Automating Your Sales Training With George Brontén

This week on Digital Conversations, George Bronten, Founder & CEO of Membrain, reveals some sales training practices that are critical to the consistency of your sales team and growth of your product.

Guest: George Brontén- George founded the IT Automation platform in Upstream in 1996, and most recently founded Membrain in 2012. Membrain is a sales enablement CRM that emphasizes sales training and coaching. Connect with George on LinkedIn!

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Billy: Alright, everyone, welcome to the show today. Today I have the pleasure of being joined by George Bronten, CEO and founder of Membrain. George, thanks for joining me today.

George: Thanks for having me. Nice to be here.

Billy: Yeah, I’m excited. I’m excited for it. So first, just tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to be the CEO and founder at Membrain.

George: Yeah, I guess. Where do I start? I’ve always been a salesperson at heart, I guess I always love to solve problems and get paid for solving problems. So even in my neighborhood, as a child, I fixed bikes, and I just tried to solve problems and make a buck so I can go buy some candy. How I got here is I started a company in ’96 I think it was, we sold software. So we founded this company, we were selling software to IT value added resellers or through them rather. And the idea was to go out and find cool software vendors who sort of had the guts to challenge the big boys. So the company was called and is called Upstream. So we said, we wanted to challenge the mainstream.

And we did that, and we sold a lot of software through these resellers and value added resellers until we shifted the way we sold, we actually made these VARs into our customers. We took them through a journey from being very break-fix oriented, where they installed IT networks, and then they fixed stuff that broke, into becoming managed service providers, where they actually charged for IT environments to work. That was a massive change for these companies. And we sort of spearheaded that in the Nordic countries where we were active. And at the time, I didn’t really realize how complicated of a sale that was. So we sold a software that automated a lot of the work they were doing manually.

And that seemed simple enough, right? It’s a great software, you can save a lot of time and money, seemed to be a pretty simple sale. But what I didn’t really realize at the time was that also meant that they had to change everything in their companies, like how they package their services, how they sold them, how they delivered them, their mindset on how to deliver services, everything had to change. So when I started to scale that company and hire salespeople, I didn’t really get that I hadn’t come to that point that I understood how complex it was.

So I just hired salespeople that I had this sort of the assumption that if a salesperson had sold for someone else, they could come sell for my company. And it just failed miserably, I hired and I fired a lot until I sort of had to sit down and really think about it, like hey, George, what’s, what’s wrong here? What’s not working? And the only common denominator in all of this was me. So the conclusion was that I was doing probably everything wrong.

So I studied like a maniac about selling like what is sales? How do you get someone to buy? What is buying? How do we make decisions. So I did that, a lot of reading, went to a lot of courses. And that all ended up in me as a software nerd, thinking about sort of a product that could help the salespeople to do the right things, at the right time, with the right people, and be guided and trained in the tool while doing so.

So that was sort of the spark that went off in my head. I didn’t think about launching a company at that point. I just wanted this to work right? In Upstream. So I went to my CRM vendor at the time and said, hey, I have this idea. What about creating like a visual checklist with integrated training and it should be awesome. And they’re like, well, we haven’t really designed the product like that. But you can maybe you can go to an integrator and have they then customize it for you. And having been in software for 20 years, we know what that means.

It’s like okay, go dig this hole and throw all the money into that pit. Yeah, once we release a new version, it’s all going to be broken anyway. So that’s when Membrain was founded. It’s like, I need to build this tool myself, because there is no really good tool that enables and guides and coaches salespeople in a complex b2b sales environment in a proper way.

Billy: Yeah, that was really great. I have a couple questions. The biggest one being, you talked about, I hired the sales people at Membrain, and Upstream, and it didn’t work. And I was the problem. So what were, what were some of the things as you looked back to see, okay, what did I do wrong to not enable them to have success, what were a few of those things that you’re like, I should have done this differently?

George: Yeah, great question. So the main things I realized was that I had been making a lot of faulty assumptions. Like I was assuming that, I was almost assuming that salespeople is something that you’re born to become like, born a salesperson. And I was also assuming that salespeople who were born salespeople also had some kind of uber discipline. And would just go out and do everything, to go hit that target that I set up for them. Without me really training them in everything that was necessary. So I trained them in the product, I trained them in the market, but it wasn’t very deep, to put it that way. So too many assumptions, I would say was my main issue. And that led to me not training them enough, not coaching them enough.

Not providing the right type of training, I would say, because one of the things that we identified as a big problem was that they did not feel comfortable talking to the technical people at the client or the prospect. So they could have a great dialogue with the business owner and the sales leader. But when it came to the technical discussion, they sort of dodged that and said, Well, okay, it’ll sort itself out, which it of course, never sorted itself out. But the tech guys were really afraid. And like, said to their bosses, don’t buy this tool. It’s a scam. It’s no good. We already have all the tools we need, because they were afraid they were gonna lose their jobs. Right? It was an automation tool.

They thought the bosses were gonna buy this and fire them. Which wasn’t the case at all. So we just had to come up with a training to help coach and sales people to say you have to talk to them in their language. And their languages is, they don’t want to be in the office working overtime, one to two times a month because Microsoft released patches, that you have to sit and install on all your current servers. It’s like, boring, right? What if we can remove that from you? So you can be with your family or to a game with your friends instead? And then they’re opened up like, oh, wow, that would be awesome. I could do fun stuff instead.

So just having that and making sure that they always had those discussions early on in the sales cycle, made a huge difference. We tripled the win rates just because of that simple fix.

Billy: Great, great. I love it, man. I think, you think some things in the sales process are gonna sort themselves out, because we all as salespeople, there’s always something you’re like, man, I don’t know that really well. And you have to address it, but you kind of don’t want to and you hope it just other, whether it’s okay, our contract has this, this thing that not every attorney is going to love, but there’s a reason for it. And I don’t want to talk about that.

I hope the attorney just misses it, where it’s better to just say, Hey, our contract has this. This is why, because it actually is going to benefit you and get out ahead of it. But no, you’re I could see how that would hinder the sales if they weren’t helping IT. So. Okay, so let’s get into to Membrain. And so that’s part of your solution is Membrain. So tell me a little bit about Membrain and how it’s different from from other solutions?

George:Yeah, so what I visualized at the point this was eight, nine years back was a tool that was very visual. And it guided the salespeople through the entire process. And when I say sales process, I’m thinking about b2b complex sales cycles, right? A month or longer, month to a few years, maybe in sometimes, and multiple stakeholders, multiple milestones. So one example was the one with the stakeholder. That was an obvious thing that salespeople were missing. And in the CRM, there was nothing. There was nothing really saying that if you skip this, you’re going to kill the deal. So the visualization of the process was really my main focus in the beginning. At Membrain, I would say the differentiator is that we create sort of a checklist on steroids.

So you can see not only your stages, but also milestones and actions and steps that you have to do. And inside of those milestones, we can also put educational content. So sales enablement content, like, okay, let’s say the first step is a research step. But what does that mean? Like in your previous company, it meant one thing, but in this company might mean something else, right? We want you to do research like this, ABC, and etc. So you could have the sales leader in that step in a video explaining, okay, this is why we do the research this way, this is why it’s important. And these are the main things you need to figure out unless you already know them. But really, guiding is a key word for us when we develop, each view needs to be visual and have guidance for the salesperson.

Billy: Let me stop you. So you’ve built in a lot of the coaching and the training, kind of right into the product for your customers?

George: Yes, although we don’t really build it in. So it’s not like Membrain has it all, I mean, cookie cutter, ready for you. But we will make it very agnostic. The customer or the customer’s sales coach, or sales trainer will put that type of content inside of the tool. So we make the tool very agnostic to methodology and process, but just enabling that content to be exactly where you need it at the right point. So today, I think you’re doing sales training, and then you get access to an LMS like learning management system on the side. After the training, nobody goes there anyway. So you need to have it right in your face when you’re working your deals.

So that’s one differentiator. I think another one is that we look at the sales process as three distinct workflows. In a traditional CRM, you basically have leads, opportunities, and your customer card. We look at it like the customer card, that’s the CRM database. Everyone has that. That’s, that’s nice. But really, what you need is that guidance in the workflow. So prospecting has its separate workflow. Opportunity management, pipeline management is a separate workflow, and account growth, which we’re now releasing soon, is how you then grow the accounts, you have actually won once you run them, so that’s also distinct workflow. And then we make sure that the flow between these are fluent and is working well, but you could actually buy Membrain just for account growth or just for prospecting.

Billy: So let’s talk about account growth, because I think that’s an area that I mean, it’s ripe. It’s always cheaper to keep a customer and grow them to go out and get a new one., they teach everybody that in Business School. Yeah, but I think, a lot of times, we don’t do a good job of how do we grow our current customer base, and I think everyone struggles with it. So what do you see, as, mistakes people are making when they’re trying to grow and expand their current customers?

George: Yeah, I think we talked about mindsets a bit previously, with the value added resellers that they had to change their mindset from reactive to proactive, I think it’s similar. In account growth, a lot of companies are quite reactive. And they’re looking to keep customers and to prevent churn rather than actually grow customers.

So I think that’s one of the things people tend to slip up on that, Okay, we need to make sure we don’t lose the client. Instead of like, Okay, how can we actually, we’ve helped them with this, or we’re about to help them with this, what’s the next level? What’s the next step? But I think we are so afraid, especially in compensation programs, you’re not really as an account manager maybe compensated for growth, so you just try to protect everything you have.

Billy: I see that with our account managers, sometimes where, like, they’re compensated, one of the metrics is just retention of customers. So they get so worried and don’t want to piss them off by saying, like, Hey, you should look at this or we could do this for you, because they’re happy and I want to just, get them to renew, even though they, they still get bonused out on, on the expansion. They’re more concerned with just retaining what they’ve got. I mean, it’s so hard to get them to just say, Okay, this is how you can politely suggest things without being pushy. But we can really help them in these ways. If they’re willing to do a little more.

George: Yeah, but it’s that conflict, right? If you’re protecting something you need to preserve the status quo. If you want to grow something, that actually means you’re going to mess up the status quo. And produce change, for sure, will make you very afraid. Because really, you want to retain them. So yeah, I think that’s a conflict of interest that needs to be thought about. Another one is, of course, inside out thinking, so are you thinking about, oh, we want to grow this account. And I’ve written a blog post on just calling them accounts. I don’t know, I’m not super happy with a term account.

Because it’s almost like, you think of your customers as bank accounts. Like you withdraw stuff from your account. While you should really look at them as something you nurture and grow. And I’ve used the sunflower as a metaphor for that, like, we need to grow the accounts, not just withdraw. So the terminology we use, sometimes I think can be a problem, like, how do you get more share of wallet? Like, it’s like, you’re opening someone’s wallet and taking money out of it? That’s not the right feeling to have, right? So instead of thinking, how do we get more money from them, what did they want? I mean, looking at this, from their perspective, what do they want to do the next year or three years?

And how can we align with what they want to accomplish and help them get there, so we grow with them? So really engaging the customer much more and asking the customer. Which goes back to the fear, right? I think a lot of times account managers are fearful to actually ask a higher level up to say, to ask the CEO maybe like, what’s the type of relationship your company thinks it has with our company? Because we want to be the consultants, many times we’re just a vendor.

Billy: Oh, for sure. And I think part of it goes into maybe the mindset of a person who’s an account manager versus somebody who’s a sales rep. Account managers, I feel like most people that are attracted to that role, they’re very, just like, trying to think of the right way to put it. They’re really friendly, generally, they’re great at relationships, but they kind of shy away from conflict. And anytime you’re introducing that change, there’s going to be a little bit of conflict. But with the strategy you’re talking about, being willing to level up and talk about and ask questions about the company’s goals, and their relationship with you as a vendor or consultant, I think that opens up the conversation for okay, your goals are this, we can help this way.

George: And I think also, depending on industry, it varies how you manage accounts. I think in the SAAS space, we have a customer success team, and they have their goals to drive adoption. And we look at these adoption numbers. I mean, they’re great. But it doesn’t mean that they will grow with you, right? It’s like, if you have a car, and you like the car, doesn’t mean that you’re not thinking about maybe getting another car. I’m driving it all day long, so my adoption is super high. But that doesn’t mean that I might be thinking about another car.

So I think we have to be, it’s great that we’re looking at the KPIs of adoption. But we also have to be mindful that adoption might not be the value that you’re generating. And software is special as well, because we release new features all the time. And somehow, I think a lot of us are not doing a great job in actually introducing how those new features are providing value or could provide value to the client. So there’s so much to be done. And also I think if the account is large enough, or has enough potential, it should be a team sport.

You shouldn’t just have one person managing the account, you will have someone who is more business savvy, who can have those business discussions and talk about the potential business outcomes of expanding their deliveries, where you have the kind person who’s the customer success and retention person as well. So you have to look at it as a team sport.

Billy: Awesome. Okay. So what metrics, when a customer is using Membrain, hat are the metrics that you’re trying to try to make them look at and pay attention to that you guys have found, leading to success in sales enablement?

George: So we talk a lot about sales effectiveness. And really, you have three things to improve. You can increase win rates, you can increase deal sizes, and you can speed up your sales cycle. In your pipeline management, that’s what we want them to look at. How do we become more effective in the sales function? That said, it can sometimes be quite difficult to get them to measure these things when they haven’t done so in the past. So you don’t have a good starting point. Because a lot of times when we get into customers, and we ask them, what’s your win rate?

It’s like, I don’t really know. So wait, how can you not know? Well, depends, this person puts opportunities in the pipeline, as soon as they hear about them, and this other person puts them in the day before they send out a quote. So the discipline, when it comes to opportunity and pipeline management is generally quite low in many companies. So we have to sort of start from scratch and say, Okay, let’s introduce this structure and make sure that we continually just improve sales effectiveness.

Billy: Yeah, I agree there, the discipline on opportunity management is all over the place. But being disciplined goes a long way I think. Okay, George, is there anything else that I should have asked you that you would like to like to speak to, before we before we break?

George: Well, I think one aspect that that I talk a lot about is the importance of coaching, right? Yeah, I mentioned that I sucked at it in my previous company. And it’s being talked about a lot. But I still think that too many frontline sales managers don’t either have the time to do it, or don’t really know how to do it, or don’t have the mindset to do it well. And if you really spend time coaching your salespeople in a good way, it just makes all the difference.

I mean, that in order to do that, well, of course, you need the KPIs and the insight and the and the data that becomes important as well, but just that human to human interaction, like, okay, you’re not getting to your targets, what’s in the way? How can I help you get there, you just have those dialogues ongoing with your sales team needs to happen, and it’s not happening enough, I think.

Billy: Yeah, I agree that coaching goes a long way and especially good coaching. I think we’ve all been into the stand up, or the training session where the managers like, Jim, you just need to try harder. That doesn’t, that doesn’t help. So, okay, George, thank you so much. If people want to reach out and continue the conversation with you, what’s the best way for them to contact you?

George: Yes, I’m on LinkedIn. That’s the easiest way just Google, I have a strange name. So just Google my name. And you’ll find me there, hook up, and we’ll chat there.