interact with customers because I think that will only make what they produce better, and actually will help the salesperson.

I think that this idea of not only the salesperson themselves advocating on behalf of customers inside the organization, but then actually closing the gap, is a really important role.


Bova: I think, Denise, what’s interesting there is when you think about that, it is, do salespeople try to close the gap and, quote, unquote, “own the customer?” Which, I think the only person who owns the customer is actually the customer.


Yohn: The customer, right.


Bova: That’s just me. But I would say that many brands, especially those that are super successful, ignore many trends. So, you know, salespeople tend to try to imitate versus innovate in their own behavior.

Going back to the only thing they can control is that behavior. So if they’re trained to sort of own the customer and behave that way in the sales process, they miss some of the things that are happening on the customer side. Starting from the outside in, versus the inside out.

So I’m just going to challenge a little bit and say, how do salespeople, obviously, sell inside, start inside — and I think we’re saying the same thing, right? — but align to the customer and present something that feels innovative so that they emotionally connect and add value, and present, more importantly, a very differentiated sales experience?

How do great salespeople innovate in front of a customer to represent their brand differently?


Yohn: Certainly I think bringing in different perspectives and, what you said, knowing their vertical as much as possible. But also knowing other verticals, or knowing a broader context and bringing that to the customer can be a really important part of the innovation process.

So, you know, “Hey, I know that I’m selling you X software, but I want to talk to you about what’s going on in the automotive industry because I think that actually has some relevance here.”

That kind of thing I think is really important. Also I think engaging with the customer in innovation. As a salesperson I don’t think that you necessarily have to bring new ideas to your customer all the time, but rather bring the questions, or bring the ideas that then lead to the conversations where you are a partner with your customer actually innovating.

I think that that’s really big opportunity as well.


Clarke: When we look at attracting some of these customers and the prospects, and we’ve talked about the importance of having the right customers. I’m sure we’ve all seen a whole variety of really poor prospecting techniques right now. The whole spray-and-pray approach.

Certainly technology is actually enabling some of these bad behaviors as well because they’re just continually hitting people until they respond, “I know your article, you talk about great brands, don’t chase the customers.”

How do you attract the best customers for the company? Maybe it’s not casting your net out. You’re really just focused on the ones that are going to the most loyal, the most profitable, that are going to refer you to other great companies. What are your thoughts here?


Yohn: I think — and this is a plug for you, Tim — I think that that’s really where thought leadership comes into play a lot. I think that if you were putting out content out there that has a definitive point of view and is sharing new, fresh insights, and is really kind of making it clear the value that you create and deliver to your customers, you’re going to attract people that want that value.

They’re going to be able to see themselves in the story that you’re telling. They’re going to want you to be engaging with them, as opposed to you going out and looking for them yourself. I think that that’s really where things like articles and podcasts and videos and webinars and all that stuff is so critical to explaining what it is that you as a brand believe in, and what is your unique value that you’re contributing to customers.


Bova: Would you agree that salespeople, in many ways, are actually creating their own individual brands because of those things you just described? Podcasts, tweets, the things that they’re producing. How would a salesperson then manage their own brand alongside the company’s brand?


Yohn: Right. And here’s a plug for you, Tiffani, because I think you’ve done a really great job of that. I think that that’s actually a big question that a lot of salespeople have. How much should I be building my company’s brand versus how much should I be building my brand?

I don’t know if there’s any really magic formula, or definitive answer to that question. I think that you’ve provided a really great model. I think there are some other folks that really have a sense of, you know, I’m sharing information that I personally believe in, or that I personally find relevant and compelling and valuable.

That not only builds my personal credibility and my personal thought leadership, but it also says something about the company that I’ve chosen to align myself with.


Clarke: I remember my days when I was out there as an account executive. Before I’d reach out to any of these key contact that I have, I would be doing my research. I would look at the different touch points that I have got, whether it’s in-person meetings. Perhaps my wider teams, I’m looking at what they’re posting out there on social media.

I know we’ve got a couple of other podcasts where we’ve really talked about the power of social prospecting, social selling. Though I think that really just ties in with that point there. At the moment I think it’s still a lot of individuals that are doing a really good job of this.

The challenge is how do you start to scale up your sales organization to do a really good job of understanding all these different touchpoints at scale, and creating these extraordinary experiences.


Yohn: Absolutely.


Bova: You could almost say, if you’re not very strong offline, it’s worse online. There’s another way to say that of course, but that’s the politically correct way to say it.


Yohn: Right. And we’re laughing about it, Tiffani, but I think that so many people jump to, “Oh, I need to be Tweeting. I need to be on Facebook. I need to do LinkedIn for social selling.”

But if they don’t have the content, if they don’t have that thought leadership inherent in how they view the world, no amount of Tweets are going to help you at all.


Bova: Absolutely. And you have to be committed to it. I think you have to be committed as a salesperson to say, how am I going to represent my brand — going back to behavior, right? — how am I going to represent myself and differentiate myself and create these extraordinary experiences between myself, my brand, and my customers?

And how do I, every day, show up and make sure that I’m appropriately putting myself forward in the market. I think that all these different touch points between the customer and the brand and the sales process, etcetera, starts to get really confusing now, especially as customers take more control over their journey.

So making it authentic and personal connection gets more difficult for sure.


Yohn: Yeah. You’re right.


Clarke: We’re nearly coming up on time here. I want to jump to one of the phrases that you used toward the end of the article.

“The best salespeople are brand evangelists.” So you’ve given some great tips on aligning to the seven different principles here. For any sales professionals that are listening to this podcast, where do they even start?


Yohn: The word evangelist implies that you believe that what you are selling is so valuable and so necessary to your customer that it’s almost a personal mission, or a personal crusade that you’re on, to share it with them.

I think that that’s where you start. You need to believe. You need have passion.

I realize that not everyone sells stuff that is easy to be excited about, but I think that it’s important that even you’re selling boring widgets, that you truly believe that these boring widgets can help your customer, and help your customer in very important ways.

If you don’t believe that then you’re probably not in the right position. But if you do believe that, then I think you carry that forward into the kinds of customers you seek out, and the kinds of thought leadership that you provide, and the kinds of interactions you have with your customers.


Clarke: Perfect. Well, thanks, Denise. Any closing thoughts from your side?


Yohn: The last thing I’ll say is that there’s been a lot emphasis on customer-driven, or customer-centric, approaches to sales. I want to be clear that what I’m talking about is different from that. I think that at the end of the day, at least what I’d heard when people talk about customer-centric sales, is that it’s still very much about, “We want to close the deal, we want to get the sale, and this is just a different way of making sure that we get it.”

Whereas I think that brand evangelism, and this idea of doing what great brands do is really about creating long-term success and long-term value for both your customer and your own company. So it’s a different perspective that I hope resonates with a lot of people.


Clarke: For sure. Well thank you very much Denise. And thank you for guest-hosting today, Tiffani. For everyone listening in, if you like what you hear please take a minute to give us a five-star rating and feedback on the Quotable Podcast.


Thanks, Denise and Tiffani.

Yohn: Thank you.

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