In a change from the usual set up, Ralph Varcoe has swapped seats with Ian Redfern, who picks up the challenge of being host and questioner. Ian interviews Ralph about his role as Chief Revenue Officer at now ai and asks – ‘what is this executive-based selling all about?’. The conversation covers topics including the traditional ways B2B companies sell and how those who don’t embrace the concept of putting the executive at the heart of the conversation with true personalisation will find themselves left behind by their competitors who do.

Ian Redfern: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest in the series of the Now AI podcast, where today I’m going to be talking to Ralph Varcoe, who’s the Chief Revenue Officer of Now AI. Normally, Ralph would be hosting; he’d be doing the job I’m doing. But today, I’m going to interview him because it’s important that as well as interviewing some of the guests, that we get an insight into some of Ralph’s views on the pressing issues of the day.

Today we’re going to be talking about executive-based selling, but before I get on to the main event and grill him about that, maybe we should start by asking Ralph to explain a little about who he is. Could you just give us a little bit of your background and things you’ve done in the past and so on?

Ralph Varcoe: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Ian. Thanks for taking over the grilling job. I’m scared, very scared, but we’ll see how that goes. [laughs] Right, Ralph Varcoe, Chief Revenue Officer for Now AI. In the past, I have run sales teams, marketing teams, strategy, and also partnerships in various different technology companies – the likes of Orange Business Services, Virgin Media, CenturyLink.

I worked for a time in a small startup around the AI space in Spirit AI, which was all about developing AI natural language processing for the games market. That was actually very interesting. It was all about how you can make characters in games talk to you just like they are real people, with the whole natural language processing stuff.

So lots of experience in running sales teams, and I joined Now AI because I thought the time was right to make a move and to come into an organization that I think is doing a fantastically new and different and much-needed thing. It brought together the whole interest that I had in AI and the experience that I have around sales and marketing. It was almost like I liked the company so much, I decided to buy it, that kind of thing. So I’ve really bought into it.

Ian: Who was that? That was a razor company, wasn’t it?

Ralph: Yeah, it was. Was it Remington? Victor Kiam, was that his name?

Ian: That’s it. Definitely Victor Kiam. Oh, you’re taking me back there.

Ralph: I know. And it just shows how old I am.

Ian: [laughs] So how long have you been working with Now AI?

Ralph: I’ve been on board only for the last month and a half, full-time, working out how we’re going to be going to market. I used to do quite a lot of volunteering working with Virgin StartUp, as an example, where they had lots of entrepreneurs who get given a loan, and part of the condition of being given the loan is that they then have to have a mentor. So I acted as a mentor for a number of startups.

Pete Pastides, who is your friend and mine, who’s the owner and founder of Now AI, had come to me last year to say, “We’re thinking about doing this. What do you reckon? Can you give us some advice?” So I did some free advising on what we could be doing, how we could be moving, etc. That’s how I got to understand what Now AI was doing, how it was different, and how this could be changing the face of the B2B selling model, and I thought, “Great. Time’s right. Let’s make a move,” and I decided to make the move literally as the COVID-19 pandemic was locking us all down.

I had a few moments where I was gulping, clenching the buttocks, and going, “Is this the right thing to be doing at the right time?” But the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about the changes that lockdown, COVID-19, etc., were bringing, the more I thought this is exactly the kind of service that companies are going to want to take and make use of in order to give them some differentiation and competitive advantage as we get out of this current situation.

Ian: I think what we’re seeing in terms of interest so far means you’re on pretty safe ground there.

Ralph: Well, I hope so. Time will tell. But it felt right, and it still feels really good. So yes, it’s all really very exciting. I’m really pleased to be here, and I’m enjoying the ride so far.

Ian: That’s great. Thank you very much for spending the time with us today as well. I know the topic, just to restate for everyone today, is executive-based selling. I’m guessing from the last few moments the reason that this means so much to you is not only because you were selling to executives at some point during your time at OBS and Virgin and so on, but you’ve also been the subject of campaigns by other companies trying to sell to you. Probably what Now AI is doing is resolving some of the issues that you saw during those times.

But rather than me stating for you what you mean by executive-based selling, why don’t you just give us your viewpoint on the topic? What’s the framework around this topic for you?

Ralph: That’s absolutely right. I have been on the receiving end of plenty of campaigns, organizations looking to sell marketing software, digital agencies, sales improvement programs – all sorts of things like that. But I’ve also run sales teams where my team members are selling to organizations.

What’s clear to me is – I ask the question: what is the organization if it isn’t the executives? Yes, an organization has a set of capabilities, it has a set of products, it has a set of services, it has a function to provide whatever it does to its customers. But when we sell, and our teams sell, they don’t sell to the company. They sell to the executive. It’s the executives that make the decisions about what to buy, who to buy from.

What has been clear when companies have been selling to me is that I feel like I’m just a number. I’m just an organization and a name that is on a list somewhere, and I’m being sent something, and they’re hoping that I might be caught at just the right time to be looking for the thing that they happen to be selling at that point in time.

Ian: Yes, a bit like Battlefield.

Ralph: Yes, exactly. “Let’s fire and see what we hit, and see what comes back.” As an approach, I can get it, because having run marketing departments, you’re constantly looking at who is your target market, who are the people you want to go after. You know that there’s stuff that you do which is being sold by your competitors into those companies. Typically as a marketer you go, “If the market is a 10 billion pound market, let me take 5% of that and then I’ve got a really compelling business.”

But you’re not quite sure what that 5% is or how you’re going to get there, so you go, “Here are the companies. Let me just go out and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got something. Do you want it?’” It’s quite an impersonal approach. It’s a similar thing with my teams and me going out and selling to other organizations. It’s quite difficult to have the relevant information to drive the conversation into a personalized one, and therefore it tends to be relatively generic.

Ian: Yeah. That point that you raise about what is the organization if it’s not its executives is really smart, I think. My history, as you know, is I used to work for Cisco, and I would regularly get sold to. I found that I was only as interesting as Cisco was. [laughs] Nothing to do with my personality, but they knew that Cisco was for the most part a company that was doing very well and was prepared to invest in things that would improve its operational model.

Therefore, I would get many, many things that were just nowhere near relevant to me as an individual. It was almost like we were the football club with the most money to spend, and therefore the agents would try and sell us every player on the market. That’s how it felt.

Ralph: One of the challenges, though, is that there’s a difference between new business selling on a mass market level and then selling into key accounts. They’re actually quite different beasts. Where you’re talking about trying to penetrate into a new market and you’re trying to drive awareness, you can understand why that model of pushing out lots of messages to lots of people you don’t know is something that’s going to work – because how else do you know who exactly you want to target? Who’s the right organization and which executives are looking to buy at a particular time?

So from a completely brand new business perspective, that tends to be a way that it happens, and there’s a place for that. But there is also a place for being a bit more targeted and doing the research on which of the companies have got the propensity to buy because there’s a need, then looking at the individuals within that organization who are going to make the decisions. How do you then tailor your conversation to meet the objectives and needs of that individual who works for a company that is operating in an environment, in an industry, that is part of a global cycle of upturn, downturn, and all that sort of stuff?

What we’re trying to do at Now AI is move towards something that actually becomes truly personalized. In the case of key account management, where you’ve got your largest accounts, you’re wanting to look at how you grow your wallet share; that’s clearly an objective you have as a sales engine. You’re trying to work out how to maximize the amount of revenue that you’re making as a business by driving as many of your services through and into them as possible. But how do you do that effectively and efficiently?

Having a service that enables you to clearly understand who the executive is, put them at the center of all of this so that everything else flows from that – that’s the smart way to do it, and that’s the way that business-to-business selling is changing, has been for a little while, and certainly has accelerated because of the pandemic and the lockdown that we’ve had over the last couple of months.

Ian: It’s interesting that in the B2C space, through something like a Spotify model or a Netflix model, it’s entirely based really on getting as granular as possible with the end user about what they like, don’t like, what they like to view, when they like to view it, and so on and so forth. These people who consume Netflix and Spotify are also people that work in businesses, so if they become used to that model at home – it’s like B2B companies have suddenly decided, “It’s okay because as soon as they leave their house, they become robots whose only value is ascribed by the company they work for.”

When you state it like that as you just have, the distance between how well B2C subscription services have dealt with their customers and have developed models for their consumers over the last decade versus what B2B has done – the difference in progress is quite stark, isn’t it?

Ralph: It is. And you’re absolutely right; the consumers in the B2C world are the same people that are buying in the B2B world. They just happen to be buying on behalf of their companies rather than themselves or their families. So the psychological sales model should be the same.

What is the sweetest word in the English language, or the sweetest word in your mother tongue? It’s your own name. I think when we talked before, you said that when somebody calls your name across a crowded room, you hear it instantly.

Ian: Yeah, you’ve got that selective perception for it.

Ralph: When your name is used, it feels good because somebody’s addressing you. And if your name is used and then something is said afterwards which actually relates to you as an individual – either as a consumer or as a business leader who is getting stuff done and organized in a business that you care about and you’re trying to drive objectives for – that resonates, and that lands more easily and better than something that’s just generic, which is a kind of, “Hi, CIO. We understand that CIOs have these problems. We address these problems in your industry by doing this.”

Ian: [laughs] Sorry, I thought you were reading an email I got this morning. Now you’ve got me interested. Let’s see if we can dig a little deeper into this. There are models around that claim to be able to do this. Or at least with my understanding of things, account-based marketing (ABM) and other variants of that, whether they be account-based engagement or whatever, claim that they are doing this. Is that wrong?

Ralph: They claim they’re doing it and some are doing it to a degree, but none is doing it to the level that we are personalizing. It’s a continuum, if you like. You start at one end, where you’ve got traditional business development and you’ve got salespeople that go out and they’ve got their list and they know the companies that they need to go after, so they approach each one of them.

Marketing may send out blanket emails to all of them, which is a call to action around a particular product. Most marketing campaigns in the past, and many still today, are all centered on “We’ve got something new to say. Here’s a new product which we’ve just launched. Come and talk to us about our new product.” And there’s a place for that, but it is all about the company who’s trying to sell the product. There’s no understanding or attempt to demonstrate an understanding about why the people that are being sent this message would care about whether you’ve got a new product that’s available at a particular price point and that does X, Y, or Z.

Then if you look at account-based marketing, which became a real rage a while ago – but actually, what I’m seeing when I’m talking to a number of marketing professionals is it tends to be dwindling a little bit – but it’s still there. Account-based marketing says, Let’s market to the account. Let’s go after Volkswagen in the automotive industry, and then let’s look at what the persona is of the different types of roles within that organization. We know that CIOs think about X, Y, and Z, so it’s therefore realistic to assume that the CIO of VW and the CIO of BMW and the CIO of Ford Motor Corporation are going to be having the same issues, and therefore let’s tailor the message and let’s talk a little bit about the industry, let’s put a little bit in there about the organizations, but basically address it to the persona.

That’s still not personalized. You may go, we know that the CIO of VW is Martin Hoffman, so let’s go “Martin, hi, this is something we know about your organization and we know this is a generic issue that you have” – clearly it’s not stated as a generic issue; it’s stated as “this is an issue that you have,” although it is a bit of a generic one. That’s making it slightly personal, but that’s not personalization.

What Now AI is doing is saying we’re going to start with the executive. We’re going to understand who they are, what their background is. We’re going to look at what their objectives are within the organization that they operate in. We’re going to look at the sorts of things that keep them awake at night that they’re tweeting about, that they’re posting on LinkedIn. We’re going to look at all of those things and then we’re going to tailor a conversation which addresses how the executive is working in their world.

So start with the executive; then look at the context which is around them of the organization they work in. Then there’s a wider context beyond that, which is the industry they operate in and the kinds of customers that they’re trying to sell to, and the wider context still, which is the global economy or the local country economy and the various things that impact those.

Ian: It’s really sitting in the seat of that individual and looking back at your own company as opposed to what is traditionally the way of doing this, which is that the selling company effectively works on its own – agenda is the wrong word, but it has internal cycles of product releases and fiscal times of year and so on and so forth, and that typically is the way the selling company organically plans things.

This is about really sitting in the seat of the executive and looking back at your own organization and saying, “How do I look from his point of view, with all of these filters in between, with his objectives in between, with the situation of the industry in between, the market conditions, the economics? Can he or she even see me from his or her seat given all that’s going on, and are my messages relevant enough for him or her to take notice?” Is that where you’re going with this? It seems like it is.

Ralph: Yeah, totally. It’s about walking in the shoes of your customer. It’s about taking on the persona, the role of that customer and actually thinking, “What is it that I can do to help them?” There’s a television program that’s on Amazon Prime that the kids like called New Amsterdam. There’s a director of medicine in the hospital who walks around, and his stock phrase is “How can I help?” It’s a bit of a joke in the show, but it’s that principle.

But it’s not a principle of just walking up to a customer who you don’t know and going, “How do I help?” and then wasting an hour of their time, an hour of the meeting that you’ve managed to secure, by getting the customer to tell you about themselves. How disrespectful is that? Yes, there can be a conversation because you don’t want to assume you know everything, but you should walk into that meeting, and when you ask, “How can I help?”, you kind of know what the answer is already because you’ve understood it.

Now, there may be some nuances which you hadn’t understood because you’ve got a bit of desk-based research and analysts that have provided you with some stuff, and there’s nothing that replaces talking to the person directly as a way to finesse what you’re doing. But you should be walking in there knowing how you can already help them and saying, “Does this work? How can I help you? Does this work? If I did this, would it be able to…?” So you’ve already got an arsenal of answers because you have really got the research that’s been done on them as an individual, on the company they work in, on the industry they work in, on the global macroeconomics.

Then your product and service set is factored into that so that you know how your cybersecurity widget or your great new sales enablement program actually helps them to drive a bit of an increase on their ROI or a reduction of their TCO or acceleration of their ability to take something to market, with some quantifiable levers that you can show how, when pulled, will actually make a tangible difference and will make their lives better, will make their company’s life better, and will make them feel a little bit like a hero.

Ian: Just bringing a few things together from what we’ve said so far, ABM has been out there, but from my own perspective there’s been limited success. Those that have made it work seem to have made it work pretty well, but even then on a relatively limited number of accounts. But for the most part, it seems to be the gift that never gives for a lot of organizations. One of the reasons for that seems to be that it’s quite heavy lifting.

So if we’re now suggesting that organizations need to go even further and they need to go beyond just account-based marketing to executive-based selling – because that’s the progression that’s being recommended – surely we’re going to hit the same wall, which is that there isn’t enough time, there isn’t enough budget. The budgets for doing this kind of business development work are forever being cut at the end of the quarter and being put back into the coffer for margin support, all of this kind of stuff. How do we get around that?

Ralph: It’s a great point. If you’ve got a program that’s being run by a group of people – and typically for ABM, it’s being run by the marketing team; they may have an ABM manager, they may have a bunch of people that are working on that – then that’s doing quite a lot of the heavy lifting, probably with some kind of a tool/software type package which is providing certain insights and lots of data.

With ABM, you’ve got a team of people that are working out what to pull together and how that then addresses the personas and the accounts which they’re going after. This whole executive-based selling is more aligned to sales going out to have those conversations with the executives. Marketing will be able to take the same information and drive it through into some of their marketing programs for sure, but this is about putting the executive at the heart of the selling. That’s why we’re talking about this being executive-based selling rather than executive-based marketing.

Salespeople are brilliant at selling. Some of them are really good at doing research; some aren’t great. We’ve all had people in our teams who have been at different points in that spectrum. It’s going to take a lot of time. The issue is that if you ask your salespeople to do it, there’s going to be a lack of consistency. There’s going to be a lack of the ability to scale.

Ian: And it’s not really why they were hired. They were hired to sell. It’s interesting because you just sparked a thought with me that the ownership of a salesperson of a specific account becomes much higher when they have this level of information. A lot of the time, as you’ve said, it will be the business units or the product group just pushing out new products and services and saying, “By the way, because you’ve done this, we are going to sponsor you with a certain amount of money to go and run an event for these companies.” That’s the business development asset.

At this point, with the information that’s being provided, the example by Now AI, that salesperson is able sometimes to turn round to the business unit and say, “Actually, that’s not right for my account at the moment.” So the overall control and ownership of that relationship very much drops onto the salesperson’s lap in a much greater sense, probably, than it would have been in an old model.

Ralph: That’s right. The ownership within a sales team and a salesperson is definitely going to be higher if they own and feel like they are part of the process and if it’s actionable as well.

Coming back to the point about it not being scalable if you’re setting your sales team on that, actually it can be scalable now. You have all this data that’s available. That data somehow needs to be sifted and collated in a way that’s relevant. That data therefore gets pulled together to become insight. And that’s typically what account-based marketing software programs tend to be about. It’s about the insight into an account, the insight into an industry, even insight into an executive.

We’re taking it a step further. We’ve got the platform, which looks at how we can get the machines to learn, how we can get the artificial intelligence to do its thing, to work out that actually, when we’re going after information about a company, we’re looking at the company rather than necessarily the brand name.

We’ve had examples where a large brand sponsors a sports stadium. Well, if you were to do a search on that large brand, you may well find that the first 100 returns that you get on Google are all about the sports stadium because people read lots of stuff about sports, and therefore it goes up the Google search rankings. But that’s not relevant, necessarily. It could be, depending on the project, but it’s not necessarily relevant to what you’re looking to find out about the organization.

Our platform will weed that stuff out. It will curate, collate, bring that together so that you’re turning data into insight. Let the machines do what the machines are brilliant at with the right algorithms in the center so that you’ve got that insight. What we’re then doing, rather than saying we’ll leave that and we’ll present it in a browser or in an app to a sales or a marketing person as a bit of insight, we’re going a step further and saying we want to turn that into intelligence. Insight on its own isn’t enough. Let’s turn that insight into intelligence.

We use our team of analysts – we’ve got a follow-the-sun model, so we have a team of analysts across the planet who are looking at this kind of stuff who are very well knowledgeable about the technology area, about various industries, about all the industries that we’re going after, and are able to take this insight and craft it into a conversation that a human would have and craft it into a conversation that a human on the receiving end of it would understand and would take and would go, “Yes, that makes sense and that is personalized to me in my situation.”

We can scale that. We can do that quickly because the machines do their thing; we then provide it to the analysts, they do their thing relatively quickly because they’ve got a lot of experience, and there’s capacity to do that, and then we can turn that back to a salesperson as a conversation that they can action pretty much immediately. Yeah, they’ll have to read through it and they will need to make sure they understand it so that they can articulate it and defend the line of argument that they’re going to present to their executive, but we can do that really quickly.

That frees up the time of the salesperson. Instead of them having to do 35% of their time sitting in front of a desk, trying to work out what they’re going to say, looking at all that data, getting overwhelmed, trying to see which bits are relevant, pull that together, and then go, “Hang on a second, how does that relate to the service that I have? Oh my God, there’s all these different things,” we do that for them. Which means we can present it to them, they have less time they have to spend in front of the computer, more time in front of the customer.

A sales director can then say, “Because you’re being more efficient and more effective because of this stuff, but because of the efficiency gains, I can give another one or two accounts to each of my sales team. And with that same kind of information, I can start to see how the pipeline grows a little bit more quickly.”

So there’s an efficiency gain, there’s a pipeline generation gain, and there is a velocity through the pipeline gain as well because this is all done in a scalable and intelligible and intelligent way to furnish the salespeople with something that they can action straight away.

Ian: You’ve said an awful lot that’s got my interest there. Let me just unpack one or two bits. If you can confirm for me that I’ve got these right, what Now AI is doing is essentially – and I don’t know whether it’s 80/20 or 90/10, but the majority of the research, the scouting, the web calling, assessments part of this, this idea of finding new opportunities relevant to the executives, is being done by a machine. And thankfully, because I’ve been on the wrong end of some AI-driven stuff, the balance of that process, an assessment and a relevant check and also turning it into a true conversation, is being done by people. So you’ve got that combination. Is that right?

Ralph: Correct, yeah.

Ian: And there’s capacity in that model, and presumably that model can be turned at a number of different types of problems. It could be turned at selling something specific to raise its numbers by the end of the quarter if you’ve got a product that’s underperforming, or it could be selling a new bundle or all kinds of things. Basically you can point that service at different problems. Is that right?

Ralph: You can point the service at different problems, but always remember that you’re coming at it from the executive first. The product that you may be trying to push because your numbers are down and all that sort of stuff needs to be looked at in the context of the executives that have a need for that kind of thing right now, rather than just a generic push.

Ian: I guess that’s why I find it interesting, because it’s the removal of those executives that would never buy it that is probably the biggest saver of time for the salesperson. They are basically going to be always talking to people who will have an interest, right? That’s the idea.

And if that is true, then I think you may even be underestimating the number of new accounts that an individual salesperson could take on, or even the number of parallel sales engagements within a single account. Different contacts could be taken on. In my experience, you’ve probably got anywhere between seven and eight meetings out of ten that don’t necessarily progress towards a sale. As you said earlier, it’s information swapping with executives and that’s it. It’s not moving things down the pipe.

The idea of having something that removes those targets that will never be interested and focusing the salesperson on spending time with those that will has this lovely efficiency and effectiveness calibration to it that’s pretty cool.

Ralph: Yeah, and just think about the days that salespeople are out of the office. In the days before COVID-19, when people were hopping on flights or jumping in a car, spending a day to get to have a 1- or 2-hour meeting with their customer, the cost of the flight, the cost of the taxi, the cost of the hotel, the cost of the time that it takes to have that meeting, the day out of the office where no other prospecting is being done, where systems and tools and CRMs and what have you in the office aren’t being updated, where they’re not able to do the training – you could draw a whole list of things that are real, tangible, money-out-of-the-pocket costs, and then intangible costs around lost opportunity or lost ability to do other things.

I’ll use the statistic that you said there. If seven to eight meetings tend to, in the past, be information gathering and don’t really drive towards a sale, just imagine if you could turn that into three or four of the meetings out of ten are not driving you forwards because they’re about rapport building and all the other sorts of things you do – because not every meeting is absolutely geared towards a sale.

You have then slashed your costs and increased the amount of selling, effectively by 100%, because you’ve got something that’s focused and targeted which is relevant to the executive who’s given you a chunk of the time they don’t really have available in their diary for you because they’re so busy juggling so many different balls. You’re making it a much better experience for the executive, you’re making it a much better experience for yourself, and you’re making it much more efficient and therefore effective for your sales director.

Ian: So this really is about getting more from every interaction. It’s a return on every interaction, a return on the overall investment. This is a process which is making every interaction more valuable. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it.

Ralph: Yeah. Let’s say I’ve got five different things that I could change as levers within my business as a sales director. One is the number of accounts a salesperson can handle, another one is the amount of pipeline hat they can generate, another one is the velocity through the pipeline, etc.

If I could move each one of those by 5% and you compound those against each other, you’ve suddenly started to get something which looks materially different and where an ROI model is quite easy to look at and to prove that an investment of your top ten accounts having the Now Alerts, which provide the salespeople with this great intelligence, putting the executive at the center of it, suddenly starts to return multiples back. It becomes quite easy to justify that incremental spend.

Ian: That’s excellent. Thank you ever so much for speaking with me as I attempt to get my head around this. It feels very much like the way in which sport coaches teach really high level athletes, which is this idea of focusing on the process, and the outcomes will look after themselves. This is a new way of selling based on executives. It’s really putting them at the center, getting a better return from each of the interactions, and driving that ROI. And I’m sure, knowing you, that there will be another podcast episode which looks specifically at the ROI on this. I’m pretty sure that’s coming.

Ralph: It is, yeah.

Ian: That’s great. Thank you very much for spending the time with me.

Ralph: Pleasure.

Ian: Enjoy the lockdown while it lasts, and I hope to see you when we’re out of it.

Ralph: Indeed. I look forward to that.