Episode #30: True Customer-Centric Selling Requires Adding Value at Every Interaction, with David Priemer

Hosts: Tim Clarke & Lynne Zaledonis

It's one thing to say you're a customer-centric seller, but to do it right you have to think like your customer. Buyers, who are under more pressure than ever, are faced with too much information, which means they need your help. Join David Priemer, VP Sales at Influitive, as he shares practical tips for putting yourself on the side of the customer and adding value at every interaction.


Episode Transcript

Tim Clarke: Thank you for joining the Quotable Podcast. Before we get started, remember that the best way to keep up with all things Quotable is by subscribing at quotable.com/subscribe. Today, we’ll be discussing customer-centric selling with David Priemer, VP of Sales at Influitive. Welcome, David.


David Priemer: Thanks, Tim. Great to be here.


Clarke: David, I know we’ve worked together at Salesforce. Perhaps for people that aren’t familiar with you, perhaps you can give a very quick introduction and overview of some of your work.


Priemer: Yes. I like to say I’m a bit of scientist turned tech entrepreneur.


I’ve been privileged to be part of four great startups. The last three were all acquired by great tier one companies. The last one specifically was a startup that we founded about nine years ago, ran it for a few years, and then was acquired by Salesforce, which is, of course, where we spent time together. I had five amazing years at Salesforce with the team there, and decided to take the skills back to the startup world where I love to build — build those sales machines and build businesses.


Clarke: Well, I certainly miss you, David. We’re very grateful that you’re doing this today on the podcast program.


I’m Tim Clarke, Product Marketing Director at Salesforce, and I’m joined today by our guest host, Lynne Zaledonis, VP of Product Marketing at Salesforce. Welcome, Lynne.


Lynne Zaledonis: Thank you so much, Tim. Good to talk to you again, David. Looking forward to it.


Clarke: Perfect. Let’s dive straight in. David, your career progression has been really interesting. You’ve held a number of different roles: sales, engineering, operations, obviously a sales leader. Really interested in your perspective on how buyers and sellers have changed over the last few years.


Priemer: Absolutely.


Well, you know I started my career, as I mentioned, in academia, where I was a research scientist, and then transitioned into a selling role. My first role was actually a solution engineer at a startup where I helped run and build that team over the course of eight years.


And one of the things I love about that transition was, as a scientist, I was kind of trained to learn and take things apart and try to figure out how they work and then kind of explain those things to other people, which is really what science is all about. And I found that actually science and selling is very similar.


And when you think about the selling environment today, buyers are just way more educated than they used to be. They have so much access to information, product reviews, insights — and so, really, the role of the modern sales professional has always been — but especially in recent years has transitioned to be — one of problem-solving. Our job is to really bring the future to our customers, and so we really need to strike that balance between the vision and the pragmatism, at the same time finding a lot of conviction around the solutions that we’re bringing.


And so, for me, I find that the current sales environment is in many ways ideal because it’s not predicated on bothering our customers until they buy something from us, but rather, like I said, showing them the future, helping them solve their problems, and really doing a deep synthesis of their business. Which I think is ideally where all modern sales professionals want to be today.


Zaledonis: It’s interesting, the way things have changed in the way we sell.


We’ve seen that ourselves in our recent research we’ve done where the customer experience is now the top priority for any sales organization above the traditional things like forecasting, which is just shocking. So this new way of selling that you’re talking about, the new way of [engaging] with customers … You talked about coming into a sales organization — how were you planning on bringing that into your organization? How do you infuse that into your sales team?


Priemer: I’ve had the pleasure of being a Salesforce customer three times now, and I’ve also been on the other side, having been at Salesforce for five years.


And the thing that I always try to impress upon my sales reps is to really think like their customers. Today, customers have lots of information. They don’t like to be bothered. They want their sales professionals to add value, and to really understand their business. And so that’s the biggest thing that I tell my reps. I say, “Imagine that you are the customer. Whenever you get an email, an outreach, a phone call, a demo — whatever it is — think about what that experience feels like to the person on the other side.”


In many ways, sales professionals think in — unfortunately, sometimes — in a unidirectional fashion. We do a bit of discovery. We talk at people. But customers, buyers — they’re people just like us. And in our personal lives and our professional lives, we always want the folks that we relate to to add value, and to understand our needs. And I think that’s the biggest thing that I can impress upon my reps, is to just keep thinking like your customers and add value to them at every interaction. And to your point, Lynne, that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the customer experience.


The experience that our customers have with us is our product.


Clarke: Obviously you talked a bit around the different skills that you’ve worked on with your sales team. I’m really interested in your views on the different skills that you can teach, traditional versus nontraditional. I know you’ve also put a lot of focus on things like emotional intelligence as well. Perhaps you can expand a little bit there?


Priemer: Absolutely. Well, it’s interesting. Emotional intelligence is one of these things — I know it’s come into great favor in the last little while.


For me, when I think about the world of science and engineering, one of the things I talk about with my reps is almost thinking about the world of sales like the Matrix. Remember the Matrix movie with Keanu Reeves? It’s kind of this idea where it’s a lot of ones and zeroes. But at the end of the movie, they can see all of the agents, and kind of see the system and kind of play with the system. And I find sales is really like that. And the key to unlocking that Matrix experience is really emotional intelligence.


Which is really: Understand kind of the state of the buyer — their emotion, their concerns, their fears, their aspirations — and really be aware of that and really help them navigate through that process. But it’s interesting. We’ve all been in these sales cycles where we’re selling, let’s say, a rather expensive solution. Let’s say it’s a $50,000–$100,000 solution that for whatever reason comes down to a negotiation on the last $500. We’re all wracking our brains saying, “I don’t understand this. We’re so close. Why is it all coming down to this?”


And the idea that sales is predicated on products and services, and there just kind of being a mutual fit there is wrong. And it’s getting increasingly not that way. There are so many other factors that play a role in selling. We think about satisfaction. We think about fear and risk and excitement and alignment, and these aren’t tactics. They’re feelings. They’re emotions. And so, much of sales is all about serving the emotional needs of our customers.


And so we really challenge our reps to be mindful about how they interact with customers so that, not only can they be successful in selling, but really create a great relationship, and one based on satisfaction and mutual alignment.


Zaledonis: I know from having known you that you’re a big fan of Simon Sinek, and Start with Why has really influenced you, according to some of your blogs. What is it about that book, or his work, that really inspires you?


Priemer: Oh, yeah. Well, it’s funny.


00:06:27 When you look at, not to steal too much from Simon, but when you look at products, solutions, leaders in the market, the ones that are most successful start with this very fundamental belief — not about their product or service itself, but really the “why.” Why did we build this? What did we believe? And especially in the startup world, where most of us in the startup world are looking to change the world, we’re looking to have an impact, we’re looking to go places that solutions haven’t been before and basically do it better.


Starting with why, and a very deep-rooted belief as to why you’re doing that — is very, very compelling. And so one of the things that I try to impress upon my team, and when I work with organizations, is to kind of ask them, "Beyond the product or service that you’re selling, the question is, why are you doing it? Is there a large issue in the market that you’re addressing? Is there a technical advantage that you bring?"


And really my coaching in this area, when you think about the why, and how do you use that for business, is not about your product and service. Let’s say, for example, if I’m Salesforce, and Marc Benioff — you know, when he gets up onstage at a Dreamforce event, he’ll say something like, “I believe that customers should be able to run their business from their phone.” And that’s kind of the high-level statement around the future, and the idea is, if you believe what he believes then you’ll come along for that ride.


We’re not talking about products or services. We’re just talking about that belief statement. And so — for example at the beginning of this call, I said I believe that, let’s say, the future of sales is actually not based on bothering people. That experience is super important, and in the future, the modern salesperson is going to have to solve problems for their customer and be really emotionally invested in their success. And so I believe that the future of sales isn’t bothering people. So if I have a solution for that, you might sit there and smile and nod and say, “Yes, I do believe. I share his belief that the future of sales is not bothering people.” And, “Yes, tell me more.” So this idea of finding your “why,” finding the deep-rooted belief in your organization, is really, in my mind, the key to unlocking that sales potential.


Clarke: What’s your viewpoint on — [ultimately, in many] different organizations they’ve still got numbers to hit, and particularly high-pressure, high-paced organizations, they move fast. So it may sound right to be this trusted advisor and to not talk about your product.


How do you get that fine balance?


Priemer: The advice that I always give my teams is to always again put yourself on the side of the customer. Putting yourself on the side of the customer doesn’t mean that you’re weakening your position in your own solution. It means that you’re actually getting closer to them. And to your point, Tim, it’s exactly right. Many of us in sales where we have, let’s say, monthly or quarterly quotas, at the end of the period we get all frantic. We just need a few extra deals to make up our quota or to get accelerators.


And then what happens is we tense up, and we start thinking, “OK, who can I call? Who can I try to shoehorn into a solution really quickly?” And what happens is we call customers with that kind of frame of mind. Simon Sinek gives this example, which is a good one. Imagine if you went to buy a car, or you went to an electronics store, and it was the end of the month, and you wanted to buy something, and the salesperson just treated you in a way that it was immediately clear that they were on a commission and far behind where they needed to be?


You can feel it. You can feel when we interact with people like that, and it’s very off-putting. So the solution, actually — you’re right — sales, we have quotas. We have responsibilities. The best way to do that is to actually do the opposite, is to actually get closer to your customers, rather than kind of give them that off-putting feeling that you’re just trying to sell them. In a way, it’s almost counterintuitive. You feel like, the more I hustle, the more I push, the better I’m going to do. And that doesn’t mean make fewer phone calls.


Certainly there is room for hustle, and all of the data that I’ve seen in my [experience] absolutely points to the fact that those who hustle, those who learn faster, those who connect with customers more often are going to be more successful. But ultimately, sitting on the side of the customer and getting that insight sooner in the process, understanding what their concerns are so you can better serve them quickly, that’s the quickest road to victory on the sales side.


Zaledonis: I’m hearing a little bit of Field of Dreams here, David. If you build it, they will come, right?


Priemer: That’s right.


Zaledonis: You're going to hit that number if you become the trusted advisor, right? And that probably has some impact on customer retention. Do you have any tactical tips? I’m sure people like me, former salespeople or current salespeople, are like, “That sounds great, but my manager is breathing down my neck.” What tactical tips do you give your teams to become that trusted advisor?


Priemer: Well, the first thing I say is, make lots of calls. There was a Deloitte study, I believe, a couple years ago that talked about the top three things that correlate to sales rep success across a variety of industries and verticals and company sizes.


And one of those key ones was just time with customers. The more time you spend with customers learning about their business, the kinds of problems that your solution can help solve, the better off you’re going to be. The second thing that was really interesting about the study is that it found that size and quality of the internal network at your own company was one of the factors in helping the modern sales professional succeed.


And that’s really interesting because the more we kind of get into this future around products, solutions, services, and so on, it’s really incumbent upon us to bring the collective wisdom of our organizations and all of the insights, the experience that is housed in our support and customer success and marketing and sales organizations to bear — it’s almost counterintuitive in a way but the closer you can get to your own organization to help bring that value to the customer, the better off you’ll be.


Interestingly, if you’re curious about what the third thing was that correlated to sales success, it was time spent with leaders and managers that can help coach you. And so one of the things I love to do in our sales organization is to spend time with reps on calls, listening to customers, giving them advice about how they can resolve issues, circumvent roadblocks, service the customers better. And so all of the tactics that we share and talk about typically again revolve around servicing that customer and bringing the very best experience we can to them.


Clarke: So David, we’ve talked already about a number of different areas to really be customer centric. Could you give us some real tactical tips — perhaps things that you’ve really done with your sales teams — so if there are any sales leaders that are listening to this they can go back to their organizations and implement them?


Priemer: Absolutely. There are really three key principles that we talk a lot about in my sales teams, and I’ve found these principles have been pretty consistent as I move across. They’re pretty universal. And especially as I work with younger sales reps, reps that are early on in their careers.


So the first thing we talk a lot about is knowledge. And knowledge to me is really this desire to learn. There is so much more information out there on selling and emotional intelligence and tactics and so on than ever before. And so it’s really incumbent upon the sales professional to want to learn, and to keep getting better every day. If you keep learning and keep getting better every day, you’re going to be in a good position.


A lot of modern sales organizations will have enablement facilities and training and so on, but it’s really up to the individual to craft their own journey, their own approach, and really double down on the knowledge that's going to help them catapult their career.


The second thing we focus on is leadership. I always say the sales teams that will do the best are the ones that have several leaders. Everyone is a leader on the sales team.


And being a leader really means that if you see an opportunity for improvement, if there is something that you learned in interacting with a customer, if you see that there is a way that we could be running more efficiently and so on, is that you step up. And you are vocal about it. And you do things that kind of help raise the caliber of the entire team. We share winning behaviors. We share lessons learned.


And so if I can have a sales team where everyone essentially is a leader in stepping up, that’s really great for everyone and certainly helps them in their career, since many sales professionals either want to become even more senior sales professionals or sales leaders themselves.


So first one is knowledge. The second one is leadership. And the third one which is really, really important is a topic I talk a lot about, which is reciprocity. This idea that as I mentioned earlier we should always be adding value to our customers at every stage of the journey.


It’s funny — one of the greatest compliments I believe a sales rep can get from the customer is a job offer. “Hey, we enjoyed our sales experience so much with you, we would love to have you come work for our company.” And the idea is that when we balance that give-and-take, right? We’re always looking for opportunities to add value to our customer’s experience beyond our product.


Maybe that’s just sharing some industry knowledge or insights, connecting them with a person that can help their business or share some insights as well, inviting them to added-value events and making introductions — I mean, those are value-added things that we do for our customers in exchange for insights and access and information about their business. And so those three things together for me — knowledge, leadership, reciprocity — are really the foundation of any great sales team.


Zaledonis: Those are great tips. And the last one is one of my favorites, David — the reciprocity.


I want to switch up a little bit and go back to your background. You started by telling us that you used to be a scientist. You were a data scientist. You did research. That’s really important in today’s world as we talk about all the data that’s available to sales users, reps, managers. How do you do something with that data to make your sales processes more meaningful and to close more deals?


Priemer: That’s a great question. So an exercise I’ve now done at a few different companies is this one where you flowchart out the buying process.


Most of us, we think about a sales process in terms of the things that we do. We qualify the opportunity. We identify the key stakeholders. We identify the business case. We negotiate a contract, and then we sign, and then the customer becomes a paying customer. But flip that around. Take a look at what that sales process looks like from the customer’s perspective. How are we answering their questions and their concerns? Because the buying process may not actually be consistent with the selling process.


I’ve actually worked with a lot of sales organizations, and this is something that consistently comes up. So specifically write out what that sales process looks like. What are the steps that a customer goes through? And then, if you can imagine you’re writing out a flowchart with circles and arrows between the various steps, write down the details between each step. What piece of collateral is needed? What piece of information is needed? How long does it take to go from one step to the next step? And identify the bottlenecks.


You might realize after you’ve gone through that process that, “Oh my goodness, we have a major gap between step three and step four where there’s a massive drop-off in our conversion rates.” Well, why is that? Right? You might find that, in step five, as we’re negotiating a contract, we consistently get asked for a piece of collateral or information that we simply don’t have. And that’s causing a massive delay. And so really thinking about not only on the sales side but also on the customer success side. Think about what the buyer’s journey is with you.


And the buyer’s journey — again, when the buyer interacts with you, and the way they purchase software or any product, they don’t think of it as, “Contract to sign and done, and then I pull the ripcord and I’m out.” Their experience starts when they look for information and do research online, and it essentially ends in many ways when they renew their contract with your organization, right? So that’s the best advice I can give — is really flowchart out what that experience looks like from the buyer’s perspective.


And look for ways that you can optimize your own sales funnel and customer success funnel to deliver that amazing experience.


Clarke: David, there are so many different technologies available to salespeople that really help bring together all the different data that they need to have really successful conversations at the right time. What are your views on the whole artificial intelligence, and really leveraging that data in order to move these conversations forward?


Priemer: Yeah. I’m a fan.


When you think about the world of science — or the world of the Matrix, as you might say — there are trends and patterns to everything. And what great leaders and great researchers — like we talk about the Simon Sineks of the world or the Tony Robbins of the world, right? What they do really well is they look at those trends and patterns, and in a human way they’re able to kind of synthesize what the next steps are or where people are going. And then they take those insights and they kind of bring them back to people and help those people synthesize their own ideas and viewpoints and kind of move forward.


And really, when we’re living in this day and age of AI and machine learning, we have a tremendous opportunity to do the same thing for the modern sales professional. So for example, if I am deciding as a sales rep who to call in my territory, right? Who has the problems that my solution can uniquely solve? I have lots of options. I can prosecute my list, tier my accounts, or I can go deeper. I can start to do things like understand buying behaviors.


I can implement something like a social selling methodology, which will increase the likelihood that a customer will be willing to talk to me or answer my phone call — which as we think about how we break through that armor is really, really important. So as more information becomes available online, publicly and in the social spheres, not only can this information help the modern sales professional, but it can really help the modern buyer. Because imagine if you’re a buyer — again, the future of sales is not predicated on bothering people.


I’m not bothered when someone brings a highly qualified, relevant piece of content to me through a trusted channel. And I think when we think about the future of the buying and selling experience, that level of intelligence can go a huge way to not only helping the sales professional but the buyer, and create this amazing buyer experience, which as we talked about, that’s the product nowadays.


Zaledonis: That’s great.


And all throughout this conversation, we’ve had a lot of threads about being that trusted advisor, making sure you’re putting the customer in the front of it, and all the tools and tips you can make. But at the end of the day, you’re still asking the customer to change, right? You’re still asking them to do something different with your solution or your product or your service. What do you recommend, or what are your favorite tactics for getting over that hump and implementing that change?


Priemer: Right.


Well, the first thing that you have to overcome is what we call this buyer’s inertia, the propensity to just keep doing the same thing. I give a lot of talks, and there are folks in the audience, and you typically see as you go through your presentation a lot of smiling and nodding in kind of knowing agreement. And yet, most people will leave your talk and kind of go back to their desk and do exactly what they were doing before. So you need something that’s powerful enough to knock them off their game, to disrupt their inertia. And so there are really a few different tactics I’ve seen.


Number one is this idea of reciprocity. So when as a sales professional you reach out to a prospect, you’re trying to spark that conversation — you know, I always think about that inertial disruption as, what’s the first five seconds? We often think a sales professional is about being able to pitch our ideas in their entirety, almost like we’re going to do like the Vulcan mind meld, like Spock, where you want everything in our head to kind of immediately go into the customer’s head so they understand how much value we could possibly add.


But really, they don’t want to listen to you, and so think about how the tactics you employ get you to that first 10-second conversation, and then earning the right to get to the 30-second conversation, and then the two minutes, and then the five minutes, and then the half an hour, and then the one-hour demo, right? So reciprocity is really powerful. So bringing something of value to the customer before you even ask them for anything. And that could be information about their business, information about a competitor, where the industry is going, a free report, an introduction.


So just making the customer really amenable to listening to you in the first place is really, really important. The second thing I think about is just the credibility. Many of us in our organizations, we’re blazing the trail. We have lots of insights about our particular domain, and how we add value to customers. Even if you’re new, typically your organization will possess that level of credibility, right? We work with thousands of customers across these industries. And so it’s incumbent upon us as the modern sales professional to bring that credibility.


I almost call it punching with the weight of your organization. So that’s another great way of bringing that level of conviction to the customer experience. So I’ll tell you a story. Back in the summertime I was at a sales leadership dinner, and we were looking at the menu and folks had ordered all different things from the menu. There were probably about eight of us there. And what happened was the waiter came by and asked if anyone had any questions. And so I asked a question about a particular dish.


I said, “Is this dish any good?” And the waiter said, “Oh, sir, that’s the best thing on the menu.” And he then kind of went into the detail around what the dish was all about and how great it was. And almost everyone at the table changed their order. So I always think about that example as a perfect instance of credibility and conviction. If we have high credibility and conviction in our solutions and the value they can add, just like the waiter, that is oftentimes enough to break through that inertial barrier, the armor that customers put up.


The last thing that I typically find is really, really helpful is just this idea of advocacy. And I remember — Tim, you were there. Back in — I think Lynne was as well. Back just this past summer, in June, in New York, at the sales machine conference. One of the best parts of that conference was Gary Vaynerchuk, who many people know, very outspoken individual. And 12 minutes into his talk, he asks this question of the audience. He says, “Who hates it — put up your hands, show of hands — who hates it when another human being calls them on the phone?”


Right? Everyone completely stops. And what happens? 30–40% of the people raise their hands. And he says, “You know why that is?” He said, “Because today, the most valuable thing that you have is your time. We’re all very, very busy. And when someone calls you on the phone —” and he wasn’t talking about a sales call. He was talking about anyone. “Someone calls you on the phone, they are stealing that which is most precious to you, which is your time.” And so that’s why we hate it.


But when are we not bothered? When people bring us value. Right? When we get introductions from people we know. We generally trust people that we know, rather than just random people who disrupt our time, who call us on the phone. And so when I think about this idea of trust in relationships and social selling — being able to kind of navigate through that and really connect with someone in a way that is not bothersome, is a huge way of kind of breaking that inertia and reaching your target audience.


I always go back to that Gary Vaynerchuk talk and think about — all right, how am I engaging with prospects in a way that is not bothersome, that is not stealing their time, that is high value, that brings that high conviction so that they feel that interacting with me is actually quite valuable and they’re willing to listen?


Clarke: Perfect. David, we’re nearly up on time. Any closing thoughts you want to give to the audience?


Priemer: Yeah. I would just say keep thinking about — as I said, thinking about how you’re adding value to your customer at every interaction. Think like them.


Make sure that you are bringing solutions that are valuable, that are rooted in an understanding of their business, and if you’re a sales leader out there, if you’re responsible for bringing up that next layer of sales leader in the modern sales professional, make sure that you are not only arming them with the tactics around your solution and kind of the traditional sales tactics around calling and emailing and solutioning and so on, but you’re really helping them be mindful about that customer experience.


And how they are interacting, how they are satisfying emotional needs of the customer. And you’ll find they’ll be tremendously successful not only in their careers as sales professionals but as people and buyers as well. That’s the best advice I can give.


Clarke: Thanks again for joining us. Lynne today is our guest host.


Zaledonis: Thank you so much, Tim, for having me. David, it was great to catch up with you, and thanks for sharing your tips.


Priemer: Thanks for inviting me.

Clarke: And thanks everyone for listening in. And if you like what you hear, please take a minute to give us a five-star rating and feedback on the Quotable podcast. Thank you.

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