Episode 128: Adapting to Change – Brian Keller

Predictable Prospecting
Episode 128: Adapting to Change - Brian Keller
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In any field, one thing that you can be sure of is that things will eventually change. This is as true in sales as it is in any other industry, and it’s important to be able to keep up with the changes as the come. That leads to the question: can the ability to change be taught? Today’s guest thinks that the answer is yes.

Brian Keller is the Director of Sales Training at McKesson. He joins the podcast today to talk about his sales training workshops and the importance of learning about change in the sales field. Listen to the episode to hear what Brian has to say about why change matters for sales executives, how to connect data with the real life experience of salespeople on the ground, and how Brian’s students apply what he teaches.

Episode Highlights:

  • Why change is important for sales executives
  • Whether change can be taught
  • How to connect the data to real life experiences in the sales field
  • Whether tenure has an impact on whether or not to engage in change
  • Tools Brian uses to get students to apply what he teaches
  • What goes into planning a training workshop
  • How the salespeople that Brian trains share their success stories
  • The motivation for formalized training at McKesson


Brian Keller


Marylou: Everyone, it’s Marylou Tyler. Today’s guest I met in Australia. He was speaking on a topic of sales training which sometimes I a little bit gloss over on that because I’m not really focused in my world on the training aspect of sales, but Brian Keller who’s with us today just mesmerized me. He did two talks. One, was on the technology involved in sales training. The second one was driving change in the sales department, in sales executives’ mindsets. That particular topic really resonated with me. I asked Brian on the show today.

He’s the director of sales training at McKesson. Last count, he is responsible for 1800 sales professionals in terms of keeping them smart and trained. I asked him to come on today to talk about this topic. Brian, welcome to the podcast. I’m so glad that you’re here.

Brian: Marylou, thanks for having me. It’s great to be onboard. Good to talk to you again.

Marylou: Yeah, we both survived the Australian trip.

Brian: It’s quite a flight.

Marylou: It was quite a flight. First question always is, why do we need this? Who cares? Why do we need to change the sales executives? We’re pretty set in our rhythms, in our flow, in our mindset. Why do you think change is so important for the sales executive?

Brian: I think it’s critical these days. The reason I say that is that your customers—I think this is true in every arena where face-to-face selling is taking place—are changing how they buy. The last 20 years of the internet, the amount of information that’s available to the average purchaser out there, and the way buying organizations have changed their stripes means that you have to have change within the sales team. If you’re going to have change within the sales team, then you’ve got to have it at the executive level as well or the change will not take place.

One of the things that I am quick to point out with our executives here is that many of them grew up with the hand-shaking, taking people out for lunch, and that’s how you get a deal done with an organization. That’s no longer the case. Nowadays, the average buying team is actually a team of people who are making a purchasing decision, has between six and seven members of it. If you’re not prepared to change the way you sell in order to get across to those people, you’re not going to close the deal.

Marylou: Very true. We do have a lot of technology now to help us sell better. We also have on the opposite side, buyers who have more at their fingertips, and are able to make some decision before they actually talk to a salesperson now. Whereas before, we were the encyclopedia of what you needed to get done, how it worked, and all the bits and bytes of a product or service. That has changed for sure. You’re right. Some of the industries, McKesson, is for those of you who don’t know, they’re a very large healthcare. How would you describe them, more of a distribution company?

Brian: We are a distributor of healthcare products. Our total revenues last year were north of $200 billion for the year. It’s a big chunk of change. About three quarters of that, more than three quarters of that is big pharma, the hospital systems, big pharmaceutical stuff. My team works with medical-surgical supplies to everybody except the urgent care market. We’re selling to primary care physicians, or surgery centers, or long term care facilities. You probably have seen a box of gloves with McKesson on them as well as other supplies. We distribute all those in very small quantities as need be.

Marylou: In this industry like you said before, you mentioned it was a kind of a good old boy type of network. You would do a lot more face-to-face, take them out to lunch, go golfing, whatever it was. Now, that has morphed into more usage of the internet, and sort of anonymously, and doing a lot of things ahead of time. Can change be taught I guess is the question. I’m sitting here thinking, it sounds really woo-woo to be in if there’s no profit behind this. What are your thoughts there Brian?

Brian: Well, I think it can be taught. I think the first thing you have to do is get the group that you’re working with to understand how critical the change is and making some kind of changes. I typically start with as much data as you can glum together. Sales teams, salespeople in particular are all about, “Show me the money and show me why is this for real.” By glumming data together, coming up with real information that they can sink their teeth into, and then connect it with some things they may have experienced themselves out in the field, you begin to shine the light that they can see, “Hey, there is something over here that I needed to go look at,” so you can move them out of their current paradigm.

My belief is that everybody is in favor of change as long as someone else goes first. You kind of have to set the table for them off to the side and let them believe that there’s a reason to go over there and visit it. My starting point is to always go about dragging up some data that you can find to show people, here is why the change is happening with the people you call on, and here’s why we have to change to move to that as well. There’s a great deal of data right now that says the average buying person, average customer is doing almost 60% of their investigations before they ever talk to a salesperson, thanks to the web. If you don’t get there by the time the customer is ready to start talking to you, you’re going to be way behind the curve compared to other people.

Marylou: You mentioned something a little while ago where you say you start with the data, which is speaking my language, I love that, but somehow you said, “And then I connect it with real life experiences, or experiences that they are witnessing out in the field.” How the heck do you do that?

Brian: The comment I made about buying teams is kind of the starting point. If you say to them things like, “Our customers are doing X amount of their investigation into what their next purchase is going to be online,” before you ever get a chance to talk them, in many cases they’ll say, “Well sure, but they’re looking at our website.” Yeah and everybody else is. The next piece of that is, I know for a fact that the average buying team has between six and seven people in a large organization which is what a lot of our senior sales executives are selling into.

I’ll just ask them a question, I’ll say, “At your last deal that you closed with health system A, tell me about how many people there were in the room for the presentation,” and just get them to serve up that in the past, “Oh, you’re right. We had six people we had to present to, and there was also a hang-around group of another dozen who were taking notes at the back.” “Okay, when did that change for you?” “Well, it’s a pretty recent thing.” “Exactly, and that’s because of…” and I can start into how the customers have changed to buying groups, and by connecting it to something they have already experienced, they have to go, “Yeah, you’re right. It is happening like that.” It adds credibility to what I’m presenting to them. It also helps them understand, “Holy cow, I have to make that change.”

Marylou: Okay. One of the issues that I’m seeing out there in the world is, perhaps if you are sitting on quota and you are in a company that, whether it’s market share or product share, we want growth, that there is a complacency for the longer tenured you are, that I’ve always said it this way, it works this way, why should I change? Are you discovering that tenure has an impact on whether or not they’re going to engage in this change, or is it across the board? As long as you can show the connection between what they’re doing now and what the outcome will be if they don’t change, does it matter the demographics of the sales or the tenure of the sales executive?

Brian: I don’t have any data to support this. I’m going to go with my gut. My gut tells me that it’s less about tenure and more about success. If you have been a successful salesperson for a period of time, you have a certain amount of income, you’re enjoying, and lifestyle, and everything, it is difficult to talk yourself into doing something differently when you’ve had that success.

If you have been the kind of person who’s become successful by embracing the changes that have taken place in the market, you’re going to jump on that. Making the change is easy for you, but if you’ve done it as most salespeople have through doing the same things for a long period of time, that’s what will stick you to keep inertia in play, so then you can’t make the change and get out of your current state of things. I have seen that in as short a time span as maybe even four or five years.

Our average salesperson here in the group that my team trains is close to 20 years. When you’ve got that kind of tenure, they’re less interested in making a change unless you can make it easier for them to do so, or you give them a reason to do so. A change in compensation for example.

Marylou: That’s a good question and coming up follow onto that is changing in compensation as a driver for change. Are there other tools in your toolbox that you use as a trainer to get your students to activate what you’re teaching and actually apply what you’re teaching?

Brian: It almost always goes back to whatever the motivating factor is for the person or the group that we’ve got in front of us. We have a number of different compensation programs here. A large percentage of it is at risk, i.e., full commission. It is very easy to get changes from them by changing the commission program, or showing them an easier way to take advantage of the current commission program. With folks who have less of their income at risk, I find that they are more likely to be willing to change simply because they have less skin in the game as it were.

Now, do we have things other than compensation to do that? Yeah. We have sales leader leverage, sales managers can apply pressure, motivation, whatever you want to call it, but I find as a trainer and my training team finds it as using our known sales techniques to help us with it. I’ve said any number of times that I have sold for the better part of 40 years. I sell harder nowadays than I ever did when I was carrying a bag simply because I’m selling ideas and changes to behavior. That takes a lot more selling to sell a product or service.

Marylou: It definitely is daunting and overwhelming for someone like me.

Brian: Right. Good salespeople, I think you’ll agree, will fall for a good salesperson. I’m a little bit of a sucker when I’ve got a good salesperson in front of me. It’s fortunate that it’s a small percentage of the selling population that are that great, but when I’ve got a good one in front of me, they will take me down. No question about that.

Marylou: It’s interesting because I rely so much on process in my world and love process because process is black and white in so many ways. Sure, there’s a few shades of gray, but in what you’re talking about mindset and skill set, is just so gray. How do you decide when you’re working with a team, what you’re going to pull out of your rabbit’s hat in order to get them to lean into you and say, “Oh my gosh. This guy really has an important point here that I am going to take a note.” It just seems like this is so art form-ish rather science based. Tell us what a typical scenario is for you to take in a group of people. I can see that I’m almost with hands on hips coming in there saying, “All right, show me.” What do you do in that situation?

Brian: That’s actually my favorite training scenario. I call it training without a net. First of all, you have to do your homework. It may look as if I’m walking in and doing this off the top of my head. The fact of the matter is, the preparation that I put into play before I’ve ever done this is pretty serious. We spent a great deal of time when we’re designing a workshop, particularly one that’s focused on the selling skills, and the selling behaviors, and having to change those.

We spend a great deal of time understanding who our constituents are, what their motivation is for remaining where they are, what their motivation could be for moving to where we think we need to get them to. Understanding which of the behaviors that currently exist we need to either amplify, or mute, or adapt from what they’re currently doing, and then we work through a series of skills and exercises that will move them from point A to point B.

The only way to get it to stick is to ensure that they get an opportunity. Once they’ve bought into, “Hey, I’m going to make this change. I’m going to buckle down and try this,” we make sure that we give them plenty of opportunities to practice it before they’re face-to-face with the customer. One of the things I’ve said over the years is that, nowadays, the average person learns to drive a car that does not have a stick shift. It’s an automatic transmission. I learned how to drive a stick shift, a straight stick when I was about 16 or 17. I almost broke my poor father’s neck from learning how to drive it because it often bump over the parking lot, but I eventually learned how to drive it.

If you took the average salesperson today who drives from appointment to appointment, most of us drive a car in what I refer to as an unconsciously competent manner. We’re not really thinking about it. You just get in and drive. Eventually, you’ll get to your place. How many times have you gotten somewhere and said, “I don’t remember going through that intersection,” and yet you did because your brain having driven thousands of hours, and thousands of miles, your brain doesn’t require you to be really paying attention all that hard. Suddenly, having never driven a stick shift, somebody throws you the keys to a straight stick and says, “Here, drive this.” And now you have an extra pedal, and you have a gear shift sticking up out of the floor, and you’re supposed to coordinate extra limbs, and body parts to make the car move forward.

You go from being unconsciously competent, to consciously incompetent. That is very uncomfortable, because you used to be really good at this. Given a couple of hours of practice, you can get to where you can actually drive the straight stick, but you have to think about it the whole time. That same thing is true when I’m teaching a group of salespeople a new selling behavior or a new selling skill. They’ve got to have an opportunity to practice a little bit or they will immediately default back to the first time they’ve got a customer in front of them that’s doing not what they expect. They’re going to default back to the automatic transmission and stop thinking about it.

Marylou: When you’re teaching a new concept like this where it’s obviously a change in behavior, you do a little bit of repetition in the classroom setting, what types of follow-up processes do you and your team institute so that it moves from that repetitive do-the-role-playing class, to becoming actual disciplined, routine, and then finally have it?

Brian: We’ve got a bunch of refreshers that we throw out there, or fresheners. We utilize salesforce.com, that’s our CRM of record, and we have the ability to connect with a lot of our reps and students through that. We’ll use chatter as a function, we’ll use email as a function, we’ll pop a 45-second audio clip, offline chatter, or drop it into people’s inbox in their email as a reminder to do X, Y, and Z.

It’s going to be up to the participants to go, “Oh yeah, I promised I was going to do that. I’ve made a commitment to myself that I’m going to make these changes,” and I don’t have sales managers walking around with the account managers all the time, so it’s not like they can watch them in action. But by giving those refreshers out there, that can have a lot of value for the reps. We also are quick to grab success stories from the folks out in the field, and when we get a success story, we’ll pass that along as a reminder, “Hey, Charlie’s doing this and it’s really working for him,” as a way to help cement that desire to keep making the changes and make them permanent.

Marylou: I like the idea of the success stories. I’m actually experiencing with a client of mine, a little resistance from the outside folks to share those success stories. It’s not like they want to keep them to themselves, but they say, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time to do this.” What is the mechanism by which they share a success story? There are forms that people fill out? Do they just leave a voicemail saying, “Hey, I had this great thing,” and then you guys put it into a nice format that everybody can use? What’s the typical scenario for that reporting back in?

Brian: It’s a couple of things. First of all, we have access to sales data which we can see spikes that people have suddenly hit upon when something different has happened, so we can do a quick follow-up with a phone call. In many cases, the reps have windshield time that enables them to pick up the phone and give us a call, and we build some pretty decent relationships. My trainers and I do with our sales folks. They’re encouraged to call us, to talk about things, to run stuff by us, to call and complain that something didn’t work, we’ll be glad to act as kind of like a bullpen coach to help you out when you’re stuck with something.

We use those times to dredge those things up. We also utilize our sales management squad for that. Our sales managers stay pretty connected to their sales teams despite a very broad, what I consider to be almost an overly broad span of control, but the sales managers being keyed into it and having an opportunity to brag on their team, or someone on their team who’s performing well or doing something different that’s working, also gives us a fairly rich vein to pull from.

Marylou: I’m curious because I do some work in the startup community, tech community. It’s kind of sink or swim for us out there without very coordinated training effort. Why did they decide to do this? You have eight trainers that of course, you have a zillion salespeople. What was it that McKesson, or you decided, “You know what? We’re investing this amount of time in our sales professionals and continue to do so, not one-off training, not hiring a consultant to come in, do a 30-minute blurb, and then leave.” What was the cultural motivation to have a formalized training for sales professionals at McKesson?

Brian: That’s a great question. I think there’s a couple of things driving this. The first is that, a good bit of our growth has not been organic, it’s been through mergers and acquisitions. Just in my eight-and-a-half years, we have more than doubled the size of the sales team and the markets that we enter through those mergers and acquisitions. In order for us to be as lean and as low cost to providers as we can, we have to have everybody on the same platforms. My team is responsible for all that integration training with the various platforms and technologies that we use.

I think the second piece of it is that, we have a reputation among our customers, and among frankly our peers in the industry of immense credibility with our customer. We have customers that have been customers of ours for a couple of decades and that impressive stat is driven by a couple of things. One is the quality of the services that we deliver, and two is the credibility and skills of the sales teams.

There’s a lot of data that indicates that what causes customers to buy more from a current provider, a current supplier, is that the salesperson focuses on what’s good for their customers’ business as opposed to their own business. That kind of credibility doesn’t come lightly. I believe in order to maintain that level of credibility across a broad organization as well as to the integration training, I’ve been given a much larger team than you would typically see in a sales training organization. I think McKesson’s belief is that, when it comes right down to it, we are a sales organization and if we didn’t put that kind of an investment into our sales teams, what would we be saying?

Marylou: Before we part ways, I’m going to ask you and you can say, “You know what? Maybe not, Marylou,” but I’m curious. I’m sitting here listening to this, I am a person at a smaller company, we don’t have a formalized training process, it’s […] like I said, we role player once in a while. What would be the top most recommendation for a person considering to take that leap and push for a more formalized training program for their sales executives at their firm?

Brian: That’s a tough one.

Marylou: That’s why I said you could say, “Another topic for another day, Marylou.”

Brian: That’s almost a solo topic. I’ll try and do it in 100 words or less. I think that if you have more than a dozen salespeople, you could probably build your own sales training program, maybe get somebody to help you with it. But I think there’s great value on being well-read in the various sales models that are out there, Sandler, SPIN Selling, The Challenger Sales Model, et cetera. Being well-read in all those, understanding your customer intimately, having carried a bag, and been out there in the trenches with your sales team, I think you can probably pull from those various models and build one of your own.

Part of doing that the first time, and the reason I’m saying this is because this is the way I did it here, is that you’ve got to have cred with the folks who are already doing the job. If you come in and tell them, “We’re going to do some completely different unlike anything you’ve ever done before. We’re going to call it this, this, and this,” you’re going to start waist-deep in a hole with a very hard way to get out of it.

You almost have to build it and have them feeling like they had a hand in its construction. I’m a firm believer that people support what they’ve also helped to create so you ought to let them. I think that’s the key to making one of these things work particularly in a smaller organization. I wouldn’t say you take your best salesperson to do it because they often are superstars and naturals, and don’t have a clue how they do that.

Marylou: Right. They’re more outliers or just innate ability that you can’t clone.

Brian: Exactly, nor should we try. Nobody else can do what they do generally.

Marylou: We all know who they are.

Brian: We do and they know who they are. But if you take somebody who’s thoughtful, had some cerebral thought behind how you have to do this to be successful, I think just about anybody could put together some kind of a sales training program that would have a positive impact. Sales is not generally a spectator sport and turning it into a spectator sport, shining a light on the skills that you need to make it happen, will make anybody better at it. I would say just go ahead and start swinging.

Marylou: Exactly. For those of you who have separated roles like Brian was telling me before we got on the call, that they just folded in their small, he called it, inside sales team of 200 people. There’s perhaps a […] in of the actual sales roles as you start to build these programs. The other thing we’ve heard from Brian is repetition is important, it’s not a set it and forget it, it’s a constantly evolving thing, and you’re also constantly bringing them back into fold for refresher, health check, or whatever it is called, so that they continue along that continuum of training. The success to mastery is repetition, routine, and eventually it becomes habit. That’s essentially what you’ve been able to pull together at McKesson. I’m very just enamored with what you’ve done over there. It’s just amazing that with that many people, you can keep the rank and file all move in the right direction to close one, so to speak, in the pipeline. That’s great.

Brian: Thank you. I appreciate that. I’m blessed with a lot of really, really good people in my team and folks at the leadership level who were willing to listen. They’re not always willing to agree, but they’re always willing to listen.

Marylou: Yeah, you have that support, the leadership support which is great. Brian, people are going to want to connect with you, figure out, “Okay, who is this person. How do I find him.” LinkedIn, is that the best way for us to connect with you?

Brian: Absolutely. I’m on LinkedIn, and by all means, connect with me. I’d be glad to chat with you.

Marylou: Great. Thanks again for you time. I very much appreciate it. I’ll put all your contact information on the podcast page for those of you who are like, “How many Brian Kellers are there?” Don’t worry, I will make sure that we link an address on the page. Again, thanks so much for being a guest on the show today.

Brian: Thanks for inviting me Marylou, I enjoyed it.