What are the core skills of sales, before all the fancy digital stuff? At its heart, sales is the ability to be patient and listen to customers' needs–like really empathetic listening. As as sales and AI blend more and more together, this skill is going to become even more important. If you know how to sell, you can spend less time selling. Victor Antonio is ready to lead a new generation of sales people into a digital future without forgetting the past.What we learned from this episode
The principle of minimizing anxiety and increasing certainty is core for sales, and nearly every other function.
When consumers have every product at their fingertips, now they want salespeople to help them and guide them through the plethora of options that are out there.
AI is changing the world of selling, but AI will primarily help salespeople be more efficient, not replace them.
Earlier, sales was all about technical skills, now a sales happens if you're patient enough to listen to customer issues and provide solutions.
Patience and empathetic listening are two superpowers of salespeople.What you can do right now
As a salesperson, it is your job to minimise anxiety or uncertainty and increase customers' certainty. Increase certainty, reduce anxiety. That's the job. When you're selling, you're always increasing certainty, reducing anxiety. The same way when you’re in marketing, you have to do the same thing. In order to move anything forward and people are going to resist whatever you try to push towards them, your job is to reduce that anxiety and increase their certainty.Key Quotes
"In order to move anything forward and people are going to resist whatever you try to push towards them, your job is to reduce that anxiety and increase their certainty. That’s a beautiful equation, a little balance there, because if you can do both of those things, people will move forward."
"I remember a lot of people saying, 'Cold calling is dead. Picking up the phone is dead. Social media is the way to go.' And so, I was like, 'No, it isn't.' You still have to connect with people."
"A few years ago, I would have said, get the technology down. Now, I’m like, go back to the soft skills.”
Today, our guest speaker is Victor Antonio. He’s a keynote sales and motivation speaker and author of many books, including “Sales Ex Machina: How Artificial Intelligence is Changing the World of Selling.” This episode is Work Minus Selling. Hi, Victor. How are you?
I’m doing good. Yourself?
Doing excellent. I’m excited about this topic because we’re talking about sales but we’re also not talking about sales, as your episode talks about. So, this is going to be interesting. Why don’t you start off just giving us a little bit of an intro about who you are?
By the way, that sounded like a Seinfeld episode, right? It’s a show about nothing.
It’s a show about what it’s not about.
That’s right. Much better said. Well said. I’m Victor Antonio. My background is electrical engineering, MBA, started out in engineering, realized one day that I didn’t want to be an engineer anymore, decided to move into sales, love sales, love helping people sell. I’ve been a consultant/sales trainer for the last 17 years, I believe, and I enjoyed that. I enjoy it.
So, 17 years. You’ve seen a lot. We like to talk about the future of work but mostly like the current of work, like what’s going on right now. So, tell us a little bit in your view based on your experience, how has the selling profession changed in the last 17 years that you’ve been involved in it?
It’s changed huge. It’s hard to believe that back in the… and I’m gonna date myself here a little bit… when you look at ‘90, ‘93, ‘94, the internet was just beginning somewhere in that range depending on where you want to put your starting point, and so, back in the day, it was all about ABC, Always Be Closing, pressure tactics, all these things to persuade and influence people to buy something. Fast forward, today we have an internet and the internet now has expanded over the last 10 to 15 years where you can find almost anything you want online. I think Amazon is probably the best representation of how fast it’s accelerated. It went from selling books to look at all the things from a logistical standpoint that it can do today. That is amazing. And the fact that buyers today, you, consumers, just, again, at the end of the day, even though we’re salespeople, we’re all consumers at the end the day. We have options and it’s ubiquitous. Everything’s everywhere. And so, selling has changed in the sense that what customers want today is for you to help them and guide them through this plethora of options that are out there. That’s what they’re looking for.
So, let’s say we cryogenically froze somebody, a salesman from the 1980s, unfroze them in 2019 where we are now, would they be able to operate as a salesperson?
I love this question already. That’s just so well placed. I love it. The answer is probably depending on the market. It’s always a difficult question to answer because if it’s a commodity sale, like a simple sale, no, they won’t be able to sell. They probably won’t even be needed anymore, if you know what I mean, if it’s a transactional sale. In a B2B complex sale, enterprise level sale, I would say that they could probably still sell in that market if they had the expertise and the background and understood the customer’s business. So, they could still sell effectively because I believe some of the tools that are out there today really augment the salesperson’s ability to sell more effectively. It doesn’t replace them yet. When I wrote my book “Sales Ex Machina: How AI is Changing the World of Selling,” the question I often get is, “Victor, will this replace salespeople?” And it’s the wrong question. The right question is look at the task a salesperson has to do and then look at the task and then ask yourself which of these tasks can be automated away to allow the salesperson to sell more effectively. So, that’s a roundabout answer to say in a simple sale, the salesperson will be replaced. In a more complex sale, not yet. There’s still some life in them.
And that’s a good thing because we talk about AI a lot on the show and what you’re saying is consistent with what everyone else says, that AI is coming for your tasks, not necessarily for your jobs. It’s coming to replace some things that are relatively easy for a machine to do but are difficult or at least time consuming for us to do and can help augment us as we go through. Before we get too far, take me back to that 1980s guy. What are some of those enduring sales principles that are always going to be relevant?
It’s funny because I’ve come full circle. When people taught me the soft skills, I was like, “Ugh, soft skills, hate them. Teach me some real technical skills. Let me go in there.” And then, I’ve come back all the way around to soft skills again. By soft skills I mean the ability to be patient enough to listen to a customer, like really empathetic listening, and I know everybody listening to this knows this already, but empathetic listening I think is a secret superpower that the best salespeople have. There is a patience and empathetic listening, that combination allows you to pull the customer in closer. The second superpower is the ability to educate your customer. In other words, again, help them make buying decision. They need to discern, “Should I buy this or should I buy that? Please, Mr. Salesperson, help me out.” So, I always say empathy and education are the two superpowers you definitely had back then that you should carry over into today’s market. Those are tried and true.
And do you feel like we live in a world where content marketing has become so big which we’re trying to educate people even before they get to the salesperson. Is sales still a big role in the education?
That’s an excellent question. What you’re seeing and I’m going to refer back to a book called “The Challenger Sale.” “The Challenger Sale” came out I think in December of 2011, still a classic, still should be read. It’s probably the second book that actually did an empirical analysis and study on the world of selling, the first one being “SPIN Selling” back in 1987 by Neil Rackham. But this book, “The Challenger Sale,” which is done by Dixon and I forgot the other person’s name, I apologize, but it’s a great book and it really looked at data on how people buy today. And their conclusion, they said, “A buyer today is 57% into the buying process before they reach out to a vendor.” Or the other number by Google was they look at 10 sources of information before reaching out to a vendor’s potential supplier. Said another way, that when the vendor contacts you, for example, they’re already 57%, some put it as high as 80% into the buying cycle.
So, ties us back to content marketing, yes, it’s important. It’s even more important than ever because people are going online first to look for the information, educate themselves to a point where they go, “Okay. Now, I’m ready to ask intelligent questions and then reach out to a vendor and during that process of investigating and analyzing, their preferences are being formed in terms of what they want. So, let’s say that I’ve done my research and then you call me or I call you and I said, “Look. I’ve researched your product. I think I like it. I have some questions.” Now, if you tell me everything I already know, you’re not position yourself as a “trusted adviser,” an expert. And I think that’s where the big disconnect is.
So, what I also believe is that because people are looking for content online before they reach out to a company to talk to a salesperson, you’re seeing this merging of sales and marketing now going glove in hand. Where before you almost saw them as two silos, now I see them as two overlapping circles. And I believe that the future of sales and marketing will be under one umbrella called the sales operations guy or gal. It will be a new title because they’ll have to know marketing, they’ll have to know sales, but they’ll also have to have the technology stack to be able to do both. And I think that’s where it’s going.
I really like what you said about the patient enough to listen because listening aspect, still, with digital content marketing, you’re not really listening. You may be getting some signals coming in but not that deep empathy you talked about. So, that’s a core skill for sales for sure.
You’ve probably talked about this in a podcast but that’s where machine learning comes in, the AI, because in my book I cover how a lot of companies are using now machine learning, more specifically natural language programming, to actually read texts, read emails, and detect the sentiment called sentiment analysis, do a sentiment analysis to say, “Yeah, I think this person’s in, this person’s not in. Or let’s follow up.” And I think all of that, again, is to augment the salesperson’s ability to make better decisions when selling.
Let’s jump into your book. You don’t see a lot of AI books around the topic combined with sales. So, why is that? Why are people a little bit afraid to talk about the topic?
I don’t think they’re afraid. I think, I could be wrong, but I believe my book is the first book to talk about sales and artificial intelligence combined and how it’s going to change the world of selling. So, I think it’s the first book out and I think I was very lucky and let me just step back and I think you’ll find this story and your listeners will find it interesting and that is I was doing a sales training course, three-day program for a large healthcare company and they have their own call centers. Now, I’ll make this story brief. They have a call center. They’ve got 100 people, 100 people have to make 100 calls. That’s 10,000 calls. Let’s simplify. Let’s just look at one person. One person makes 100 calls. I’m calling you and I say, “Hey, I’m trying to sell you some type of product.” At the end of the day, I close 20 of those deals. By close I mean if I’m an SDR, BDR, I close it in the sense that I get the order or I advance the sale and I get the meeting, which is what I wanted.
And so, the question is now what do I do with the other 80 that I didn’t close or advanced. Now, you ask the actual sales rep, they’ll say, “Well, Victor, I’ve got a good feeling about these right here but not about those.” Well, with machine learning today, what this company was able to do is they would take our conversation, split the track. Now, they’ll look at your track, you’re the consumer, and what they’ll do is look at keywords that you used, phrases, velocity, what words you repeated, and what they’ll do is come up with this keyword cloud type of analysis that will tell them this person’s worth calling back. There’s an intent to buy there or there’s not. And so, what it would do, it’ll take those 80 calls that you didn’t close. It will sift out the ones that are not worth your time. Let’s say 20 were not worth your time. That leaves 60. It will then prioritize those 60 for you. In terms of intent to buy. That’s powerful. See, that right there, when I heard they were doing that, I’m like, “Oh, my god. We’re being transformed.” And that’s what really initiated the writing of the book.
Well, tell us some other stories you discovered from the book. What are some other companies that are using AI in really interesting ways on the sales side?
Okay. I’ll step back and say, first of all, let’s shift our mindset. The book “Sales Ex Machina”, I stole it from a phrase called deus ex machina. Deus ex machina means literally God is in the machine. And back in the day, way back, when people couldn’t understand technology, they would say, “Well, the reason it works like that is because there’s god in the machine. That’s deus, God, ex machina, in the machine. And I took that phrase because I’ve always had it in my head but when I realized that the CRM, the customer relationship management systems, like salesforce.com or some of the others, that is now, think of it like a giant smartphone where all the transactions are being done through there, all the interactions are being done through there. So, the sales in the machine is really a way of saying that your sales are in your CRM. Now, what do I mean by that? Let’s say, and I’ll just use Salesforce. They should pay me for as much advertisement as I give them, you know what I mean?
We’ll reach out and ask for it. We can split it.
Yeah. Thank you very much. Thank you. So, they have a system called Einstein which is an AI tool and it’s a toolbox really, and what happens now is that if I’m making a call out, I call through my CRM. So, let’s say I’m making a call to you. Well, the CRM now records the call but also records the whole conversation. It will then take the whole conversation, translate it into natural language processing, in other words, make audio words. It will then analyze the text and score that conversation. Now, let’s say I then follow up and send you an email and then you responded. It’ll take my email to you and your response back to me, whatever you said, it will score that also. Let’s say I sent you some text messaging in the meantime. It’ll take that as well. So, it takes all this data now and it comes back with the scoring. Here’s how likely they are to actually sell something or buy from you. That’s powerful. So, the big mindshift is that the CRM used to be almost like Big Brother, like “1984”, George Orwell stuff. Managers just want to monitor us. That’s the only reason they have a CRM. Well, that’s old school thinking. That’s back in the ‘80s thinking. New school thinking is this CRM is going to help me sell more effectively. It’s almost going to make me like a cyborg. It’s going to help me sell more effectively. So, I think that’s the big shift. That’s the giant shift in mindset. Now, once you understand that, then it’s what tools do I apply in the CRM.
So, let’s talk to somebody who’s just starting off their sales career, fresh out of college, doesn’t really know much about what they’re going to do. Where do they need to start to educate themselves to spend time today? Do they need to spend more time on the technology side to speed up with all these things or do they need to double down on all these soft skills?
Again, great question. A couple of years ago, I would have said, yeah, get the technology down. Now, I’m like go back to the soft skills. Here’s why. And I’ll use myself as an example. Have you ever heard of Toastmasters?
Yeah. Of course.
So, Toastmasters was transformational for me. Now, if you don’t know what Toastmasters is, look up toastmasters.org. It is a speaking organization where you learn how to do public speaking. It’s in every neighborhood so if you’re listening to this, trust me, there’s one in your area. And they give you 10 different speeches and you create 10 different speeches over time and then you do the speeches, people give you feedback, they criticize you. And by the time you get to number 10, hopefully you’re going to be a beast. And so, that skill, the presentation skill has paid off so much. That’s been my highest ROI. If you wake me out of a dead sleep and say what’s your biggest ROI? I’ll say my ability to speak. And most people say that’s a soft skill, but that’s a great soft skill.
So, I think learning that skill, and again, go back to the empathetic listening and the educate. Let’s walk through it. If I’m able to understand where my customer’s coming from, I mean, really understand because I’m listening. I get you, man. I get you. And then I say now I can educate you. Here’s what we do. Here’s how it’s going to help you. Here’s how it fits. Now, I wrap that with presentation skills and I know how to deliver that education piece. Then that’s the one-two punch. If I can listen and deliver and articulate a message effectively, I’m a dangerous salesperson. Too often, and I’m not going to pick on millennials because they get picked on too much, but people who spend too much time behind a computer, to some extent, that’s a good way of working if you can make the business model work, but eventually, you’ve got to go out there and talk to somebody and the ability to have good listening skills and being able to present, I think it’s something that will never go away in terms of value that you need to have.
We’ve probably been talking all around it, but we’ve titled Work Minus Selling. What do you mean by that?
To me, Work Minus Selling, when I first saw that title, I’m just going to give you my gut reaction when I first… I said Work Minus something, and the thing is, if you know how to sell, you have to work less, that’s what I took away from it. If you know how to sell, you could work less because I believe sales is a great profession. The amount of money you can make in sales is incredible if you find the right product or service to sell and you have a great compensation program. Now, I know when I say the word money, everybody just kind of goes, “Ugh.” There’s a little cringe factor. “He said money’s important.” Damn right it is. Money is important. And people always say, “Well, Victor, money doesn’t buy you happiness,” to which I say, “You are absolutely right.” Money does not buy you happiness.
Let me tell you what money does buy you. Money buys you options because when you have money, you have options. You can send your kid to a private school or a public school. You can take a vacation or not take vacation. So, money buys you options and I say this because, too often, what we hear on social media, and tell me if I’m wrong, is that you see all these people like taking pictures of themselves on a boat, on a cruise, some exotic place, in front of a Lamborghini or something or whatever they’re doing. They’re doing all kinds of crazy things. And we believe that it’s all about the work. You’ve got to put in the work. I’m not dismissing that. But one thing I like about selling is that once you become good at it, you become very effective. It’s no scattergun approach. It’s almost like a sharpshooter. You know how to target it and you know how to focus and you know how to cut to the chase faster and you know how to qualify faster. And so, if you can sell today effectively in the market, not only will you have to work less, you’ll also be able to sell more effectively in the market. So, I don’t know if I answered your question but that’s how I perceived that because I want to work less, man.
So, you work less by selling, right?
Yeah. You work by being smart in how you sell and how you approach the game of selling. And by the way, that’s in everybody’s career. Like if you’re listening to this and go, “Oh, I’m not in sales.” Yes, you are. We’re all in sales. If you’re a manager, you have to go to your boss and ask for more budget for more money for more headcount, you’re selling. You are selling and if you want to make your life easier, you want to have less work, you want to be able to sell more effectively. So, we’re always selling something.
So, we’ve said the sales profession, we can boil it down to these enduring skills of being patient enough to listen, educating the people you’re trying to work with. Take that out of the sales context and put it into marketing, to customer service, to HR. How do people outside the sales department, what can they learn from people in sales?
What can they learn from people in sales? Look, so again, I believe even if you’re in marketing, you’re in sales. What can you learn from sales? We know that today customers want, we always hear it, quality service price. We all know that already. But if you dig deeper and you ask yourself if you’re a marketing person, here’s what you have to learn. As a salesperson, one of the things I do is I try to make it as easy as possible for customers to say yes. Let me just say slowly. I try to make it as easy as possible for my potential customer to say yes. My job is to minimize anxiety or uncertainty and increase their certainty. Increase certainty, reduce anxiety, as I always say. That’s my job. When I’m selling, I’m always increasing certainty, reducing anxiety. When you’re in marketing, you have to do the same thing. In order to move anything forward and people are going to resist whatever you try to push towards them, your job is to reduce that anxiety and increase their certainty. That’s a beautiful equation, a little balance there, because if you can do both of those things, people will move forward. Now, if there’s an equal amount of anxiety and/or uncertainty, the customer won’t make a decision. Nobody will move forward. So, our job is to increase one while reducing the other. So, I think marketing can learn that from salespeople.
What about HR? How do you apply it there?
So, HR is hiring the right people. That’s what they got to do. Now, remember, HR has boss or bossettes. HR is recruiting for a certain department. So, in order to recruit for a certain department in order for them to be successful, let’s say that the HR person reports to, that one of the people they serve is, let’s say, the technology sector, a CTO, for example. Let’s say that the HR is recruiting for the CTO. The CTO says, “Buy me the right people.” The HR person’s job is to find the right people that the CTO will want, and her job or his job is to find the right people and present them to the CTO. And by doing so, she is selling them, “Hey, look. Here’s what I found. These candidates are worth interviewing.” CTO says, “Why?” That, at that moment, she has to increase their certainty and reduce their anxiety as to why they should even meet or interview this one candidate. So, it’s everywhere. It’s all about certainty and anxiety. Did that help?
Yeah. Absolutely. I’m resonating with that a lot. I love that you’ve boiled down to these very simple things to think through and to get through. I want to come back to an idea you presented about when you talk about people who are maybe a little younger and tend to, let’s just say, hide behind computers, hide behind their work there. Sales, you have that thing, okay, pick up the phone, call somebody, call a client, go visit somebody face to face, and other disciplines, too. Do you see the same thing that’s happening that people tend to hide behind the technology and they need to get out of it?
Well, the rise of social media really isn’t that old and I remember during the rise of social media, I’m going to peg a year and just say like 7, 10 years ago, somewhere in there when it really started taking off, I remember a lot of people saying, “Cold calling is dead. Picking up the phone is dead. Social media is the way to go.” And so, I was like, “No, it isn’t.” You still have to connect with people. You know what I mean? You can only hide behind a computer so much and I think it’s easier to be behind a computer and get rejected than it is to be face to face with somebody and get rejected. That’s why people send out emails instead of calling. That’s why they text instead of calling.
And I find that interesting because, at the end of the day, we don’t like rejection. We all hate it. I mean, that’s just part of our natural being. We don’t like to be rejected. But in order to be effective to sell today, unless you’re selling, again, if you’re selling a SaaS product and it’s online, it’s all subscription, this is not for you. But I’m saying if there’s an opportunity to either send an email or pick up the phone, I’m telling you right now, I will pick up the phone. There’s something about that human connection that you’ll never get rid of. And I think avoiding that makes you more of a coward, if I can put it that way, but the sad thing is you’ll never learn.
For example, it’s easier for me to reject your offer if you just sent me an email. I can just say, “You know what? Not interested.” But if I pick up the phone and now I got to tell you that, we got to talk on the phone, now I probably have to explain why I’m rejecting it. And by explaining it, I, the salesperson, even if I get rejected, their explanation to me is a new data point that I now have for future transactions. In other words, if they said this is the reason we’re not buying, well then I know that in the next sale, I have to be able to kind of compensate for that and I become better because of my human interactions.
That’s really powerful. Last question. You’re leading a team of young salespeople. You got a team beneath you, you’re trying to do your best with them, they’re interacting with all these new technologies, new ideas that are going through. What’s one piece of advice you would give to somebody who’s managing a decent sized large sales force out there?
I have a podcast called the AI in Sales podcast. It’s Artificial Intelligence in Sales podcast. And I was interviewing I think the CEO’s name is Oleg Rogynskyy and the company’s called People.ai and they use AI technology and we were talking and he just stunned me. He just like gut punched me with this piece of data. We were talking about what is the profile of a successful versus non-successful salesperson and then he said the following. He said, “Victor, we can tell,” because I was telling him, back in the day, if we were going to compare back in the day versus today, we would always do back in the day a 90-day program, 90-days and at the end of the 90 days, we’ll know whether this person can make it or not.
He was like, “I don’t need 90 days.” He says, “Based on our algorithm, machine learning algorithms that we use, we can tell within 17 days, 17, whether that person’s going to make it or not.” And that stunned me because he said with so much certainty. I go, “Well, how sure are you?” He goes, “Very sure.” We’re talking like, I don’t know, like 99% better. Some crazy number like that. And I was like, “Well, what is it? What are they doing?” What do you observe that successful salespeople do versus non-successful salespeople? And then this answer really stunned me because I thought he was going to say, “Victor, these people learn their product, they know their product,” and go down that route. He says, “No. What we’ve noticed is that there’s two types of people that will come into the company and there are people who come into the company and just study first, study the product, learn the technology, get comfortable, and then they go out and start selling. Something to that effect.
He said, “The high performers start right out of the gate calling, even though they don’t know everything, they’re calling.” And I think he theorized, I don’t want to put words in his mouth. I’ll have to go back and listen to the interview. But I think he theorized or maybe we just came to that conclusion is that the people who started calling early, right out of the gate, first of all, they don’t know what they don’t know, which is good, and I’m sure some sales were lost because they didn’t know certain things. But interesting enough is that, in those first 17 days, if I can use that mark, they formed habits of calling, getting out and making whatever, 50, 100 calls a day, whatever it may be. They formed these habits that were based on activity. He said, “Now, when you look at the other group, they didn’t have any activity habits that were duplicatable.”
In other words, they did not form the right habits. They knew the technology, they knew the products, they can tell you everything that you need to know about what they were selling, but they did not develop the habits to actually drive their business. I have this thing where I talk about ABC and I don’t mean Always Be Closing. I mean, your Attitude would drive your Behavior which will drive your Consequence. Said another way, your attitude will drive your activity. Your activity will drive your achievements. So, attitude, activity, achievement. Well, these guys jumped right into the activity with the right attitude, and once they got a little bit of success, they figured out what worked and what didn’t work right away. Now, I think group two, if we were to do this in a scientific experiment, group two learned a lot, they had the right attitude, but they weren’t doing the right activities because nobody taught them the right activities. I find that fascinating.
Yeah. It’s unbelievable, 17 days, it makes sense, though, when you say it. The people who are actually getting out there, getting involved, building those practices, succeed and do the best. It’s great.
It’s almost like that whole saying into the breach, you just go for it, and that’s what they were doing. They were going for it. I’m sure they had some knowledge of what they were selling but they just went for it. They realized that it was best to get your activities down, form those right behaviors, eventually that’ll drive your achievement whereas the other people who learned a lot, maybe learned so much so that they became hesitant. You know how when you learn something and you learn about the competition, you maybe start doubting that you do have the best product. Or in the first group, they just went out. They didn’t care. They just said, “You know what? Law of averages. Let’s keep calling. Let’s find somebody who’ll buy.” Because always, you’ll always find somebody who’ll buy. But that number 17 just sticks in my head, like haunts me.
Wow. That’s amazing. Well, Victor, I’ve learned a lot from this session. I love the ideas about the salesman always being the empathetic listener, the minimizing anxiety and increasing certainty are big takeaways for me. I want you to leave us with some ways to get in touch with you if people want to stay on track with what you’re doing.
If you go to victorantonio.com you’ll find me. If you want to listen just to my sales and influence podcast, it’s called the Sales Influence podcast or just go on YouTube, just type in Victor Antonio. You will find me.
You are there and very entertaining videos. Everyone should check him out. Well, Victor, thanks so much for being on the show. We appreciate your insights. Everything you’ve shared is great and we hope to have you on again later soon.
Thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you.