MyPeople Meets is a series of articles featuring influential business people embracing workplace change. Uncovering their unique experiences, industry insights, what motivates them, why they do what they do and their views on team trust. This month we met Mark Ackers, Head of New Business Development at Refract.ai – Mark’s mission in life is to empower Sales Leaders to identify and improve costly mistakes, errors and missed opportunities their Sales Team make, using effective coaching.
To download a PDF of this interview click here
Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do…
I’m Mark Ackers and I look after the New Business team, for a SaaS company called Refract based in Newcastle. I help Sales Leaders to improve the quality and outcome of their teams customer facing conversations. I started off my career in marketing which I loved. After finishing my marketing degree, the interviews and jobs I was offered for marketing roles transpired into sales roles, which I always turned down as I associated a bad stigma and stereotype with sales. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people that don’t understand the sales profession have these stereotypes. I also didn’t want to turn my back on my degree straight away – I’d studied for four years and completed a placement with Sunderland Football Club. When I finally got a job in marketing, within a year of sitting in the marketing team I thought ‘I could do that’ (about sales) – I could see I was missing out on the commission they were earning from the leads I was generating, and I wanted a piece of the action. I am very lucky, I’ve always had a mentor, and I’m working with him today for a second time. His name is Kevin and he is the CEO of Refract. When Kevin said to me I should be a Salesperson, I resisted, again through the wrong stigma and aspects associated with the role. I felt like I was trained in marketing and that’s what I should be doing. He suggested I try a hybrid role for a couple of months, basically giving me an opportunity to market an event and sell tickets, which I got paid commission for selling. I remember absolutely buzzing when I realised how much I’d made. That was it, I woke up one day and realised I had transitioned into Sales. I’ve been in sales for 10+ years now, always in Software as a Service and small start-up companies – I don’t think I would be well suited in a large corporation, I like to wear many hats and be involved in all aspects of the company, not just boxed into one role.
Refract brings technology to reform the management and training of salespeople, how does this analysis of habits and traits of top performers help improve sales conversations?
Revenue is won and lost in the quality of sales calls. Managers that don’t have this type of technology have to rely on basic notes and information captured within a CRM system to make decisions on why revenue might be won, lost or when it’s going to land. To build on this predicted revenue, leaders also obtain their reps opinion to ascertain when deals are closing and why. As much as reps want to be honest and truthful, they can’t tell you what they don’t know. No one knows what they don’t know. Refract helps remove the mystery as to what’s happening in the sales calls and conversations. It helps shine a light on the trends, habits and behaviours of top performers (which is so much more than having the gift of the gab!); it’s how they structure sales calls, how they build rapport, the questions they ask, when they choose to ask those questions, what questions they choose not to ask, what topics they cover etc. I see a lot of sales reps focus on product, when really you should focus on discovery and pain points.
Refract shows a manager what is happening in those calls. It’s reality, not opinion – these are the conversations that are likely to secure revenue, these conversations require your review/feedback – which is hugely important.
Now more than ever, people need that feedback and interaction. I currently work from home in a room by myself, there’s no sales floor, and even in circumstances where there is still a sales floor, managers only hear one side of the conversation, so Refract gives managers the ability to understand at scale, what is going on in their sales conversations. This not only helps the CEO make business decisions, it also helps the Marketing team with the unfiltered voice of the customer, it helps the Product team as they know what the customer is looking to achieve, it helps Customer Success team as they know what customers are looking for and why they are working with you, and ultimately it helps Sales Reps with the added visibility of where they can improve, what they could be doing differently – not to mention they can access the top performers ‘secret sauce’ and use their formula to become better.
I’ve been in sales for a long time, but I’ve learnt more in the last 3 years because my calls are reviewed, I listen to my colleagues calls and I’m coached.
What do you find most challenging about SaaS Sales and why?
I think one of the biggest challenges is breaking through the noise. Everybody’s emails are slammed, everyone’s LinkedIn is filled, so for me it’s about catching people’s attention by leading with problems, it’s what motivates people to buy. The other challenge in SaaS sales, is just how busy the sector is, and standing out from the others in the field. I’m very lucky from a marketing, sales and product point of view, that we can do that here at Refract. As a salesperson, I’m very active on LinkedIn, but I don’t actually promote the company, I promote the problems that we solve by giving tips and tricks on how people can be better in what they so. Through lockdown we’ve amassed a small army of followers, and that’s because we talk about the problems that people have in sales and what they can do to improve their game.
For people working in Sales, what are the best tools to have in your toolbox (excluding Refract)?
There are a few, firstly you need a tool like LeadIQ, Discover or Zoom Info, which gives you basic contact details for leads, I also think it’s beneficial for people to have sequencing tools, to help automate the process. However, this can lead to laziness, you need to make sure there is a personal touch to each and every correspondence.
Other helpful tools include, Sales Navigator and Mysalescoach.com. A lot of sales reps don’t receive coaching, they only have performance reviews, which are based on KPI’s. Mysalescoach.com is a marketplace where individual reps or managers can buy sales expertise and coaching to support their development.
Have you noticed an impact on Sales coaching since the pandemic began and what should organisations be doing to get a handle on this?
The sales floor as we know it has gone for a lot of organisations and many managers are having to adapt and coach from a remote setting, which has taken the visibility away from what’s happening – not to mention selling itself is extremely hard at the moment. Therefore, you have to make sure every conversation you have counts. We don’t have an option of making mistakes or missing opportunities, so help and guidance for leaders is essential to keep everyone on track. This is going to be challenging for a lot of managers as it’s a completely new realm for them to operate in and still give effective advice and support that’s needed to their staff.
Unless you have Refract… 😉
Do you think there is a right or wrong way to deliver praise or criticism?
Absolutely, praise is super important and it reinforces what’s happening – it should be scalable too. One of the things that frustrates me, is when someone is praised it just sits with that person, why isn’t that praise brought to everyone’s attention? You should be able to share that praise to encourage others to do the same consistently. I think it’s also really easy to overlook the good moments, when people do it all the time – it shouldn’t matter how frequently people do well, they still need the recognition.
In terms of criticism, firstly it’s needed – no one is perfect. You can’t molly coddle people. You need to be able to tell them what they have done wrong. You need have the right people, with the right mind set to do this. The first thing I look for when hiring people is that they are coachable. We’ve designed our process so that people are coached during the interview, – you’d be amazed how many people are averse to criticism, but the people on your team need to have a learning and growth mindset in order to achieve.
When you give feedback though, it has to be actionable – it’s easy to tell someone something they did was ‘poor’, but that isn’t particularly helpful. What you need to do is to show them what they could have done differently. It shouldn’t always be your opinion either – you should be able to share examples of what other people have done in these situations, so they can really understand how others are able to succeed. Another thing to consider is that it’s extremely demoralising to have a manger tell you what they think you should be doing, that’s very opinion-based coaching. Successful coaching should be based on proven successful training in the past, not just running through tick box exercises. Something I’ve seen a lot of is managers coaching from a CRM system, basing their feedback on number of dials and emails alone. Helping people to understand why they haven’t managed to convert more leads into meetings makes a huge difference. Real leaders invest their time in helping you to develop.
You recently coached a 10 year old the art of cold calling, with the video going viral and sales professionals worldwide saying the youngster has inspired them to set higher goals for their teams. Can you really teach anyone to sell?
Yes, sales is just identifying a problem and showing people a better way of solving said problem. People don’t like being sold to; they like to buy (for their own reasons not yours) – a salesperson should just facilitate that opportunity. The most important thing with teaching anyone to sell, is having the right mindset – like Joe had. The fact he’s 10 is irrelevant, but also key. What Joe didn’t have compared to everyone else, is limiting self-belief. Not having limiting self-belief allowed Joe to have the confidence to just pick up the phone and have conversation. He believed he could help someone, and he didn’t ever think to himself ‘what if they don’t answer’, ‘what happens if they’re nasty to me’, or ‘this person looks like they earn 5 x more than me’ – Joe didn’t care about any of that, he was just picking up the phone to speak with people. I only had to coach Joe in what those conversations should look like, I never had to coach him in mindset. Therefore, when you say can anyone sell, they must have the right mindset ‘I believe I can help someone’, they can’t have a fear of failure, and they shouldn’t take rejection personally. If someone says ‘no’ to me, it doesn’t perturb me, it just confirms they aren’t the right person for me to be speaking to.
I’d love to know at what point we start to inherit self-limiting beliefs, the reality of it is, with the rise of social media I think it’s going to affect people at much younger ages. Michael Jordan said it best ‘Why should I worry about missing a shot I’ve not taken yet?’. If you look at any athlete at the top of their game, they train and practice every single day, they watch back their video clips and they have people dedicated to help them in their roles.
There are sometimes mixed feelings about the effectiveness of cold calling, do you think this is still relevant approach?
If you had a room full of people that had mixed feelings and you asked those who didn’t like cold calling to stand to the left and those that did to the right, those stood on the left are typically the ones that aren’t very good at it – it’s as relevant as it’s ever been. Of course, it’s not the only approach and it doesn’t work with everyone – organisations should always use a multi-channel approach. I’ll actually argue that cold call is more relevant today than it’s ever been; everyone is currently sat at home alone. If my phone rings I’ll happily answer it – I miss those water cooler chats and the usual interaction I’d have in my day to day activities. There is no quicker way to build a pipeline with ideal customers that have, or are experiencing, problems that you can help solve. I can call someone up and within 3 minutes I know if they have a problem, if they’re motivated to solve it, and if they want my help with it. The next steps are to schedule a follow up call and it’s in my pipeline. People are shy about cold calling because they have that self-limiting mindset.
If you have 10 seconds to clearly articulate your value proposition to keep people engaged – how can you be equal parts compelling and human?
I wouldn’t talk about the business that I worked for, I would talk about the biggest problem that we solve – If this then resonates with a person, we can then put steps in place to help. Everyone’s company or service ultimately solves a problem, but just because you speak to people that have a problem you can solve, it doesn’t mean they’re motivated to do anything about it though… So if I’ve got 10 seconds to speak to someone I would ask; Are you frustrated that more of your calls don’t turn into revenue? If they say yes, then they find more time to speak to me.
How do you build trust in your team, what is the critical factor?
Everyone starts at 10/10. You can only go downhill. When we hire at Refract, our interview process is fairly vigorous, we look for the right person, someone who is coachable. The team that we’ve built is one of the things I’m most proud of. When I joined, there was only six of us, now we are 30+ strong – everyone’s a ‘good egg’. So in terms of trust, it’s there from day one for me, only they can let themselves down. I don’t think trust has to be earnt, for me, trust is burnt.
What do you do differently that sets you apart from your competitors?
I take sales seriously, I sell to sales leaders, I constantly strive to be better. Whether that’s listening to podcasts, reading books, watching webinars, listening to my colleague’s calls, seeking feedback or paying for external coaching.
I just had one of my demo’s coached by a man who wrote a book called ‘Great Demo’ – which I read 8 years ago. I’ve always wondered what he’d think if he could watch my demo, what better way to learn than paying for an expert like Peter Cowen to review my demo and give me feedback?
I subsequently played Peter’s feedback of my demo back to my team, so everyone else got the benefit of it.
The bottom line is – I’m a very competent sales professional without the arrogance to think I can’t be better. Sales is a such a good skill to have in life – I genuinely have a better relationship with my wife, my parents and my son because I can communicate at different levels, and I can articulate my point and listen properly. All of that is a result of me being coached properly.
To reiterate my earlier point, sales conversations are about your buyer and if they have a problem that you can solve. People buy on their own terms – all you can be is a trusted expert and observer. A great example is the doctor/patient relationship. If you go and see a doctor, they are already deep into your notes before you’ve even said a word, they know your medical history before they ask you what the problem is. It’s at this point you then get a series of GREAT questions; how long has that been a problem, have you taken any medication, how bad is the pain on a scale of 1-10. When they ask those questions, they write you a prescription. After a quick trip to the pharmacist to collect your medication, you start taking your prescribed medicine. What you never do is say ‘can I think about it’, ‘call me next week’, ‘can I have a free trial’, ‘can I have a discount’ – that’s because these doctors are expert advisors that you trust, and they are going to tell you how to solve a problem.
The sales landscape is always changing, especially outbound sales. Why is it important to measure the effect of changes and adjust your team’s activity?
Never has there been a bigger change in landscape than this pandemic. Organisations need to build their businesses based on their ideal customer profiles; to satisfy their needs and wants to solve their problems. Sales conversations and opinions change overtime, everything you need to know is in the voice of the customer. The challenge is filtering the right information from conversations. Listen to your customers to understand what they really want or need, how are they saying it, and what inclination or tone are they using. It’s really hard to pick up on those nuances unless you get into the habit of listening back to your conversations and recordings. With the landscape changing, its so important that you measure the unfiltered voice of your customer, so you can make sure your product is being built to a service level. This unfiltered voice also allows you to market your products/services it in the right places with a specific message, using customer language not ‘marketing’ language. It allows your customer success team to know what they need to do to get that customer where they need to be, and it lets your sales team know what they need to say or do in their conversations to enable better outcomes.
You and your colleagues have been busy writing a book, following the recent webinars you hosted during lockdown. What has been your favourite part of writing the process?
The webinars are professionally one of the proudest moments of my career. I and the other two sales leaders at Refract, Rich and Stu don’t claim to be experts, we are just three guys that have been in sales for 10+ years. We’ve never had any official sales training, we get coached every week by our CEO and we coach each other, but we’ve never really been told how to do it, we’ve taught ourselves (the hard way). When I look back to how we used to sell 10 years ago, it’s truly cringing! It didn’t matter who the prospect was, what they did, I gave them the pitch and presentation to every prospective customer expecting to hear from them after the call ended. The point of the webinars was to share the insights we’ve learnt, to help others that might be isolated and working from home, with no other interaction with their peers. There wasn’t a plan, we decided we’d just run one webinar on a Thursday to see what happened… we said to ourselves internally, if 50 people turn up we’d be over the moon… As it happened, over 900 people tuned in, and we were overwhelmed! We overran by half an hour as well and the amount of positive response we received afterwards was phenomenal and so humbling.
Following that we arranged a further 10-11 webinars. Sales trainers and experts would charge thousands for the tips and advice we shared, and in truth we thought we should be documenting this and thought maybe we could we write a book. We started with a plan to write a little e-book, a culmination of all of the best bits from the webinar and summarises what we did, from cold calling to closing a deal. I think the real key (for the webinars) was that we didn’t just talk about it, or say ‘this is what you should be doing’; we showed the viewers how we did it, by playing clips of our own calls and demos, showing email exchanges, which highlighted how what we do works. People don’t need to be told what to do, they need to be shown what good looks like. Long story short, we started to write the book, which we are close to finishing, it’s just being edited at the moment. The most amazing part about it is our CEO has offered to have it properly published into an official book, it’s astonishing think that we will become published authors! Whether or not anyone buys it is another matter, but it’s something that I will be forever proud of. We hope to be able to get it published towards the latter end of the year, so watch this space!
What personal attribute do you think your current role demands above all else and why?
Investment of my time into my sales reps. At the end of the day, if my team aren’t successful that’s my fault. I’ve left previous roles feeling like I could have been more successful’, and I blamed myself a lot, but in hindsight, my manager at the time didn’t help or support me either. My job is to make sure my team are successful, that they are able to replicate the success that myself, Stuart (Refract’s Head of Sales Development) and Rich (Refract’s co-founder and Head of Sales) have had, with high quality calls and great outcomes. The biggest attribute for me is coaching – most sales managers don’t do it properly or they just rely on basic data that any rep can find themselves in terms of numbers. I invest time listening to colleagues calls and I give them feedback in 1:1 or group sessions – I need to be on top of my game, leading from the front, whilst maintaining that work life balance. Time is the biggest thing you can give and its precious, so investing it wisely in the right places is key.
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