Join Pete Evans as he speaks to Michelle Cowan, MD of Justo Software and Non-Executive Director for Torchbearer and Santini7Sports.
The pair discuss Michelle’s sales career starting from Telesales and looking towards her journey within India and her experience with Cisco. Talking about growth minded sales leaders, creating new sales professionals and sales coaching – this podcast episode of Creating SalesStars is a great listen especially for those looking to start a sales career.
About our Guest
Michelle Cowan is the Co-Founder and MD of Justo Software, home of the Socialsendr App. Michelle is also the Non-Executive Director for West Yorkshire based businesses Torchbearer and Santini 7 Sports.
In a sentence Michelle describes herself as a Growth Strategy Consultant and business owner mentor. She has over 20 years in corporate technology sales including experience with Apple and Cisco. She started as a Telesales Account Manager and finishing as a Global Client Director.
About our Host
Pete Evans has over 20 years sales experience with a successful corporate sales career. If you’re involved in B2B selling, cold calling, sales recruitment, sales training, sales coaching, sales transformation or have a desire to grow your business then this podcast is for you.
Pete is currently MD and Practice Partner of SalesStar UK. SalesStar combines sales training with sales coaching to deliver long term results in line with your sales strategy so you can smash your targets and grow top line revenue. SalesStar works with growth minded CEOs and sales leaders who are frustrated with their sales results and are looking for a proven system to grow sales.
Oliver Eaton | Pete Evans | Michelle Cowan
Welcome to the Creating SalesStars Podcast. Each week, our host, Pete Evans, will be joined by some of the big and upcoming names within the sales industry. This is brought to you by SalesStar UK.
Good morning, everybody. Welcome to the second edition of the Creating SalesStar podcast this morning. I’ve got with me Michelle Cowen, who is the co-founder and managing director of Justo software, home of the Socialsendr app. Michelle also acts as non-executive director for Yorkshire based businesses, Torchbearer and Santini7Sports. It is a growth strategy consultant and business on a mentor. Michelle has over 20 years experience in corporate tech sales with Apple and Cisco. Originally starting as a telesales account manager and finishing as a global account client director. So welcome, Michelle.
Thank you for having me. That was a bit of a mouthful.
It certainly is a bit of a mouthful, and I’m glad that you wrote your bio and I didn’t have to write it.
So the theme of these podcasts is creating sales excellence and inspiring excellence in sales teams and inspiring current sales leaders. Future sales leaders, sales managers and even entrepreneurs. So could you tell us a little bit, Michelle, about why you first went into sales?
Yeah, I kind of fell into it. I graduated in 1991, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t even know that sales was a career. I thought that sales was kind of retail sales or a kind of car sales. I didn’t really understood that corporate sales was a career. I left University with a really good business degree. I got a good grade, got 2:1 honors degree, and I thought that the world was just going to kind of open up to me. I was applying for jobs and didn’t get even to interview stage. So through the government at a time when you were going to collect your dole. They offered me 10 pounds extra a week. If I would go on a kind of an education course, I thought, well, fair enough. OK so I went on a computer programming course, so I was actually doing programming in COBOL and C – I didn’t have a tech background that actually led to some work experience with a company in Leeds and Israeli owned company that made their own PCs, which were back in the early 90s, was a really big thing. And these were kind of mail order. So there were all these like magazines that were talking about PCs, and in the back of him there were tons and tons of adverts for build your own PCs. And I worked for one of those companies. And I went in to do I think I went in to do office management and marketing, but I ended up being on the phone doing sales, so I kind of fell into it by accident. I then kind of realised that I was in sales and start enjoying it, and that’s when I started looking for sales roles and I got my first sales role with a tech company over in Lancashire, which is no longer now. But it was really big at the time. It was a company called PMP, and everybody that’s in tech in the North that was in tech in the 90s knows about PMP. So I worked for that, that business. That’s how I started in sales.
OK fantastic. And obviously, you’ve got a lot of expertise, a lot of commercial and global experience. And obviously, you came into the corporate environment of Cisco and went to set up your own, your own business. But thinking back, particularly times at Cisco, what sort of lessons did you learn as a sales leader that our listeners might benefit from? What do things make a great sales leader?
So, I was really fortunate to work for a fantastic corporate that had a really huge sales function, so there were over 16,000 salespeople when I worked there globally. And so that’s one big engine that needs to be run very efficiently. So it’s not like working in sales for kind of a small, medium sized company. When you when you’re in that corporate world, there’s a structure which has governance and cadence around it that, you know, I was really fortunate to be part of. So all the structure in place, the team in place, the strategy in place, nothing was really to think about. We were, you know, inundated with training. And there was, you know, when I started, there was a policy that you had to do at least one day of training in a month. So that might be product training or it might be sales training if some kind of form. So I was really fortunate to be in that environment. You know, the company invested thousands in my personal development when I got into my early 40s. They kind of, well, they put me on a leadership program that was when I was moving up in position. And, you know, I had a team and no, not always direct reports, but, you know, a big virtual teams, people based all over the world working on the same deal. They put me on a leadership program called conscious leadership and without going into too much detail. What I learnt on that program, which was a seven month kind of experience, was I always knew that I was good at sales. You know, my results spoke for themselves. I found it pretty easy to be honest. I never really had a problem dealing with senior people. You know, my theory was, you know what? This CIO or CFO or whatever, they still put the bins out like we do, you know, they’re just normal people. So I always found it quite easy. When I was on this program, I realised that. I’ve got an ability to connect with people that not everybody is kind of aware of in terms of their own skill set. So whilst I thought it was a good salesperson, I could never really put my finger on it why I thought that I was really good. And now when I look back, I know that I can just connect with people on a level that, you know, with the right structure in place and the right team behind you and the right leadership can be really quite powerful in terms of what your sales results can be. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does make sense. And when you went into a leadership role and all you had to get involved in selling, but did you find that transition hard where you weren’t perhaps doing a lot of the direct selling you were having to coach and mentor and lead others, you know? Did you find that transitional?
It was pretty, pretty easy to be honest, because I was already kind-of doing that role before I actually had the role. So I, you know, again, you could call it luck or fortune. I don’t know, but I worked on an account where we struggle to find a global client lead. So, you know. I was kind of struggling with, you know, we’ve got no lead and nobody’s taking charge with this and actually it was on a call with a lady in America one morning and we were just chatting before everybody joins the call, as you do. And she said, oh, have we got a client leader yet for your account? And I said, no, it’s, you know, it’s quite frustrating. And she said to me, I just assume the role. And I said, what are you talking about? And she said, just assumed the role and the job will be yours. And I sort of like in my naivete, I thought, well, I’m not getting paid for this and you know, it’s a lot of responsibility for, you know, what I’m doing. And she said, just do it, grow up and just do it. And that’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given because I just kind of did the role without actually telling everybody I was going to do the role and I took charge and I started leading the team. So by the time. The leadership team were looking at it, they were like, well, Michelle already do us that role anyway, so let’s give it her, so the transition wasn’t that difficult. The realisation that it needed to be me was probably a little bit harder for me to get my head around.
You talked about obviously, Cisco invested in your development know thousands, if not Tens of thousands of pounds over the years, and you had to do one day of training every month, which is absolutely fantastic. What about developing and coaching your team? You know what? What challenges you face in coaching your team?
So, I, when you’re in an environment like that, the teams are also getting the same training. You know, they’re getting pushed onto training courses and you know, you were getting offered stuff all the time. So I could go on one week, go on a course on, you know, better presenting, you know, public speaking or working as part of a team or, you know, understanding your own kind of individual strengths. You could go on anything. So, you know, it wasn’t just me that I had access to that. The whole team did. A big challenge for me around that was working with different cultures. So I did a lot of work with the Chinese team. I was in India an awful lot. So, you know, I looked after an Indian account. Very unusual to have a white female that’s non-Indian looking after an Indian owned company, right? I think in terms of coaching – Probably getting my head around the cultural differences because there was no training on that, it was almost a given that you would kind of find your way around, that it was kind of the American way or no way.
Which, you know, I definitely had to adapt on that. So I did lots of reading on, you know, I remember going to India for a meeting and I bought a book on doing business in India, and I was reading it on the plane knowing that I was going to this meeting in Mumbai, which was in a boardroom, and I would potentially be the only white person and the only female in the room in a room of about 20 men. And one of the things it said in the book was everybody waits until the most important person in the room sits down before the meeting starts. I’ve got my head around this. I thought, right, OK, I know what I’m going to do now. And clearly, I wasn’t the most important person in the room, but I went into this boardroom. And yes, you know, I was with the guys in my team, guys, all men who were all Indian and and there were lots of men milling around. And I could see sense in the room that the most important person in the room hadn’t sat down because he wasn’t there yet. But this chap walked in and the whole mood changed. So I thought, right, OK, I’m going to sit down. So I sat down and my team were looking at me, and one of the guys was like, stand up, stand up and stand up. I was like, no, I’ve flown thousands of miles. I’ve come here for a reason. I’m really sorry if I’ve offended you, but I need to sit down and get this done. And I sat down and the guy that clearly was the most important person in the room sat down opposite me. Everybody else sat down. The meeting started and he basically talked to me for the whole meeting. I got what I wanted. We left the meeting and ruffled a few feathers in my team. But I kind of got what I wanted, So. I did get going back to the mentoring and coaching I did go on a coaching course on coaching teams, which was a professional qualification. Yeah, I mean, it definitely helped, but going back to the leadership program that I was part of. That whole understanding who I was, how I work with teams, how. Taking a step back and looking in as a third lens onto that team and myself. Just helped me massively and and I found kind of the coaching and the mentoring and moving forward just so much easier because I kind of knew what my own skill sets were and a better understanding of the other people in my team. There was an article that we read as part of that program, which was talking about leadership and comparing it to a game of golf.
It’s almost like, you know, when you go to that first tee, you look in your golf bag and you go right, which which club am I going to take for this shot? And you pick a club and then the next shot you take is a different club and it’s almost like, OK, which not I’m not going to hit any club, but which club am I going to say when I’m talking to this person? Which kind of style of leadership am I going to adapt myself to? Because everybody’s different and everybody responds to different types of leadership, so one size doesn’t fit all. And you know, I think adaptability and being able to recognise that you need to adapt is really key.
OK, fantastic. So I want to come forward to you. You’re obviously come out of the corporate world, you set up on your own business. And obviously you’re dealing with a you’ve come into contact with a whole range of different businesses. Some will be start-ups, some of these you are mentoring and coaching, some will be a bit more established and some of them will have salespeople or the owner will be struggling to motivate those salespeople. So what have you what have you seen in the world of sales in the more entrepreneurial marketplace and small business marketplace, which will be very different from your experience at Cisco?
Yes, so, as part of my kind of growth strategy consultancy, I do work with different businesses. And I think. One thing that really stands out is that business owners don’t accept that they’re in sales. And especially the smaller business owners, you know, if they bring somebody on board as a salesperson or business development, they think that person has to do all the sales and trying to convince them that everybody that is touching your customer is a potential salesperson or is doing part of the sales role is difficult for them to get the head around. So, you know, I talk a lot about customer journeys and where – who’s touching that customer on there, their buying process and how are those people interacting with them during that process? You know, sales is a bit of a dirty word to a lot of people. They just don’t like it. I mean, it’s got all sorts of connotations to it. To me, sales to me is about success. It’s about growth. It’s, you know, it’s about, you know, achieving things. But to a lot of other people, it’s not that. You know, lots of people set up their own company because they’ve either got a passion or a dream or they’ve created something and they don’t actually realise that they’re going to have to go out and sell it. You know, it’s like how are you going to get off the ground or they’ve got so far on, you know, some of the contacts they’ve got are the they’ve got a product that somebody really likes and then all of a sudden it flat lines and the go, what’s happened? It’s because you’ve run out of all that kind of goodwill…
…and good luck. And now you need to start selling. That kind of gets me onto everybody’s a salesperson, you rather it doesn’t matter what role you’re in, you’re selling a concept, an idea, a solution. You’re trying to convince somebody of something. I mean, really, the kind of coaching that you use in in, in and around the sales function really could be used elsewhere. You know, in terms of negotiation, especially, you know, you’ve got different functions of a business. The role really draw in on what we would call sales skills.
You know, all the communication stuff, you know, the listening, the putting forward a solution, the understanding, the value.
So what you’re really saying is that if I’m a business owner, I’m hiring salespeople, actually the skills I could develop in terms of mentoring and coaching my sales team, I could take those skills and apply them in the wider business as well.
Yeah, I think so. Yeah and you know, if you’re a small business like in my business, it’s me and my business partner. We’re all hands on deck. We’re boss of everything. You know, you’ve got to do everything. I have to learn how to do book-keeping. I hate it, but I still like to learn to do it. And I think a lot of these kind of small microbusinesses in particular don’t really understand that you really need to have everybody on it.
You know, especially, you know, if you’ve got somebody chasing an invoice. In credit control. You know, you finance team, they’re speaking to your customer. How were they communicating?
Yeah, well, the wrong communication can actually damage your reputation with that.
And when businesses are starting to scale and they’re going out to maybe hire the first couple of salespeople, have you seen business owners make mistakes in terms of hiring? Salespeople are thinking, OK, I’m going to scale. Let me go and hire a salesperson. I know this person who’s got the little Black book of contacts. What are some mistakes you have seen business owners make when hiring salespeople?
Paying lots of money to the wrong person because the business owners don’t actually fully understand sales. So when somebody comes for an interview? You know, the kind of convince them that they can do the job and your business owner is unlikely to have a sales background, so they do not know what they’re looking for. So the salesperson starts and they’ve got them on this three month, six month probation and then it all starts going wrong. And all of a sudden you’ve lost all that money in salary because they’ve not actually really looked into. – Are they the right person for the job, Are they really who they say they are? Can they do this?
OK I mean, one thing that I was talking to a client with said, well, if we hire, if we hire an FD, that FD gets up and running, we don’t really have to train them and develop them. And I hear so many business owners saying, well, if I hire a salesperson, why do I need to coach and development? Know, surely it should be like me hiring an FD? What do you think of that sort of opinion?
Well, if you’re OK, so if I went for a sales job today, yeah, and they offered me a job. I don’t expect to be trained. Yeah you know, I would expect some kind of product or service training around what I’m actually selling. But in terms of teaching me to sell, I wouldn’t expect any training. However, if you are going for somebody that’s early in career. Or is not from a sales background, but you’ve just got a feeling about them all you’ve done. Yeah you know, I know you do assessments, you’ve done an assessment and they’ve got a high propensity to sell all the right mindset. Then clearly, those people need training, so, or they need something to enable them to move forward because it’s not fair on that person, if you take them on and are not willing to give them the development tools that they need.
Yeah, exactly. And what about what about driving accountability? You know, it’s one thing we really focus on when we’re working with our clients. Do you think business owners find it hard to keep their salespeople accountable to the right actions and activities?
Yeah I mean, what I found when I’ve been doing my consultancy is that I would say over 95% of the clients that I’ve worked with, there’s no governance in place around target stretch targets, commission plans, sales meetings, you know how, how they kind of put the scaffolding around the team?
To me, that’s like low hanging fruit when I’m working with a business, if I can help them put some structure in place. I know that they’ll get growth if just put in tiny things like having a weekly forecast call or a weekly sales meeting where people are talking about what their opportunities are and how are they getting on with it? And have they managed to edge it forward that week? Now, nobody likes being in an environment where you come in along something and say, putting your hand up and say, I’ve done nothing this week. It’s just human nature. Yeah and if you’ve got a few salespeople, it works really well because by nature, we’re very competitive. Definitely I think that that’s a very simple thing process that businesses can put in place to get very quick results.
OK, so Michelle, I think is quite a few of the listeners know last year we took the decision to hire your son. Were you surprised when Dylan decided to go into sales, especially with yourself and Clive having been in sales for quite a number of years?
Not not surprised. He’s very, he probably won’t mind me saying this, but he’s is very money motivated. And that’s what attracts a lot of people to sales in the first place anyway, whether they know what sales is or not, because it’s a very good, well-paying career if you get with the right company. So, you know, he’s over him growing up, he’s seen how our life has been by us both being in sales careers and, you know, the kind of success that we’ve had, so hes being around that. No, not surprised. in short.
Yeah. And obviously, I’m sure that you and Clive can’t help but give him some coaching and sort of advice. So obviously he’s got a lot of different types of people listening. What advice would you give somebody who was thinking of maybe going into sales as a career and the type of company they should look for? What are the things that you know, if Dylan hadn’t joined us, what would you be saying to him and the types of support that somebody like that would need?
Well, I think, you know, we talked about it this very early on, which is before you even met Dylan.
When he decided that he didn’t want to go the traditional route and go full time uni, the next thing was apprentice and apprenticeship was really important to me because it was continuous learning. You know, it really even more fortunate that Leeds Trinity have got a degree in B2B selling.
So in terms of advice, I think that I would be looking at companies that are progressive. That have got a structure in place for continuous learning. You know, this is something that younger people can find out. Interviews lots of, you know, I do a lot of early in career coaching and. You know, lots of these young people are going to interviews and and I’ll say, have you got your questions to ask and they’ve got the basics, but know, we I always say, you know, really expand into the learning and development and understand what’s there for you and how you can access this, this stuff. You know, how willing are they to see you grow? Look, other people in the business and how those people have progressed? Is it an organisation that’s known for, you know, bringing young people on and kind of making them their own, but pushing them forward. So yeah, I would say just delve a bit deeper into, you know What’s available? What can you access? You know, have they got any ties to other learning organisations? I mean, Dylan’s massively fortunate that he’s in a business that is full of sales coaches because, you know, he’s got access to expertise that I know a lot of other younger people don’t have that are in a sales role. As you know, I’ve been a sales leader myself if there’s never been a time when somebody has come to me and said, could you give me some help that I’ve said no. And I genuinely believe that if somebody approaches you and asks you for help that you don’t say no. So it’s important that these young people also know how to ask for help.
And, you know, do it with a bit of grace and not with such, you know, not with a selfish angle, but you know, can you help me? I want to understand what you do. And that’s also a good progression thing, like understanding what other roles there are in the company. Understanding what somebody else does is really important and how you can help each other in your, in your, you know, respective roles.
It’s just digging a bit deeper and trying to get to the bottom of how a business treats its people as well.
So, what are you talking there is about, actually, if somebody is going to join as an apprentice or a trained trainee salesperson understanding what the culture is about, So I think what you’re saying is the culture of the organisation is equally as important as some of the other factors you mentioned.
Yeah, yeah, definitely.
Do you think it’s hard for a sales leader to create that winning culture?
Well, I was thinking about this when I was kind of preparing for this podcast because, you know, I worked at Cisco and before that, Apple and the American culture is about bringing people together like once a year for these massive sales conferences, so, in Cisco, we used to go to Vegas every year for the big global sales meeting. And it was literally, you know, three full days of back to back sessions, all learning sessions, it was all training and you could pick certain ones, but there were some that you had to go to and you’d get to this, you know, the big theatre at MGM, and that holds thousands and thousands of people and the CEO and the sales leader would be there and they’d do the kickoff session. But before they arrived on stage, they’d be like some top pop star or a band, or there would be Cirque Soleil hanging from the ceiling or whatever. I mean, this is done on such a huge scale. And, you know, everybody was really fired up. And everybody’s in a great mood because this part is going on all the time in the evening and you’re getting together with people that you’ve not actually seen before, you might have been talking to them on the phone, you know, your colleagues in China or Australia or whatever, and all that stuff is just such great fun. Yeah and you come back from it. So that’s kind of in August and it’s the start of the financial year and you just think, you know, I’ve come back from it. I’ve got a massive target that’s 100 million that I’ve got a hit, but somehow it just feels more achievable, right? And you know, the work that these big corporates do around getting people into the right frame of mind and ready to sort of take on the world. And, you know, they bring on inspiring speakers. The one year they brought on this lady you, she kind of scaled Everest from both sides of the mountain, and she was speaking about how she lost her colleagues on the way and things like that. And there’s not a dry eye in the house. So you you just come away from it, just feeling so fortunate and just glad to be where you are. And I think that. This is something that the smaller companies can learn from that, and in terms of the way that the sales function is changing now because of covid, because we’re all kind of screen to screen majority of the time, you know, that kind of bringing people together, I still think should be part of, you know, running an ongoing sales team.
Because I think a lot can be done in that, you know? Go offsite, do something different. Do something as a team, get to know each other better. Do something that’s given back to charity, do something fun and just change it open and get people to think that, you know, the really proud to be part of this team. And it’s fun to be around all this and I’m going for it now. I want to do it for me. I want to do it for the team, and I want to do it for the company.
OK, so a couple of last questions, Michelle. The first one is what was your number one tip for somebody who’s, you know, running a sales team currently that might be a sales manager, might be sales leader, it could be a business owner. What’s your number one tip that somebody could take away from this podcast?
Oh, gosh, no. And you’ve put me on the spot now. I would say, I’m going to say two things, but you know, get your process sorted you know, put everything in place to support your team…
…and yourself. And second, I would say, connect with your team. You know, take the time to understand who they are, what motivates them. You know what they like to do, just get to know them better and help them get to know each other better. And I think both of those will help the team succeed and function better.
OK, fantastic. And finally, if people want to reach out to you, Michelle, how do they make contact with you?
I’m on LinkedIn, so, mostly on LinkedIn. I’m on every social platform because of my product. But yeah, LinkedIn is probably the best way of contacting me.
OK, well, thank you very much, Michelle. You’ve shared some fantastic insights there for our listeners and look forward to interviewing again in the future.
Thanks for listening. This podcast was brought to you by SalesStar and hosted by Pete Evans. For more information about what we can offer you head to our website at salesstar.com/UK. You can also find us on all social media platforms just by searching for SalesStar UK.
Presenter and Producer: Pete Evans
Special Guest: Michelle Cowan
Producer and Intro/Outro Voiceover: Oliver Eaton
Podcast Editor: Alex Mullen