06/05/2020

26.2 Reasons Why Sales Success is a Marathon Pt. 1

By Marc Pollina

I’m grateful to have run 23 marathons and led sales at a variety of levels for startups, scaleups, boutiques, Fortune 500s, and Fortune 50s. And, it’s true; growth at all costs works. Until it doesn’t. And, whether it’s a metatarsal stress fracture or a global pandemic, once the normal becomes abnormal, don’t expect your old ways of achieving success to generate the same magic they once produced.

It’s time to get creative. We’re not going back. The “new normal” will be different. How? Well, no one has all the answers. Not Warren Buffet. Not Bill Gates. Not even Jeff Bezos. What we do know is that there are opportunities within the obstacles. Seeds of success are being planted now. Success stories are beginning to emerge. More will come. Will you and your company be among them?

In the midst of a crisis causing unprecedented behavioral shifts in the ways products and services are bought and sold, I’m excited to announce I’ve been appointed Chief Revenue Officer at Figmints, a company dedicated to helping its customers merge their physical and digital assets to maximize their recurring revenue.

Plenty of ways to shape the future of sales and marketing in the days ahead, but, for starters I’m happy to share 26.2 Reasons Sales Success is a Marathon Part 1 (just because I’ve run 26.2 miles in row, doesn’t mean you can’t take a breather after 13.1 reasons). You can glean all the benefits without any of the obligatory training (e.g. time trials, threshold intervals, hill repeats, strides) or unfortunate side effects (hitting “the wall,” Gatorade “reversals,” thigh chafing, nipple bleeding, etc.).

So, go ahead. Put up your feet. Wear cotton. No need to train or taper. No awkward race photos. Carbo-load if you’d like. We’ll get you over the hills and across the finish line in minutes, not hours. Whatever pain you endure will be temporary, and the wisdom will last a lifetime.

1.0 Success isn’t linear.

I ran my first marathon in 4:29 in 2003. I kept getting faster and faster over the years, culminating with a 3:03 in 2009. My Holy Grail was to go sub-3. I was close for the first time, and I thought 2010 would be my year. But, no. Breakthrough success often doesn’t work like that. Instead, my times started to creep up (3:16, 3:17, 3:24 to name a few, and even 4:10 in 2012). It took seven years and more than 15,000 training miles until I finally achieved my goal, a 2:58 at the NYC Marathon in 2016.

Good news, bad news. The bad news is driving sales is no different. Sorry. One of the largest customers I ever onboarded took four years from first contact to close. If I were to diagram the path to success on a whiteboard, it would look like a toddler’s Etch A Sketch.

The good news is the non-linear journey is often the most rewarding. Marathons aren’t run in straight lines. And, whatever your goal, trust you will (eventually) achieve it.

The universe has a way of rewarding the persistent, even if divine intervention is necessary. Seriously. My mother passed away months before my sub-3 in NYC. Yet, I heard her voice yell “you got this, Marco!” in the homestretch in Central Park. I was off-pace when I entered the park with three miles to go. I knew I needed to rally. I did. Out of the blue, my tired legs accelerated from 6:50/mile pace to 6:20/mile pace. I had no earthly business running that fast. When I crossed the finish line, the clock above my head read “2:58:49.”

You don’t have to understand the journey. Just trust it. Commit to the process. Persist. Keep your eye on the end goal. And, you’ll end up where you’re meant to be. 

2.0 Let the run come to you.

This expression is often ascribed to Kenyan runners. If you’re relatively new to running, the logic may seem counterintuitive. Wouldn’t it make sense to run fast with fresh legs and slow down when you’re fatigued? Well, yes, but that’s doing it wrong. Let me explain.

With more than 50,000 miles on my legs, I’ve learned that my legs aren’t so “fresh” when they first hit the pavement on any given day. Old cars can change their tires, but we runners aren’t so fortunate. It’s not uncommon for me to take four or so miles just to warm up. A typical run is seven miles, so I’m in a rhythm for maybe 40% of the run if I’m lucky.

On a brighter note, all the good stuff, including the elusive “runner’s high,” is on the back end. Building up slowly allows you to get there. Easing into a run allows your body to relax. You’ll even have time to perform a diagnostic. How is my IT band feeling today? Is it ready for a tempo?

You guessed it. The sales process is quite similar. Have you ever walked in a retail clothing store and had a salesperson greet you with enthusiasm at the door and shadow your every move from the moment you entered? It’s unsettling.

Did you ever pursue a lead like a late ‘80’s-era Mike Tyson confronted, well, anyone diagonally across from him at the opening bell? Being over-eager can be a liability, especially if you exhaust too much energy too soon and don’t have the stamina required to go the distance. 

Understand and follow the stages of sales. Nurture the prospective customer from the top of the funnel to the bottom. Every prospect has a different rhythm. Get to know the decision maker. Don’t force the pace. Let the sale come to you.

3.0 If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.

Do you ever wonder why marathon runners choose to race in a pack? The whole road is available, yet the lead pack sticks together like Cheerios in a bowl clinging for survival. Why don’t the runners disperse and social distance themselves? Why would they put themselves in danger of tripping one another?

The answer is an easy one. The benefits far outweigh the risks. Sure, an inadvertent trip is possible. But, runners raise the bar for one another. Persistent 20-mph headwinds? It sure is nice to be tucked behind a wall of runners who are blocking the wind for you.

Runners side-by-side tend to adopt the same cadence, too. That’s helpful, especially when you’re red-lining with a heart rate of 170 bpm and your reduced glycogen stores have rendered you incapable of doing the simple math it takes to figure out how fast you need to run the last 5k to break your PR (personal record).

Did you miss your fuel at the last aid station? Chances are someone in the pack has an extra Gu or gel for you. Runners work together.

It’s no different in sales. It takes a village. Gone are the days when a lone-wolf salesperson could make it rain with a roll of quarters and access to a phone booth. Today’s sales process success involves integrating physical and digital assets, establishing thought leadership, aligning marketing and sales, optimizing customer engagement, collaborating and partnering with third-parties, analyzing data, and more.

Players on internal and external teams (production, quality, customer service, inbound/outbound marketing, sales, etc.) must all work in concert to serve the common goal, customer success. Similar to a marathon pack chewing up pavement, the cadence of the moving parts will synchronize quarter over quarter as customer feedback improves product quality, sales momentum continues to build, and deals start closing with greater velocity.

4.0 Function in disaster. Finish in style.

A lot can go wrong in a marathon. Sometimes it’s self-induced (faulty gear, wrong pre-race meal, poor mid-race fuel, etc.). Sometimes it’s not (oppressive heat, GI distress, angry headwinds, or otherwise). Either way, adversity will find you.

The weather for the 2018 Boston Marathon was legendary, arguably the worst in the race’s 122-year history. Torrential rain, persistent 25-30 mph headwinds, and wind chills in the low-30s tested runners from start to finish. My hands were so numb at the start that I had to enlist the help of a Hopkinton local to tie my shoelaces. But, I wasn’t alone. Conditions were horrendous for everyone, including thousands of volunteers and spectators who battled hypothermia to make the day special. As a result, the camaraderie among participants was legendary, too. We were all in it together.

Sure, some entrants chose not to start (DNS) and others suffered too much and elected not to finish (DNF), but the lucky 25,746 who persevered won’t soon forget the experience. “Severe” weather looks less intimidating after conquering such epic conditions.

I finished in 3:56:37, nearly an hour slower than my PR. The final turn from Hereford to Boylston was pure euphoria. The running community speaks with reverence about the Boston Marathon in general. In fairness, the race has seen a bit of everything over the years, including the infamous bombing of 2013. But, finishers of the 2018 version share a special bond. They don’t have to answer the question “how did it go?” Just one look in their eyes and it’s obvious.

A lot can go wrong in sales, too. Are your sales cycles longer than expected? Did your champion within the company accept a role at a competitor? Did your decision-maker go dark? Are you constantly dealing with rejection in sales? Adversity is everywhere even when the economy is crushing it and the bull market is raging. What if there’s a crisis? 

The COVID pandemic has forced businesses to digitally transform faster than anticipated. And, operational efficiencies are top-of-mind as global economies regain their footing. Burgeoning success stories will “lean forward” into the crisis and find opportunities to play offense when most companies are choosing to play defense.

How will you emerge from the crisis? Will you be stronger? Finishing in style requires an opportunity mindset. And, what about the next crisis? Are you proactive or reactive? Are you ready?

5.0 Never make a decision when you’re feeling bad.

I love this one. In 2008, I entered the Hartford (CT) Marathon with the idea that maybe, just maybe, I could qualify for the Boston Marathon (BQ) if all the stars aligned. I never had run faster than a 3:36 marathon and I needed a sub-3:20 to BQ. It was a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG), and it seemed even crazier at mile 3 when I realized my GI was in distress and my eyes were roaming the course for a porta-potty. As I was contemplating stopping (and swiftly derailing any chance to BQ), I remembered what’s arguably the best marathon advice I’d ever received, “never make a decision when you’re feeling bad.”

I didn’t. I kept going, passing porta-potty after tempting porta-potty. By mile 12, I was cruising along and realized I didn’t have to go at all. Problem solved. I crossed through the Memorial Arch at the finish in 3:16:52. Boom. My first BQ.

Sales will make you feel bad. Rejection. Looming quotas. Lost deals. You’ll be searching for a figurative porta-potty often. Don’t stop. Don’t open the door. The best time to ask for new business is on the heels of winning new business. Why? You’re in the right frame of mind to ask.

The COVID crisis isn’t a passing phase. It’s our new reality. Don’t panic. And if you are, let it pass because now is a great time of opportunity. It’s the perfect time to rethink better ways to solve core problems and pose important questions. Just make sure you’re in the right frame of mind to ask them.

6.0 Lean into the pain.

There will be pain. Accept it. Prepare for it. Lean into it. In 2009, I finished the Maine Marathon in 3:03:58. Optically, it was a stunning success, 18th place out of 958 finishers and a new PR by nearly 13 minutes. Not bad.

But, I know something you don’t. At mile 21, I was on pace to go sub-3. Two runners came up beside me. I had to make a choice: do I stay with them or let them go? I was hurting. My racing flats were angry and my feet were on fire. Every foot fall felt like I was stepping on hot coals. They each finished in sub-3. I had seven years to contemplate what went wrong. But, the reality is I knew instantly the moment it happened. I didn’t lean into the pain. I shouldn’t have let them go.

Successful selling isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. There is no one secret to sales success. There’s plenty of hard work required. You and your team will experience pain, and you’ll get to know your customers’ pain intimately.

Listening to prospective clients wax poetic about specific pain points is compulsory. Identifying pain is the first step of a sales process. Get into the habit of leaning into it.

7.0 It never gets easier. You just get faster.

A special thanks to three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond for this gem. We runners have adopted the cyclist’s phrase because it’s so darn true for runners we can’t help ourselves. For the record, LeMond’s come-from-behind victory in the 1989 Tour is one of the most incredible feats of athleticism ever captured on film. He averaged 33.893 mph in the final time trial to win the overall Tour by eight seconds.

I’ve experienced as much pain racing a 2:58:31 marathon as I have running a 4:29:04 marathon. If there’s a silver lining, I finished sooner.

Sales isn’t easy. But, no matter how fast or efficient you become, it doesn’t get easier. There are no magic shortcuts. Sales is a process. 

Do you fully understand your prospective customer’s pain? Do these prospects believe you can uniquely solve this pain? Great. You’re on the right path. But, what about urgency? If there isn’t any, your prospect is in no hurry to buy. Do you have a business case handy that articulates why and demonstrates real ROI? You’ll need to help your prospects quantify their problems if you expect them to buy your solutions. What is the total cost of ownership (TCO) of them not using your product? None of these answers comes easy.

To put it another way, it’s your job to make your prospect’s job easier to buy your product. It’s like Greg LeMond knowing he needed to race 50 seconds faster than his closest rival in the final stage to win the 1989 Tour. Neither is as easy as it sounds.

8.0 The person who starts the race is not the same person who finishes the race.

My first marathon was the 2003 Boston Marathon. I finished in 4:29:04, my slowest time. But, in hindsight, it may have been my most significant race. Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter once said “you have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” Not me. I was hooked.

The marathon isn’t for everyone. Heck, I run them and I believe the race does more damage than good. Many who take the risk and run one check the “bucket list” box and they’re done. I had a much different reaction. 

I fell in love. The challenge. The pain. The crowds. The training. The discipline. The competition. I couldn’t get enough. I needed to feel it all again. And, again,

Sales isn’t for everyone either. Hunger. Competitiveness. Resiliency. Curiosity. Persistence. Passion. Tenacity. Patience. Charm. Commitment. You’ll need them all to succeed.

One thing is certain; sales will change you. Much like marathons, sales is a polarizing endeavor. You won’t “have to forget your last” sale to know whether you want to try another. If you’re still overcoming rejection in sales after your first ‘no’, or if you’re not supercharged and hungry for more after your first sale, you’re better off taking your career in a different direction.

9.0 Run the mile you’re in.

Ryan Hall, one of the best marathoners in American history, authored a book with this title. I’m a huge fan of Ryan and I love the expression because 26.2 miles is a long way! A marathon can be overwhelming. I’ve learned to break the journey into chunks that are more easily digestible. Being “present” while running and concentrating on, literally, running the mile you’re running sounds simple in theory, but it’s a challenge to adhere to in practice.

Your mind can take you to a lot of places when you’re running. Some are happy, but many are dark, especially at the tail-end of a marathon. Imagining 26 consecutive one-mile races in a row is a little less intimidating than standing in rural Hopkinton and realizing you need to run through Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Chestnut Hill, and Brookline on your way to Boston.

Sales can be overwhelming, too. Have you identified and segmented your target markets? Who is your ideal customer? What is his or her ideal buyer journey? What about pricing strategies? Does your product’s price match the market’s perceived value? Have you thought through all the strategies and tactics you’ll need to maximize revenue? What about the stages of sales? Have you identified them? Are your marketing and advertising effective? How do you know? On top of it all, we’re in a particularly rapid changing world, how are you going to optimize your sales strategy? Should you develop more digital optimization? Do you have digital sales enablement strategies?

Take a deep breath. Much like you can’t run 26.2 miles all at once, you can’t do everything you need to succeed in sales in one fell swoop. Run the mile you’re in. Run it well. Focus. Repeat.

10.0 You get out of it what you put into it.

It’s often said that running a marathon is a microcosm of life. I agree. And, when I say I “agree,” I don’t just mean there’s a poetic beginning, middle, and end. I mean there’s the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything intensely macabre and magnificent in between. You’ll be disappointed and mortified in ways you didn’t see coming. You’ll be delighted and exhilarated in ways you could only dream.

One thing stands out; you get out of it what you put into it. Yep. Did you do some fast-finish long runs? No? Well, don’t expect to “negative split” (see Reason 13.1). How about rest? Did you run 80% of your runs at recovery pace and taper properly? No? Well, if you’re lucky enough to be healthy at the starting line, good luck when you hit “the wall” at mile 21. Is that Gu in your pocket? Yes? But, you practiced fueling with a different flavor? Bummer. All the best trying to keep down that Watermelon gnarliness at mile 23 while your calves are cramping and the very smell of Gatorade makes you want to yawn in Technicolor.

It’s not too surprising to me when I meet an endurance athlete who excels at sales. Discipline. Persistence. Tenacity. So many attributes are transferable.

Sales is a similar formula; you get out what you put in. Are sales and marketing aligned? No? Well, that’s going to come back to haunt you. Are your sales representatives positioned as thought leaders in the industry? No? Then, you’ll have an uphill battle nurturing leads and earning credibility. Have you created an air-tight customer feedback loop? No? Then, don’t be surprised when customers are unhappy and attrition increases.  

Sales, much like a marathon, has a way of punishing or rewarding you in proportion to the level of effort and efficiency of execution you apply. You reap what you sow. That’s life. 

11.0 Mile 20 is the halfway point of a marathon.

Okay, I fib. It’s common knowledge the halfway point of a 26.2-mile marathon is 13.1 miles. I hit “the half” in 1:30:15 during the 2016 NYC Marathon and I knew I had to rally in the Bronx and Manhattan to break 3 hours. But, that’s just math. That’s not the real halfway point as marathoners know it.

Marathoners know the effort required to finish the final 6.2 miles is approximately equal to the effort needed to race the first 20 miles. Voila. The true halfway point is 20 miles.

Did I mention “the wall” you’ll hit at mile 20? There’s that, too. Runners store about 2,000 calories of glycogen in their muscles. Glycogen is the most readily available fuel source to burn when running. On average, runners use 100 calories per mile. Once glycogen stores are depleted, runners often “bonk,” making the final 6.2 miles feel longer than a mathematician would tell you.

Logic would tell you the halfway point of a sale would be at the midpoint of the sales funnel, somewhere in the murky “nurturing” process when marketing hands off a lead to sales. That sounds pretty good on paper, but the reality is the halfway point is often further down when the prospective client is actively evaluating your offering.

Most sales “hit the wall” after the halfway point. Why? It’s because you haven’t quantified the gain from using your product or the loss from not using it. In short, you haven’t demonstrated an urgent reason for the prospective client to take action.

Don’t think you’re halfway home at the midpoint of the funnel. Conserve some energy for the close. You’ll need it.

12.0  If I collapse, pause my Garmin.

We runners love our analytics. “If I collapse, pause my Garmin” is an expression often seen on t-shirts at marathon expos. It pokes fun at our obsession with tracking our runs and our fear that an unpaused Garmin will negatively impact our average pace or, heaven forbid, our VO2 max.

For the non-runners, a Garmin is a GPS watch. It’s pretty darn accurate, but we still like to curse it when it (accurately) registers 26.45 miles after a marathon (if you don’t run the tangents of the course properly) or (errantly) registers our average heart rate at 190 beats per minute (sometimes a Garmin goes rogue).

But, data isn’t everything. I love analyzing and comparing my runs, but I also know how freeing and amazing it feels to run device-free and just focus on the joy of a run. There’s an art to running that defies science. Don’t forget it.

Sales is no different. Much like running years ago, sales didn’t have all the bells and whistles it has today. Times were simpler then. Data is an absolute game-changer that has given rise to data-driven sales. But, as much as data informs decision-making today, it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae.

We live in a “digital-first” environment, but until the day a robot sits across from you and signs your contract, remember there’s an art behind the science, too. Look in the eyes of who’s holding the pen. I’m guessing it’s a human with challenges and opportunities just like you. Your chances of sales success will rise and fall depending on how well you get to know this person. 

Pause your “Garmin” once in a while. Connect with him or her. When you return to your metrics, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

13.0 To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.

Okay. Steve Prefontaine never ran a marathon, but the most memorable quote from one of the world’s most famous runners is worthy of mention. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, but Prefontaine hit it out of the park with his interpretation.

We runners know how fortunate we are to be able to run. I’ve been sidelined temporarily with IT-band syndrome (2003) and a metatarsal stress fracture (2017) and each time I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest. We realize how fragile we are when we can’t do what we love.  

It’s natural to take our health for granted when we’re training and racing and feeling superhuman. When a broken bone prevents you from bearing any weight on your foot, you’re forced to reset, rebuild, and rethink how lucky you are and what you’ll do differently to be your best going forward.

The 80/20 rule is a good rule of thumb for runners. Run 80% of your runs at “recovery” (easy) pace and run 20% at a purposeful, harder pace. Sounds about right. But, not every runner is the same. I’ve found my body likes long, slow distance, but it can’t handle too many visits to the “oval office” (i.e. track) for speed work. My optimum mix is more 90/10.   

The COVID crisis has been the “broken bone” of sales. It’s time to reset, rebuild, and rethink. What can we do to be our best going forward? What can we improve? Sure, digital and physical assets are merging. But, what’s the optimum mix for your company? It’s probably different than what’s perceived to be normal. It might even be different than what’s working for your competitors.

Companies are rallying to help one another to emerge from the crisis stronger than they entered. What gifts does your company have to offer? What can you share? Don’t sacrifice this opportunity. Crisis tests you. Step up and give your best and you won’t fail.

13.1 Negative splits/Positive vibes

In theory, the ideal way to run a marathon is to “negative split.” What does that mean? Well, it means you should run the second half of the race faster than the first half. Sure. Sounds great on paper. Actually doing it with what awaits you (cramping, “the wall,” nausea, depleted glycogen, and a downward spiral of mental anguish) is another story.

To be clear, I’ve negative split two of my 23 marathons. It just so happens both negative splits were my only sub-3 marathons (1:30:15 at the half and 2:58:49 in NYC, and 1:29:26 at the half and 2:58:31 in Chicago). I guess I’m a perfect example of what I’m trying to say. I’ve gotten it right 8% of the time I race. Don’t be me.

The good news is the “positive vibes” are real. When you negative split and you’re in shape (physically and mentally) to run the second half faster than the first, it’s euphoric. By virtue of simply not slowing down, you’ll pass hundreds (possibly thousands) of runners who are positive splitting the race (hint: that’s the majority). In NYC, I finished 777th out of 51,394 finishers. Even better, I passed hundreds of runners in Central Park. If you still have some leg speed in the final miles, it’s like you’re a healthy civilian in a zombie apocalypse. I suppose it’s not hard to look fast when everyone around you is shuffling.

So what does it look like to negative split in sales? To be successful, you’ll have to finish strong. Pace yourself. Sales is a marathon. The end of a sales funnel can look like a scene from Zombieland if you don’t set yourself up for success by allocating your efforts judiciously throughout the sales cycle.

Think of a sale as a crescendo of effort. Have a negative-split mindset. Like me, you may not execute according to plan all the time, but your odds of success will increase if your organization turns a negative into its positive.

Congratulations! You’re (mathematically) halfway home. If you were running the Boston Marathon, you would have just passed the Wellesley College “Scream Tunnel” where hundreds of Wellesley girls cheer you by name and hold signs offering to kiss you.

Stay the course. Stay focused. You got this. And, stay tuned for Part II coming soon. We promise we’ll get you to the finish line.

11 Essentials to Digitize Your Sales Process