[Interview] How do you restore your salespeople’s appetite for generating leads?


We catch up with Nicolas Caron to mark the publication of Lève-toi et prospecte ! (Get out and generate leads!)

– a book that puts generating leads center stage of the sales profession and which gives salespeople (back) the desire to win new customers. When all companies are trying to bounce back against the backdrop of a health crisis that is turning the economic situation on its head, to say this is a topical issue is putting it mildly!

>> Nicolas Caron co-founded Halifax Consulting, one of France’s leading sales training companies, and led it for 17 years. The author of numerous books, he now spends his time writing and moderating conferences for sales personnel.

Why this new book? And why lead generation?

Nicolas Caron – The first real reason is that I was absolutely delighted with the reception given to my previous book,  Lève-toi et vends (Get-up and sell!) All my other books have been well received, but never like that one: every day for the past three years I have received messages from people thanking me. It is a tremendous pleasure and motivated me to repeat the experience.

I hit on the topic of generating leads: in a 30-year career I have seen thousands of salespeople and generating leads is what worries and stresses them the most. Many of them will go to any lengths to avoid this part of their job when it should be the most exhilarating: you wear your company’s jersey, you bring in new customers, it’s brilliant! It’s like being the center forward in football, the one who scores the goals. But no, people find it complicated and tie themselves in mental knots instead of taking action.

As there are very few books on the subject, and especially very few books that make people want to generate leads, I told myself that this was a good challenge to accept: giving salespeople the keys to rekindling their enthusiasm and dedicating part of their time – a significant and no longer secondary part – to generating leads, which should be their number 1 preoccupation.

One of the first pieces of advice you give in Lève-toi et prospecte is “Forget your lead generation targets”. That risks not being at all to the liking of sales managers/directors…

It would be good if it gave them a jolt and they took on board a saying I repeat everywhere I go: when it comes to sales, you can’t control the result. Even excellence does not guarantee the result. If the customer decides to say no, he will say no, even if the salesperson was excellent.

By chasing this thing they don’t control – the customer’s agreement or otherwise – salespeople get themselves all wound up, which either makes them aggressive, for fear of losing a sale, or makes them sales supplicants. These are not the most likely attitudes to enthuse and inspire confidence in a customer or future customer. But this is what it is all about.

But if you can’t control the result, what you can control is the journey. The point of my advice is to concentrate on the journey and not on the results. It’s the same in sport: you don’t achieve the best results by focusing on the result. On the contrary. It is the people who detach themselves completely from the results but who work relentlessly on their technique who achieve the results. So, throughout the book, I explain how, by executing simple actions every day, any salesperson can create and constantly nurture what I call his personal “DistiLead©”.

I tell salespeople, “don’t focus on the signings you’re going to land this month. Tell yourself instead that it would be good to have at least 2 or 3 new initial contacts per week”. If you do that every week, it inevitably creates a mechanism. This boils down to setting yourself targets in terms of means, not ends, and, from experience, I can tell you that that pays dividends.

Returning to the sales manager, it seems to me entirely legitimate that he checks the quality of the means deployed by his salespeople. Just as I have never criticized a salesperson for having lost a deal when he had done his utmost, I will never criticize a manager for monitoring his salespeople’s activity indicators. They are there to generate business, it is normal to expect a certain call and appointment frequency of them… There are activity criteria in this business, and they need to be complied with.

In many organizations, the salespeople are fed by dedicated lead generation teams. How has this changed the salesperson’s job? Does this release him from any need to generate leads?

Things haven’t changed that much. When I was a young salesman in the 1990s, I worked in a company that sold employee savings plans. At that time, there was no lead generation, no inbound marketing. What did they give us? Response coupons – paper coupons that customers interested in employee savings filled out and posted back to us. It was up to us salespeople to call them and convert them. The second source of leads was trade fairs. It’s still the case today. The third was to advertise. That also holds true. Techniques have changed but the objective of generating leads for the sales teams is not new.

What happened with the contacts that were generated? Pretty much the same as today: the salespeople were really happy to have leads that fell out of the sky like manna from heaven but without hesitating to criticize them when they weren’t bang on target… And the more leads they gave us, the less we felt obliged to generate them…

Even back then there was a distinction between “hunters” and “herders”. For me, a salesperson who doesn’t bring in new customers isn’t a salesperson. He’s a customer service type! Yes, I’m being a bit hard, but I find that sales forces are often overindulged. Everyone says that signing up new customers is the noble part of the profession. It is obviously the most gratifying thing. But you still have to go and find these customers! And to bring in business regularly, not only do you need to take the leads that marketing gives us, but also develop our own network and generate our own contacts. You have to do both, methodically and regularly.

The health crisis has seen video-conferencing take hold. This medium has many advantages for sales forces, but can it replace face-to-face appointments?

Video-conferencing is a tremendous breakthrough. It is an absolutely amazing time saver and when it’s done well, it’s fantastic. But – and I say so in the opening pages of Lève-toi et prospecte, – I am convinced that the best way of doing business, creating a relationship, of “getting a feel for” the person you’re speaking to, is and will remain the face-to-face meeting. It is when you are face-to-face that you can best “listen to what the air is saying”, as they say in Japan.

Now that video-conferencing has gained acceptance, there is an antidote to the “36% syndrome” whereby salespeople rarely spend more than a third of their time really selling, mainly because of travel. Specifically, that means more appointments, more productive time. Nowadays, of necessity, everything is done by video and we need to acknowledge we’re becoming saturated… When we emerge from the crisis, the balance will be restored, but sales organizations will be more vigilant than ever in terms of the profitability of time invested in routes. This will force salespeople to do two things: Being more selective in deciding which customers they are going to see and optimizing their visit routes.

There is going to be a window of opportunity when health restrictions are lifted:the thirst for friendliness, for social interaction, is such that salespeople who offer to visit their leads will differentiate themselves and score points. A sales department that, for accounting reasons, said to its salespeople “now you’re going to do everything by video” would miss this opportunity.

Salespeople often complain that they spend too much time entering data in the CRM and reporting. Is that the reality or a non-issue?

Companies in which salespeople enjoy entering data in their CRM are very rare! I see two reasons for that. The first is that many salespeople consider customers to be their customers and not the company’s, so they don’t put much in the CRM because they don’t like sharing. For me, that’s unacceptable! But, and this is the second reason, salespeople are often asked to put things in the CRM that are not useful for their own sales efficiency and effectiveness. If the CRM is first and foremost a reporting and profitability management tool, then it’s a tool for accountants, not for salespeople!

In other words, if you don’t manage to convince your salespeople to populate the CRM, this is doubtless because they don’t see what this tool does for them. It goes for all tools: you only embrace them and use them if they benefit you. If someone gives me a tool that helps me organise my days, my appointments, my movements in just a few clicks, obviously I’m going to use it!

And because we’re talking about tools and sales lead generation, I invite salespeople to take an interest in email/SMS, video and platforms that provide this service. This is still little-known and, even less so used, in France, unlike in the United States. Instead of sending a conventional email to your lead, you send a link to a small video where you address him personally, facing the camera, – to tell him, for example, that you are leaving one of his company’s agencies and have been given a great reception. You film yourself in front of the agency in question, the logo is readily visible on the thumbnail that appears in the email or the SMS. I don’t know a single company manager who would resist the temptation to watch the video! It’s a nice, effective tool to add to your range of relationship-building tools. 

What would be your 3 pieces of advice to a salesperson starting in a new company? And what 3 pieces of advice would you give his manager?

To the salesperson, I would say:

1/ Get to know the best. If we are talking about generating leads, that means getting to know those who bring in the most new customers. Because there are rarely many of them, they are easy to spot. You need to talk with them, see how you go about things, what they do, what their attitude is. And at the same time, of course, you need to stay away from the whingers!

2/ Thoroughly understand the real benefits of the product you are required to sell. If you make this effort, you will be in a completely different situation when you go generating leads: you won’t be calling your leads to achieve a result, you will be calling them to be of assistance to them, because you are convinced that you can be of assistance to them. And you will convince them!

3/ Beware of social networks and social selling legends! Despite what they say, the best salespeople are not those who are the most prominent on LinkedIn. They are the ones who pick up their phone and make the effort to call. There again, you shouldn’t be black or white. Obviously, you have to be on social networks and make yourself visible. But this will never replace meeting people, calling them, having a genuine discussion with them. I see too many young salespeople wasting a lot of time on networks, just kidding themselves. Before generating leads and sales through this channel, you already need to be well known. This doesn’t happen overnight. And this starts in real life.

To the manager:

1/ Free up your salespeople. You cannot criticize a salesperson for not generating leads if you are asking him to do a thousand other things all day long. Do not bombard them with contradictory instructions. You need to protect your salespeople’s productive time so that they can concentrate to the max on what they’re paid to do.

2/ Raise the level of expectation. Aim for sales excellence. The job of salesperson done in a mediocre manner is really painful and frustrating. One of the manager’s tasks is to encourage excellence, to get his salespeople to understand that this is how they will flourish in this job. Raising the level of expectation is also not placing all the burden of lead generation on the youngest or most recently arrived. This sort of hazing is to be found in many organizations. While this is going on, the older sweats are living off the customers they have had for 5 or 10 years. It is absurd and unfair to give the least experienced what is said to be the hardest task. The manager’s role is also to make lead generation prestigious again. No one should have an easy life: everyone must have targets to achieve.

3/ Play! Constant pressure will not make you perform better. Selling is a game of seduction. You need to learn how to lose. Losing a deal is not a catastrophe. You just have to win more from it than you lose.

I venture to say that the world has become too serious. Selling has become “sad”. This becomes overwhelming. One wants to format salespeople, clone them, and then ask them to make the difference with the customer. Because selling is a game, you have to play, enjoy yourself, celebrate successes, big and small. Fun has never killed anyone, on the contrary!


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