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What’s So Different About Sales in the UK? w/ James Ski {Hey Salespeople Podcast}

The Hey Salespeople podcast hosted by Jeremey Donovan, SalesLoft’s VP of Sales Strategy and self-proclaimed sales nerd,  is going global this week discussing sales in the UK.

Episode five features James Ski, founder of the UK’s top professional organization for salespeople, Sales Confidence. As SalesLoft expands our presence across the pond, we have been studying the ways in which sales in the UK is different than in the US. We thought you might be curious as well, so James and Jeremey sat down to compare and contrast the two approaches in detail.

The two cover everything from GDPR to delivering value on the first call. Don’t miss the (very entertaining) part of the conversation where they determine the right pitch for having milk delivered… in the early 2000s.

What’s So Different About Sales in the UK? Hey Salespeople podcast with James Ski

Listen to this episode for answers questions like:

  • What indicates a well-developed skill in influencing? (Hint: Silent Bob had the right idea.)
  • What’s the ideal talk time on a sales call?
  • Can you actually deliver value on a first cold call?
  • In general, how does social selling work in the UK?
  • What is the right LinkedIn etiquette in the UK?
  • Is it appropriate to talk business on Day 1?
  • What advice does James have for a US company seeking to go to market in the UK?


Partial transcription:

Jeremey: Welcome to the Hey Salespeople Podcast, where we focus on delivering immediately actionable best practices for sales professionals. I’m your host, Jeremey Donovan from SalesLoft.

Today, our guest is James Ski. James is the founder of Sales Confidence. They’re the largest network of SaaS leaders and sales professionals in the UK. Welcome to the show, James.

James: I’m also named Jeremy. Good to be here. Thank you for having me.

Jeremey: I always love to start by delivering immediately on our promise of value to listeners by asking our guests their favorite sales or leadership book and to talk a little bit about what impact it had on you.

James: I had a keen interest in sales from a very young age. So I discovered leadership and sales books about the age of 15-16. Thinking about that question, the book that really stood out for me was How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s very well-structured. It has clear ways of laying out how you should approach influencing and persuading people.

The key thing that stands out for me is genuinely having an interest in somebody, genuinely seeking to understand their needs and care about what they are saying by being a good listener. Typically when you think about sales in an early stage of your life or career, you believe it has a lot to do with talking. It was the first time I really was able to read something and reflect on the importance of listening as a skill.

Jeremey: I wish I had discovered that book back at that age. I was sadly not reading much then. In fact, I didn’t read my first book cover-to-cover until I was 15 years old, believe it or not. It’s so interesting that the most influential people actually are the ones who, in some ways, are doing the least. They’re not talking; they’re just listening.

James: It’s something that I’ve noticed while navigating my sales career. The more senior the individual in the organization or in the meeting, the less they say. I’ve seen it work extremely well.

I had the opportunity to work for a chap called Simon O’Kane, who was Marc Benioff’s first hire outside of the US. It was noticeable how much he would spend time reflecting and listening to the conversation. And then when he did speak, what he delivered would be impactful.

That’s a key difference in someone that’s really developed the skills around influencing and persuading individuals and that book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, talks a lot around that area.

Jeremey: We’re talking about leaders, but it’s also so true for salespeople. I know there’s some great research from Chris Orlob over at Gong. He’s looked at the percentage of talk time versus listen time for salespeople. I think the optimal talk time for a salesperson during a sales call is something like 48% of the call.

I listened in and review so many sales calls or I’m on the receiving end of sales calls where salespeople just dominate the conversation. They don’t realize that if they just asked me questions, I’d be very happy to explain what I’m trying to solve.

James: It’s often hard though. When you’re hitting the phones and someone eventually picks up, you feel like you need to unload your entire sales script without actually pausing. The ability to pause and then ask questions is something that needs to be reinforced in many sales organizations.

Jeremey: Another question for you. It relates to selling in the UK, but what was the first thing you ever remember selling?

James: My first role doing some kind of formal sales was knocking on people’s doors and persuading them to have their milk delivered. Bear in mind, this was in the early 2000s when pretty much everyone picks up their milk from the local supermarket.

Jeremey: The pitch for the milk… I’m trying to think of how that would work here. There’s definitely a segment here where the local farm thing is the key, right? It’s local, it’s organic. Was that the pitch? Or were you pitching convenience?

James: Absolutely it was the local farm and also supporting an industry that was on its knees. But you will always be able to comment, ‘You often must drive around your local street and see the milkman. We want to keep that alive. That’s something very British. By getting involved in starting to have your milk delivered, even if it’s only a few pints a week, that plays a role in supporting your local community.’

Jeremey: Yeah, that pitch would work here, too.

I’d love to learn a little bit about what it’s like to sell in the UK, especially for US-based listeners who wonder what’s different. Do the same techniques at the same approaches work there? As we go through your background and what you learned in each of the roles that you’ve been in with respect to selling, I can weigh in on whether those sorts of things work in the US as well and what’s different.

Your first job was at a company called O-bit Telecom. Is that right?

James: That’s correct. It was a traditional telecom reseller in an SDR-type role. It was a cold calling role.

Jeremey: You went to school for a Business Innovation degree, I would presume you weren’t taught how to cold call and engage people other than reading How to Win Friends and Influence People. How did you learn to do that job?

James: By simply doing it. I remember the very first day that I arrived, super excited that this was my first professional sales role.

I met my manager and he explained to me that there was a list of companies based in the west of England. Here are all the names, these are all the phone numbers. He gave me a print out a piece of paper – which was the pitch – pointed at the phone, and told me to pick it up and start dialing.

I remember the fear, the level of anxiety that I felt; I can even access that feeling now. Because I was so overwhelmed and so nervous, the very first time someone actually answered and said ‘Hello, who’s speaking?”, I actually just hung up. Having to deliver a pitch made me too nervous.

This went on a few times over the first few weeks, until I started to build up that muscle and feel comfortable with the volume of calls, the conversation, and being able to pick up key triggers that can influence someone to spend time with you. I think this is often something that is forgotten.

Those very first calls are not really to sell your solution or pitch your product, in my opinion. You’re pitching yourself and asking for someone’s time. You’re asking for their attention. And if they’re willing to give you up some time on that initial call, or the second call, you then have the opportunity to pitch, explain, ask questions, and understand their needs.

It took me a while to understand that. So it was often a very hard pitch, not understanding how to follow up and ask the right questions that meant people would hear the pitch. That taught me a lot about overcoming objections and doing it at speed as well.

Jeremey: Obviously, nobody wants to read a script. I would assume at first you were probably reading the script because you didn’t know better. Then, over time, you began to internalize what the value proposition was, what the messaging was, and so on.

Did you find that the pitch they gave you is too long? I often find that’s the case – the starter pitch is just way too long.

James:  Yeah, it’s very corporatized, if that’s even a word. There’s way too much meat on the page and often you find that lengthy introduction about yourself or the company is unnecessary. Much of it has to do with your tone of voice, and the enthusiasm and the energy that you deliver to capture their interest. And then pausing and giving them time to adjust to the fact that they’re having this conversation.

For me, it’s breaking the ice, like you would if you approached someone at a networking event. Often the caller on the end of the phone will not remember what I said in those first initial few seconds, but they need to feel something. They need to feel like this is a person that has some form of authority and create curiosity, which then allows that individual to create time. Then you have time. Once you’ve got the time and their attention, you can begin to thread the page with questions.

Jeremey: Can you really deliver value on a first cold call? If you do, what would you do to deliver value or engage them with value?

James: I genuinely feel that the rapport and the human connection and authenticity will allow them to sit back and feel comfortable. Once an individual feels comfortable, they’re willing to listen. I actually think is quite difficult on that call to immediately add value. They’ve got no context on where you’re coming from.

Now, I do agree with personalization, so I do agree with leading with some information that you already understand about that individual, their company. But I also feel like you have to be realistic about what is achievable if you have interrupted their day. It’s very different if you’ve teed the call up with email introduction and the call is scheduled in the diary.

If you interrupted the flow of the day, there’s limited time for you to feel their need and get that next step. So for me, the less time the better. The call to action is where they agree to set some time aside. Having that second call conversation is key.

What I find in early-stage software businesses in the UK is that they have an engineering background rather than a commercial sales background and they’ve probably read a few books like Predictable Revenue. They believe they can just hire some SDRs who are going to make a high volume of calls and immediately book a demo that individuals going to turn up to.

Actually, it’s the second call, getting an agreement to have a second call. There, you can add value, understand their needs, influence them towards your value proposition, and then agree to the demo. That has a huge impact on the conversion rate of calls to demos, to then creating pipeline.

Jeremey: A lot of folks in the US don’t understand GDPR. They worry that GDPR means you can’t do what you described that you were doing back in the 2009-2010 timeframe, where you get a list of phone numbers to call, addresses to email. Are there restrictions and being able to pick up the phone and call people in the UK or send emails to people?

James: I don’t claim to be an absolute expert in GDPR. One thing I will say that there was a huge amount of hype and fear-mongering around GDPR. I noticed it impacted us businesses strategy. Like ‘wow, we don’t even want to take that risk, we’re actually going to stop doing business in the UK.’

I think is very much settled down. Your data sources have to be qualified from some source. A business number that is on a company’s website is public information; it’s publicly available. We’re not talking about speaking to an individual in their home, or that initial call being their mobile if they haven’t opted into something.

I would suggest people go and do the research, but I feel that the ability to still pick up the phone and dial a business number and create interest for your business is still the same.

Jeremey: So it sounds like the phone is okay, which is good, just like here. Here, the government is contemplating stricter guidelines, But they also recognize, though it’s not talked about enough, that your business would grind business to a halt if you outlawed all cold calling. And ditto with email.

There’s always these debates about having opt-in only but it would do the exact same thing. Are emails fine as well, even if it’s not an opt-in email?

James: It is still legal and it’s very much effective to send business sales emails. However, what you do with the personal data, adding someone to a newsletter subscription without their opt-in, that’s very much a no-no. But you’re doing a number of outreaches, they look at whether the type of service you’re offering fits the needs of a business buyer? Yes, you would expect that individuals in business to buy. So there is some kind of fear, absolutely. But it is still something that you’re able to do.

Where people would need to quantify that is how often you’re hitting someone in terms of those number of touches. You definitely can still reach out to individuals, and you can still pick up the phone to call individuals in their office.

Jeremey: I presume many UK professionals are on LinkedIn. Is that the business social network of choice over there as well?

James: Absolutely. I was a fan of LinkedIn when I was in a recruitment role to network and connect with professionals. I was very fortunate to actually find myself working for LinkedIn directly for about three and a half years.

For about 12 months, I was the number one social seller at LinkedIn, on LinkedIn in the world. So I’m very passionate about LinkedIn as a tool for sales professionals. It’s absolutely an opt-in platform. Since the development around content, the level of engagement on LinkedIn has never been so high.

Also, following the acquisition by Microsoft, generally in the public’s consciousness in the UK, it is very commonplace to understand that you should absolutely have a LinkedIn profile. If you’re entering the workforce from school or university, those institutions are educating you on LinkedIn. It’s almost like a rite of passage that you should have a LinkedIn profile.

Because everybody’s opted into the user agreement, for me, it is one of the most effective ways to do business in the UK. I would not have had the success in creating the Sales Confidence network without the reach that LinkedIn has allowed me. So it’s a significant tool.

Jeremey: You mentioned social selling. That term is both loved and hated because it’s left to such broad interpretation. What is social selling mean to you, in general, and what social selling tactics work in the UK?

James: Fundamentally, just around cold calling, to begin with, I believe every call is warm. Because when I pick up the phone to have a conversation with you, I’m a human being. I’m breathing, you’re breathing. So for me, as a mindset, cold calling doesn’t exist. I’ve only ever done warm calling.

From a social selling perspective, you are breaking the ice before you ever have either physical contact or verbal communication over the phone. So you are sowing the seeds in an individual’s mind about you as an individual. That you exist, that you work for a company, that you have some form of solution. It’s a much softer way to build relationships to make that very first contact call or face-to-face warmer.

Build the relationship online. Provide insights and value to the point we were talking about earlier. It’s also very much creating familiarity with you as an individual. That’s why having a profile picture is so important.

When you look at a photo of your family or a group of colleagues, the first face you focus on is yourself. There are studies that prove that you look at your face first, even if it’s your beautiful children there. We’re very much wired to connect with a human face and feel comfortable with interacting with that face, even if it’s in an interactive digital format.

The more you can reach out via Inmail or like and comment on your target buyer’s content, those touch points build up. There’s already some sense of familiarity. The barriers come down and it’s easier to create trust, connection, and rapport with an individual.

Jeremey: In our engagement cadences, we have to social touches, We basically start soft. We will like or comment on someone’s post just to basically provide some degree of value to them. If someone likes your post, that’s a good thing. If someone comments on it, that’s even better.

We do a soft first touch. It that adds value and is not asking anything of them, it’s just giving to them. Once we’re about halfway through the cadence, we will do a connection request. But with a super light, personalized sentence or two of just framing why we’re connecting.

What I don’t like, and I know does not work particularly well in the US, is someone will connect with me just out of the blue. And then the next thing I get is like a half page long Inmail. I would assume that that’s also a bad practice over there.

James: Yeah, I mean, it’s terrible. I also really find that the bravado of individuals that put out a calendar link in the first connection request. As if I’m so much in need for their service that I’m going to – just because they’ve connected with me – because they provided their calendar, I’m somehow going to book a call. That’s a big ask.

The easiest way to get somebody to accept your connection request is to personalize it. That information is on LinkedIn, so I don’t see how that’s so difficult for an individual to do. Secondly, if you can name drop a mutual connection, that immediately crosses the barrier of having to think about whether you’re credible. Someone’s already demonstrated that you are and has suggested that I should connect with you because we both know, Sean Murray, for example.

THERE’S A LOT MORE AFTER THIS! Listen to the full episode for the rest of the conversation with Jeremey and James.


If you have a passion for the art and the science of sales, are looking to further your career, or just want to hear some great, practical tips, ‘Hey Salespeople’ is the podcast for you. Subscribe so you can follow along as Jeremey interviews the brightest minds in modern sales to bring you immediately actionable advice. Listen and subscribe here.

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