Decoding the brutal truth about selling with maverick B2B sales guru Brian G Burns
Brian G Burns is the CEO of The B2B Network of Podcasts where he hosts four shows on B2B sales, career on sales, sales revenue, and B2B leadership. He has also authored four books on B2B sales; The Maverick Selling Method, Selling in a New Market Space (co-authored with Tom U. Snyder), Maverick Prospecting Secrets, and How and Why Large Companies Make Product Selections. His top-running podcast, The Brutal Truth about Sales & Selling, gets more than 40,000 downloads per episode and is consistently ranked top among the B2B sales category podcasts.
Before making podcasts his full-time commitment, Brian had a high-flying career in enterprise software sales spanning over two decades. After working for a series of VC backed startups, he decided to go out on his own as a sales consultant/sales trainer. At present, he also runs an online sales course for aspiring salespeople to help them get the meeting and improve their selling techniques. Brian is well-known among the sales circle for his straightforward, no B.S. approach, and left-field thinking in sales.
We recently interviewed Brian to pick his brain on the different topics related to B2B sales. Here’s a snapshot of the questions that Brian answered if you want to jump directly to any of them.
1. What’s the most brutal truth about sales? support
2. How did you get into sales?
3. What made you enter the world of podcasting?
4. What’s your mission with the podcasts that you host?
5. What’s the top advice for success you give to aspiring sales professionals?
6. How would that advice change for experienced sales professionals
7. What are the must-have tools that every sales professional should have?
8. How has the B2B sales landscape changed over the years?
9. What’s your take on live chat as a sales tool?
10. What’s The Maverick Selling Method?
11. What are the best traits to look for when hiring salespeople?
12. How to handle rejections in sales?
13. What are some bad sales habit to quit?
14. What are some good sales habits to build?
15. In your experience, how do companies buy?
16. How is selling to bootstrapping B2B companies different from established companies?
17. What’re the most common problems among companies?
18. What’s a current big trend in B2B sales that you are happy to see?
In your 25+ years of experience as a sales expert, what’s the most brutal truth about B2B sales and selling?
Brian: The #1 truth is that salespeople aren’t good at empathizing with their customers. They focus on themselves, what they want, or what they care about while the customers are responsible for translating that into what they need and what they want. It takes people a long time to get over that, if they ever do.
How did you get into the world of sales?
Brian: It was by chance. Like most sales people I know, I started my career as a self-taught software developer. I was okay at it; probably a B+ programmer. But I was also working 80+ hours a week until I got to the point where I understood that I can’t work any harder (Laughs).
I didn’t have the intellectual horsepower to get to that A+ level. I loved doing what I was doing, but I also noticed that the salespeople would leave at 5:30 in the evening driving home in their Porsches while I was rushing through my lunchtime or riding my bike home. And I was surprised to find that their base salary was my target income. Of course, they were very friendly to me and would include me in their demos in my capacity as a system engineer. I would do the presentations, answer customers’ questions, and give them the product walkthrough. But I also noticed that I was doing 80% of the talking during the sales calls. So one day, I was like, “well, maybe I can do the 20% too.” So when one of the salespeople told me that she was leaving, I asked her if I could have her job after she leaves. She had no problem with it. The VP of Sales asked me to shave, cut off my ponytail, and buy a suit and gave me my first sales job (Chuckles). It was a tough adjustment, but it was well worth doing.
What made you enter the world of podcasting?
Brian: I wrote and self-published a book on the Maverick Selling Method in 2009. Back then, nobody knew who I was outside of my little circle of a couple of thousand people. So I started a podcast nine years ago before the smartphones became popular. I tried many other things such as blogging, but I sensed that salespeople don’t read blogs—I still think they don’t. I also tried YouTube and got some traction there.
Eventually, I dabbled in podcasting to promote the book at the time. It was originally called The Maverick Selling Method Podcast. I recorded my shows with the built-in mic in my MacBook in my kitchen (Laughs). The artwork has changed probably seven times since then, and I’ve changed five different microphones. There was no real business intent because there was no popular podcast at the time.
I did what most people did the first couple of years: recorded a 5-10 minutes monologue on a particular topic; posted once a week; and got a couple hundred downloads. But since then, it’s just the opposite. The podcast has about 40,000 downloads per episode and it’s consistently ranked top among B2B sales category podcasts.
I think podcasts are intimate and there’s nothing that compares to it. You’re in someone’s ears, you build a relationship with people, and you have their trust.
You don’t get that with a blog or YouTube which are mostly sensational in nature where you try to grab someone’s attention. For example, the average watch time on YouTube is a minute at a half whereas a podcast will go on for 30-35 minutes, twice or thrice a week.
4) What’s your mission with the podcasts that you host?
Brian: Besides The Brutal Truth About Sales & Selling, I run 3 other podcasts; Career Advice, Sales Questions, and the B2B Revenue Leadership show. I started the B2B Revenue Leadership podcast for the C-suite level audience because some listeners of the Brutal Truth kept asking me to cover some management issues. I started doing that, but the B2B sales reps—the primary audience of The Brutal Truth show—were not very keen on it. So decided to make it a separate thing.
With The Brutal Truth About Sales & Selling, I want to serve my audience in the B2B sales market or who want to get into that field. I want to help them and I work with a handful of partners who want to use the platform as a way to engage the audience in what they do. I don’t do B2C partnerships, so there’s no MeUndies or Audible or Stamps.com or any of that stuff.
— Brian G. Burns (@BriangBurns) October 7, 2018
5) You also host a Career Advice Podcast for more than a year now. What’s the top advice for success you give to professionals who are looking to forge a path in the sales world?
Brian: Today you’ve got to own it. Getting a degree and using it as a ticket to your success may only apply in certain careers these days. But in most others, you have to be a self-starter. As salespeople, you no longer have to apply to an expensive school, go inside big buildings to listen to someone in front of the room, or buy expensive books on sales. Everything that you ever want to learn is out there. You can do it on your own.
But if you are the type of person who needs a personal trainer to count to 12 while you lift the weights in the gym, it’s going to be a long haul. Too many people want a personal trainer as a friend-for-hire to push them along. If you can afford that, that’s fine. And still, it’s you who has to do the repetitions. Taking personal responsibility makes all the difference. Too many people wait to be discovered, they wait for someone else to take them to the bank. But it’s up to you to figure out where the bank is and get there.
6) How would that advice change for sales professionals who have been there in the game for a few years now?
Brian: What I see with people who have been in it for a while is the “B Player Trap” where they have seen some marginal amount of success and it’s stalled. And they think the problem is everything but them. They stop looking at the man in the mirror as the problem. They are partially right, you know—the market is different, managers are different. But that doesn’t solve the problem. The only thing that’s going to solve it is them becoming better.
7) What are the must-have tools that every sales professional should have in their arsenal?
Brian: Clearly, if you are in B2B sales, you have to have LinkedIn; spring in with Sales Navigator for at least a short period of time even if your company doesn’t pay you for it. You definitely should have your own hardware and if the company buys you one, you should have your own stuff in it. Obviously, you have to have your own smartphone because if you’re moving from company to company you can’t risk losing your number.
I think a lot of sales reps are apprehensive about spending a couple of dollars a month for their own CRM of some kind, their own market intelligence like Nudge, or video emails. But the people who want to stand out, there is so much of great technology out there. You should understand that, like comedy, sales is a timing profession. You’ve to be there at the right time, you have to have the build-up and then the punchline. You can’t just have the punchline. It’s so much about style and connecting with people. I think the text email is overused right now, they kind of burned it last year. Video emails are making a good impression with active social presence. It really doesn’t take much time. These are ways for you to look at your market as your network and your net worth and spending 15-20 minutes a day on it.
Personally, I do that my putting my iPhone on a selfie stick every morning and doing a five-minutes video talks in one walk that I later post to my YouTube channel. People keep asking me, “how do you find the time to do it?” to which I reply, “Don’t you notice I’m walking?” I’m not trying to convince you of anything, I’m not trying to sell you anything.
I’ve also been using Nudge for three years. I put my TAM (total addressable market) into it and every morning it gives me an update on what’s going on. I then send it to my virtual assistant and she goes through my cadence tool which is a total social cadence. I don’t ask for anything—I just give, give, give. And then, I invite people to the show and invite people to contribute to my content and that’s how I start a conversation with them.
How has the B2B sales landscape changed over the years?
Brian: The B2B sales landscape has changed enormously, in some good and some bad ways. In a lot of ways, it’s going backward. It used to be all quality-based, you couldn’t get into sales easily. The jobs were very coveted and salespeople were very valued. The big disruption now is the SaaS versus the enterprise purchase, i.e. subscription versus the one-time purchase with the maintenance agreement. That part has dramatically changed. But I think we’ve gone really backward with the B2B sales development model, what we used to call inside sales.
Years ago, an inside sales person wasn’t there just to get meetings. They were there to cover the rep while the rep was out in the field. They took the calls, read the emails, got meetings arranged, also took care of tiny deals, and answered customer questions.
Today, companies are trying to do it with college grads because it’s cheaper. They are inexpensive and they are being led by people who haven’t sold in 10 years. They are still trying to use Aaron Ross’ stuff from 13 years ago. Everyone is trying to model the person who was in the tornado when, in fact, these people are not in a tornado. There’s not even a breeze but they are trying to Blitzscale.
Sales is very contextual, I have a hard time when I go to see many of my clients. That’s why I stopped doing on-site consulting because it was so frustrating.
Today, what B2B sales teams do is they buy a sales cadence tools or they read the books about the 16 touches in 16 days. Personally, I don’t know anybody I want to talk to 16 times in 16 days, certainly not a cold salesperson who has not contacted me before or whose products don’t interest me. In reality, if somebody knocks on your door 16 times in 16 days, you’d call the police.
What these salespeople don’t realize is that they are getting put into the what I call the rep-zone, as in friend-zone. In relationships, you get put into the friend-zone. In B2B sales, you get put into the rep-zone that you can’t get out of. If you are a rep and you’re hounding me, I will delete your emails, I won’t listen to your voicemails, and I won’t take your calls. Some manager would say, that means call them more. That’s not how you treat people.
What’s your take on live chat as a sales tool?
Brian: I’ve seen it for 10 years now and, no matter what size your company is, if someone is on your website, they have a legitimate question. It’s the best time to engage with prospects when they are on your website by making use of livechat for website. It’s like they walked on in your car lot; they may not be qualified; they might just be kicking tires. But it shows that they are not there by accident. If they ask a question, it’s a good time to answer it instead of making them fill out forms that look as long as tax returns forms. I think those days are gone.
Conversational sales and marketing is the new call-in. Before live chat, in the 90s, people called companies. But now you’ve got to have live chat on your website. That’s the first thing I tell my clients to get it up on their websites and to hire somebody accessible to handle the chats.
Can you elaborate on the Maverick Selling Method?
Brian: Having a software development background, I know that programmers design before they develop. Hackers, on the other hand, just start typing and they build one function against another. But software engineers diagram out what the program is going to do. They assume that they can implement it. So I took that approach to selling and made it the basic premise for the Maverick Selling Method.
What I saw was most salespeople were winging it. They think to themselves, “Oh, if I can get a meeting then I’m gonna get a deal! I’m gonna charm them.” Sometimes they can and it all works out. But I wasn’t a ‘charmer’; I wasn’t the guy who closed deals on the golf course. I knew the product better than any other salesperson in the company, but I had no sales experience, no experience speaking to executives, and no understanding of how to get the economic and administrative functions of an order through a company.
So I took the software engineering approach, which was to figure out how does it all happen. What does the whole game look like? The Maverick Selling Method is a meta-model of selling. Every other B2B sales book talks about acquiring skills, strategies, and styles—which are all part of the game—but none of them talk about the game. How do you map out your whole game? You have to have done it before to do that.
What are the best traits that companies should look for when hiring salespeople?
Brian: I have talked to a lot of people about this and the thing that comes up mostly is coachability, meaning that they can put their ego aside, do something, take feedback, and do it better. Then they have to possess a reasonable IQ and EQ so that they can comprehend what the product does and where it fits in the market and understand how other people view your company and the product. They have to have the grit, the ability to continue despite rejections and hardships. I think competitiveness is a great sales skill, the desire to win against their competitors and other salespeople.
Typically, what it comes down to is people with skill and will, knowing what they are doing and the will to do it.
How to handle rejections in sales?
Brian: Well, it never gets easy. The key thing is not to take it personally. You should learn from it and ask yourself: Was it the wrong person, the wrong time, or was it the wrong way? If you did the best you could, pick up the phone and try again. We all still get rejected. You can get somewhat used to it but you can still feel it.
What are some bad sales habit to quit?
Brian: Too often, I see salespeople who assume that it’s someone else’s job to buy their product. But no it’s not. It’s our job to persuade people to buy our products without pushing, pitching, cajoling, or pressuring. We need to entice, persuade, seduce them. Too many people think it is all about having a great value proposition. Sure, you need that too. But you also have to get them to the point where they want to hear that. So you’ve to build that rapport but not just stick with rapport.
You’ve to understand how people think. It’s become all about taking and not giving. When you say, “Can I have 15 minutes of your time?” customers ask themselves, “Why would I do that?” That’s like asking somebody for $20-50.
What are some good sales habits to build?
Brian: Again, I think the #1 tip is to own it, meaning, if something goes wrong, look at yourself first regardless of it being the weather, the economy, the product. Figure out how could you work around it. Number two is, practice the game and understand that you’re a performer and that you don’t get credits for past sales and successes.
Every performance is independent of your past performance. It’s like being a comedian, an actor, or an athlete—you’re a performer. If you strike out, you can’t say, “Look at all my trophies.” The owners of the sports team can trade you because you didn’t hit the ball—your job is to hit the ball. And it doesn’t matter that you didn’t practice enough—what matters is you just didn’t hit it. Sales is a binary thing where you either close a deal or you don’t. But too many B2B sales reps try and live off of what they did last quarter or last year and that just doesn’t matter.
In your experience, how do companies buy?
Brian: I kept hearing about “the buyer’s journey” for the longest time. People assume that companies know how to buy. But I worked for 12 companies and they never taught anyone I knew how to spend the company’s money. It was just the contrary, actually. They were very adamant about how not to spend the company’s money. (Chuckles)
A company spending money is an unnatural act. Businesses are meant to make money, not to spend it. For them to spend money, you have to understand how it works, what their process is, and what they are going to run up against. Salespeople think that they can have a presentation or a demo and send a proposal. But that’s the dumbest thing you could ever do because you gave them everything that they basically asked for. They will not contact you back until they want something else.
In the book, I explain how companies make buying decisions, what they go through internally to make it happen, and how salespeople can make it through the processes. The book is like the “deal sherpa” to guide sales teams through the B2B sales process.
How is selling to bootstrapping B2B companies different from selling to established companies?
Brian: I think each company is different when it comes to buying because it’s all personality-based, there is politics, there is urgency, and there is an alternative usage of their time and their money. To sell to any company, you have to align with people inside that company who have the administrative skills or understanding of how the company approves the administrative purchase and not just because they are interested in the idea and the technology.
I think less than 5% of the salespeople understand this. They just sit back and call it no-decision. There is no such thing as no decision. I think it’s a “no” until it’s a “yes”.
My final statement is—nobody likes to deliver bad news. Nobody is going to call you up and say “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that we’re not going with you” (Laughs). You know, when you’re dating, the girl never calls you up and just says, “You know it’s not working out.” They just ghost you!
You can’t sit around comfortably by the fireplace with the no-decision and take it to the bank. The commission on a no-decision is identical to no.
What’re the most common problems among companies that reach out to you for advice?
Brian: The most common problem that they tell me is that they can’t get meetings with cold, outbound opportunities.
Inbound is great, but it’s slow. It’s the long game and you don’t always get the right people. In the U.S., we have this thing called the Sadie Hawkins Dance. It’s the dance in high schools where the girls ask the guys. That’s inbound.
In outbound, you get to pick the right people. Outbound is guys asking the girls. But the problem is, we are asking them like it’s the 70s. All these goofy pick-up lines such as “What’s your sign?” don’t work anymore. Old outbound sales sound like, “Let me tell you how great I am and what I can do for you. Can I have 15 minutes of your time?” That worked 20 years ago and then Aaron Ross came up with “Tell me who is the right person to talk to.” Soon, salespeople started using that as an introduction. But that’s been beaten to death over the years. Today, none of it is working.
That’s why I came up with my course, Start the Conversation Get the Meeting, where it’s more of an organic process. I tell people to pretend that it’s a cocktail party and within that party, there are 10 people who want to buy their product but don’t know about it yet. We kind of know how to solve that kind of problem in a social event, but we don’t know how to do it sitting at our desks.
What’s a current big trend in B2B sales that you are happy to see?
Brian: I am really happy to see AI being applied. I get into this argument with sales managers all the time cause they think every lead is equal and you have to call 50 of them per day. And I ask them, “How many of those 50 do you think will have a meeting?” And they say that most SDRs get two meetings a week at most. That means out of 250 contacts, they are getting only two a week. That’s less than 1%!
Now, don’t you think it would be worth their time to apply AI and figure out—of the 250 contacts—who are the 50 leads that are most likely to be interested in us? And if I really put the effort into, they will convert. But unfortunately, very few managers agree with me because they are so old-school thinking that someone is waiting for their call (Laughs).
Thank you, Brian!
You can reach out to Brian on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his YouTube channel. You can also listen to The Brutal Truth About Sales & Selling on Facebook or find it in your favorite podcast app.
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