How I Buy – Ron Thomas, VP Sales, Kahuna

 In #HowIBuy

One of the largest challenges in selling to any exec is dealing with the situation where they don’t know what they don’t know.  They could benefit from your solution, but the idea that the solution category you represent exists is not something that has crossed their radar.

In this week’s #HowIBuy interview we chat with Ron Thomas, VP Sales at Kahuna.  In the conversation, Ron talks about exactly that – what motivates him and his team to continually challenge each other to improve their craft and become better sales professionals.

 

Here are Ron’s insights:

First, tell me a bit about your role at Kahuna, and what you spend money on throughout the year?

I’m the head of sales, which means I own the revenue numbers the business.  As such, I represent sales on the executive team and work closely with our CEO and the board in helping to guide the business.  I am responsible for expansion across our existing customer partnering closely with our CS team, Business Development and Partners, and naturally all new logo responsibility.  

I spend money on three main categories of things. First is software to make our team more efficient and effective.  Second is consultants to help us with specific areas where they have expertise. Third is events, both internal and external, for knowledge sharing and customer growth.

 

The field of sales is changing so rapidly.  How do you learn what’s new and what’s possible?

I’d say a lot is not intentional, but a result of surrounding myself with some great peers, and having had the privilege to work with lots of great mentors.  If I look at where I have learned new things from historically, it’s from a combination of people I happen to be talking to, articles that I see on my LinkedIn feed, conferences and meetups with various peer groups, and events that our VCs put together for executives in the portfolio to share knowledge.

 

So with those sources, do you methodically push for new information and “quiz” people about their approaches on certain topics, or do you just happen across new ideas and information more spontaneously?

I’m always thinking about a couple of big things.  I spend a lot of time thinking about rep ramp productivity, how I help my team with win rates, and how we build pipeline.  In my mind, any time I find a company that is doing a phenomenal job at any one of those three things, I’m more than happy to seek information actively and reach out.

As an example, recently, I had a reach out from an SDR at Discover.org.  I get a vast number of sales rep outreaches per day, but she did a truly phenomenal job.  I was so impressed that I called her manager directly and asked how they trained their SDRs.  Often it’s like that – an experience that I’ve had or a company I respect.

 

Where does that motivation come from for you?  Does every piece of learning have to be tied directly to business results?  Or are you deeply curious about the ‘craft’ of selling?

I’m very analytical, sure, but what drives me is to truly be excellent.   It’s part of me, and it’s part of our mission here. We want to get incrementally better every day, so over the course of a quarter or a year, you move forward a tremendous amount.  

It starts with having a deep desire and a passion.  I really care about this stuff. I really want to deliver value for customers and do so in a way that has unmistakeable integrity and passion.  

 

How do you instill that same desire in your team?  How do they become partners in the learning process?

It’s not a rigorous process, but it is cultural.  We have our weekly meeting where we go through deals and pipeline, but we we will also go through learnings.  I’ll ask everyone what their peers are doing that’s interesting, what they are seeing in the market that’s interesting, and what they did at previous companies that’s interesting.  People are encouraged and required to always be coming up with new ideas.

The idea that you need to proactively participate in the conversation around new ideas is a strong aspect of our culture.  This openness, and push for, new ideas has positive implications outside of sales as well. We recently sparked an idea for a product enhancement that originally came out of a comment in a shared  Slack channel. We sell to marketers, so we’re okay to be creative, fun, and a little tongue-in-cheek, so we encourage creativity to come from anywhere.

 

For the new ideas that come in, some of them are quite intangible, especially those around quality, fun, trust, etc.  How do you assess those ideas?

I think a lot about the kind of relationships that we want.  We’ll tell customers proactively if we feel that we’re not the right fit for them, and often we’ll recommend other providers for the solutions that they really need for their business.  It’s something that I personally appreciate when I’m being sold to. If someone can self-assess and say “here’s something that we are not a good fit for”.

For me to assess that, for a potential vendor, I’ll do a quick check with my network and our executive team.  I’ll ask about the value that people are seeing and the trustworthiness of the team. If that indirect feedback is negative, usually I won’t move forward from there.  If it’s positive, I’ll often reach out directly.

 

How does the direct conversation proceed?  What are you looking for in that interaction?

The conversation with the sales team is pretty transparent.  We’ll share our situation and the challenge that we’re having.  I’m looking for a clear, non-jargon, conversation around how they would be able to tackle the situation and if they can help. It sounds simple, but the honest truth is most sales people struggle in having that conversation.

It’s a great test of whether a person is trying to oversell or BS a bit.  If they can’t explain it, in context, as they would to a 12 yr old, there’s a high chance that there is a bit too much smoke and mirrors in the offering.

If the sales person is unable to have that conversation, I’ll often reach out to the VP of Sales and let them know that I’m struggling to understand what they are trying to do, and if they are able to solve my specific business challenge that we’re looking for.  I have yet to encounter any VP of Sales who wasn’t willing to have a 15 minute conversation on that topic.

 

What should sales people of today be investing in, compared to a decade ago?

They should spend time with customers.  Today’s sales people need to deeply understand what the product does for customers, and be able to articulate its business value in context of real customer and prospect environments.

Marketing lingo is great at the top of funnel, and you need to know that.  However, as people start moving through the funnel, you need to be able to get beneath that and explain very clearly what it is you do, how you do it, and why it’s different.

 

That sounds quite similar to the DNA of a customer success professional.  Are you seeing more of that persona coming in to sales teams and becoming more successful?

Absolutely.  In my world, as the complexity of the solution set increases, and it’s not transactional, you become much more of a consultant.  You have to help the buyer think through the problem, potential solutions, and implications to the business.

That strategic skill outweighs all of the gimmicky tactics like sending an email 30 seconds after a person visits your website.  Being responsive is important, but to be great at sales you need to be a seeker of truth and be willing to be on a shared journey with the customer.  If you can do that, it becomes a very different experience.

 

Thanks for your insights on the motivation you have for improving your ‘craft’ Ron!  It was tremendously valuable!

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Experienced SaaS CTO. Founded and guided the building of Eloqua to a market leading position in Marketing Automation. Now Co-founder and CTO at Nudge. Author of the book “Digital Body Language" with a passion for innovation, cloud computing and software evolution.
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