In the 1980s, Lars Nilsson was hired by Xerox Corporation, a company notable for its sales training program. It was foundational for Nilsson. The current Vice President of Global Sales Development at Snowflake (a data warehousing company that recently went public for $33 billion) attributes the lessons he learned there to the success of his career.
He joins the podcast today to share what he learned at Xerox that was so foundational, and how this has informed his “human approach” to selling over his 34-year career.
I came in as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kid, not knowing much of anything other than I’ve got fire in the belly.-Lars Nilsson
When Nilsson joined Xerox, he entered an organization that prioritized “communication, alignment, and chain of command.” Everything he learned and experienced at Xerox, from their training program, to the office managers and leaders he worked for, shaped his thinking around how to be successful in sales. His managers set him out a daily plan and taught him to be intentional with his time, creating his goals for his days, weeks, and months.
The sales team at Xerox also “over-communicated,” about everything. From best practices, to their ups and downs while trying to sell printers across the globe, the sales team was in constant contact. And this made a huge difference to Nilsson because with the number of rejections a Sales Development Representative (SDR) can face every day, selling can be lonely.
Another lesson for Nilsson that especially applies to those just entering the field: who you start your career with matters. Be deliberate about the companies you work for and pay attention to how it feels when you interview because it only takes “your first really bad manager for you to realize how important really good leadership is.”
Since then, Nilsson has taken four companies public but he has never forgotten the lessons he learned at Xerox.
We can talk a lot about the mechanics of selling, but as technology and sales automation takes more of the process out of the hands of salespeople, one thing Nilsson still falls back on is the human aspect of selling, which can’t be automated.
It was during Nilsson’s time as the VP of Global Inside Sales at Cloudera, where he created the idea of Account Based Sales Development (ABSD), a strategy that enables SDRs to target their sales outreach to companies where they have the best chance of closing.
When he took on his latest role at Snowflake, he wrote a post on LinkedIn where he talked about how the strategies for ABSD had evolved and shared his fundamental advice for being successful:
The underlying requirements to be successful, remain truer than ever: be authentic, be human and build great people. If you nail these three things, all the other things can be built and scaled.-Lars Nilsson
This idea of humanity being essential to successful sales, cultivated from his decades of experience, has been essential to Nilsson’s path. He stressed how important “caring” has been in his career, from people caring for him, to caring for others.
I look at all those people in my life that I’ve looked up to, whether they’re mentors or leaders, but the people that inspired me to want to be better, and it always came down to them caring about me and letting them know they cared.-Lars Nilsson
His takeaway: when someone cares for you, it engenders loyalty. And the loyalty that leaders create from caring, it makes people want to follow them and create something great.
Nilsson has been building teams from the ground up and focusing on the strategies of selling for 34 years now. He’s seen sales teams evolve from hitting the pavement to close their deals, to having all of the information they need be a click away in a CRM.
When Nilsson was early in his career, he wanted to be the best and the sharpest. Three decades ago, that translated to: getting up the earliest and staying up late to work longer and harder than anyone else. Sleep wasn’t a priority.
Today, we know that if we want to perform better in our waking hours, sleep is a priority. It can affect our cognition, our emotions, and our connections with others. Getting the sleep you need makes a difference in how you perform during the day.
Nilsson’s views have changed as sleep science has become more widely acknowledged, “In today’s world, sleep is everything. And it’s really great to see all of the attention now being given to the human heart, the emotional side, and how sleep is such a big part of that.”
Sleep affords the connections to emotion that can enable a seller to do what technology cannot. Nilsson points out how storytelling is essential to connecting with someone, whether it’s the story of a product, or the total cost of ownership, it’s something that salespeople can provide beyond the technology.
The storytelling is where the human connection has to come out. Because in my opinion, the only way you sell something to anyone is if you educate them and you inspire them to want to learn more about it. Sellers today are in the education and inspiration business.-Lars Nilsson
With all the training and experience Nilsson has gained in his decades-long career, his greatest takeaway is also a very human one: connect with someone at the end of the day. For Nilsson, it’s calling his son or daughter or mother to talk about their day, but that connection helps him be a better father and son — in addition to a great sales leader.
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