The more that you can think of new creative ways to do business, the less likely you are to be exposed to volatility. In this episode, host Michael Zipursky interviews Nigel Green, a sales strategy advisor for B2B companies about how he got into the world of sales and strategy. Nigel started out as a sales rep out of college and worked his way into becoming an executive sales strategist, sales team architect, and sales leadership coach. Today, he talks about balancing client delivery with marketing and sales and shares some of his best practices to create more stability and move away from volatility.
I’m here with Nigel Green. Nigel, welcome.
Thanks, Mike. It’s a pleasure to be with you and all your audience.
You’re a sales strategy advisor for B2B companies. You’ve played a major role in one company’s growth from about $94 million valuation to over $350 million valuation. You’re also the CEO of StoryBrand among many other organizations that you’ve worked and played a big role in the sales side there. Tell us how did you get into the world of sales and strategy?
I started out as a sales rep out of college because it was the only thing I was going to be good at. I didn’t make good grades in school. There were only eight people from my university that had a worse GPA than me. I had to use my gab to put food on the table and money in my pocket. I started out as a medical sales rep. I was not a great rep, but I was insatiably curious. I got exposed to a lot of managers, sales managers, most of them not very good. I’ve built a methodology and a framework for how to lead sales teams on what didn’t work and what wasn’t going well. Thinking from the perspective of a salesperson who represents the voice of the customer and the market. How do we make them more comfortable? How do we make them secure? How do we give them the tools that they need? Most sales managers don’t think about it from that perspective. That lens by which I looked at building and leading sales teams was full of empathy and I ended up leading well. When you lead well, you can get good salespeople to come work for you and then they do all the work and then the rest is history.Spend your best hours and precious time working on your business. Don't give it away to clients. Click To Tweet
Let’s talk about fluctuations because many organizations, whether large or small, and we’ll cater this conversation more to the independent consultant or a small consulting firm owner. They’ve experienced the fluctuations, the rollercoaster, the up and down of revenue. There are also certain companies and people who don’t find that they have much fluctuations in their business. I know this is something that you’ve spent time on, that you uniquely understand or that you’re very aware of. What do you see as being the difference between companies and consultants who have these up and down fluctuations in their revenue and those that tend to coast along without too much fluctuation?
I don’t know one executive that I worked with that would tell you they don’t have fluctuations in their revenue. If you look back through a historical lens, you may see that the ebbs and flows are less volatile in some businesses. I think the reason why those companies don’t have a lot of fluctuation is because the leader is terribly scared of fluctuation. They invest in contingency planning. They are always trying to put themselves out of business and they are finding new ways to make their revenue streams more durable, more rugged and more rigid. In the English language, the word fragile means that when you shake it, it breaks. We don’t have a real good word for anti-fragile, the opposite of that. The CEOs that I worked with that have eliminated a lot of the volatility are looking for ways that when there is disruption, their business gets better.
For the independent consultant or the small consulting firm owner who wants to generate more stability in their business, revenues and pipeline, what are maybe some best practices or thoughts that you might offer that they should be looking at or considering to create more stability and move away from that volatility?
I think that you want to eliminate no from a prospect’s list of choices. For a lot of consulting firms, they don’t give many choices on how to work with them. No is a very reasonable choice for a prospect. The more ways in which you can meet a potential customer where they are and that can be through various mediums of delivering your insight or the way in which you add value, the more likely you’re going to have a more durable income stream. Let me give you an example of that. If the only way that you work with a firm is through monthly retainers or through one-year contracts or whatever it is that you think of as your general way of doing business, you will get disrupted at some point. You will get lazy on your sales and marketing engine or you will do so much work, but you don’t have time to go invest in sales marketing and then the customer is going to change their mind about working with you. The more ways that you can think of to create new creative and easier way to do business with you and eliminate no, the less likely you are to be exposed to volatility.
You’re not suggesting that people launch a whole bunch of different offerings to the marketplace, which to me sounds like complexity, but rather continue to focus on ways to create more leverage in what you’re doing so they are able to serve clients, provide great value, but also make sure that it’s streamlined for you and reduce complexity. Is that correct?
It’s precisely that. Reduce complexity, eliminate barriers to entry and understand how to meet them where they are.
What about for that independent consultant or small consulting firm owner that doesn’t have a sales team yet? They don’t even have a salesperson. The founder is the salesperson. They’re doing it all. What would you say to them? What do you think are some of the things they should be focused on if you had to offer them a couple of very tangible steps, ideas or principles that they could use to grow sales?
I fall into that category. I don’t have a sales team. I do all of my selling. I do all of my marketing. I saved my best stuff for my business. That’s the nugget that I would give to any consultant reading this. What I mean by the best stuff is my best hours, my precious time. When I’m thinking the most clearly, I spend that time working on my business and not giving it away to the clients that are paying me.You are able to add value to your customer by talking about what it is that you do. Click To Tweet
More specifically, what does that look like? Have you carved out specific hours every day or every week or how do you put that into practice?
I don’t engage with clients on Friday. When I wake up Friday morning, I am thinking about, “How can I put myself out on my business? What’s scaring me?” I take action on let’s say I have client concentration, which has been a very real thing. “What happens if both of these clients leave? What am I going to do about it?” I start putting pen to paper or start taking a coffee meeting. I saved my best stuff for my business. I figured out how I’m going to eliminate the anxiety that comes with losing a big client or having too much concentration in one offering or one client. Another piece of it is I would stay lean. There’s this whole movement of outsourcing your sales, hiring sales development and paying people to generate leads. They’re buying you. For a lot of your readers, they don’t want someone else to tell them what it is you’re going to do for them. I don’t know that there is a hack for getting eyeball to eyeball with prospects and asking questions that only you know how to ask, predicting what’s going to be the next question and then being real and accessible.
I think that’s a good point. I do the same thing for me. Monday and Friday tend to be more strategic days. There are days of working on the business as opposed to just working in the business. There tend to have few or no client calls on those days. It’s just working on the business and it’s so important. I say this to clients all the time. That time to work on your business, that’s holy time. That’s time that you need to set in your calendar on a recurring basis so that you don’t put anything else in there and you know that’s your time to work on it. I’m glad that you shared that. We’ve seen it firsthand in our own business and in clients’ businesses as well. Nigel, you’ve been around a lot of different sales teams and a lot of people that are involved in sales, what are some of the most common mistakes that pop up that if fixed would have a big positive impact on the growth of those companies?
The problem that I primarily fix is that the sales teams’ go-to market strategy that is fundamentally misaligned with how the business is trying to grow. An example of that might be that the CEO wants to grow the business in the next year by expanding one offering in the marketplace, yet the sales team incentive plan or the way they get paid doesn’t support that. There’s no one asking the question of how do we get everyone back in alignment with this? The business might be tasked with certain earnings number, but yet you’re allowing your sales reps to control the pricing and they’re giving discounts. It doesn’t hurt them if they eat away margin in the pricing. That’s probably the number one mistake that I see in my practice. It probably happens to a lot of consultants in their business. Their business has moved and evolved and they haven’t thought about the way they’ve structured their go-to market strategy to support what they’re trying to do now.
That’s a good point and you’re right. Many people will start to do discounts or they’ll provide services or take on clients that aren’t optimal. Many times. it’s caused by short-term thinking or not a clear view on what future they want to create, how they want their business to be the lifestyle they want to have. They’re so focused on doing business but not thinking strategically about what kind of business they want. You mentioned your own company. For your consulting practice, you’re doing all the sales, you’re doing that stuff, but what about the consultant that’s growing and they want to bring on a salesperson? In your experience, when would you say is the right time to think about adding a dedicated salesperson or sales function even to a small professional services practice?
It’s when you, the founder or the consultant, has decided that you want to build an asset. You are transitioning from freelancer to entrepreneur or you want to build a business that works while you don’t. That to me is a good leading indicator that it’s time to invest in other people acquiring clients for you. The trade-off is that for some period of time, you will be required to do more work to onboard them. The long-term benefit is that if you do this right, if you manage their performance appropriately, it will create margin for you. It will create scale but it’s not without its own set of pains and challenges.
It’s interesting because even if it’s not sales, almost any type of role when you’re building a team, there’s always going to be that dip. That point where you’ve got to take a little bit of pain. You have to set the expectations that you’re not going to get the results that you want in the short-term but you’ve got to get that training. You have to cross that bridge and it’s not going to always be easy. Once you do it and you do it properly, the benefits that you’re going to reap are going to be worthwhile. You start seeing the ROI that you desire.
One thing that big companies do well that consultants should consider. I’ve listened to some of your episodes and I listened to other consultants that talk about hiring their first sales rep, it often seems very binary. It’s either I have to continue doing it or I hire a sales rep. Larger companies have gotten good at renting sales teams. The sales professional is not an employee. Most of the risks have been pushed off to another company or to another entity altogether. In healthcare, a lot of companies will work with distribution reps or other ancillary offerings that already have the attention of the customer that you want and incent their sales team to sell what you have. They get paid a higher commission so that it’s worth their time. If they don’t sell anything, you don’t have any sunk cost and an expensive sales rep that didn’t produce and you’re kicking yourself six, seven months later.Motivational interviewing is about unlocking why you would do something and what you're hoping to get out of it. Click To Tweet
Do you think that opportunity exists for people in different industries even if you’re a smaller player, let’s say an organization with five or ten people? Is that more an opportunity for an organization that is significantly larger and more developed?
The answer is all. Here’s how you can ask what’s going to work for your consulting practice. Are there other businesses that have a sales team that has the attention, not only of my customer but of the decision-maker within my customers’ business that my offering would be seen? Not just that it’s not a conflict, but that they would be able to add more value to their customer by talking about what it is that I do. If the answer is yes, you should pursue it.
It’s a complimentary offer that gets you into that ecosystem, into that distribution channel that may be hard for you to achieve by yourself, but someone’s already got that established. You could leverage and connect with them and use the momentum that they already have in the marketplace.
If someone is out there and they’re scratching their head and saying, “What’s the example?” Think about big SaaS companies that don’t do the implementation of their software. They have third party implementers. That’s a great way. There are so many small to medium-sized third-party implementers that rely on big SaaS companies to keep them afloat. You take that same principle and apply it to whatever it is that you’re offering to the marketplace.
I saw on your website one of your clients talked about how you helped them to win more business, to close more deals and make something happen. You’re helping to win more deals. What do you see in organizations or with salespeople, because even for the consultants reading this who’s going into a lot of different sales conversations, feels like they’re having a good conversation but they’re not able to get it across the line? What typically stands out to you or where do you as an expert in sales go to? What do you look at to try to identify what’s holding people back? What’s the roadblock in that conversation?
It’s simple. I ran the sales team for a clinical services company for a number of years and got exposed to a lot of good doctors and clinicians. There’s this growing momentum in the clinical community of a technique called motivational interview. It is by far and large used with a clinician and a patient. The thesis of it is that any motivation that the clinician has or the doctor has for the patient to change is never going to be as strong as any motivation that might already exist and need to change. Motivational interviewing is about unlocking why you would do it. I think that closing in this marketplace has evolved to probing and uncovering why you would do it. I could sit here and tell you why other clients worked with me. I can offer why you might want to work with me but if I can understand why you might, why did you take this meeting? What are you hoping to get out of this? If I can keep you there versus trying to have to process some other reason that I’ve given you to do business with me that you may not be able to understand, I’ve got a better chance of adding value to you.
You’re getting at the core as to what their motivation is, what’s going on inside of them. It’s not about the external implications, although those are important as part of the conversation but what’s driving you is you’re going deep. I share this with clients and the way I talk about it is peeling the layers back from the onion. You’re trying to get at the core of what’s driving them, what’s motivating them. That’s what you’re saying.
We ran addiction treatment centers for a long time. We didn’t have a lot of people that came to treatment because they had an addiction problem. They had the, “I’m going to lose my house,” problem, “My wife’s going to leave me,” problem, “My job’s going to be gone,” problems. We said, “You don’t have a drinking problem, but what if we could help you keep your house?” The translation in my business is they might not have a problem with their sales team, but they’ve got a problem of our leaders not growing fast enough or our competitors is eating up this big piece of market share and so, “Let’s fix that problem.” You as a consultant, when you’re going in, you have to think of what problem do they have as they perceive it. They’re the experts on their problem, not us.You as a consultant have to think of what problem a company has as they perceive it. They're the experts on their problem, not us. Click To Tweet
Would you suggest that people use that as the food or the opportunity for their messaging? The motivations of the clients and the buyers have, should that be at the forefront of everyone’s messaging in your experience?
It should be so much in the forefront, Mike, that I recommend you to state it back to them in a different way.
What do you mean by that?
When they say, “I have a problem or we have a problem with our IT team and we can’t seem to get the expenses under control.” You say, “If I’m hearing you correctly, the expenses in your IT department have become a real problem for your business.” “Yes.” You just sit there. “Would you like me to help you with that?” “Yes, I just told you I have a problem.” “Let me help you.” You say back to them what they’ve already told you.
What do you say to people who go, “Nigel, that makes sense. I’m going to focus on the problems that my ideal clients have and their motivations. How do I understand and how do I identify what those motivations are?” In your experience, what’s been the best way to hit on the true motivations that people are having? If someone is new to the marketplace or maybe they’ve been consulting for some time, but they don’t have strong, compelling messaging. They maybe got their business where they are just on the back or their network. We see this a lot with clients coming to our coaching program. They’ve gone to even a good place, but it’s just come from their network or referrals and now they want us to start building out that marketing system. They’re wondering, “What messaging should I use to resonate with my ideal clients?” What’s your experience with that?
Problems exist on an external level. Your customers will tell you, “We’ll stick with the same expensive IT department.” That’s how it exists. They’re not going to take action. They’re not going to do business with you because of that. They’re going to do business with you because of a deeper level of internal problem, the way it makes them feel, the way it’s affecting their job performance, how it’s affecting their identity or an even deeper level, a philosophical problem.
Why an expensive IT department is an injustice? Why it’s untenable for the business? You use language like, “You shouldn’t have to deal with this. No business should be hamstrung by expensive in-house IT department. There are cheaper solutions that are out there. Don’t be limited by the insight that exist on your team.” You have to understand what it is about the problem that affects their identity and as an injustice to the business. That’s where the language is. That’s where all the copy is. “We don’t fix IT problems. We fix IT problems because I want you to be a hero. I want you to get that promotion. I want you to be an executive. I want you to get your bonus because you saved $1 million a year by outsourcing it.”
You have been consulting and running your own consulting business for a few years. When you first started, how do you generate leads for your business and opportunities? What are you doing differently now in terms of what’s working best for you to generate leads for your business?No business should be hamstrung by expensive in-house IT department. There are cheaper solutions out there. Click To Tweet
I solely started my practice on word-of-mouth referrals. That was subsistent for a while, but I’m doing the advice that I shared with your team. I was anxious all the time. I was a rollercoaster of, “What if they leave? What am I going to do if this retainer falls off?” I’m creating more durability in my own income stream. I’ve recognized that being expensive consultant creates a barrier to people that might one day want to work with you but can’t afford you right now. I’m creating some lower barriers to entry to work with me like a course. I’ve got a book that’s coming out. I’m thinking through trying to optimize for effectiveness.
Are you doing anything else in terms of generating leads and opportunities that is working for you? I know you’ve got your Friday, that’s a time dedicated to working on the business. Are you writing? Are you putting out content? Are you calling on people? Are you going to events? Are you doing webinars? Anything like that that’s working for you right now?
I have made a career of being a guest on other people’s podcasts. I don’t have my own. I go on others. I write long-form. I’ve found that my audience prefers a meatier, insightful longer-form piece. There are schools of thoughts that wants you to write 400 or 500-word posts and frequency is important. That’s not what my audience wants. The nugget there is to understand, put yourself in the shoes of your ideal customer. Do they want to read something every day? No, my audience wants to hear from me once a month and they want it to be relevant, timely and deep. I write and I’ve got a book that’s coming out. It’s a synthesis of how I view the world of the sales manager. I’m working on a course with Marylou Tyler who was the author of Predictable Revenue. We’re taking the Predictable Revenue concepts and overlaying it on how to be a predictable sales leader.
When you think back over the last few months, what principle or idea have you learned and implemented, whether it’s in your business or even on the personal side that has made the biggest impact or increased your performance to a higher level? Is there anything that stands out that you’ve learned, adopted and implemented?
Undoubtedly, it’s the advice that David Baker talks about in his book, The Business of Expertise, of taking time to write out how I view certain principles. It’s not easy and it’s not fun but when you can get clear on how you see a certain function of a business or think through why you formed certain opinions and principles, it’s profoundly impactful in putting your clients to understand what the solution is. You’ve got your roadmap of what it is that you’ve done and it’s hard work. I would challenge anyone to sit with it and do the work.
We had David on the podcast a little while back and that was a great episode and he got a great book. He’s a good guy. I highly recommend that. How about challenges? In the last few months, is there anything that has been a bit of a roadblock for you that you came up against and now looking back with hindsight, you learned a good lesson? It has helped you to strengthen or improve your position or your performance.
I remind myself of why I got into this business. I made the decision to stay independent and not join another management team because I’m optimizing for happiness. I don’t want to work 50, 60 hours a week. I found myself creating my own prison, shackled to being stuck into my consultancy and making me less maneuverable. I said, “Nigel, that’s not the point.” The nugget there is a lot of consultants got into this for freedom and they’re finding out that what they’re doing is building their own prison brick by brick. I say put the mortar down. Undo that stuff and remind yourself that what you’re doing is getting time. That’s why we’re doing this. Time is more important than money.
We see this a lot with clients who have shifted from the corporate world in a consulting and then oftentimes, if they don’t look up enough, they end up building, I never call it a prison but it’s essentially another job, but they’re their own worst boss now. They’re working more. They’re still feeling stressed. Working with them to undo that and create a plan so that they can do what they want, which is maybe traveling the world or spending more time with loved ones or buying a farm, whatever it might be. I know that’s your situation. We were talking how you’ve done that. That’s wonderful because 100%, it’s the memories. It’s the moments. It’s not about money. It’s about the things that you can hold onto. They are the most meaningful. I’m fully with you on that. Nigel, I want to thank you for coming on here. Where’s the best place for people to go to learn more about your work? Is it at your website so they can read some of your articles and content?
It’s the website, FindEvergreen.com. We talked about the closing and like you, I hate the word closing but I wrote a long form. It’s eighteen pages and it has role-playing on how to overcome different objections by your clients. We get in our own way and I point out eight responses that we’re all guilty of using that stand in the way. That’s a good place for consultants to start is to check, “What is my go-to response that is not conducive to people working with me?” I’ve put out a long-form content once a month and they can check it out there.
Where can they find that? Is there an easy way for them to find that piece in your website?
If you go to Insights and then go to Resources, it’s there. My promise to your audience is when you download this, you will not get a million emails from me because I hate that and I’m not going to do that to you.
Thanks again, Nigel.
- Predictable Revenue
- David Baker – previous episode
- The Business of Expertise