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Sales Star Turned CMO Tells All: An Interview with Tyson Roberts of Yesler

Executives who earned their stripes in the pre-internet days sometimes cling to the notion that aggressive sales tactics are still the path to success.  Tyson Roberts doesn’t agree. The former sales star who is now a CMO and content marketing expert, explains why he changed his tune.

Tyson Roberts is a CMO with a rare background. Tyson, who is CMO of Yesler, the agency division of ProjectLine, an award-winning B2B marketing services company headquartered in Seattle, now works with leading tech companies to develop and implement their content strategies. But earlier in his career, Tyson carried a bag – selling software and services for Avenue A, Razorfish, Check Point Software, and even as the CEO of a start-up he founded he carried the largest quota.  I recently talked to Tyson about how his approach to creating customers has changed.

Tyson, you had some pointed things to say about how ineffective aggressive sales people are today. Yet, you used to be one of these sales people – and a successful one. Tell us about that.
When I was on the start-up sales team at online advertising agency Avenue A (AQNT) in the late 1990’s, it was just like GlenGarry GlenRoss. Very simple.  We generated our own leads. Our intern would give us a daily spreadsheet of every internet advertisement placed that day along with a phone number.  We literally called every one. In hindsight, it was terribly inefficient – maybe a 2% contact rate and 10% (0.2% net) meeting rate.  It worked. We grew, but at a cost.

In the sales pit we proudly displayed a “wall of shame” – a collection of letters and emails pleading for an end to our efforts to contact them. Some even contained threats. The expectation was: You earn big money, “bring us heads on sticks or we’ll find someone who can”. We couldn’t blame our lack of success on the marketing people or anyone else for that matter.

So, where was marketing in all of this?
Marketing built collateral and ran point on our presence at events like ad:tech.   I recall very little interaction between sales and marketing.  They would get our input and approval on the sales kit, but that was it.  Marketing would also drop hundreds of leads on our head after each event.  We quickly learned to ignore the leads or cherry pick them because so many were unqualified.  Our sales intern got better leads manually surfing the web all day.  It was true that many leads provided by marketing would begin advertising online in the next 6-12 months, but we needed to make this month’s and this quarter’s numbers.

Now you work with marketers to implement and refine modern demand centers. Yet you just said that sales people can’t depend on marketing – why have you changed your view?
The “wall of shame” was a foreshadowing of things to come. A lot has changed in the past 15 years.  Tactics that were seen as just aggressive in the 90’s, today come across as unsophisticated, clumsy, and desperate.  At one of our clients, the sales people were constantly complaining about the lack of leads from marketing. We helped produce the first 500 inbound leads they’d seen in years.  Then I learned that the sales team just started dialing every one and asking each to buy! That’s like going speed dating and propositioning each person you sit across from.  

Buyers have taken control of the purchase process and are doing a lot more self-directed investigation prior to engaging with sales. If sales people don’t recognize and adapt to this, not only will your success rate be dismal, but you’re branding yourself as a genuine tool at the same time.  This is not the way to build rapport, trust, a relationship, or a brand.

What works now?
Companies must provide a quality path from initial interaction to happy customer. All the pieces to build this are available.  In the modern B2B organization marketing owns everything from initial interaction with a lead through to sales readiness.  Sales people focus exclusively on the opportunity pipeline.  This clear separation and definition of duties is a fundamental driver of improved demand economies. 

The cold call should be no part of your demand generation strategy.  You have to switch to an opt-in model.  Leverage an army of content at the front end. Then the sale rep adds spots of personal touch and completes the close.

The old sales business development model is inefficient. You can scale business development more easily and get better results at a lower cost by using modern marketing with its methods, systems, and automation than you can by using sales with its people, personalities, and talents.  You definitely need sales effort – but you need less.

What advice do you have for CMOs facing the challenge of a head of sales that is still “old school”?
The first step to modern B2B demand generation is realizing that your prospects don’t give a rip about your company or its beloved solutions.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that your prospects are narcissistically obsessed with their own company and its challenges and opportunities.  This obsession is the key to being relevant, earning attention, consideration and ultimately business.

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