Episode 78: Mary Tafuri on Improving Sales Skills through Gamification

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I am 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 they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today, I’m excited to have Mary Tafuri from IBM join us. Mary, I’d love for you to introduce yourself, your title, and your organization.

Mary Tafuri: Sure. I’m the chief sales enablement officer and vice president in IBM for IBM Cloud and Cognitive. I like to translate my role to my kids in a very simple way, which is all about making our sellers the best in the market. And the best for us means more skilled, so my job and my focus every day is how we can make all the roles that we have in our sales workforce – and we really have everything that you can think of from the digital sellers, the channel, the brand sellers, the cross-portfolio sellers, the architect, the tech team, all in our audience.

So really, it’s a very exciting role. Our focus is how we can make them excited as well about learning, being curious and not bored, and how we can use modern techniques to look at modern skills.

SS: Fantastic. Well, Mary, I’m super excited to have you join us and have you share your expertise with our audience, so thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

You had mentioned in your introduction how you explain the role of enablement to your children. Sales can be a really tough job, especially in the increasingly digital world that we live in today. To be successful in the modern sales environment, what are some of the key traits sellers need to have from your perspective?

MT: I love this question. Let me start by sharing with you something that Sebastian Krause, our general manager of the Cloud and Cognitive go-to-market team for the European geography, shared in our sales enablement kickoff last year. He said to all the thousands of sellers that we had in front of us that today, selling is no more just an art, it’s a science. I’ve been reflecting on that.

The sellers to be successful today do need to do a lot of homework. We always say that the value that we bring to our clients is the combination of two things: what do we sell, let’s say whatever offerings that any company may have in their portfolio, and how we sell it. It’s really the skill of our sellers. So, the sellers are bringing value to the client when they bring insight that goes above and beyond just the what, but into doing a lot of homework about their client and the challenges that their clients have.

They also need to be smart considering the clients are well-informed today, probably too informed. And so probably the amount of information that everybody is inundated with creates challenges and opportunities at the same time.

So, when we think about the traits of the modern seller, we look at five in particular, and I will share with you which ones they are and what we are doing to master the skills. The very first one is empathic listener. It is extremely important to realize why we have one mouth and two ears. My father used to tell me, if you have one month to two ears, you need to use your time in proportion with that. I say the same to our sellers. It is extremely important not just to listen to our clients, but to listen with empathy. Walk in their shoes, understand what their challenges are, and focus on that first.

The second trait is a mastery in storytelling. We don’t want our seller to be just focused on the future and functions of our products and solutions, but we want them to tell the story of the value that we bring to our clients when they are immersed in an industry that is highly competitive. Focus on that first, like I was mentioning earlier, and tell a story that engages the client more. That’s not an easy thing to learn. In fact, we discovered that yes, there is a lot of training about storytelling. But the best way to master this skill is really do a lot of collaborative peer-to-peer learning experiences and a lot of coaching. But you can master this skill that way.

The third skill is probably the one that has existed within IBM since day one. So, you will think this is an evergreen one. It’s trust and client advocacy. So, we want still our sellers to be at their core, the trusted advisor for the client, but we want them to do so starting with, like I mentioned earlier, with empathy and with the ability of telling the story. That trust is earned with those two skills first.

Then there are two other traits that are very important. One is the technology enthusiast. We used to think of sellers as people that are able to convince you or persuade you, but not necessarily people able to do a demo, or to do a whiteboard, or to do a deep technical conversation in the past. But now to bring that value that I was mentioning earlier to our client, it is extremely important that our sellers deeply understand our technology and they can convey with confidence that value to our client. So, the technology enthusiast is key. It’s not just the culture, but being enthusiastic about the technology is key.

And the last one is knowledge amplification. When you to think of selling today, it’s wider, one-to-many type of activities that starts in a more proactive way than what used to be five-10 years ago or more. Being a knowledge amplifier means, focus on being very active with social selling and digital communities. Blog on many of our platforms that we can see, on the web where our clients can go based on the level of interest there is that they have, or based on the industry where they live. So, we do know that 74% of clients decide about what to purchase before even contacting a human being. We constantly remind our sellers to invest in social selling and think of that like proactive selling more than anything else.

So, those are the five traits that we master. And a lot of the training that we do is how our products can be evaluated in each of these five dimensions. We help sellers to tell the stories, we help tell our sellers to be trusted advisors in a given industry, and so on and so forth.

SS: I love that. I think that those are five really great traits. Mary, I would love to understand, as you guys have new sellers coming in the door at IBM, or as you’re hiring for new sellers, how are you working to ensure that they exhibit those five traits throughout the hiring process? If there are gaps, how can enablement step in to help develop these traits in some of your newer sales reps?

MT: Oh, interesting. So, the hiring is sometimes very dependent on who is interviewing or recruiting. We do have, of course, our recruiters, we have the hiring managers that are the human being part of the process, and then we have tools and processes and programs. When we look at the programs, we have a program that is quite rich. It’s a six-month-long learning experience that starts with what we call global selling school that is the same no matter what you will sell in IBM.

Then they get into a portion of it that is called “Top Gun” that goes deep into the business and the traits that we want them to develop, like the five that I was mentioning earlier. And we constantly look at ourselves to make changes and to adapt to the market and to the needs that the clients have. But this is the step number two.

Then the step number three within the six months is really what we call a brand learning journey. So, if you are a seller in the Data and AI, you will be welcomed into the Data and AI learning journey where it is very focused on solutions that we have in that portion of the portfolio. And there are self-paced trainings, in-person trainings, and in that way we help the seller to continuously focus on learning and having confidence in telling the story.

On top of that, we have a buddy system. We try to pair new sellers with senior sellers that we have in the organization, and we believe that that’s the best way to continue what they start in the first six months, so that until they are able to run a with their legs, they have support all around them.

When we look at what else we do to hire the right people, like many companies, we do have our own talent and discovery chat bot. Of course, we have Watson, in our portfolio, and that helps us as a virtual assistant, so to speak. This discovery chat helps to look at some of the traits, it looks at the digital eminence that people may have or any information that can be found online. The chat bot can help the manager when they’re doing the interview with some insight to help them better understand who they have in front of them.

But ultimately, we believe that with the global selling school, the top gun, and the learning journey that I was mentioning earlier with the six-month-long program, we can really have anybody that has a passion to sell and a dedication to client success to succeed in IBM as well.

SS: That’s fantastic. And that’s very interesting that you guys are using IBM Watson. I wish we had more time during this podcast to dive into that a little bit with more. Now on the flipside, with more tenured salespeople that might be used to different ways of selling, I’m sure you realize behavior change can be an obstacle. What are some of the strategies that you’ve used to ensure that seasoned sales reps have the skills that they need to be successful in a modern selling environment?

MT: The number one reason why my boss hired me in this role two years ago was exactly to try some behavioral changes for the most the season and the sellers that we had in our organization. To embrace modern selling skills, sometimes it’s harder to unlearn what you learned than learning new things. That was my number one ask: how you can innovate, how you can make the enablement and the skills stretching something that people want to do, not are forced to do.

The way we addressed this challenge was through gamification. We designed it, our simple platform that is called “Game On”, about 18 months ago now. The platform evolved with us as we started to use more and more gamification to, on one side, accelerate learning, and on another side, co-create assets or harvest the house. Another dimension is to learn from each other, peer-to-peer learning. So, we started to create a number of skill challenges or games and this platform. And today we have more than 100 games that we did in 18 months. We had more than 18,000 players in the platform itself.

I can tell you we had more than 1,400 winners, as well, because when you compete for a challenge as a participant, there are also winners. And what I learned is that yes, sellers compete, some of them for the prize, but many of them for the fame. They want to have their names on the top of the leaderboard, and many of them are just driven by that kind of mentality. We want them to embrace the journey of the gamification to help the rest of the community.

My number one motivation to do all this investment was really to unleash the knowledge that is in the fields. I firmly believe that no matter how good the people in the sales enablement can be, the best knowledge is the knowledge that people have on the street every day when they are having the conversations with the client. And so my challenge at the very beginning, and the reason why I started to use gamification was how can I motivate the seller that is in Brazil, the seller that is in Italy, or the seller is in China to share their assets – how they’ve been able to win an objection handling conversation in a given industry with a given client in a given geography. And how they can help others to leverage that kind of experience and how that kind of experience being used by multiple people can be improved each single time.

So, long story short, through this type of program, we generated a pipeline of over $25 million and we had a lot of wins. And I’m very proud to say that last year alone, we had $86 million in highlighted wins. So, a number of win stories where the people that applied to some of the challenges and used some of the assets that were shared or crowdsourced were able to win clients.

We have a very prescriptive way to also measure if one challenge or the other in one part of the portfolio or in one specific market is more effective than others. It’s all driven by data collection and analytics and nicely displayed in a dashboard. I’m very proud of the adoption rate that we now have.

But I have to be honest with you, it wasn’t that easy at the very beginning because sellers are swimming in their own swimming lane, fast and furious. So, to start to have their attention in this type of experience and see engagement, having some of them being our ambassadors was key to add attraction and finally get to the point where we are today where people are constantly looking on the gamification platform: “What is the new game that is going on? Can I participate and earn more points?”

SS: That’s really great stuff, Mary. I’m excited to hear about all the things that you guys are doing around gamification at IBM. I’d like to pivot with a closing question. I would really love to understand how you envision sales enablement changing over the next few years. How do you think that sales enablement will continue to evolve?

MT: I think keeping the sellers really engaged and embracing the importance on investing in on skills is so important when you look at, like I was mentioning at the very beginning, what we have in our reach. Not only all the flavors of sellers that we have in IBM Cloud and Cognitive, but also the technical people, the technical sellers, the architects, and you can observe that the technical roles constantly invest on their skills. They are happy to spend hours to get a new badge on your certification because they know how important brushing up on your skills is. The challenge for us in sales enablement is to make sure the sellers have that same kind of attitude and are curious about learning. They understand that selling today is not just an art but a science and it requires a lot of homework and a lot of study to prepare to have that first conversation with the client. That is of a high value.

The other thing is also embracing social selling. When I look at what I really want to make a mark on this year, it’s exactly about social selling and having the sellers – not to the digital sellers, they get it because their job is essentially all digital – but all the other sellers that we have in our organization embracing social selling and understanding that if they do, there are a lot of statistics that support the return of investment in social selling. For example, 78% of salespeople that engage in social selling outperform their peers that don’t engage in social selling. That’s a big number.

As I was mentioning earlier about the number of buyers, 74% decide before even contacting a human being. You want to reach those clients in a more proactive way. And there are a lot of other statistics that speak about how you can increase productivity, increase opportunities that you have in pipeline, find the right contract, contact in a more effective way. So, sales enablement, to be more relevant in today’s world, has to prepare the sellers to embrace social selling and support them more.

For example, I created a new role in my organization this year that is specifically there as shared services internally to support the sellers that are drafting blogs but are not certain about publishing them. So, how can I help them to be more confident? By providing somebody that can review, what they are, drafting. Maybe provide the right, wording about the concept of the right picture, the right data, whatever could be there that can allow them to do the first steps of social selling with more confidence.

Like everything, the more you have adoption, the easier it is to have a snowball effect later on. We need to focus on having the right ambassadors of social selling – and we are in every market. Then we are also using the gamification platform to drive this type of behavior as well. We have a lot of challenges around them. Social selling is one. So, we tried to combine efforts and ultimately that will help to take us further.

SS: I love that, and I love everything that you guys are doing over there at IBM. You guys are definitely on the innovative edge of things when it comes to sales enablement. So, thank you so much, Mary, for joining us today and sharing your experience and your journey in sales enablement thus far with my audience.

MT: You’re very welcome.

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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