Featured Company Q&A: ThomasNet

This month’s Featured Company Q&A is with Jason Hoback, Director of Sales – East, for ThomasNet, who shares with us his focus for the coming year and strategies for sales success.

What do you enjoy most about working for ThomasNet?

There are many things I enjoy about working for ThomasNet.  But what I enjoy most is knowing that the solution we sell will change the business of our customers.  I love knowing that if our clients commit to a partnership with us, that our solution will drive a significant ROI that will pay for their investment in just a matter of months.  There’s nothing better than knowing that what you sell is a “game changer” for your customers and will drive a measurable ROI in a small amount of time.  Year in and year out, our high renewal rates are a nice reminder of how well our solution works, and having such an amazing solution, leads to a very passionate sales team.

What unique quality separates ThomasNet from your competitors?

Our technology is unmatched, and because of this, we remain light years ahead of our competition.  We are always anticipating what users are going to want and building our technology to accommodate them.  Knowing our technology is superior to anything out there leads our team to sell with complete confidence and passion!

We are all coming off of a challenging year, how has ThomasNet handled it?

The first thing I would say is that we’ve remained calm and poised as a company.  This is not a time to panic.  We are focusing on the things we can control vs. the things we cannot.  We cannot control what the media says about the economy or what’s going on with Wall Street.  What we can control is the program we put in place for our customers and the value we are driving for them.  We realize this is one of the most difficult selling environments ever, but we can’t sit back and wait for the economy to turn.

So our focus as a company has been to continue to invest in our technology and ensure that our solution set is unmatched. We’ve also been focused on increasing our lead on the competition.  We continue to invest in sales development, so our team is prepared as they enter the field.  From a sales perspective, we continue to hire talented sales people across the country and our focus remains on selling consultatively.

We realize that some of our customers are seeing double-digit losses on the revenue side of their business and that the last thing they are thinking about is spending money on marketing or marketing technology.  It is our job to understand what their issues are and, based upon the vast solution set we offer, to provide them with a solution that can help them turn their sales efforts around.  We know our solution can help them get their sales back on track.

What would you like SalesJournal.com readers to know about ThomasNet?

ThomasNet offers a solution that is changing the way industrial companies do business.  For 110 years, ThomasNet has been focused on the industrial marketplace and has always been recognized as the leader.  Our customers have relied on us to not only connect them with potential buyers but to help them convert them into sales.  They have grown to expect that we know what online buyers expect and that when a solution is sold to them by Thomas that it will be unmatched by our competition.  While ThomasNet is still considered by many to be a publisher, I view it as a cutting edge technology company.  Our technology allows our customers not only to reach an untapped audience, it also allows them to convert those users into customers at a high rate.

What specific goals, including those related to your specific position within the company, have you established for 2010?

We want and expect significant growth in 2010. That is my #1 goal.  I believe the sales environment in 2010 is still going to be very tough, however I think our focus on high activity in 2009 and our consultative approach to selling will pay off in a big way.  There are plenty of other goals our team has, but I’d say growth is the main focus in 2010.

 What creative strategies have you used to encourage/influence your sales team?

I am not sure how “creative” my strategy is in influencing my team.  I believe in a simple approach to leadership.  First of all, I don’t have all the answers and I have a lot of respect for the job my managers do.  I rely heavily on my team and their experience and I don’t mind if they have a better solution to a problem than I do.  At the end of the day, it’s a team effort and we’re marching toward the same goal.  I like an open environment where members of my team can speak their minds freely.  While I may not always agree with their opinions, at least they understand that I respect them.

Second, I like to spend as much of my time as possible in the trenches.  To me, that is being in front of customers hearing firsthand what is going on.  In a weird way, I enjoy being in the toughest of conditions, because I think I gain credibility with my team.  It’s been a very tough year, so almost every call I’ve been on has been difficult in one way or another.  But the benefit of this approach is that my team knows when I make suggestions, I’m not making them from an ivory tower, but rather from the experience of being in the field.  My other focus is keeping the lines of communication open with my team.  It’s important that communication is constant, and that includes the good and the bad news.

What is your favorite methodology in sales training and/or business enhancement?

I like to simplify everything about sales, so the first thing I will say to a new hire at ThomasNet is to remember this simple equation: Activity x Skill Set = Productivity.

Any new person to our team must understand that it’s not just their skill set that will give them success, but the activity levels they have as well. We know the minimum number of appointments you should have every week and we know how many proposals those appointments should result in.

For example, we know that a sales rep should be running between 8-10 new face-to-face calls a week.  We also know that the difficulty in getting to that number of outside appointments lies with the rep’s ability to maximize phone time while trying to set appointments.  We see that the average rep makes contact with about 10% of all the people he/she calls over the phone.  Contact would simply mean that the other person picks up the phone and talks to you, nothing more than that.  And we see about a 30% success rate once you get someone on the phone to actually securing the appointment.

So to put all of this down in “real” numbers, it would look something like this:  You make 100 calls a day to reach 10 people.  You are able to get 30% of those people to agree to meet you face-to-face, which equates to 3 meetings secured from 100 calls.

We try and give a rep these types of metrics as a “road map” to their success.   And we know if the activity part of the equation is being met, that the skill set is really about your ability to sell in a consultative manner.  The word “consultative” is thrown around quite a bit these days and means something different to many sales people.  To me, consultative selling means seeking first to understand what the issues are and then, and only then, offering a solution to your prospect or client.  Before you can ever talk about your solution, you MUST understand what business issues your client is facing.  Asking the “right” questions is critical to consultative selling, and you have to be an excellent listener.  So when we bring on a new person, our training is centered on a consultative sales process.

Are there any books, sales related or leadership related, that you use as a guide and/or would recommend?

There are way too many books for me to list here, but I’ll list some of my favorites.  Sales-related books that I enjoy are Spin Selling by Neil Rackham and Soft Sell by Tim O’Connor.  Both are excellent books on the sales methodology that I believe in.  Also, all of the Miller Heiman books are great for sales methodology.  Leadership books that I enjoy are Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell, The Servant Leader by Ken Blanchard and The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

Do you have a mentor that you attribute your leadership success to? Do you feel it is important to have a mentor?

I am very fortunate to have worked for many excellent leaders over my career.   I try and emulate each of their best characteristics.  I do feel it’s important to have a mentor, not just in business, but in life.  No matter where you are in your career, you always need someone that you can go to for advice and guidance.  And quite honestly you need someone that’s not scared to tell you that you’re not as good as you might think you are.  I can pinpoint areas in my career where I’ve grown the most and usually that growth was led by a mentor pointing out an area where I needed to improve, and me listening to that advice.  I believe leaders are developed over time, through the wins and the losses, but the critical part is that there is a mentor there along the way.

What sales advice do you have to offer our readers?

Believe with all your heart in what you are selling or go sell something else would be my first set of advice.  Life is too short to sell something you don’t whole-heartedly believe in.  Second, you were born with two ears and one mouth!  So many of us (me included) forget that and like to throw everything we know about our product at the customer.  But if I could offer one piece of advice, it would be to realize that every customer or prospect you call is unique.  They are starving for someone to help them with the issues they face. At the same time, they want you to fully understand their challenges before you try to offer a solution.  Seek first to understand what their challenges are then be prepared to help.

When you hire, how do candidates stand out in order to be selected to help with the growth of the company?

When I interview, the first thing I am looking for is “fire in the belly.”  You can teach someone how to sell consultatively and you can teach them all the tricks of the trade, but you can’t teach someone to be driven or hungry.  They either have it or they don’t.  I don’t care what you’ve done in the past as much as I care about the passion you have for the job.  So when I ask a candidate to tell me about a past sales position, I am looking to see how passionate they are.

What characteristics do you look for in a sales professional?

I look for passion, integrity and drive.  I look for high energy, passionate reps who are out to set the world on fire.  I look for reps who have proven to be very driven in their career.  The characteristics are far more important to me than what the resume says.

Do you feel a sales professional must have experience in the industry they are selling in order to be successful?

Some experience is necessary, but it’s not the main thing I look for.  I would take a risk on someone that didn’t have industry experience if I felt they had the qualities I was looking for.

If an individual or the team as a whole is not meeting goals, what is your approach to nurture this?

If an individual is not meeting his/her goal I first seek to understand the entire situation.  Sales performance can be a very emotional topic, so I try and remove the emotion and focus on the measurable things that might be contributing to the lack of performance.  If a sales person is struggling to hit their sales goals, I will diagnose the situation by first looking at the activity levels.  We have a road map to success, so we know at a minimum how many appointments per month you should be running and how many proposals you should be generating.  The first question I would ask is “how are you doing from an activity standpoint?”  If the activity levels are high enough I would then focus on what’s happening on the sales calls.

To diagnose how they are doing on a call without me actually being on the call, the first thing I would do is pull out their forecast and have them tell me the forecasted prospect’s two or three critical business challenges.  If they can’t tell me what those are, then I know they’re not asking the right questions.  If they are able to answer those questions, I’ll dig into things like the timing of the decision, involvement of decision makers and major obstacles.  Usually, by digging into these, you’re able to identify consistent areas that need to be improved.

If the team is not achieving their goals, I’d first want to understand what type of environment the manager has created.  You know the mood of a team within two minutes of walking into an office.  Are there any major issues impacting the team’s morale that we need to address?  I’d also want to know what the manager thinks the obstacles are and, more importantly, what’s being done to remedy the situation.  I’d probably also want to hold a team meeting to air out any concerns they might have and understand the particular issues they may be facing that we could help with.

Winning or losing can be contagious, so if the team is losing as a whole you want to look for someone on the team to help get that changed.  In changing this environment, I’d look to set small goals that were attainable to get some wins under our belt and get the team back on track to finding success.

How much time do you need to know if a new sales hire will “make it”? What are some indicators/behaviors?

In our world, we would have a strong indication of whether a new sales hire will make it within the first 6 months.  We would probably have an indication even sooner than that, but by 6 months we generally know if the new sales person is going to make it.  We look at their ability to hit certain activity goals, generate a certain amount of proposals and close a certain number of contracts.  Also, because our team is so active in the field, we are able to know how well the person is learning everything he/she needs to know just by being in the field and seeing firsthand his/her strengths and weaknesses.

One thought on “Featured Company Q&A: ThomasNet”

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