Kevin Micalizzi: Welcome to the Quotable Podcast. I’m Kevin Micalizzi.
Today, we’re speaking with Donna Valente, Co-Founder of the Enterprise Sales Institute. And today, we’re going to dig into selling with vision — so how you can differentiate yourself from your competition and really develop better relationships with your prospects through, empathy, curiosity, and authenticity.
Let’s jump into it.
So, Donna, thank you so much for joining me today.
Donna Valente: Thank you, Kevin. It’s great to be here.
Micalizzi: So, Donna, when we were prepping for this, we were talking about prospecting and how difficult it can be for reps to really stand out of the crowd. Before we dig into that though, I’d love it if you could just give us a quick picture of who you are?
Valente: Sure. I’ve been in enterprise sales probably for the last 15 years or so. I know I date myself when I say that, but it’s true. I have been selling in a multistate buyer environment for quite some time. I also was in the e-learning space.
At some point in my career, I transitioned into being an executive recruiter. My focus was on startups and high-growth companies that were looking for sales leaders, marketing leaders, and sales reps. So that was really where I lived and breathed is the sales space.
As an outgrowth of being in that business, I have had a lot of people coming to me and asking me for sales coaching, career coaching, and all kinds of things. So I ended up going out and getting certified in leadership and coaching. Then I added that as a service arm. That’s where I really came alive.
I more recently opened the Enterprise Sales Institute, which is a human-centered sales philosophy. We take the principles of leadership mindset to help optimize sales performance, and we put that together with the practical skills and tools required to be a high-performer.
So that’s what I do.
Micalizzi: It gives you multiple perspectives on selling, and definitely, I’m sure, it keeps you busy.
So, Donna, what I’d love to do is I don’t want to focus on how we get the prospect’s attention, like what tools do we use, doing the research. I think that side of it is pretty heavily covered.
What I’d love to dig into is, “Okay. I’ve connected with a prospect. How do I make myself stand out from the crowd? How do I really connect with them?” I would almost say on a deeper level than I think most reps do.
Valente: Mm-hmm. That’s a good question. One of the principles that we learn in coaching and leadership coaching is around the notion of something we call empathy and curiosity.
When there’s a lot of noise in the market and there are a lot of reps trying to get the attention or their company is in the evaluation process, the real key to differentiating yourself from the outset is being a very effective listener, a better listener, being able to be curious about the customer and the customer’s agenda, and working collaboratively with that customer.
You’re not really selling to them anymore. You’re allowing yourself to co-create with the customer, to plan the future state of the business. I think that’s where reps struggle. “How do I really connect? What will make me have a deeper relationship with this person, for them to trust me that I have their best interest at heart?”
So if you’re approaching prospecting or those initial first calls with the client in trying to make the perfect pitch and doing what we call “weather reporting” and you’re focused on self — “How do I sound? What am I saying?” — you’re doing the hard work.
Curiosity is when we really sit with the client and we ask them questions that are going to inspire them to tell us what’s really going on in their business. That’s what differentiates really good reps from high-performing reps.
Micalizzi: Right. I’m almost thinking though, I know when a lot of reps get on the phone, they already have an idea of what they want to ask. So it ends up being more of a series of leading questions as opposed to that genuine curiosity. How do you tackle, almost resetting your own agenda, to be able to ask those kinds of questions?
Valente: It does. We’re flipping the sales model. It’s important to ask questions that are leading. The training has always suggested that we make those questions biased to our product.
But real, true curiosity is when you’re selling with authenticity and empathy in a way that the questions you’re asking are getting the client to think about themselves, what it is like to be in their shoes. You’re going to ask them questions like, “What’s going on right now for you that’s impacting your business? How does that make you feel?” And then we listen to that.
I think people struggle with just having that genuine conversation. I don’t struggle with it. I had a call with somebody this morning. I said, “Well, you reached out to me. Tell me what you’re feeling right now.” I think reps have a hard time asking people what they’re feeling. They’re in their head, trying to be with the client.
But the reality is people buy with emotion, and the emotion comes from feelings. Once we say to them, “What’s going on here for you? What challenges are you facing today?” they’re going to start telling you. And you’re going to just sit with that for a while.
And then from there, you’re going to recognize that some of those challenges may probably be the three things or four things that your problem does solve. But you don’t want to go there right away. You really want to understand what’s happening in their business.
You have to be able to come back with, “Here’s what I’m hearing from other clients, that they’re facing within their business problems around what you’re saying. And here’s what they were looking to do. Does that work for you?”
Just keep them talking. Curiosity is about keeping the client talking about stuff.
Micalizzi: I find it interesting that you’re talking about feelings because I think that to a certain extent we’ve been taught over the years that feelings are bad, you have to distance yourself from the feelings.
It sounds like what you’re saying is you really need to embrace them because they are driving whatever pain points that prospect has or whatever inspires them. Any of those things, there’s always feeling wrapped up in that, and it’s uncovering it.
Donna, do you find that it works just saying, “Donna, how does that make you feel?” Because I almost feel funny asking it that way because it’s a little like, “Give me the couch for the therapy session.” That’s kind of how I feel.
Valente: Yeah. It does work for me — it works for me. I will tell you that you can say it in different ways if you’re not comfortable with actually just, “How do you feel about how this is impacting your business?” I would argue that it is taught the opposite.
The really successful sales reps I have seen have always connected because they’ve made it personal with that person. The client feels like the rep is sitting in the state that is currently happening.
When you’re sharing that experience with them through empathy, that makes them connect with you. And then they’re more willing to share all the other business situations that are surrounding that or impacting them on a daily basis.
So I don’t think it’s important to ask, “How are you feeling about this problem right now? What’s it doing to your business?” I think it’s an easy question, and people will tell you the truth.
It’s our job to get our clients out of their head. Because if they’re in their head — I think Simon Sinek talks about this — the part of the brain that buys is the emotional part, not the logical part.
It’s our job to inspire them. By inspiring them, that’s getting into asking them, “What is happening?” for them. That happens through empathy and curiosity, and how we get there is to really be aware. There’s self-awareness that goes on of, “How am I sounding in this conversation? Am I sounding authentic? Do I sound like I care? Do I sound like I want to be helping this person or do I sound like I’m trying to sell them my product?”
Micalizzi: Right. You’ve talked about empathy and curiosity. What other shifts do reps have to be making to really be at this level?
Valente: That’s a great question because salespeople are the hardest people to coach. It’s true. Everything that we talk about in leadership, when I’m doing executive teams and group training, we ask people about, “What is your purpose? What is your passion?” There are like two out of 15 that are connected to it.
We think we’re connected to it. But when you really sit down and start asking people, “What are you passionate about that you can bring to your client?” they struggle.
So getting people to that self-awareness state and how do we get them to shift is really trying to get them back to purpose. “What is it about doing this job that you feel so important about that you know you’re going to change this person’s life? How do you want to articulate that?”
That’s from the position of, “This is why we’re here. This is my purpose about this. This is why I’m doing this, and I have this belief that if I come here to you with this solution, I’m going to change the course of your business.”
That is something that takes a lot of self-reflection, and it takes some coaching. It’s a cultural thing too. It’s a sales culture belief that we have to embrace; everybody has to embrace it.
Micalizzi: I think we fool ourselves in thinking that the compensation is the motivator for what we do.
Valente: That’s the carrot that we use in sales. It has been the carrot that we think, “The money is why we’re here.”
The reality is all the research shows that real happiness comes from being connected to something and being connected to purpose. Everyone can find something in their product that drives them to want to be great.
That’s where we have to say, “We have to get connected to self so that we’re able to connect to our customers. So then we’re able to get our customers to share with us their future vision so that we can influence them to use us.”
The salesperson is the first person in line to meeting a customer. You’re the brand, and you have to be proud of carrying that brand. But you don’t have to carry it with all that anxiety.
I think people are so focused on self, meeting their KPIs, getting through the sales call, and collecting all these data points, that they’re not pausing to say, “What is important for you, client, that I’m sitting here with you right now?”
I think what happens is when they get to the really difficult parts of the sales conversations where they have to negotiate or they have to get that person to shift, they get a little paralyzed by feeling like, “Oh, I’m going to be too strong,” or, “Oh, I have to say this,” instead of just being their natural self like they would with a friend.
You’ve got to be really confident in yourself when you’re talking to clients about, “What is your future vision for this business? How can I support you in that?” It’s that simple.
Micalizzi: Right. So you found your passion, your purpose. You’re approaching with empathy and curiosity. It definitely sounds like, as the sales rep, you’re really taking the role of coach. I think a lot of reps don’t approach it with that mindset just because very few people have had training on how to coach properly.
Valente: That’s right. What my coaching program actually tries to do is improving sales performance by getting sales reps to be more coach-like with their clients. Being more coach-like really means asking client-centered questions that focus on the client’s needs and outcomes, not our own.
I will tell you, it takes a lot of skill drills to build people’s self-awareness. It’s a muscle. It’s a competency that has to be recognized. Somebody has to go through coaching to recognize self-awareness and self-management and how to sell with vision.
That escapes people. What is “selling with vision?” They need to learn how to do that by being more reflective with the customer about the customer’s vision. It sounds, “Wooey, woo-woo, wooing, kumbaya.” [Laughter]
But the reality is the most powerful connectors and the most effective salespeople are able to make that connection and really be present with a client just like coaches are really present with their coaching.
Micalizzi: I think what I want to ask you here, Donna, is how do you get to what that client’s agenda is? Because I think a lot of them don’t already understand it.
I mean, we’ve seen the stats on it. Buying, especially in the business-to-business space, has become so complicated. When you sell, you have a repeatable process typically. When you’re buying, every time you buy, it’s a new adventure. The cast of characters changes. It’s rough.
How do you figure out how to get to that vision?
Valente: I will tell you, for me, personally, I think the cast of characters have different names, but they’re all the same. I think everybody is the same. They have some different challenges. But every business unit faces something that involves a human emotion that is connected to performance.
It’s our job to be consistent in a few things. One is being a student of their business. You have to be very sharp about what you know, about what goes on about your ideal client.
So when you’re talking to them, how you gain credibility is to share with them relevant challenges that are happening and common themes that are happening in their industry or in their business unit, whatever it is, whatever vertical it is. You’re asking them about their problems. But you also have to know what the industry challenges are that you can share with them.
And just asking them, “What are the toughest challenges that you’re facing today? What’s happening in the business that’s impacting process or effectiveness or money? Who else is involved in this? How are you personally affected? What is your future vision for how to operate in the future state of operation?”
Those questions, in my mind, go across every vertical.
Micalizzi: Right. Okay. So let me make sure I’ve got the sequence right. “I need to be more introspective. I need to get a better understanding of myself, my passion, my purpose because that gives me a foundation point to guide me through the process.”
And then, “When it comes to my prospects, obviously, I’m doing research upfront because nobody has the patience for me to get on the phone with them and say, ‘So what do you do?’”
What I’d really doing here is approaching with curiosity and empathy to ask questions, to really get at the feelings, the root causes, the challenges that the customer is facing, and the impact that it has on them.
Valente: Yes. Absolutely. Think about when you’re in a networking situation or in any situation where you meet a stranger. You know why they like you? Because you’re asking questions about them. “Tell me about you.” That’s curiosity.
It’s so simple to do when you’re curious about somebody. Think about when you fall in love. I know it sounds ridiculous, but when you fall in love with somebody, you want to know everything about them. You’re asking them all kinds of questions.
You have to appreciate your clients. You don’t have to be in love with them. But you certainly do have to appreciate them. So get curious about them so they can tell you stuff that’s important to them. Then you want to truly help them. You want to get them to let you help them solve their problems.
And then from there, you’ll connect. Once you make that connection with them and you stick with business prowess, you will be able to leverage your knowledge and what your product does to solve those three or four problems that they’re having. Then you’re able to influence them to co-create with them, how you can solve the problem together.
Micalizzi: I love that term “co-creating.” It’s very much a coaching term. Give us your perspective on what you mean by co-creating and maybe an example of what folks could be doing to co-create or how people have co-created something.
Valente: Okay. When I am working with senior people that might want to have their sales team sell with more vision, I have to ask them a lot of questions, “When you say, ‘Sell with more vision,’ what does that mean?” I get them talking about what that means for them. “What would it look like for you if it was different?”
They’ll tell me all this stuff, and then I’ll say, “Well, give me an example where it wasn’t up to your standard.” They’ll give me an example.
I’ll say, “Oh, by the way, do you have any videos of that? Can I see that?” We look at the videos together, and I’ll watch if that resonates with, “Oh, that was so wrong. Here’s what I would have rather them done.”
[I’ll say] “Okay. Great. What is it going to look like for you in the future? How will we know that this worked?”
[They’ll say] “Well, I will do X, Y, and Z, and I want to see a presentation. I would like to see videos afterward.”
[I’ll say] “That’s great. Now, let’s build this out together.”
And I co-create the scope of work with them. It’s not my idea. It’s theirs. I’m just giving them the skill drill to get their executive team to develop those competencies that they needed to stretch their range in.
So the co-creation comes in when we are mutually agreeing that this is the problem. We’re mutually agreeing to a plan of action that I’ve seen work in my past.
I share that with them. They say “Yes” or “No,” to that. Then we barter for what would look better. [I’ll say] “What do you think would work better for your team?”
[They’ll say] “Yeah. Well, they might feel threatened by this. Can we try this approach?”
[I’ll say] “Yes, we can. These are the skills or the drills that we’ll use for that so they won’t feel threatened. We’ll get buy-in. What else is important to you?”
[They’ll say] “Timeline.”
[I’ll say] “Okay. We’re going to make a timeline for that.”
In this way, we’ve created this workshop together, even though it might have looked exactly the same way if I had done it myself. I want them to feel empowered. I heard everything that they said.
You know what? I want to be honest with you. I won the business. There were 10 other companies that were bigger than I was, and I won just because I humanized it. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a way of partnering. When we say to people, “We want to partner with them,” we have to mean that. It’s the same thing as co-creation. I just called it something else.
Micalizzi: I don’t think that’s crazy.
Valente: Was that a good example for you?
Micalizzi: It is. I don’t think it’s crazy at all. Because they’re a part of creating the solution, I’m sure they feel a much stronger sense of ownership for that solution and how it gets implemented, which I can only imagine makes it that much easier for you to build a lasting relationship with them.
Valente: Equally as important is, I let them tell me; I wasn’t telling them. We were learning together—; it felt like we were learning together. I am the expert at coaching; he’s not. I went to school for coaching; he didn’t. He knows what he wants, but I didn’t dump on him: “Hey, man, I spent like two years in a coaching program. I know what to do. I don’t need your help.”
I wasn’t the expert; he was. I let him be the expert, and that’s what wins — letting somebody else be the expert of their own business.
But with me, using my expertise and my knowledge from working with 20 other groups of people, that’s where your reps come in. They’re like, “We have the experience of seeing inside other people’s organizations. Let me help you with these business processes that we’ve seen be successful.”
To me — the self-awareness piece, the courageousness, and curiosity — you do have to be strong sometimes. Just because you’re going to be self-aware and you’re co-creating, doesn’t mean you’re not going to be strong; you are. You’re just being strong in a way that’s going to make your customer feel empowered about the solution that they want to buy from you.
You’ve separated yourself from other people. You’re not rambling. You’re not trying to get the last word in. You’re not worried about your agenda and putting stuff in the CRM. You’re focused on them, not on yourself. That’s the skills that need to be taught, that self-awareness, the self-presence; “How am I questioning?”
I would argue that videoing is the best way to have sales reps see and hear themselves. It’s a wicked tool.
Micalizzi: So videoing themselves on a call?
Valente: Yes. Video themself on a call.
I do Zoom for everything. All my meetings are in Zoom. If I can’t get to a location, I am talking to people on Zoom, not just the phone. I record it because I want to see if I performed at my optimum and what I need to change.
It’s really hard, self-awareness. It’s very hard. Empathy is hard to have, getting off of self. Because our “self” has to go back and talk to our management team. We’re getting all kinds of questions. So we have to find a way to [direct] our mind so that we’re focused on the customer, moving beyond a transaction, and become a trusted partner for them.
It all stems in coaching, and I think training is very different from coaching.
Micalizzi: Right. Coaching, you’re really helping guide them to answers they help create.
Valente: Yeah. We’re helping them be themselves. We’re helping people just relax and be themselves. We do a good job of selling the value proposition of our company. But we don’t think about the value proposition we’re giving about our self to the customer.
People don’t buy products. They buy people that can help them see that their product has a good way of getting there. They buy from people and they listen to people that they trust and respect. I’ve had people that didn’t really like me that much that bought from me because they respected what I brought to the table.
I sold in the South for a while. I didn’t blend there, Kevin. I wasn’t one of them; I’m a Northeast girl. I had to be a little bit bendy there. And some people, I wasn’t their cup of tea, but they trusted me. They respected that I was there for them and that I was present for them. I gave them my undivided attention. That’s what worked.
Micalizzi: Yeah. This has been great. There’s a lot here that reps can focus on. I loved the idea of starting by recording yourself and really seeing how you perform. I know sometimes it’s painful.
Valente: It’s painful.
Micalizzi: Totally. So, Donna, I want to change gears here and ask you our lightning-round question. If you could take all the knowledge and experience you have now, go back to the beginning of your career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Valente: Darn you, Kevin. [Laughter] I think I would tell myself to really have been myself earlier, followed creativity, and stayed with who I was instead of trying to be what other people wanted me to be in sales.
Micalizzi: That’s great advice.
Valente: Staying true to myself, staying true to my intuition, and staying true to helping clients be better as a result of meeting me, even if it meant they didn’t want my product.
Valente: So that’s my story.
Micalizzi: It’s great advice. So, Donna, thank you so much for joining me today.
Valente: Thank you. I hope this was helpful.