Episode 72: Prospecting as a Function of Sales – Patrick Rodgers

Predictable Prospecting
Episode 72: Prospecting as a Function of Sales - Patrick Rodgers
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Without prospects, there will be no sales. Yet, companies can struggle with incorporating prospecting into the sales process and getting people to balance the time spent prospecting compared with the all important task of closing the deal. This issue can be especially prevalent with leaner bootstrapped companies. Today, we will learn about an innovative method of solving this problem and attracting new sales talent.  

Today, I speak with Patrick Rodgers who is VP of Sales at LearnCore a leading sales training and coaching platform that combines technology with people for optimum results. Patrick is leading and building the sales organization for this bootstrapped company. We talk about the idea of prospecting as a sales function and some of the challenges when expecting AEs to close and prospect.

Episode Highlights:

  • Challenges of scaling a bootstrapped company
  • Difficulty of finding AEs who would go through the entire sales cycle
  • Starting a 9 – 12 month sales training focused on prospecting
  • Learning the process from start to finish they became top producers
  • The program allowed growth acceleration and attracted talent
  • Getting a perspective from different sales representatives
  • Sales roles in the sales funnel process
  • Shadowing into different areas and hitting sales goals
  • Opening doors for the team and making it an easier path
  • Challenges getting AEs to value the meetings set up by SDRs
  • Having a blueprint for AEs so that SDRs and AEs work together
  • Moving from sheer will to habit when changing roles
  • Breaking down the training perspective into a career path


Episode Transcript:

Marylou: Hey everyone, it’s Marylou Tyler. Today’s guest is the VP of Sales at Learncore. His formal on his LinkedIn is Patrick Rodgers. Do you like to be called Pat or Patrick?

Patrick: Pat is usually what comes out but I tell everybody whatever you can actually remember is probably the best.

Marylou: Okay. We’ll go a little formal introducing him as Patrick today. Patrick Rogers is with us. Again, he’s the VP of Sales at Learncore. He’ll tell you more about what Learncore does. He’s also involved with the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals. We may touch on that a little bit because for those of you in the Chicago area who are listening to this, you may want to ping Patrick about that chapter. There’s a lot going on there. Just wanted to throw that out there. Welcome to the podcast, Patrick.

Patrick: Thank you very much for having me.

Marylou: You are the VP of sales at Learncore. We talked a little bit before this. You have definitely embraced the idea of prospecting as a function of sales. Tell us exactly where you are in your journey of blending, prospecting, selling, servicing into your types of roles that you offer at Learncore and also what you’ve learned along the way and maybe there are some things that you’re doing now where you started down a path and then said, “You know what, this is just not working for us,” and then pivoted.

                    We’d like to hear about not only the perfect situation of what you’ve established now but some of the bumps and bruises along the way of you getting to where you are right now.

Patrick: Absolutely. Probably the best place to start is just mentioning that we’re a bootstrapped company and that presents a number of challenges as you scale. One of those being headcount and how many folks are we putting on just prospecting versus actually closing. I think that a big challenge that we all face is what roles are we actually asking a salesperson to do in terms of the overall process.

That piece became a challenge as we add additional AEs that may or may not want to be prospecting. There’s always the time allocation piece and so, early on, having them do both roles worked for a while but once you get a certain level of deals under your belt and your pipeline grows, the time is always going to lead to closing deals as opposed to finding new ones.

                    Our big challenge in that sense was figuring out a way to make SDRs, business development reps, whatever you call them in your organization, less of a claw center and more of a potential scale driver as we grew the company.

Marylou: Okay. Give us a sense of the sales cycles that you’re dealing with on average. I know there’s probably segmentation going on in your company as with most companies in the products and services timelines but give a sense of the average deal size range and also perhaps that average deal size that we’re talking about as we walk through what you’re doing now with your prospecting folks.

Patrick: Absolutely. We’re looking at somewhere on the length of time, somewhere between 50 to 60 days in a lot of cases is our average as well as then the size of the deal is somewhere between the 25 to 30 range on average and that’s across what we consider SMB in our mid market teams. From there, you see the variation across the board. We have very, very large clients that may take up to a year and we haves some that have used us before, call in and they’re ready to go in 10 days. The variation is always an interesting challenge to face as well when planning but on average, it’s called $25,000 per deal in about a 50-day sales cycle.

Marylou: Okay, great. Based on that, walk us through how you decided to end up where you are today knowing that we’re always pivoting, we’re always testing, we’re always iterating, but you’ve obviously found a formula that’s working for you, your organization, and your team. Let’s start at where you were, what you’ve been doing, and how you came out the other side of setting up your teams.

Patrick: I think where we were was a number of eight years that essentially, when we close a number of dollars, we are able to add head count. The challenge that we faced then was what kind of head count was that and we wanted to be AEs but finding good AEs that one, are willing to go in the end of the sales cycle where they’re actually doing their own prospecting all the way to closing that deal and in our case being able to demonstrate software. Those were few and far between here in Chicago that we were finding that were willing to come to a smaller company and actually lead that sales cycle in the end.

                    What we decided to do was build a career path that was bringing in folks that may not be from a software background as well as those straight out of school and setting it up where what they were going to be doing for the first 9 to 12 months was that prospecting piece but throughout that entire journey, they’re going to be sitting in on the discovery calls that they set. They’re going to be understanding and sitting in our strategy discussions about the deals so that when they come out the other side of that 9 to 12 month program, they not only have been prospecting and setting meetings and know how to hunt but they also learned how we do things at Learncore. They’ve learned them the way that we’d like them to do that from start to finish.

        What we’ve seen out of that is they end up being some of our top producers very, very quickly because they’ve had that time to acclimate not just hunting but also how to drive the process, how to close deals, how to understand, how to uncover needs and pain points, and thus become very, very strong reps right away who are hunting for their own deals because that’s what they’re used to.

That’s been the big journey in setting up that program. It has not only allowed us to accelerate what we’re doing from a gross standpoint, but also attract talent who doesn’t want to wait in line for either two to three years. You may need to wait for a big company to be out there in owning your own accounts.

Marylou: I come in, I’m a prospecting role. Am I assigned an Account Executive that I work with or am I getting the love from all the different Account Executives that I’m setting appointments and things for? How did that work? Are you pairing people up, or potting people up, or are you spreading the love around the entire teams?

Patrick: When you initially come in, you are paired to a geographic market. Currently, you’ve got two reps within that geographic market that you’re working with, one from the SMB team and one from the mid market team. You do get a collaboration of perspectives from those two reps. And then as we continue to grow, that usually rotates some of those SDRs around every few months and thus, they get to see another perspective from another rep.

                    We try to not do it too often so that they know their market, they know their messaging, but we also want to make sure that they get that perspective from different reps because that’s really what’s going to make them much better sellers to build their own path and be able to see how others are doing it.

Marylou: When you’re walking in from a funnel perspective and we’re looking at relative position in the pipeline, I’m coming in a prospecting role. Am I trying to get all the way through to setting up the appointment with the Account Executive and then attending those meetings or am I also trying to train to do demos or anything like that? What’s the d-mark that you see with these different roles?

Patrick: What we’ve done is to actually set up a path where within the first three months, your entire goal is to get meetings set with your Account Executive. You are sitting there on those meetings, learning from them and really just focusing on that discovery aspect of the process. Once you get past that, assuming you’re achieving your goals, which we have set at 13 to 15 meeting a month that are held by those SDRs, in those cases, when they start to hit those goals, then they have the ability to sit on the actual demo process as well.

                    They start to be a shadow through the process because if they’re hitting their goals, we can then assume that we can give a little bit more time to training because they are able to handle both things. Once they start to get through that process, then they’re seeing it end to end, and after six months, then we start actually training them on how to demo behind the scenes. We were able to actually use Learncore to do a lot of that which helps out in terms of the time management perspective. But it is all about continuously increasing their knowledge and their ability to lead that process before they actually have to.

Marylou: I love this idea of shadowing. I also love what you said about the fact that they’ve got to hit goal, which by definition, frees up time if there’s time left to do other activities and to increase their knowledge and to shadow into different areas. You’ve been doing this for some time. Can you budget in your timeline pretty easily now you know it’s going to take x number of months for someone to get up to speed on their average and then move them through that assembly line or is it based on the person who you hire?

Patrick: I would say it probably always comes down to the person you hire in terms of the range because we’re looking at your nine months if you’re a person that’s a rock star and picks it up quickly. And we’re probably looking at 12 months if it takes you a little bit more time. I think the number one piece of all that is business acumen and their ability to understand why questions are being asked and what questions to ask throughout the process and align that to value. But at the end of the day, we know what it’s going to take to get them from point A to point B.

The beautiful thing is that when I’m hiring an AE from the outside, we’re looking at three months to first sale, six months to full quota attainment with one of these individuals that’s moving from an SDR position into an AE position, and looking at 30 days to first deal and potentially 60 days to 90 days to full quota, which is a significant improvement. It proves out why we’re able to invest more heavily in SDRs if we know that they’re ultimately going to scale the business faster.

Marylou: Plus, I would think, coming in as a sales person, there is still a psychological thing going on about this is a junior role if I’m an SDR. I know that those of you out there listening, who are like me, eternal SDRs because I love that top of the funnel, I love starting conversations with people we don’t know, and then my eyes glaze over when it gets to opportunity to close. But there are many people who come into a company and they’re looking for that upward path. They’re looking to grow. They’re looking to try other things within the company to see where they fit best.

                    What happens in the case of an SDR who says, “You know, I’m liking my gig here. Can I stay here? Is there an unwritten rule that no, when you come into this role, we really want to move you?

Patrick: No. I would say those individuals, gosh, if I can find more of them, that’s fantastic because at the end of the day, the life blood of the organization is going to be those new opportunities, those new prospects, and bringing those into the funnel. Now, in those cases, absolutely, they can stay as we can see the growth since we are a small company and we can make adjustments quickly, they have opportunities to be team lead, they have opportunities to be managers over the SDR team.

                    One thing we talk about is if you are going to be a manager here, you’re going to still be doing the activities and actions that other are going to be doing. Not taking it all the way to a player coach rule, but in order to coach, you got to know what’s going on in the market and stay up to speed on that. Definitely, they have that opportunity. Shawn Shepard was here talking to our team a little bit ago and mentioned that he’s the founder of his company but said he promoted himself to SDR. I love that.

Our job as head of sales and team lead is to open the door for our team, make this an easier path. Anybody that loved that role and can stay in it, absolutely stay in it.

Marylou: The other thing I like about this, I know these are very soft the metrics but just being out there in a field working with clients, I’m sure your handoff percentages from a sales qualified lead to an accepted lead by the outside teams are probably way high as opposed to some of the things I see when I’m running around with clients and that is the lead quality. There’s this constant battle and that handoff is the toughest part. Things like that probably don’t even exist or they’re very small issues in nature because of this model that you’ve implemented. Is that a good assumption?

Patrick: I would say at this point, yes. Initially, not as much. There was a big change we had to make. AEs, when they’ve been doing it themselves, now somebody else is bringing them leads, they don’t always cherish them as much. I think that’s going to be true across the board and thus, we’re preparing as well for those conversations.

                    And so, an adjustment we made is that there is a requirement if an SDR sets you a meeting, you two together have a pre call prep session 15 minutes before the call. You go through what that SDR uncovered to actually set the meeting, the conversation that happened. The AE brings any research that they did to the table so that going into that conversation, they’re on the same page and you don’t have an awkward handoff.

I think that’s very, very important, is to make sure that that handoff, even if you get them on the phone and it’s going well, that there shouldn’t be any awkwardness in that call. It should be smooth for the buyer and you shouldn’t have to restate a lot of things. That pre call prep change that we made has definitely increased our ability to convert faster and ensure that those are converting to actual opportunities.

Marylou: That’s great. We have implemented what we call a one sheet which is from the entertainment industry, which is to really put all the main points and there’s like five buckets, I think, most of my clients use, of being able to encapsulate from the SDRs point of view, where things are in the project, the major stakeholders, the pain points, or challenges, or initiatives that they indicated on their calls so that the Account Executive almost got a small little blue print of where to drive the conversation so that they feel good about creating the opportunity.

                    We also created one for those opportunities that the timing parameter was a little bit outside the AE’s comfort zone but yet they were a qualified opt. What that does is it gives the SDR and the AE a blueprint plan to follow. The SDR stays involved but not as much because of the fact that it’s a longer sales cycle. It doesn’t just get dumped in the AE’s lap.

They work together on a plan of how they’re going to bring that timeline in or stay involved because the SDR has more of that habit of follow up embedded in their psyche and their DNA. They help the AEs in terms of the follow up pieces on those longer accounts. But it all starts with that one sheet of okay, how are we going to go after this thing together?

Patrick: Right. Absolutely. One thing we’ve done there too is SDRs get a percentage of the deal if it closes. When we have team meetings, I push my SDRs early on to stay on their AEs. Apply a little pressure, “Hey, I handed you this gift basket. When is mine coming in?” That definitely helps to build not just that motivation but also a lot of camaraderie where they actually feel like they’re in the trenches together, which I think has been, in my experience, one of the things that is missed in that connection between the SDRs and the AEs.

Marylou: Yeah, definitely. I want to be respectful of our listeners’ time but I have to ask the behavioral aspect of an SDR versus an AE is something that I hit home a lot about and write a lot about. It’s this concept of moving from sheer will to habit. We pass through desire, we pass through determination, we pass through drive and we end up with the habitual way of selling that is successful for the SDR.

What happens to them when they move into that Account Executive role? Are you seeing that same sort of diligent daily consistent workflow coming out of them when they move into these roles or do they slack off a bit? What are you seeing?

Patrick: So far, what we’ve been seeing is that they’re bringing that and more because once that’s ingrained, you shouldn’t say you’ve got a sales DNA unless you’ve been an SDR because that’s where it’s imprinted on you. That’s the time where those general skills you’re learning not just from rejection handling to being perseverant and continuing to grind and have that ability to do time management to achieve those goals flows through. In a lot of cases, I’m now motivated even more so because I’m not handing these off and getting a small percentage. I’m owning this from start to finish.

That’s been interesting to see because now, I’m even more motivated and there’s not usually a slow down there because now, these are my deals. That’s been really helpful. In terms of that habit, in a lot of cases, we should make every step of the sale process a habit. By picking the habitual nature of being an SDR and applying that to every step of the sales process, they then become a machine. That’s really the big thing that we’ve seen. It’s the ability to replicate that over time.

Marylou: I try not to use that word machine but that’s really what it is. It’s really just getting up in the morning and you have a routine. You have a dance, you have a rhythm that you do everyday. We learn that and we become that in that SDR role. I’d like to think it’s because we’re working so many records that we really need to have that discipline but also discipline is not enough. We need to actually bring it all the way up to habits.

I’m happy to hear that those ingrained brain patterns are still moving through because that’s another area that I see that it’s sometimes difficult moving from that role, is that you get lazy again and we don’t want them to do that. We really want them to take the best of the best of what they ended up becoming habit in the SDR role and taking that with them as they move into the Account Executive roles knowing that we’re moving from a dating environment, so to speak, to an actual getting engaged and married environment. We’re not going to be working with as many people but it’s still that drive, that discipline, that habit still has to be there for that follow up.

                    Have you seen also, and I don’t want to feed you this, but have you seen a reduction in the lag in the pipeline by doing this type of stepping stone model?

Patrick: I would say so. I think the biggest thing is that we can now be more predictable about our headcount. At the end of the day, as I’m looking at what does the pipeline look like, what’s our ultimate goal, we can be more predictable and knowing that if I move somebody from that role up into the AE role, that that timeline is going to be something we know and much different than bringing somebody in from the outside. That’s definitely a big piece of being able to make that something that we can expect as opposed to hope for.

Marylou: That’s so funny you say that. I was at a conference just recently where a gentleman got up, shared his numbers and metrics. They had it down to how many records they need to feed in at the top of funnel in order to generate the revenue that they’re looking for. It just felt so easy, so soft, so wonderful.

It sounds like you’re getting into that rhythm where you really know what you need to do to generate revenue from the standpoint of the pipeline. Sometimes, you can’t guess what’s going to happen at the industry or other factors that you have no control over. But the ones you have control over, it sounds like you’re definitely on your way to being able to create a model that’s predictable in nature.

Patrick: Absolutely. That’s the ultimate goal. I don’t know if any of us will ever have that silver bullet or else we wouldn’t be in sales anymore but constant innovation will help us get there but definitely for a few of the roles and targets we have, we can be very specific about how we get there.

Marylou: Wonderful. Let’s help someone who’s listening to this call and says, “Wow. I kind of want to try this but where do I begin?” What would you recommend for someone who’s thinking along these lines, that this is something they’d like to give a shot, put into place? How did you begin?

Patrick: The best way to begin is looking at what does it take from your training perspective for a new AE to get them to where you need them to be and then breaking that down into essentially a career path and saying that, “Okay, over the time that I have this individual in this role, here are the steps that they’re going to need to learn and how do I include them in a way that it is incremental but consistent in order to ingrain some of those habits, get some of those questions out early so that I’m not having to invest a ton of time upfront to train a brand new AE. I can do it over time while still driving that overall SDR production.

                    I think you have to start with your sales process, understand what they’re going to need to learn along the way and then outline those steps along with the timeline you want them in that role.

Marylou: Okay, but it starts with the Account Executive role itself, not the SDR role, correct? Is that what I heard you say?

Patrick: Absolutely. We need to know exactly what an AE is going to need to be successful, map that out, and then take that basically map and align it to the timeline you have with your SDRs and implement those trainings along the way.

Marylou: Okay, very good. Last question I have for you is in terms of tracking. It’s more of once again, at the SDR level, we are a lot more savvy about how important it is to track meaningful conversations. Since you’ve got them now habitually having more conversations that are meaningful in nature, are they also carrying their good tracking skill as they move through to the AE role in order to be able to feedback the sales conversations that they’re having for marketing, or product development, or whatever it is? Do you see that that compliance is still coming through as well in the AE role when they move?

Patrick: I would say for the most part, I think the biggest area that we’re going to continue to improve upon is once they get to the backend of the cycle, we end up having a lot of conversations, negotiations, IP checks, you name it. Knowing how to monitor and drive those aspects from both the compliance, am I asking the right questions? Am I tracking that information?

That piece is one where we’re going to continue to work on because there’s parts of the SDR role that are detail oriented, but as far as the conversation and data points, that’s the piece that is probably the biggest hurdle, is getting them to understand, hey, there’s a lot more here that you need to juggle and be sure that you’re tracking it and asking those questions early and often. That’s probably the biggest area that we’re going to continue to work on, to make sure that they have that compliance throughout the process.

Marylou: Wonderful. And there are tool now that I’m seeing popping up that are helping with that follow up process so there’s less reliance on manual data entry and allowing technology to help us, what I would call wrap up a conversation so that we can take the intelligence of that conversation and feed it back within the organization for marketing purposes, for better sales conversations, to shorten the pipeline lag, etc. etc.

                    Patrick, how can people get a hold of you if they want to learn more about what you’ve done at your company?

Patrick: Learncore Online, you can definitely hit me up at that direction. LinkedIn, I’ve got it constantly up. And then if you want to hit me up on Twitter, it’s @p_rodge. Happy to connect with everybody on the process and how we’re able to streamline that as well.

Marylou: Okay, great, I’ll put all this in the show notes, everyone. You’ll have all of his contact information. I do recommend that you have a conversation here because we know we’ve talked about a lot of different ways of setting up a sales organization and not all the rules work the way the books that I’ve written and collaborated on, are saying. There are different strokes for different folks, so to speak.

I think a lot what I’m seeing and what we’re learning is that we have to look at these different models and then apply it to our culture in our company to see if this model will work but these numbers sound great, of shortening the timeline to get someone up to speed so they could start generating revenue. It feels like it’s a really great model to at least explore in more depth.

Thank you so much for your time today. I very much appreciate you sharing your setup and learning more about how you generate revenue for your company.

Patrick: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. Great time.