Tobia La Marca | The Dangers of “One-Sided” Prospect Conversations
Tobia La Marca is spreading the gospel of sales process excellence in Italy.
As a business development rep for a tech company, Tobia has found that building structure in all his interactions with prospects – as well as seeing things from their perspective – has allowed him to create more value for his customers, his employer, and himself.
We talk about the process of “guiding” prospects to the sale, as well as ways to identify those who are worth your time and effort.
We also discuss…
- The dangers of “one-sided” conversations
- Why technology can’t solve sales programs
- The 4 things you must do when communicating with customers
- The prospects you must always avoid
- And more
Michael Webb: Hello, this is Michael Webb. Some people concentrate on best practices in selling and marketing. Other people concentrate on data and evidence and systems thinking. In this podcast, we focus on the principles that enable people to pursue both. My guest today is Tobia La Marca. Tobia, welcome here. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Tobia La Marca: Hi, Michael. Hi everyone. Yes. I actually work for Akamai Technologies as a business development representative. I work all over Italy. Before this job I was in another IT company. I was in Dublin in Workday, a SaaS company that sells software for HR and finance. I spent a great time and learned a lot. Even before this, I started marketing and sales management, I earned my Master’s degree in Edinburgh, Scotland. My path has been really straight from the school desk to, let’s say this, to the job.
Michael Webb: Yes. Tobia, you approached me and it was kind of a surprise because I had been thinking we would focus this podcast with general managers and executives and consultants and you are a salesperson. You claimed that reading my books and applying those concepts has been helpful to you at work. I thought, “Well heck, a salesperson’s point of view is pretty valuable.” You’re sort of ensnared in the system that we’re all trying to build and improve, so I thought that sounded like a great idea. Could you tell us your evolution? I know you were in school pursuing, as I recall, marketing and sales as a degree program. Then you took this job and then you went back and then you found my book. Could you tell us what attracted you to them and what were the milestones of your learning as you did that?
Tobia La Marca: Okay. Let’s say the curious thing was how I discovered your books. I was at university and I was studying for my assignment for my exams and then I said, “Okay. There should be someone all over the world that mixed Six Sigma and data with sales. I cannot be the first one,” I was thinking about this. I’m just a student. I started with my research online and then I went into your website and to your books and then I took these books and I read the first one. Marketing the Six Sigma Way. I said, “Okay, this is the kind of thing I have to apply in my job as soon as I am out of university to at least build reputable and predictable way of working.” This is how I came in and then I moved to your second book, Sales Process Excellence that it’s the continuum to my studies. I’m kind of your student.
Michael Webb: I think it’s delightful. As a salesperson, tell us, I mean you’re probably one of the few salespeople who thinks along these lines in your company. Tell us these problems you were trying to solve that these ideas helped you and which ideas did you begin applying?
Tobia La Marca: Okay. Actually, when I started reading your books I said, “This should be the way I have to approach my job.” That gave me a structure on how to build my working routine. I said, if you entered a job and then you think about your job as supported by a process, everything gets easier. You can understand what will happen until the end of the week. You can understand and you can kind of predict what will happen until the end of the month. That was the way because before this, I was also before that I went back to school, I was a sales agent.
At that time, I was working for another company who sold beauty products and they didn’t have any sales process at all. I was kind of guessing what should happen if … these kind of things. I said, “Okay, let’s try to build a structure. Let’s try to build a skeleton to work with.” The good thing is that all this [inaudible 00:05:28] made me think of my job as not only a way to provide value to my customers but as a way to maximize the outcomes so that the gains in the right amount of time to avoid any kind of quality defect.
That gave me also, the good thing is that they provided me value not only in the business but also in the personal life. This is pretty curious because using your books and structuring my days, I’ve been able in doing things in the right amount of time to have time to dedicate to myself. To study, to go live my life, you know what I mean? Really, I’ve become effective because when you start a sales job in a new company and you have to build something from scratch, usually you don’t have time because you’re supposed to spend eight hours a day in the office but then you end up spending 12 hours a day in the office. Your life is getting kind of, let’s not say destroyed, but you don’t have the right balance and then the quality of your job decreases and after six months you’re already burned out.
Michael Webb: What about the way of thinking there helped you to be more effective? I guess that means spending less time on stuff that wasn’t going to produce value and more time on stuff that was?
Tobia La Marca: Yeah. They gave me the right foundation, the right mindset, to focus on the things that were important for my customers, not only for me. The good thing about, like I remember one paragraph of one of your books, it was great and I was still at university when I read it. It was like regarding the value. Everyone was balking at school. All these speakers, they came at university and they said, “You have to provide value, you have to provide value,” yeah, but what’s value? That can be everything. That was one paragraph of your book that says value is actually when a customer takes reaction to one of your actions. Let’s say you write an email and then the customer opens the email and he finds this email attractive, you have built value. That was maybe for some people that’s nothing, but for me that was a great clarification. I was studying and I was trying to find answers to questions. Then no one told me like what’s value? What’s value? It can be everything. It can be a chair. It can be money. It can be everything. That was like the foundation of my job, so thank you for that.
Michael Webb: Well, you’re quite welcome. I didn’t invent that concept.
Tobia La Marca: Okay.
Michael Webb: But I did realize that that’s what we’re trying to do in sales. We’re trying to get other people to take actions. If we don’t get their attention, if we don’t get their information, if we don’t get their time, if we don’t earn their trust, we’re never going to be able to earn any of their money. That was, I’m sure, an eye opener. In fact, it’s so deceptively simple, companies don’t realize that to fully take advantage of that principle, they have to re-engineer everything they do in marketing and sales. That’s a good principle. I think that’s a good one to start with. Tell me more, what other kinds of challenges did you face and ideas did you find that were useful?
Tobia La Marca: Ideas that were useful. It was actually one to not only understand … Let’s not say understand. I learned to think about sales from the customer’s point of view. That was one of the ways to think about sales was to switch the perspective. Let’s see the sales side from the customer’s point of view from the action he takes. This is the only one way by which you can build something. This is the second idea, but there were a lot of others like, I don’t know, this is something I do from your books.
Now we are in a world that is dominated by technologies and a lot of companies spend a lot of money in tools. They buy the most expensive CRM thinking that the other functionalities will fix the sales rep’s problems and they will be able to reach their quotas but it’s not in this way that it works, because sometimes they buy these expensive CRMs. Okay I love CRM’s, I have them, but all these functionalities, we can’t use them because we don’t have the right amount of time to use this CRM.
It’s not because we are lazy, that we’re not logging everything, but simply because we don’t focus on the activities that don’t give value to our customers or to us. This was the second concept I got from your books. To understand that to sell in the right way, you have to build a skeleton, so you have to build a process. As you said before, you have to re-engineer all your selling cycles.
Michael Webb: Let me rephrase that and then go back to your point about CRM, which I think is a huge one. I would say now, I would say that the selling process is really a series of conversations with your customer. To get their attention is a conversation. To get their time and their information, obviously those are conversations, those are the early stages of their customer journey. That information includes other people in their business that they have to interact with if they’re going to prioritize the kinds of problems that your offer can solve. If the customer isn’t in lockstep with you, and elevating their commitment to you at the same time you’re elevating your commitment and time to them, then it’s a one sided conversation.
Tobia La Marca: Yeah.
Michael Webb: That’s the logic I think that you’re referring to here in how you have to build a process with a customer. At any given time there’s different kind of work that needs to be done and it is the things that prevent you from doing that work quickly and easily that are the bottlenecks you have to solve. Unfortunately, people who design sales training and deliver it and people who design CRM systems and deliver them, while they have lots of good possibilities and good ideas and good functions potentially, unless they deliver the salesperson what they need at the time they need it, the salesperson can’t use it. Is that fair?
Tobia La Marca: Yeah, that’s right.
Michael Webb: I came up on the sales training side of the industry, rather than the CRM side. I always made that choice consciously because I was always interested in that sort of technology. In either case, the vast majority of the product, whether it’s the CRM software or it’s the training, doesn’t stick and isn’t used by the sales forces that they’re applied to and that’s really unfortunate. I’m guessing that you’ve seen that there at Akamai.
Tobia La Marca: No. In my actual company I’m really lucky. Let’s say that I also choose a company that gives me a lot of space in the job the way I like. I choose a company based … It seems stupid, but I choose a company based on the use of the CRM, the average use of the CRM that was done by the salesperson. As soon as you … Let’s say you can use the CRM’s functionalities as they are built right now if you equip every salesperson with the sales administrator.
If you give them a kind of new person that logs everything in, they can use the CRM as a system. If you give the CRM to the salespeople and you say, “Okay salespeople, let’s use the CRM.” They don’t have the time to use it. I’m actually really, really, really lucky because my company gives me time to do my job and gives me time to sell and to provide the right value to all the customers.
Michael Webb: Excellent. Okay.
Tobia La Marca: Yeah, it’s a really great company. Yeah.
Michael Webb: That is really great to hear. There’s plenty of companies out there that struggle and salespeople that struggle with that.
Tobia La Marca: Yeah.
Michael Webb: Okay, does another idea or principle come to mind that has helped you maybe to qualify prospects better than other salespeople do?
Tobia La Marca: I think that, compared to some of my colleagues I usually talk with and that studied with me, your book’s taught me one thing. Prospects or people that want to buy, they love to be guided to a decision, so they love to follow some structure and they love to follow some steps that are kind of regular. It’s not like let’s say, “I will call you back in a couple of weeks and then we will figure out what to do.” It’s better to say, “This will happen in the next three days and then this thing will happen in the next two weeks and then this thing will happen in the next month. Is that okay with you?”
I found this concept that is really, really great because people, they want to be guided to a decision nowadays. There is a lot of confusion and then when they find a kind of salesperson who’s really consultative in the way he works, they just let him guide.
Michael Webb: That’s interesting. That’s a very big qualifier I would think. If you have a prospect that reacts positively to this structure, then that means they’re motivated to get to a decision, whereas, someone who drags their feet and says, “We’ll get back to you,” they’re not as qualified and that, of course, is a key thing that salespeople need to know, especially in complex long sales cycles like enterprise software.
Tobia La Marca: It’s like they like to be guided towards somewhere. If they have a pain, if they really have a problem, if they really want your value, they want to be guided towards something. They don’t want to take the lead. They trust you.
Michael Webb: Yeah. Let me ask you this question and I’m sure you’ve heard of this, maybe you’ve probably experienced it. I just want to ask. When I sold enterprise software, many, many years ago, it was a big issue that we would spend time with a prospect, set up custom demonstrations and the biggest challenge was that they would never make a decision. I learned later a sales technique that got around that problem. It was a more challenging sales technique but it was a huge issue.
After I was in sales training, some of our most important clients were clients that were struggling with that very problem where the customer was more than happy to take your time, and watch your demos and look at your return on investment analysis and just really ooh and ah and be happy to learn about all that stuff. Getting them off a dime to get them to buy something was not possible. A lot of salespeople, they get in trouble and they start failing to perform because they can’t overcome that problem. Have you seen it and in your mind, how might a process might solve that?
Tobia La Marca: I think that this is something I have not seen directly but it’s a problem that I know about simply because I am for myself and many questions [crosstalk 00:19:34] do my job. I think that as I told you before, if you follow a kind of process, you can understand which person not only to talk to but which person to spend the time with. It’s the most valuable asset that a salesperson has. It’s simply because if you build the framework and you build some steps, you actually, when you sell something, someone else is buying something, so you’re actually working and walking together towards not only a decision but towards a solution.
If you build a process, the process is made of steps. It’s like walking. The person who really wants to buy, really wants to spend time and walk with you. Building a process you understand who will walk with you and who will not walk with you. There is a lot of people, let’s think about selling as a walk. They take a few steps with you and then they figure out that it’s too challenging to change, that if they buy something they will run into problems because it’s better to stay with the status quo as they are, build in a process, building a skeleton, you can understand who really wants to take a challenge and who really wants to take a decision and who really wants to change.
Michael Webb: Yeah. Assuming that you have enough prospects in your pipeline, then simply discovering that this particular prospect is having too much trouble making a change, so they’re not ready. I’m going to put them aside and there’s somebody else here in my pipeline that I can elevate the importance of and start working with and in that way, you can manage to get enough productivity, enough customer deals, to be productive in the eyes of your company, right? Without a process, it can be difficult to identify those. To identify what stage they’re in and where are they blocked? You could have … right? Go ahead and comment on that.
Tobia La Marca: You cannot trust your gut in 2018. It was okay … No, no, really. It was okay 15 years ago, it was okay 20 years ago. It’s okay. We didn’t have all the data and all the … also now let’s not talk about data, let’s talk about research and let’s talk about knowledge. 20 years ago we didn’t have that knowledge. I was not even born, but I’ve bought a lot of books about it, even then 20 years ago and there was not the same amount of knowledge. Probably because that was not an industry surrounding sales as much as it was for marketing for example.
Now that we have all this amount of research, it’s not time anymore to trust only our gut. Gut feelings are really important because at the end of the day we thank god we’re humans. We can be empowered by a process, we can be empowered by data, that can make our job really easy and we can do things in the right way. Without a process, you cannot understand who’s ready, who’s not. You cannot even understand what happened two weeks ago because you got lost. Yeah.
Michael Webb: Go ahead. Yeah. So process allows you to determine where the problem is, where it’s located, so that you can take corrective action for that particular problem. The examples that I was referring to of enterprise sales getting stuck and consuming the selling company’s resources on demos and return on investment studies and stuff like that, one of the things that I learned and I thought it was quite valuable in my sales training career was a method of sort of driving a decisive environment.
Reaching a decision maker with a special type of presentation that’s designed to get them to declare, “Is this enterprise software problem a priority for me or for us in the next 6 months or 12 months or not?” To insert that high level selling presentation early in the sales process with a clear and effective way to prevent us from spinning our wheels with prospects who are not really qualified. Have you seen that sort of thing happen?
Tobia La Marca: No, not in my actual industry but I’m kind of aware of the thing.
Michael Webb: Okay. All right. That’s something that a CRM system can’t do for you, but as you pointed out the CRM can perhaps gather information that a salesperson needs, right, and make that easier for them. Another question for you, based on stuff that I know is in the books, and I’m curious whether they seemed useful to you or not. In chapter three of Sales Process Excellence I talk about the observable characteristics of sales opportunities and turning the quality of a sales opportunity into a number. Curious, from an individual salesperson’s point of view, have you noodled around with that at all?
Tobia La Marca: What do you mean? Like?
Michael Webb: Have you tried that? Have you tried defining the observable characteristics and converting them to a number?
Tobia La Marca: Not yet, but planning to do this as soon as I can. As soon as I ramp up.
Michael Webb: Okay. Are there other people in your company that might be interested in those kind of concepts, too?
Tobia La Marca: Yeah. I think that should be a topic of interest to some of my colleagues, not only inside but also outside the company. It’s always good to share the knowledge and to share something you found valuable. I do it kind of every day.
Michael Webb: When I’m in the keynote speech at CUOA University on October the 5th, I’ll be sharing some examples where that technique was used. These clients end up with very high percentages of forecast accuracy. 94-95-96% forecast accuracy by being able to do that. It’s something that the sales department, you need multiple salespeople to share this common standard, I guess, for assessing the quality of the sales opportunities and then you need a method of gathering that data and then you need to statistically analyze that data.
Computers are all necessary for doing all that, but boy when you do it, it provides a consistent way for salespeople to prioritize their deals. That alone improves sales productivity dramatically. That’s one of those systemic issues that most senior executives that I know are unaware of. They leave the sales process to the sales department. They don’t bother with trying to measure it or improve it. They don’t bother with operational definitions of things, and as a result very little improvement really happens. When the market’s good, they do well and when the market’s bad they don’t do so well and they just think that’s the way things are. That can be really frustrating, especially in a downturn.
Tell me more. Other things that might have been useful to you or perhaps some things that were puzzling or not useful to you in what you’ve seen so far, Tobia?
Tobia La Marca: Like what do you mean? Like useful in my job or in the books?
Michael Webb: Yeah, or not useful.
Tobia La Marca: It’s like in my job, as I’ve told you, I’ve been pretty lucky. As soon as I started my sales career in the B2B I was given an entire, let’s say country, Italy to develop the [inaudible 00:28:45]. I didn’t have any problems at all before because I was just the first person, even if when I was in Workday, I was the first person doing business development for Italy. It’s not that they helped me in overcoming challenges, but they helped me in doing the right job. The job in the right way. They kept me with the right tools.
Michael Webb: What kind of sales training did they give you?
Tobia La Marca: Who?
Michael Webb: Akamai.
Tobia La Marca: No, this is kind of our internal information I cannot share with. Sorry for that.
Michael Webb: Okay, fair enough. I would guess that a lot of it was product training and I would hope some of it was selling skills as well and how to use the CRM and things like that.
Tobia La Marca: Yeah, that was a really good, good training. 360 degrees, this is all the things I can say from the product point of view but also from the selling point of view, but from the soft and hard skills. It was really huge, huge, huge training.
Michael Webb: Excellent. It sounds like a really wonderful company to work for.
Tobia La Marca: Yeah. I’ve been really lucky.
Michael Webb: I don’t mean to pry or ask something that I have no business knowing, but just out of curiosity what would you say is the biggest challenge or problem that you’re trying to solve today?
Tobia La Marca: In my career?
Michael Webb: In your job, in your career? What’s the biggest thing you have to overcome or is a challenge for you?
Tobia La Marca: For me, as a challenge personal, it’s a really nice question. Just I have to become a little bit more predictable in the way I work, but it’s something that is more personal than [inaudible 00:30:52]. I think that it comes with experience and I’m just an entry level worker. This is my big challenge now.
Michael Webb: That’s certainly a reasonable thing. When you’re in a sales job, particularly early in your career, there’s an awful lot that you have to learn and it’s a job that requires you to be able to reflect on yourself as well as reflecting on other people. It’s quite a challenging thing to get involved in and be held accountable to achieving certain results when the people around you are people that you cannot control.
Tobia La Marca: A lot of variables. Yeah.
Michael Webb: A lot of variables and it’s also a fascinating place to be. The opportunity to learn how to influence other people by listening to them and understanding their problems and their challenges from their point of view and then having a way to structure that in your mind, those are awfully valuable skills that you’ll use for the rest of your career.
Tobia La Marca: Yeah.
Michael Webb: Super. Well, I want to thank you for being a fan. A lot of salespeople are not so analytical as you or ambitious to have gone out and purchased two books and actually read them, so thank you for that attention. Is there any question that you had for me or observation or anything like that that you’d like to share with our audience.
Tobia La Marca: No, more than a question, I would like to share with the audience, especially because I’m really an entry level so I’m really on the field. I think I’m one of the few people that is not an executive you have on podcasts. Just for the executives, I’ve been logging [inaudible 00:32:59], for the executive at all. Give your salespeople the right mindset to work with. It’s not only a matter of tool, it’s not only a matter of you cannot fix long term problems with short term things like technology or this kind of thing. Just give your salespeople the right mindset, just keep your salespeople with the right foundation to do their job, with the right processes to do their job and they will do a great, great, great work for you.
Michael Webb: Tobia, if our audience wants to follow up with you or connect with you, how can they do it?
Tobia La Marca: They can add me on LinkedIn, just write me a message there. Tobia La Marca, it’s spelled T-O-B-I-A L-A M-A-R-C-A. They can just add me and take all the questions they want. It will be my pleasure to answer.
Michael Webb: That’s great. Super. Thank you very much Tobia and we’ll be following up with you in the future. Take care.
Tobia La Marca: Thank you so much. Bye.
Michael Webb: Bye-bye.
Automated Voice: The Sales Process Excellence Podcast is sponsored by Sales Performance Consultants. Discover how to improve your B2B sales with systems thinking at Sales Performance dot com.