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An Interview With Laird Comber, Leading Canadian Sales Executive

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Below is our recent interview with Laird Comber, a top Canadian sales executive whose quarter century of achievement is based on his focus on people, products, process and customers.

Q: What are the secrets to your sales career success?

Laird Comber: I am not sure if I have any great secrets per se, but I can certainly share some things that have worked for me over the years. These learnings have naturally taken some time and effort, and of course I am committed to continuously refining my skills and strategies based on changing markets and new learnings and experiences.

Effective communication has to be at the forefront. Clear communication, both written and verbal, is just so essential. This has often translated into building effective relationships which need to be strong and ideally lasting with customers. To help orchestrate the communication and relationship aspect, the backbone is a strong work ethic. Mine can be classified as disciplined, so keeping with the persistency, consistency, resiliency, then coupled with the self-motivation, has always served me well I would say.

Q: When it comes to selling a product, what are the most effective techniques to use?

Laird Comber: I certainly don’t want to begin with the “it depends” clause, but these techniques will inevitably vary by industry, product type and audience. Usually, incorporating a multitude of strategies will yield the greatest results. That said, a critical aspect is asking the right questions to understand your audience. Neil Rackham’s’ SPIN Selling is helpful as an example, and going through the commercial investigation to understand your buyer’s needs, preferences and pain points; in other words, the problem validity is key in order to tailor solutions. Coupling this with positive customer reviews from the same market channel (e.g., mining, oil/gas, construction, industrial) and leveraging other success with positive feedback from customers builds reassurance. This also then can move nicely towards cross-selling opportunities to sell other product categories, brands or an expanded product lineup to the target audience.  A good sample/trial product trial can also add value to help generate revenue.

Q: What is the key to motivating and inspiring a team?

Laird Comber: This is a pretty big area and there isn’t likely enough time to cover this one in its entirety. Essentially, different team members may need different approaches. I suggest setting very clear goals and expectations. Establishing these with the team and then implementing a coaching program to coach the high impact activities (remember, you can’t coach results!) will provide a sense of purpose and direction. I like the book Crushing Quota by Michelle Vazzana and its teachings.

Recognition and rewards for outstanding performance are normally motivating and encourage the strive for excellence. Of course, at the root here is also the importance of training and developing, so investing in your people and providing the proper tools and resources, although might sound like common sense, is going to help improve their skills. Overall, having a positive work environment that fosters growth will make the team feel empowered and create a collaborative, healthy ecosystem.

Q: What are your principles of leadership?

Laird Comber: Certainly one of the cornerstone principles in my opinion is to let your “leaders lead.” What does this mean exactly? I think that it is important to empower your team members by giving them responsibility and autonomy to boost productivity. Trusting your team to make decisions and having them take ownership of their work is key I would say. While leaders must demonstrate honesty and ethical behaviors at all times, trust is essential and naturally built on integrity. The other principle that I think is important is the accountability aspect. Not only should sales leaders hold themselves accountable, but ensuring that their sales team is also held responsible for their actions and achieving results is essential. Leading by example sets a positive tone for your team and demonstrates the behavior that you wish to see exhibited

Q: What are the best ways for companies to manage change?

Laird Comber: This can be an ongoing process requiring a fair amount of strategic thought, patience and dedication. That said, I will share some of the best practices that I have utilized that certainly help companies successfully navigate change.

To ensure proper cultural alignment with the company’s values and culture, ensure that the other top-level executives actively support and champion the change. It is in everyone’s best interest to be vested. This sets the tone for the entire organization.  Also, be sure not to be too rigid. Some inherent flexibility built in to adjust the plan mid-route will help address unforeseen circumstances and mitigate any major pitfalls. On the flipside, be sure to celebrate the smaller wins. This will keep the team focused on believing in and trusting the process. At the end of the day, a feedback loop may be warranted and helpful to make continuous improvement measures.

Q: What are some of your proven negotiation strategies?

Laird Comber: There are many personalities and different contexts of course that may be involved, and sometimes flexibility and adaptability are required for specific situations. That said, actively listening and paying attention to what the other party is saying will pay dividends. Listen carefully to the concerns and needs to show that you are respectful; finding common ground is often possible through this course. Focus on the win-win approach — generally, negotiating entails making both parties feel good, so by emphasizing the gain on both ends the mindset for a successful closing can be understood and will reveal itself. Lastly, have you ever tried negotiating in stages? Can you break down the project into small sections, such as timing, price, competitive advantages and take away wins from each criterion? With this approach, the overall challenge doesn’t seem to be as overwhelming.

Q: What’s the toughest sale you ever made?

Laird Comber: Ironically, I had to convince my own company internally on a specific deal to make it work — this is not uncommon in business. In this example, initially the focus was on the profit margin which was lower than our average, yet the overall product was high dollar; and given that we take dollars to the bank, I was able to make an argument to proceed under this model. That said, the product category was not well understood in my company to begin with and there wasn’t much experience. Consequently, we had traditionally not been successful in the past as a result. This was one area where I was told “it could not be done” and thus there wasn’t any focus. Well, once my internal team got past the “you are creating work for me” stage, and a few PO’s started rolling in, the ensuing results were being tracked and were positive. It resulted in the expansion of the program, and we were able to cross-sell, meaning we leveraged our success across other categories to ultimately take all of the business away from the competition, to the tune of several million dollars per year. The business model is now being used across other accounts. Accolades and a successful case study followed.

Q: What advice would you give to someone starting out in sales?

Laird Comber: Don’t do it! (Kidding, of course.) I might be biased a bit (**wink **wink) but sales is a very rewarding career — there can be value both intrinsically and extrinsically. I agree wholeheartedly with the learning aspect. While some might possess natural talents, it is key to refine skills and learning at all times. One must stay patient, motivated and, of course, be a “people person” to be successful in sales. Stay organized and maintain discipline. Practice good habits, as success happens over time.  You can’t make your sales goal in one day, so ensuring you have the right process and believing that you are doing the right things daily will result in achieving good results. Remember, as Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right,” which in my mind emphasizes how much attitude determines success or failure.

Q: What are some of the ways you use new technology to boost sales?

Laird Comber: I think that much of this question touches on marketing also. The ideal business model that might sound cliché is for marketing to use technology for generating demand and sales to close the demand! That said, sales need to own the CRM. This helps improve customer interactions and should be the backbone for all data utilized to make decisions, drive behaviors and ultimately help manage the business. Examples include Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamic and SAP. The next step here is to really have an effective data analytics process and system. This needs to be leveraged to gain insights further into buying practices, seasonal frequencies, preferences, trends etc. Tools like Power BI and MITS can help provide focus. Naturally, the use of social media tools these days like LinkedIn, Instagram, You Tube videos and the conventional email blasts are no-brainers. However, the proper personalization of these messages is essential. The idea should be to drive traffic to an effective website where there are many online tools — crossover of products, e-literature, videos, case studies, market channel segmentation, online portals and so on….

Really, there is no shortage here of tools, and now with the prominence of AI content marketing has never been more prevalent. HubSpot is one effective tool that can drive lead generation, and these leads can be input straight into a CRM for effective management and deployment among the sales team.

Q: In your extensive world travels, what are some of your favorite places?

Laird Comber: Whoa! Now you are hitting one of my other favorite soapboxes — world travel. So … I think that I will need to break this down into categories. Here it goes…

Wildlife — gorillas in Rwanda, big five animals in Serengeti or Namibia, moose in Canada…. (had to say that one!)

Mountains — Himalayas by a landslide…. Rockies are amazing too, but the nod goes to Nepal as just so exotic.

Deserts — Moroccan Sahara or possibly Namibia (where I went skydiving)

Whitewater Rafting — White Nile

Volcanoes — Poas in Costa Rica, but my favorite has to be Mount Kilimanjaro, the rooftop of Africa. Trivia: Apparently the polar ice cap has melted at the top! It was 30 feet tall when I saw it… Sad.

Colorful leaves in the fall- Lake of Bays, Muskoka, Ontario

Beach — Mozambique

Food and beverage — Italy

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