Episode 79: Julie Zhang on Virtual Enablement Tips to Maximize Client Experiences

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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 Julie Zhang from Russell Investments join us. Julia, I would love for you to introduce yourself, your role in your organization to our audience.

Julie Zhang: Hi, Shawnna. Thank you so much for having me. I work at Russell Investments, as you mentioned, and I’m the North America sales enablement director for our retail distribution teams. And essentially the role is, I would say, akin to kind of a quarterback. I think sales has gotten so complicated, especially in a heavily regulated industry like finance. There are so many different components that salespeople need to know and understand, and so much goes into that sales process. It’s not enough to just slide a product across the desk and expect someone to buy it.

Everyone is so much more informed. There’s so much information out there, and that requires a salesperson to be more of an expert. So, whether that’s training and development, understanding how to best utilize marketing materials, or understanding more about our partners, our client data, data visualization, all of that kind of gets merged into one team under my leadership. It really extends itself to trying to balance maximizing the experience for our clients, which are investment advisors, as well as maximizing the experience for our client-facing teams. We want to make sure that they’re getting the best experience as possible from internal information so that they can display in the best way to our clients externally.

SS: Well, Julie, I’m super excited to have you on our podcast today. And in fact, at an event last year, I noticed you spoke about how you wanted your client-facing teams to undergo a paradigm shift in which they consider training to be a critical part of their role and not just kind of additive. How do you instill that mindset in your client-facing teams?

JZ: I would not assume that we have. I think that actually, if anything, the recent move to virtual and just the elimination of the line between work and home life has made it more difficult to keep training as a top of mind, even though it was probably more essential now than ever because things are changing so quickly.

I would say that when we first started re-envisioning our sales training process – and there’s a wonderful person, Don Lewis, on my team who’s in charge of training and development for North American associates – one of the biggest things was making sure we have the right platform, making sure that we had the right cadence of material and that it was really up to date. So, you really need someone to own that material. And it’s not like they have to create all of it. They have to really know the company and know the subject matter experts to leverage.

But a lot of it was making sure the training was right, current, up to date, digestible, and that it came out in a regular cadence. So, it was always kind of expected. But you want it to become a habit. I think we definitely improved the training quite a bit because Don had built a very robust onboarding process. From the get-go, it was expected that training would be part of your DNA. I think over time as we try to release training every two weeks, we try to make it in small chunks. So, videos are typically less than 10 minutes. There’s always an assessment or some kind of quiz at the end to test your knowledge that you can retain the information for longer.

I think as we kind of iterated on those things and made the cadence better and more relatable and had salespeople actually do some of the training, we were able to merge a lot of those best practices together for the best experience on the training side. And I think we got to a really good point until obviously when everything kind of fell apart in March. There was just so much information internally and externally that we’re trying to get through. And then it became like, “okay, I’m going to do the training,” but it feels like a check the box moment. We were now kind of going through another iteration of, how do we make sure that it doesn’t feel like checking the box, but it feels like it’s useful?

Everyone is constantly trying to grab a piece of the salesperson’s time – psychologically, mentally. So, we’re always trying to be the barrier of, well, what is actually absolutely mandatory to the sales process right now, today? And what is optional? What’s a nice to have versus a must-have? So, I think deciphering between the two, which can sometimes be difficult in an environment where you really want them to know everything, becomes more essential. I think Don has had to become the prioritization expert on top of everything else.

SS: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. I just actually got out of a meeting talking about how do we prioritize? Because it feels like we’re all working exponentially harder and it’s even more difficult to see those results. So, what are some best practices that you’ve been able to implement or that you’re starting to implement to ensure that the continuous trainings for your teams are actually consumed by those reps?

JZ: That’s a great question, Shawnna. We have weekly national sales calls and we recently did one where we asked people to share best practices. And this is a very common occurrence where people will say, “we need best practices, we need more best practices,” but it’s difficult to monitor whether or not any of these best practices actually get implemented. And if so, are they done consistently in a way that is measurable? So, that’s kind of the challenge that we’ve always had.

When the request came in again, this VP did request that we need best practices. We tend to try to have a best practice call every quarter. This time around though, instead of focusing on what’s new in the best practice category and what’s trendy, we really tried to focus on what are those the top five out there? What are the best of the best that the top salespeople are using? And let’s figure out this commonality between them. Of course, there were – and let’s be as tactical as possible in describing how to execute those best practices. For instance, you could say to someone, “yeah, you should leverage all the data that we have to create a prospect list.” So, that’s engaging, that’s a great best practice, but that’s not really something you can implement tomorrow. How do you actually build that list? What data do you use? How long does it take? How often do you revise that list? Are you inputting into the CRM? How do you input it this year? How do you gauge interest accurately? How do you update interest accurately? How do you create a pipeline from that list? So, those are the tactical questions that only really come into play when you start sitting down and thinking, “okay, now I’m going to do this. Now, how do I actually do it?”

And something even as simple as a best practice around, we want to be better email writers. We want to have better skills. Well, that requires you to sit down for an hour a week and actually work at being a creative writer. What are the resources that we can provide you to do that? So, I think for implementing the best practices and continuous learning, it goes back to being tactical and making sure that it’s information and best practices they can actually do right now. We have to be very instructional with our approach and also not try to invent a new best practice every week. It’s really just hitting the top ones over and over until it becomes habitual for everybody.

SS: I love that. I think that that’s a great way to focus. Now, obviously a lot of organizations are pivoting to a more remote work environment given everything that’s going on. I’d love to hear from you, what have been some of the biggest challenges for delivering the training to the teams you support and how has sales enablement address some of those challenges?

JZ: I actually think that we’ve been fortunate in this area because we have a learning management system that we use is online. We launched that over a year ago, and we’ve done virtual trainings for a couple of years now and we use Skype and Zoom. So, all of that is pretty easy to transition in a work from home environment.

What is harder and is a challenging part is twofold. One is, again, going back to that question about prioritization, what are you actually going to need to train them on right now? And what you decide to train them on live, where you’re capturing their attention live versus if you do a recording and make them listen and take an assessment. That also requires a little bit of artistry to figure out and creativity.

I think the other challenge, aside from the prioritization, is capturing their attention. It’s not easy. Zoom fatigue and virtual meeting fatigue is real. If you’re going to capture people for three hours, make sure there are extended breaks, make sure that you’re using all of the bells and whistles of technology, whether it’s polling, cameras, Q&A, or breakout rooms. We’re trying all the time to figure out creative, new ways to be engaging with our audience.

We just realized that in the past when you were able to break out your normal routine by seeing people, it was less important to do that because people’s attention spans seem to be longer on Zoom or on Skype. But now, if we give you a really intense subject, we can only really make you focus for 30 minutes. Then we have to do an exercise for 15, then we have to do a break, and then we have to give you another topic that’s a little bit lighter or uses another part of your brain to make it a little bit easier for you to keep up if we’re going to capture your attention for more than a couple hours.

It’s the challenge of trying to maintain attention while you’re doing the training. And then of course, the prioritization, as I mentioned before.

SS: Absolutely. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d love to shift our conversation a little bit.
because on your LinkedIn profile, you actually emphasize maximizing the client experience as one of your primary responsibilities. How can you explain how sales enablement supports this objective?

JZ: I think this is an important one and one that’s usually forgotten because we are so internally focused. I always want to make sure that we’re balancing the support that we provide our client-facing teams internally with the ultimate purpose, which is to drive better experiences for our end clients, which are our investment advisors in our case. So, I think that the way that we do that is to always have the true client in mind.

We want to cater to every request from sales. But we want to make sure that their ideas and requests are taken into the context of, is this going to provide a better use case or a better experience for the clients in general? Is this scalable that everyone can learn from and use across the board? These are questions that we’re constantly asking ourselves.

I think that when it comes to sales enablement impacting the client experience, there’s so much that sales enablement can do and has the opportunity and the power to do. Whether it’s from ensuring that you have the right lead process in place when you have marketing leads from email campaigns going out, making sure that the language in that is matching what the clients and the client-facing teams actually want and use so that there’s alignment across the board. Whether it’s events that you’re putting on virtually or otherwise for clients, making sure that experience is top-notch and that it’s catered and personalized for them. Whether it’s data visualization, we work so much with data nowadays, but is the way that we’re showing the data usable for the sales team? Are they able to then use that and provide a more personalized experience for certain segments of clients? Even the ways that we communicate, whether it’s through email communication to our internal teams, or it’s through the intranet that we manage for our sales associates, is the information there applicable? Is it prioritized based on what our clients need to hear from the most?

I think all of that goes into just alignment of internal resources, what we put in front of the sales team, and ultimately what they put in front of clients.

SS: Absolutely. Now, I want to dive just a little bit deeper, because obviously in today’s economic climate, and moving to a predominantly virtual environment, what are some of the inherent challenges that you guys are facing in maximizing the client experience?
And how can sales enablement help ensure that the client-facing teams continue to deliver excellent client experiences even in this environment?

JZ: That’s another great question. I never imagined that it would take this to make everyone tech-friendly so fast. We introduced virtual meetings about a year and a half ago, which seemed prescient now, but when we did, it was a bit of a struggle to get everyone on our sales team and our client-facing teams to accept it and to use it and to engage with it. But kudos to them – both our Canada and U.S. teams were doing a phenomenal job of taking it, running with it, and then finding creative ways to make it their own.

I think the fact that we were early on that really helped because now that we’re in an environment where everyone is forced to do things virtually, not only are we able to provide that level of support, but our associates already had the technology in place. We already trained them on it. Now they’re able to then take that knowledge and transfer it to our clients and say, “Hey, this is how you can use virtual for your own meetings.” This is how you can engage audiences with this type of technology.

I think that has been a great way to deal with that specific challenge, but I think a bigger challenge that we are still struggling with, and I don’t think that there’s a magic bullet for this, is how do you capture attention? In so many ways, being in a virtual environment democratizes everyone. But then the only ways that you can really be unique and differentiate is through email, a phone call, a virtual meeting.

Getting that first attention or getting that first contact, especially with a prospect, is incredibly difficult. Now, everyone has so much going on, and it’s not like they just have so much going on at work. At the same time, they’re spouses, they’re parents, they’re teachers. So, you are dealing with a world where information is just going all the time. And it’s so easy to not read an email. It’s so easy to delete it. It’s so easy not to answer the phone. So, we have to make sure that the information that we put in front of clients, that we put in front of our sales associates, is really engaging and meaningful right now.

We need to balance that with the fact that this environment is so hard and it’s so personally challenging for everyone, and remembering to be human. Yes, we are trying to run a business. Yes, we are trying to sell products, but at the same time, acknowledging that this is not going to be the most efficient time for everyone. We are not expecting a 100% hit rate on the phone. We’re just trying to figure out what information can we get for you so that you can make our clients feel really secure about where they’re at with their business, with us? Getting the information to prospect the right people. It’s being careful how we burn those calories, if you will, but I don’t think that we have a magic answer for that, unfortunately. I’m sure we’ll struggle with it for some time.

SS: Well, I think the approach that you’re taking is a spot on. I think empathy is really going to rule in today’s times.

This has been a fantastic podcast by the way, but I want to close with what you see for the future of sales enablement. How do you envision it evolving, especially with all the radical change we’ve undergone in just the last few months? How do you envision it evolving over the next year and beyond?

JZ: It’s a big question and something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I have an amazing team. And in so many ways, we started off as a band of misfits, not exactly sure how we would all fit the components together. What ended up happening was a pretty magical group that just constantly raises the bar. I talked a little bit about Don who is in charge of our training development. Jeff Robinson, who’s in charge of our data analytics and visualization, he and I have talked about this a lot. What is the next evolution?

I really want the sales enablement arena to be focused more on how can we measure the propensity for a client to buy our product or to become a client? What is that lifetime value of that client? And I know that that has a lot to do with data, but I also think it has to do with like just the amount of calories that we spend as client-facing people trying to win business. Are there better ways to do that? If we can reduce the amount of no’s that you get, or the amount of emails that don’t get returned, I want to figure that out. I want to try to get to that magic bullet as much as possible, so we’re also not wasting the time of our clients.

If there’s someone who’s never going to become a client, let’s know that now and not bother them with emails and phone calls and trying to get a meeting. Let’s find our niche and just stick with an area that can win. So, the more specific we can get, I think also the more personalized things can get because information is so available and so free in so many ways. People are expecting the experience that they get from a vendor or for any company they’re in business with to be personalized to them and to cater to their needs.

I think it’s evolving in the same way as the sales process to be more personal. The only way we do that is to find the nuances and the niches that every sales associate and every sales territory has and be able to create custom visualization just for them to be able to understand how to prioritize the communications we give just to them. So, we’re constantly struggling with, “okay, what is scalable and what degree of customization can we still make within that scalability?” Hopefully that helps a little bit. I don’t have a clear sight into what’s exactly going to happen in the future, but that’s kind of my overall vision.

SS: I love that. No one has a crystal ball, but it does sound like you guys are doing amazing things over at Russell Investments. So, thank you so much, Julie, for taking the time to talk to us today. We really appreciate it.

JZ: Thank you, Shawnna, so much 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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