Episode 154: JD Miller on Empowering Rep Productivity and Engagement Virtually

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi, and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO¬ podcast, I’m Shawnna Sumaoang. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space, and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so that they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today, I’m excited to have JD Miller, the Chief Revenue Officer at Motus, join us. JD, I would love for you to introduce yourself, your role, and your organization to our audience.

JD Miller: Thanks, I’m JD Miller. I’m a Chicagoan, and I went to school at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana originally thinking that I’d be an attorney. The summer before law school I did an internship in the Clinton White House and realized that the lawyers really weren’t having a lot of fun, so I needed a new career goal.
I had an undergraduate degree that was a double major in philosophy and communication with a minor in literature, which is a really great pre-law curriculum that doesn’t lend itself to any specific career. I knew that I wasn’t going to become a philosopher, so I stayed for a master’s degree in communication where we were studying how groups of people formed communities online. It was the late nineties, so a degree in social networking was a strange new thing. Ultimately it started me in a job at a small tech startup that grew to be a really big public company and a career in technology sales was born.

If we fast forward 20 years, I finished the PhD in tech-enabled communications, and professionally I’ve done a series of roles at rapidly growing software companies, generally in the sales or marketing functions.

Today, I’m the Chief Revenue Officer at Motus where I run the sales and marketing teams. We have a series of solutions that help organizations to do what we call “working anywhere.” It really helps people figure out how to ensure that employees have the phones, internet connections, home office setups, and car reimbursements they need to make sure that it can be as efficient and effective as possible in this new paradigm of work where everyone seems to be working from home.

SS: Yes. I was going to say, right now your company is very well positioned given the state of the world. Now, you have a wide range of experience, JD, leading teams across the business, including marketing and sales.

How has this experience in many types of revenue-facing roles really helped to set you up for success as a revenue leader?

JM: We know there’s a lot of discussion lately about the role of the CRO and how that’s different from what people might historically have thought of as simply the head of sales. When you’re responsible for all revenue-generating functions, you certainly have to have solid stable skills, but you also need to be able to lead in areas of partnership, customer retention, customer satisfaction, you need to have some financial concepts, marketing, online sales and a whole lot more.

Most of my career has been spent in private equity-backed companies that generally operate on a three or four-year investment drumbeat. That really let me be fortunate enough to be able to change directions and strategies with a new investor or a new role pretty frequently. Because of that, as a leader, I don’t think that I have to know exactly how to do every one of my team members roles. My management style has been much more surrounding myself with people who are really smart and capable in each of their functions, and then let them go at it.

But it’s important that I’m able to have good conversations with team members about their function and engage in strategic discussions practically. While I might not personally know exactly how to go bid on today’s trending Google AdWords, I still need to be able to know what it’s all about and how it can drive us forward. I think that wide range of experience with all the PE firms really has given me more than an inch deep, but that mile deep knowledge, and a lot of different functions that lets me do that.

SS: I think that’s fantastic. Now, in addition to an expansive professional background, as you mentioned in your introduction, you have a very unique educational background with your master’s degree in virtual and collaboration technologies and the PhD in communication technology.

As businesses are rapidly evolving and trying to adopt these types of technologies this past year, really out of necessity, I think this is an area where you have a lot of expertise, so I would love to get your opinion and your perspective. How can businesses effectively utilize these types of technologies to really maximize collaboration across the revenue-facing teams?

JM: I think that’s a great question because you’re right. This is really a year where virtual work has come into the spotlight. At Motus we developed this hashtag, we call it “work anywhere.” I think a year ago, a lot of companies who’d never thought about it before suddenly had to implement this work anywhere strategy in a matter of days when the pandemic came in and sent people home.

That has some very tactical things, like making sure everyone is connected by phone and internet at home to do their job. There’s also higher-level thinking like, how are you going to build a sense of connection across your sales team? Are you going to create trust online between your sellers and your clients? How do you actually create a sense of community and loyalty to your company? And how do you really have teams who don’t just manage to meet in Zoom, but actually flourish in the environment?

When I think about how the communication technology background and PhD kind of plays in, it’s really helped us to pay a lot of attention to what people are saying. We’re seeing a lot of companies who have employees and jobs that used to think they couldn’t do at home at all, suddenly seeing that it works and that their future is going to be a workforce that demands flexibility as part of their work week.

When I think about the future, and I’m putting on my academic hat, I don’t think that people are necessarily ever going back to work or back to the office in the way that we used to do that five days a week before. Instead, at Motus we talk about work forward. The work forward paradigm is one where people get to choose when they want to be in the office and when they don’t. If that’s what the paradigm is going to be, and you’re going to be an employer that people want to work for, it’s really essential that their online experience isn’t just a second choice or an afterthought. It really needs to be equally rich and equally valuable when you engage with someone online.

What does that mean, topically? Well prosaically, for companies that have physical offices, they need to be sure that they have easy access to teleconferencing equipment and microphones and all of that kind of stuff. I also think there are a lot of implications for how a professional team structures their workday. I’ve been talking with a lot of my colleagues in sales who just finished their quarterly sales kickoffs, or their QBRs. Those events used to be sending everyone out to a hotel ballroom for two or three days, and they’d sit for eight hours a day and just tour of all of this training.

People really are structured to work that way, even then when they’re face-to-face. Now if you’re going to do it online, we know that meeting on any sort of teleconferencing system, you really get diminishing returns of attention if you’ve got somebody sitting in front of a video camera for eight hours. We’ve really had to think in our sales team about how you restructure learning experiences and our own sales kickoff. Instead of being an intensive two-day event, now it’s really stretched out across maybe two or three weeks. Each day there’s maybe one or two 45-minute sessions that you can dial into or get into.

I’m thinking a lot about as businesses are adapted to technology, figuring out how you can actually embrace the characteristics of the technology to make it a perfect experience in itself, not this sort of secondary carbon copy of something in person.

SS: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. Now, JD I think a lot of organizations right now, and to the point you just made, they’re starting to think about, how do we shift back into in-person environments or, maybe to your point, some sort of a hybrid in-person and virtual environment.

Do you have any advice or how should they go about doing that effectively while still being able to take advantage of a lot of the lessons that they might’ve learned when they had to shift to virtual in the first place last year?

JM: Yeah, great question. Let me tell you a little bit about how we did that with our own sales kickoff at the beginning of the year because we really had to think a lot about, given the state of the pandemic, is it going to be entirely virtual? Are we ready to be in person? Are we ready for some people to be in person? And so on.

My team really sat down and looked at the basics of our sales meeting and said, if we were all together, what would we be doing? We’d be wanting to have training, we’d be wanting to build community amongst the participants. We also have a really strong philanthropic commitment that every time our teams to come together, we want to do something good for the local community. Ultimately, the state of the virus in Illinois said we had to be a virtual event, but we really wanted to figure out how could we get each of those there’s three themes into our virtual meeting.

It started with a conversation I had with someone who works at the auditorium theater. It’s a big historic theater, downtown Chicago. With the pandemic, they had their doors shut for nine or ten months, so they were really struggling. We thought about our philanthropic hat and said, how could we help this community organization? How could we use who they are as a foundation for us to do our training and our community building and all of our online stuff.

We asked them to be our virtual host for us. What that meant was, it’s a five-thousand-seat auditorium that’s a hundred years old, and I got to be there live, in-person with a handful of my sales team. The other hundred-plus participants were dialing in virtually. We did our different training sessions, and they were broken up by what we call an “only at Motus experience” where we took the camera and went on a tour of the theater and had the stage managers show us the upper rafters where no audience member had ever been. How do they make it fun thunder and lightning down on the stage? We had a performer do a discussion about some of the performances they have done and things like that. For our virtual participants, they wound up feeling that sense of place even though they weren’t physically in Chicago. They felt like it’s a place that they were in.

Then we also tried to extend that out to their homes by sending each participant a box of theater concessions, programs for the event, popcorn, candy, all of that. And then per social hour, we had 20 of our salespeople put together an online zoom play, where they had ordered costumes on Amazon and wore them and presented them on Zoom.

We think that that hybrid experience works because it was true to all of our core values and core senses. Even if we were together, we would have wanted to see people’s personalities. We would’ve wanted to have small breakout sessions where they get to know each other really well. We really want them to leave with a memory that will last. When I think about the future, I’m sure I will have a sales meeting that gets back together physically all together in one place again. I know a lot of my sales team wants to actually have it in the auditorium theater because they developed sense of place there.

I also think with customer events, we’re finding with user groups and user conferences that these multi-day experiences that happen online are ones that people will kind of dip into, maybe for just 20 or 30 minutes. That’s really exciting from a customer engagement standpoint as well.

I really think, again, it’s not going back to just physical events. I think we’ve raised the bar now where every physical event is also going to need to have an online component that’s equally strong and equally as engaging as the in-person components so that clients and partners and different participants can choose how invested they want to be. Maybe it’s just dropping in for a half-hour session, or maybe it’s going onsite for the whole two or three-day event. I think this year’s events being virtual has raised the standard for marketing events. People now expect them to do the double duty with all the events going forward.

SS: I absolutely agree. In particular, because we have two events coming up that will be hybrid this year. It’ll be a fun new challenge for us to tackle. Now, JD, I’d love to shift gears just a little bit because there is another area that really became a critical focus for a lot of companies. That was, how do I engage my customers in a really deep and meaningful way, particularly over the past year?

You wrote an article about this, about being professionally persistent, I think is what you coined in that article, without obviously being annoying to customers. Since sales enablement professionals, our audience, often help drive sales engagement strategies, can you share some of your best practices with our audience?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. Well, the notion of professional persistence comes from data. With the academic background, I’m always trying to look at data and trends and see what we can learn. When I looked at data across multiple companies that I’ve worked for, we found that it took about 17 touches to actually make a connection with a prospect. 17 times you needed to reach out on a cold call or an email or something before they recognized your name, understood your products, and were able to decide whether or not they wanted to meet with you. 17 is an awful lot of engagement, so we really had to come up with, what are the best practices for that persistence so that I get my client’s attention, but I’m not annoying them or being unprofessional.

The first thing is, find the people where they are. When I began my sales career 20 years ago, the old paradigm was about everyone’s going to work in an office, they’re sitting at a desk with a phone there. It was just about cold calling and getting someone to answer their phone. Today, of course we’re not in offices as much as we used to be, but technology is flourishing so we also have all of these online labs with Facebook and Twitter and cell phones and all different modes of communication. When we’re trying to engage your prospect cold, we really need to use all of those modes of communication. Phone calls, texts. Nope, social networks, LinkedIn, all of those different places to really engage the prospect where they’re at and where they’re living.

Now, part of the flourishing of technology has also meant that it’s really lowered the cost to be able to engage somebody. I could send a personalized email to 5,000 people in just a few minutes for just pennies. As a result, their inboxes are flooded with sales emails every day. The second thing we need to do is cut through the clutter. Part of it is having a high enough volume that if your message is getting sent out and it’s one of 16 emails someone receives that day, there’s a high likelihood that it was just deleted without being read. We need to know that, and we need to teach our salespeople that you don’t just send one email and expect you’re going to get a result. You really need to have a reason to engage multiple times or a way to kind of modify that message 5, 6, 7, 12, 17 times, so that it’s actually seen.

Finally, I think another best practice is really all about targeting the message and having something meaningful to say to the person that you are talking to. When I began selling two decades ago, a typical cold call said, “I’m wondering if I could get 15 minutes of your time to learn more about you.” Whereas people always say when they call me, “I want to hear what’s keeping you up at night.”

Today, the expectation is that there is a lot you should know about me before you even picked up the phone because I have so much of my life online with my LinkedIn profile, my website and my company’s website or whatever. The third best practice is really making sure that you have a good-targeted message that resonates with something that you know about the person and brings them meaning on the first engagement, rather than hoping that they’re going to be generous with their time and engagement sales process with you.

SS: I want to talk to you a little bit about productivity because I think it’s always been a primary focus for revenue leaders, but I think as teams have had to adjust to some new working norms, I think it’s become a little bit of a concern. How productive and how much are their reps actually participating and engaging in what they’re supposed to do to hit their goals and their targets?

In an article you wrote about how important it is to set appropriate targets. You mentioned it’s important to really base the goals on evidence that it can actually be attained. How can that help improve productivity and effectiveness of a sales team from your perspective?

JM: Great question. When I started working at Motus, the leadership team here and our board really spent a lot of time in the early weeks refining how would we set sales targets. We landed with this philosophy that we wanted to give our sales teams a culture of winning, we wanted them to be able to stretch and overachieve and not have it super easy. We didn’t want people to have targets that were unrealistic.

We spent a lot of time really refining a methodology from looking back at what does the legacy performance been of individual reps? Of individual teams? Of individual products? What’s the seasonality of that? Then really trying to set sales goals that history says not only can be achieved, but are highly likely to be achieved, and adding a little bit of a stretch goal so that people need to expend a little bit of effort.

Now, I know a lot of other organizations just begin top-down and say, we want our company to grow 15% this year, so let’s just raise everyone’s quota 15% or let’s hire 15% more salespeople. The problem with that is that it’s not based in any fact. Those blanket goals assume there’s never going to be any turnover in your sales organization, no one’s ever going to leave. It assumes that if you hire a new person, they’re going to be a hundred percent effective on day one. We just know that that’s not true.
Spending time looking at what has happened in the past and then giving people just a tiny stretch is really a formula that I’ve landed on that makes everybody happy, helps us hit our sales targets, and really gets us in a culture of success.

My other kind of secret that I don’t admit to you all the time is that when I set out the quarterly goals, I also really like to have the first quarter goal be a little bit less than what I know the team is going to do, and I’ll make up for it in Q3 or Q4. That first quarter lets us really get out of the gates with a feeling of success.
We set targets where my team actually hit 120% of what we put out there as a Q1 goal. Now, we’ve actually landed pretty much where I thought the team was going to be, but I knocked down their Q1 quotas so every seller feels a sense of accomplishment, they’re happy, they’re motivated. They’re not going to be thinking about going to another organization because they think the rest of the years can be really successful.

I think that little trick is important because if you end Q1 missing your number, you’re just playing catch up for the rest of the year. Setting those targets in that way I think is what’s led to success for me.

You also asked about the sense of, how do I know people are working at home? I think that there’s two schools of thought in that culture. Do you believe you’ve hired professionals that you trust to do the job? Or do you have more of a kindergarten teacher approach where you feel you need to be supervising everything all the time?

Our salespeople are some of the most highly compensated people in our organization. We do a rigorous recruiting process with them. We really dive in on values. I really have a sense of trust amongst my team that they’re going to work wherever they are. Now, at Motus we never had, even when we were in offices, we never had a nightmare culture. We set people’s goals and said, here’s the target you’re supposed to achieve. We trust that you’re smart, we trust that you’re hardworking, and we trust that you’re going to do what it takes to achieve. If that means you can hit your quarter by working two hours a day, that’s great. If that means you’re going to hit your quota by working 10 hours a day, that’s great. You figure out what works for you.

We call it, find your own balance. If we set the targets at industry standards and reasonable things that most people are accomplishing in seven or eight hours, we think we’ve had a good balance with our employees and have happy sellers as well.

SS: I think that is a very healthy approach. Now to close, and this has been a fantastic conversation, so thank you so much for your time, but to close, I’d love to get your opinion.
What do you think will be the future? What will the future of business look like given the technological innovation that organizations have encountered and adopted in the past year?

JM: Yeah. Again, it comes back to that notion of work forward. I am convinced we are never going back to an office that’s 9 to 5 that has employees in that office all the time. We know that we have technology that makes virtual work really possible. High-speed internet connections, great cameras and microphones in our computers. It makes it really simple for people to kind of connect from anywhere in the world.

We know from a year of experience now that not only can it be done, but it has been done and employees really liked it. Data also shows that people are much more productive than the last year, than they were when they were commuting into an office and all of that. I believe that employers of choice are going to be companies that recognize this work-life integration that everyone has and will say, “we’re going to have some physical office spaces and there’ll be times that you’re going to want to meet face-to-face with a colleague or a client, so here’s a physical office to do that in.”

I also think that they’re going to recognize you’ve got kids or a dog that needs to get taken to the vet or whatever your personal life might be and creating flexibility to let people structure there their workdays around their personal commitments. In the end, I think then it’s a fluid environment where if you go into an office, great. If you want to go live in an Airbnb in Hawaii for a week and do all of your sales meetings from there, that’s great too. I think it’s flexibility that makes people effective, makes people happy, and ultimately, I think loyal to their employers.

SS: JD, thank you again so much for your time today. I enjoyed learning from you.

JM: I enjoyed being with you, thanks for having me.

SS: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there’s something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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