Selling tech isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially if the tech you’re selling is something completely new, with absolutely no exposure in the world. But it’s certainly not an impossibility if the people tasked with putting your product out there know exactly how to sell it. Joe Sexton is a mentor and advisor to several big Silicon Valley CEOs. Joe speaks with Mitch Russo about the science that is sales, especially in a sector as competitive as tech. Having trouble getting people to invest in your tech? Joe is here to help you find your footing!
Selling Tech With Joe Sexton
The person you’re about to meet was a college dropout. He dropped out after his sophomore year, taking various sales jobs to follow his passion for sales. He finally found a promising company and he was offered a commission-only job giving him the worst territory that the company ever had. Three others were fired for non-performance. My guest decided this would be his proving ground and it almost broke into, but long after the company had given up on him, he didn’t give up on himself. He closed the big one deal that made it all worthwhile. He then knew that sales would be his place in this world. After going back to finish college, he placed himself in growth mode, learning from everyone. His car trunk was filled with audios and sales training cassettes. He saw every sale as an opportunity to hone his craft from job to job and from win to win. He learned that treating others as you would want to be treated yourself, no matter their job, would be one of the keys to his future success, and it was.
As his career unfolded, he took on more senior roles. Each one is benefiting from his wisdom, where he built success and wealth along with new challenges, heartbreaks and more challenging business lessons too. From his position as Executive Sales Leader for Computer Associates and Mercury Computer Systems, even growing one company to $3.4 billion and selling it to Cisco. He enjoys a highly successful life as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, functioning as Executive Advisor to Silicon Valley’s most promising rising stars. He’s here to help you take your company to the next level. Welcome, Joe Sexton.
Thank you, Mitch. It’s great to be here.
What a story telling in from grassroots to billions. It’s not a bad way to grow a career. I’m excited to have you here as well. Joe, why don’t you tell us how this all started for you?
I was a dropout in college and it’s typical when you’re that age that I knew more than I knew. I always wanted to be in sales, but I didn’t understand the value of a college education. Only when I got out in the real world and found that we couldn’t find a job with a salary without a college education that I came to the full realization that college was the right thing to do. I went back and finished that. I started out as a direct sales rep selling computers to auto parts to people in Eastern Kentucky, which was challenging at that time but yet rewarding and I learned a lot.
From that, I joined Computer Associates as a sales rep and worked my way up in that company. I started loving the art and science of sales. I went into leadership and enjoyed helping others get what they want, which is key to getting everything you want. Through that journey, it’s taught me that sales is a science. There is some art but mainly it’s science. There are certain elements and components that you have to execute and do the professional outcome in order to achieve the results that you’re looking to achieve.
I love the fact that you mentioned it’s a science because many people are persuaded that it’s not, and that it’s somehow some human quality. It’s not. It’s learning how to listen and learning to communicate. I also love the fact that you are a lifelong learner. You treat learning and growing as part of your daily life and that’s significant to me. That means that you’re never going to stop getting better at what you do. I bet that’s part of how you mentor the people that you work with as well.It's only when you enter the real world that you realize the value of a college education. Click To Tweet
The day that you think that you know everything, you can’t learn anything. I’m talking about regardless of who it’s from. It’s the day you probably packed it in and leave the house. I find that I learn something new every day. Having an attitude that that’s what the day is going to bring you is a big reason for that. I spend my time now on boards or being an advisor to CEOs to various companies in Silicon Valley. That’s the one thing I try to impart to them as some of the learnings that I’ve come across and hopefully share those with some smart people. These are brilliant and genius technology people that certainly are way better at technology than I am.
On the sell side, there’s an element I can bring that hopefully will help them in their quest to build great companies. The science part of it is the heart and soul. People have one mouth and two ears. I always say to salespeople a lot of times that they’re looked at as great speakers but yet salespeople are great listeners. I also think they’re great storytellers. That’s the one thing that I try to sort out with a CEO when I first meet with him, “Tell me your story. Tell me the technology and the solution you’re providing, what problem you’re solving, and what value you’re driving.” The way I do that is I listen to their story, whether it’s with a deck or verbally.
There are three questions that always try to make sure that they’re answered. Number one, why do I need to buy anything? If I don’t have a problem that we can agree on something I can solve, then there’s no point in continuing the conversation. Do I have a problem that we both agree that exists? It’s meaningful, difficult and valuable if you solve it. The second question is, if we agree on that, why buy your solution? This is where you’ve got to drive home unique business value and stand out among potential competitors. The third question after you answer the first two is, if you agree, I can solve your problem, I can do it uniquely and fairly in terms of price, and drive significant value, then why wait? It’s why buy anything? Why buy you? Why wait?
A lot of times I see in the Valley, the stories are technical because the founders are usually technical. They’re passionate about their technology. I spent many times listening to CEOs and at the end of their presentation, I don’t have a clue what they do. I spend a lot of time trying to get that right in terms of how you tell the story. It’s important in the sales organization that that’s what you teach them to do. We used to call it the first meeting deck at AppDynamics, which was the last company I was with that we have sold to Cisco.
It’s important that everybody was certified and told consistently the same first meeting. We have proven that if you did that, the right things happen in terms of outcomes. I spend a lot of time with CEOs making sure that their stories are right. It’s taught throughout their sales organization so it’s repeatable. It’s done with high quality and therefore leads to the results in terms of not just activities but top line. Everybody wants the last thing, which is the actual sales results themselves.
I would bet that the story starts with the first three questions that you started with on this discussion directly.
It does. You don’t have to ask the questions per se. The gist of it is those three questions need to be answered to get the outcome that you want, which is to have a customer buy your solution and to become a customer with the right expectation. That’s a good relationship. There’s a good value exchange. They become an advocate within their own company in terms of a reference and they’re a customer for life. It all starts with setting the parameters early.
First of all, I love the idea of telling stories because that’s how I operate and I enjoy that. I love to tell stories and I love to hear great stories being told. Let’s go back to the beginning when you first got started. The particular story I’d love for you to tell is about overcoming the mindset that you must have done. You have to master the mindset of selling before you sell anything. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? There are a lot of entrepreneurs that could benefit from that.
The first thing is you have to do it mentally. I’ve been a big proponent with all the people that have worked with me in terms of visualization and positive thinking. Some of the early books that I read were Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and The Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and Zig Ziglar was a big influence. I always believe that preparation is important. It’s the same analogy as with sports. If you practice hard, you show up big in the game. A lot of that preparation goes into giving you the confidence so that when you’re prospecting and so forth, you know that you’re in a good place in terms of your story should resonate and should connect in terms of solving those problems.
That preparation and mentally getting ready before you show up in front of that prospect is important. That first meeting deck, we used to make people stand up and tell that story, not to their manager but to the managers that work with their direct manager so that he or she would not be motivated by passion because they can put them into the field, but because they were ready. It’s hard to do. If you think about telling the story that prospect hadn’t heard is easy, but telling the story that the manager you’re telling it to is burst in and knowledgeable. It’s hard to do and do well. They know when you messed up and they know when you do well. Putting people and yourself in those pressure situations means that when the game time occurs or I like to call it shot on goal, you’re ready and prepared both mentally as well as professionally from a technical perspective to tell that story.
Do it in a way so that it connects with a prospect in a simple way. I’ve always said you’ve got to make the complex simple. One of the things I used to do all the time is before I certified a first meeting deck myself, I did what I call the wife test. My wife is not technical, but if I couldn’t tell the story to her in a way she could understand it, then it wasn’t ready to go yet. I believe that you’ve got to be able to take a complex topic and boil it down to words that are simple to understand and easy to get.
What you’re saying on how you get confidence is by practicing, honing your pitch, and starting internally by answering the three questions that you asked at the beginning of the show. You’re making sure that your presentation covers those points. If the customer doesn’t need what you have, there’s no point in continuing. If they do need it, then how could your solution best serve them? Finally, why not make the decision now? If you need this solution, isn’t now the best time? All of that is how to conduct almost a perfect sales presentation. It sounds like you’re mentoring people to do that and more.Sales is a science. Click To Tweet
To simply put it, I’ve always wanted when I walked away from a new customer that they felt they bought from me, rather than I sold to them. If you’ve got a problem and I’ve got a solution, and I can provide it at a fair cost and with tremendous value, then you shouldn’t want to wait. Waiting is only going to cost you the time, money, percentage of whatever the value and the benefit are. If it’s presented in a way that it solves that prospect’s problem and delivers that value and so forth, there’s no good reason to wait. Rather, let’s move forward and start getting that value and changing the outcome of your business in a positive way.
We had a guest on the show named Oren Klaff and he wrote a book called Flip the Script. The entire point of the book is how to get your prospect to buy from you and ask you to sell to them. When you master the ability to help somebody and completely see in a positive way what you’re doing, and the fact that they want it versus you trying to push it on them, then that’s the ultimate sale itself. We all would love to be able to master that process. Talking about mastering the process, you are the best in the business at this, Joe. What can you share about the process itself? How can you help my readers do better at trying to get their company off the ground? How to get from that first million to the second million or even to the first one itself? Where do you believe is the best place to start? If you have any stories about companies you’ve worked with at that level, we’d love to know them.
The first million is always the hardest. You’re new to the market, you’re unknown and you’re unproven. A lot of times, people have a hard time remembering AppDynamics. It was a mouthful in terms of the name. In addition to being new and unknown, it was hard to remember the name until we started getting momentum in the market. The trick to it is how do you make something that’s repeatable. You have to have a process and methodology. We used metrics and we had a thing called PG Monday, which was Pipeline Generation Monday. That means that those field reps that typically would want to rely on marketing, partners or their inside sales counterpart to do leads, and we said no.
In addition to those people, you’re responsible for producing your own pipeline generation. The entire day was dedicated to that. We weren’t allowed to take any other meetings except generating pipeline. On Friday, we would inspect the reps and go through what kind of activities like first meetings. By that, I mean either brand new prospects or new routes to money in an existing prospect. It had to be a new money meeting. We measured those and they had to be eight in-person per week. We look to drive what was called proof of values. We never sold proof of concepts. Nobody buys concepts, people buy value.
We would drive what’s called proof of values where we bring the solution in and prove its value to the prospect and show them in their environment, “Here’s how you do it. Here’s how you deal with us.” Out of that came Business Value Assessment, which was “This is how much value our solution will drive to your company as a result of solving those problems.” That process was important. The number of them as well as the quality of them, but it started with the activities. If the activities weren’t there, if you didn’t have enough in-person meeting that week, if you didn’t have enough proof of values for that quarter or Business Value Assessments, you weren’t going to be successful in terms of the results. Activities typically lead to pipeline, which is measurable.
At AppDynamics, we used metrics. We are six times the target, which is unheard of. It was because of that passion for generating pipeline across the company. Once you have those massive pipelines, you can be average and have outstanding results. A lot of people focus on the results. We had a tendency to focus on the activities in the pipeline first, and the end results follow thereafter. I’ve done the same thing with CrowdStrike, I’m on the board there. Also with PagerDuty, another company I advise. Those companies went public. It’s that process that works, but it has to be repeatable and it has to be across the organization.
One of the things we learned at AppDynamics and the other companies have done is the focus on sales-enablement. How do you get those sales reps proficient as quickly as possible so that they’re productive and helps with attrition? When somebody is not being successful, they’ll have a tendency to leave quicker. Sales-enablement was a key function. I had that coming directly into me. A lot of people will put that into sales ops. That sends the message in a negative way but to me, it’s strategic. Therefore, I had the person we put in place there. AppDynamics come directly into me. If that’s done right, then all the results go up like productivity and outcomes, as well as things like attrition go down. That was also an important component in the outcome of at least the AppDynamics and the other companies where I’ve been.
Joe, when you say focus on the right activities first, I assume you mean the steps that build a pipeline, doing your research, making sure that your customer is the right profile and needs the product that you’re offering. Eventually, making sure that you have enough information so that what you’re offering is compelling. Is that part of what you’re saying?
It’s important because gone are the days where a sales rep could come into someone’s office and say, “Tell me about your business,” and a bunch of open-ended questions. Typically, if that happens, you’re done in about five minutes because buyers nowadays have so much access to information. They expect you to do your homework as much as they do theirs. They’ll probably know 60% to 70% of what they’re looking for before they meet with any vendor. It’s important that a sales rep shows up extremely prepared in terms of understanding clients and their business, the market they’re in, the competitors they go against every day, and what problems they probably are seeing.
We used to call this a Value Pyramid at AppDynamics. There’s a company I’m working with, DecisionLink, that calls it a Value Hypothesis. “Instead of starting a conversation with fact-finding and those things, let me start with a hypothesis. This is typically what we’ve seen with other like companies in your space. Here are the problems they typically see and here’s how we’ve gone about solving those problems. Theoretically, this is what we think we can do for you with similar problems.” What that does is it starts a conversation based on value instead of technology.
Especially in Silicon Valley, people too often forget that nobody buys technology for technology’s sake. They bought technology to solve real-world business problems that drive value outcomes. Why not start the conversation around value? That leads into a sales cycle that is much more oriented to that and much more interesting to people because that’s what they’re looking to do, which is to solve business problems and drive business value outcomes. That Value Hypothesis or Value Pyramid is important in terms of how you start that whole sales cycle.
Can you give us an example of a time you did that and how you crafted the value proposition?Nobody buys concepts. People buy by value. Click To Tweet
If you think about a Value Pyramid, we have 4 or 5 components to it. The first one is your strategic initiatives. If you think about it, you can easily get quotes from a CEO right out of their annual report and they will tell their shareholders, which is what they’re telling the market, their employees and so on, “This is our strategic initiative. This is where I’m looking at the CEO to take the company.” The second thing is you go a little bit further down into business initiatives. A lot of times, whether it’s in the annual report, talking to other people in the organization before you leave an executive or looking at articles. There’s so much information from LinkedIn and all kinds of social media to see the person you’re meeting with. A lot of times, they’ll have articles published and they’ll be speaking about what’s important to them, and what’s important to the company.
You do the hypothesis around risk. If you’re trying to drive on the ambitious business initiative, what are some of the risks that you see either from competition or in the market? You can take a stab at critical capabilities in order to solve those problems that are created from those risk and business initiatives. “Here are some critical capabilities that you’ll need to make sure you have a solution for.” The bottom of the pyramid is, “Here are some projected outcomes. If we solve those problems with our solution, here’s typically what others are saying. Here’s what those outcomes would look like in terms of whether they’re hard cost or soft cost.”
Time, percentage, money and even if you take a stab at what value would look like, if you think about that and you do it right. I’ve done a number of those briefings. We used to have some venture capitalist. Greylock, as well as Lightspeed, were two of the big ones at AppDynamics. We would do these briefings down at our offices with companies from around the world. The CEOs would come in with their staff and they’d want to see what’s hot in the Valley. They pick about six companies from the list of companies those VCs had. We were always one of those six. We would come in and immediately start the conversation with that Value Pyramid. I’ve had many times where the Chief Information Officer would say, “Where did you get that information? I’ve never seen my company so well-documented on one slide.” It was always rewarding to hear that but it took some research, work, and effort to put into that slide. If you do it right, you start that whole conversation off on a way different plane than talking about technology, bells and whistles.
What you’re doing is you’re getting their respect. After all, not many people put effort into that to try and better understand the company. That goes back to something that you said, which was how to treat people. You talked a lot about it and you said one of the keys to your success was understanding how to treat others. Isn’t respect for the CEO, treating them the way they want to be treated and the way you’d like to be treated, the same thing?
Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always told people who I work with, “These are the three core values that drive me.” I’ve always done that so that people understood what made me tick and hopefully, could work with me more effectively and more efficiently. The three core values, one was integrity, especially in the sales organization. You always want to be proud of your sales organization. You’re doing things that have the most integrity. You’re always telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That’s what our parents told us. It worked well for us as kids. It should carry over to our professional careers.
The second is family. It’s not family like you have at home on the weekends or at night when you go home. We spend a lot of time with people at work. We spend a lot of time thinking about work. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s more time than our actual family. While family at home is by far the most important, I always say, “Let’s behave as a family here at work.” If you think about that, we can argue, we can debate, and challenge each other. Once we make a decision, “This is how we’re going to compete in the market,” then we’re aligned. Like any family, we can talk about each other, argue and debate, but when we’re going to the market and compete, we’re aligned, we’re together, we’re unbeatable.
The third component is altruism. It is helping people get what they want, whether it’s a CEO, CIO or someone who’s going to be using your product. How do you do something in a way that gives them what they want, which is to be successful and to be treated fairly and with respect? If you do that, they’re able to get what they want, which sometimes is recognition, bonus or doing a good job for their company. What I find is we saw that first and you’ll get everything you want. That applies to employers, partners, and customers. It’s a way of doing things. If you’re sincere about it and you think and behave that way, people will pick up on that and great things happen.
If you are focused on helping people get what they want, particularly in the sales process, that’s exactly what the person you’re selling will appreciate the most. I love the way you put it because after all, it’s innate. Like a family, the company always stands together. The same way that family members would defend each other or at least appear unified to the public. That’s how a company should appear as well. Joe, we’ve covered a lot of ground so far and I’m enjoying the conversation. I’m at the point now where I would love to ask you a question. We ask this question to every guest because readers like to get a better feel for who we’re talking to and this helps. Joe, who in all of space and time would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch or an intense conversation with?
The answer to that question would have to be Jesus Christ. All three of those would apply what a person who had an impact on the world starting from twelve people to billions of people that have been impacted. His message and the way he went about his life and the impact he had on all humanity. It would be fascinating to have an hour. I’m sure it wouldn’t be long enough but to hear His own words. My wife and I went to Israel and that was a life-changing experience to be where He was and where He had such an impact. What a fascinating lunch, walk in the park or just to sit down one-on-one for an hour, that would have to be.
He’s popular on this show. We’ve heard Him and what’s interesting is that there are various reasons. Every person has their own reason why and I love your reason. It feels great to hear you say those things. The other thing I like to tell my guests when it’s not the person you mentioned, that if I could help arrange that meeting, I’d like to be a fly on the wall. I’d still like to be a fly on the wall, but I’m not so sure I could help you arrange that meeting.
It probably wouldn’t be the right time if you could. At least for me.
Particularly for both of us. That’s a good point. Joe here’s the grand finale, the changed the world question. What is it that you are doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to change the world?People buy technology to solve real-world business problems that drive value outcomes. Click To Tweet
Especially in the world of business and even the sub-component of that which would be sales, I do believe it’s around this concept of selling value. I’ve been a sales leader for a long time. One of the big things that’s become this pervasive throughout the sales world is customer relationship management, which is CRM. I’ve always felt that it was good for management to get metrics, statistics, pipelines, forecast, and those things to help translate that up in the upper management to the street if you’re public or to your board. I do believe that the age has come now to what can we do for the actual sales rep? How can we help a sales rep be more successful, which is beneficial for an entire company, shareholder, boards, the employees and so forth?
This concept of, “Can we automate or add technology to the mix where the actual sales reps can be more effective selling value?” That starts with that Value Hypothesis we were talking about, “Can I help that rep build something in 5 to 10 minutes where they’re ready for a meeting with an executive with an intelligent Value Hypothesis to start the conversation off in the right way?” From that, “Can I help automate for them the Business Value Assessment? Can I do some things so that in that industry with that top customer, I’ve got these value objects that can help automate building that Business Value Assessment?” This is exciting and just as important. After you gain the customer and you’ve done it in a way where the expectations are properly set, six months after the fact, I can come back and do a value realization, “I told you, you’re going to get this. What have you gotten?” Once you’ve proven that, you have a customer for life you haven’t had because of the company you’ve sold to.
You’ve got a reference you can use out in the market. You’ve got a time renewal of customer who is more than happy not just to renew, but probably to buy more, whether it’s cross-sells and upsells. That whole cycle, which if you think about it, when you delivered on that value feeds back into the next Value Hypothesis for somebody in that space. For the first time, that technology is available. It’s in a SaaS top environment. It is with a company called DecisionLink, which I’m involved with. I’ve known those guys for years. I brought them in when I was at McAfee and at AppDynamics. I became an investor because that technology is ready now. It’s been years to get to where it’s gotten.
This is something that can change the world and the rules of sales. If you think about those first two letters in CRM, its customer relationship. I can start with a customer who has bought based on value and I can build a relationship based on value delivered. The fact that something now exists. I was called The Rise of the Sales Rep. I’ve always been asked to do things for management. For the first time, there’s something available to help them. This will be something that once it’s pervasive, will change the world of the sales profession, which I’ve been involved with for many years. It’s exciting to see that development and see that start to go across into the market, not just in technology, but with other industries because sales is a profession and science. This is something that will help lots of salespeople across various industries around the world.
I know that you’re passionate about this. This is part of what your free gift is about. Joe, do you want to tell us a little bit about this incredible assessment that you are giving away to my readers?
There’s an assessment offered from DecisionLink. In order to find out about it, they can go to DecisionLink.com/assessment-podcast. In it is the ability to have that company assess your sales organization, take a look at your processes and what they can do for you in terms of that value hypothesis, helping them build those BVAs, business value realization, those three components. The other thing that they enable is the ability when you build that Business Value Assessment to have quotes attributed to people in the prospect you’re talking to. If you think about that, if I’ve been there showing you my solution, I’ve shown you what it will do for your company. Along the way of doing that, I’ve captured your actual people.
This is the prospect and what they’re saying about the product, the solution, and the value and then presenting that in the Business Value Assessment. It’s hard for your prospects and business executives not to feel good about that and not to answer that question, “Why wait when there’s no real good reason? Let’s go.” One of the things that always causes pause at a business level executive is, “How do people buy into? How do I know I’m not going to buy something that’s become shelfware and not getting used?” When they’re able to help you show that your prospect’s actual people are advocates, they signed up for it, they quoted in the Business Value Assessment, it’s powerful. If you go to that link, DecisionLink can be happy to come out and show you that assessment.
Go to YourFirstThousandClients.com. This powerful assessment and the analysis of your answers is part of the gift as well. Joe, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. We have learned so much from you. Readers, I hope that you appreciate Joe and if you do, click that button “Speak to Mitch,” and say, “Bring more guys like Joe on board because we love to know.” Tell me how much you liked this show as well. Joe, thank you again. I can’t wait until we get a chance to talk again soon.
Thank you, Mitch. This sounds great. It’s been fantastic talking to you as well.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Joe Sexton
- Think and Grow Rich
- The Power of Positive Thinking
- Oren Klaff – past episode
- Flip the Script
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