By Marcella McCarthy
Mark Crofton is a Florida native and the Global Vice President of Sales Coaching at SAP, where he’s been working for just over 15 years. In his role, he teaches others how to sell. Before working at SAP, he was an associate at McKinsey & Company, which he credits for teaching him to, “pick up the phone” to make a sale, along with the notion of breaking a sale into steps. Before working in sales, he didn’t have any formal training in the area and learned on the job. He started his career at a help desk for a software company when he said he spoke Spanish (and no one else did). I spoke with Crofton before the new year, to learn about his career, his ability to sell in multiple languages, and his sales tips for startups. The learnings from our conversation are below. *These tips and strategies are from Crofton himself and not SAP.
You have dual citizenship US/Germany, but you also worked in Argentina. Do you speak Spanish?
“I picked up Spanish while doing my undergrad at Tufts.” Crofton earned a B.A. in International Relations and German from Tufts University and an MBA from Columbia University.
Why did you decide to learn Spanish?
“In life, you want to set yourself up with options. Learning a language gives you options, going to business school gives you options.”
What was selling in a non-native language like?
“Having grown up speaking English and German with my family (his mother is German), we didn’t really talk about the need for enterprise technology. You have to be willing to re-learn a language that you’re native in. I have friends in Miami who think their business Spanish should be better and so I say, “Work on it.” People are welcoming when you try to speak their language. In all my years selling in Latin America, I’ve never had someone tell me my Spanish wasn’t good."
While a student at Columbia Business School, did you focus your studies on sales and sales strategies?
“My first sales role was when I was 25 and I got sent to Buenos Aires. I wanted to live in Latin America - that was my dream. My sales territory was Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay and I got three days of sales training. When you pick up the phone and you’re speaking to someone who only speaks Spanish and you’re working on commission, you’re learning curve is straight up.”
When deciding which markets to pursue, how do you go about the process?
“The first thing to identify is where you’re not going to sell. When I was the Head of Sales for Latam, I told my boss, ‘I’m not going to sell in Brazil.’ Sure, it’s the biggest market, but I didn’t speak the language and the product wasn’t a great fit for the Brazilian market."
When working on a sale, what would you do or say when you didn’t know the answer to the client’s question?
“For sales, I think it’s important to be authentic, so if you don’t know something, I say “I don’t know, but I know how to get that answer.”
For an early-stage startup that’s looking to hire a salesperson, what do you recommend thinking about?
“Think about your goal: are you trying to sell a lot, or a little, or to specific customers, or name brand customers? Once you have a goal, then you can understand what kind of salesperson you need. Someone who can sell 100 deals at $1k is different from someone who can sell 1 deal at $100k."
As a former startup founder, I know what it’s like to develop an on-the-ground sales strategy where you’re literally selling in-person to every new customer. But the challenge is often, how do you take that sales approach and translate it into something that’s scalable while still being cost-effective? What are your thoughts and recommendations here?
“Enterprise sales is about a process - a process you want to perfect and make repeatable. Second of all, it’s a process that can be learned. Most people aren’t born knowing how to negotiate or do territory planning.”
Do you coach your team to sell over email or over the phone?
“Pick up the phone, even McKinsey says so! Top performers favor cold sales calls over cold sales emails. Even if they don’t buy from you, you’re going to learn something. I often say to make a small ask. So let’s say you call first, and you don’t get anywhere, I would say to email the CEO, or the appropriate executive and ask, ‘Who in your organization can I speak to?’ It’s a very simple and straightforward ask.”
Below are some tips Crofton offered on how to become a better salesperson and on how to approach a sale:
- “Put yourself in uncomfortable positions because that’s when you’re going to learn.”
- “Understand your goal and back your way into it. That was the most ‘ah-ha’ moment I had while working at McKinsey. They always think about the outcome first (getting the sale), and then they break it up into all the steps in order to get there. While on a sales call, I used to talk to the customer to learn how to sell in their organization. So, for example, figure out what’s the typical process for the client to say, ‘Yes.’ Are their specific budget constraints, who are the key people who need to sign off, who reports to who etc. That way you’ll build out your road map for the sale.”
- “Sales isn’t magic. As a founder, you can learn how to do this and you can decide that either you’re going to do those things or you’re going to hire a person to do it.”
- “If you have a small team, 2-3 founders for example, whoever you appoint to do sales, make sure that person wants to do it.”
- “You don’t need a background in sales to be a successful salesperson. The key is to focus on active listening - don’t be waiting to speak and if the client is telling you about a problem, you shouldn’t be focused on a product you have that can solve it."
- “When you talk to someone, don’t talk about your product. Bring them value, ‘Hey, I know you’re in the agriculture industry, and here’s something we’re seeing in that industry, are you seeing something similar?’”
- “Your customers, they’re people, so their name is not CTO, it’s Carlos or Jane. So think about the people you’re talking to, and what’s a win for them. For example, ‘Is she overworked and this solution is going to help her leave the office at 5?’”
What sales books do you recommend?
You’re also an adjunct entrepreneurship professor at Florida International University. What has your experience been like?
“I’m really a big fan [of FIU and its students]; I’ve hired from there, they’re a tenacious bunch. I also think it’s important to give back. I live here, I live 5 miles from my mother in law - so I’m not going anywhere.”
To close off the conversation, Crofton said, “One thing that’s great about Miami is that the people are willing to help each other. If you want tips on sales, reach out and ask for a conversation.”