(Ladders recently spoke with GrowthX Founding Partner, Sean Sheppard, on the art of social selling, why Conversation Intelligence is changing the shape of sales, and the key steps to get into the field.)

What was the impetus for launching GrowthX?

Seventy-percent of funded startups fail.  And eight of the Top 10 reasons why have nothing to do with technology or products.  They have to do with markets and people. And the investor community wasn’t addressing it. As serial entrepreneurs, turned investors, turned frustrated investors because our startups were failing for people and market reasons, not technology and product reasons.

So we addressed the problem by building the world’s first seed-stage venture fund and startup accelerator program focused on developing markets and making money.  Most VC’s, incubators and accelerators are focused on developing products and raising money, yet the failure rate of startups hasn’t changed in 50 years.

What purpose does it serve and how has it evolved?

Our purpose is to help entrepreneurs succeed.  We began by investing, then helping our companies grow, then developing the talent to work in them through GrowthX Academy.

Through that, we learned that most established companies and governments have similar challenges.  From there, we began to help companies, countries, and universities, outside of our portfolio, by open-sourcing our Market Acceleration Program (MXP) in our now-popular #gxmxp Series.  Now, we help funded startups, large corporations and countries address the same challenges in four main areas: commercialize innovations, invest venture capital, external innovation, and build sustainable tech ecosystems.

We build ecosystems having solved our own problems, as they were presented with capital, talent, and know-how.

What technology/innovation/platform has had the most profound effect on the field of sales in the past few years, and why?

For me, it is Conversation Intelligence.  Using AI to analyze sales conversation is having a profound impact on how we interact with the market at every stage in the funnel.  Companies like Gong.io and Chrous.ai are forever changing for the better who we talk to, when and how. It’s the ultimate tool for near real-time insights on sales conversations.

What are the biggest challenges, from a technological and/or business standpoint, that those in sales face nowadays (can tie into the previous question)?

We have become too reliant on technology.  The internet has made us more interconnected, yet less interpersonal.  We use it as a crutch instead as a tool and as a result, we prefer to talk to our screens and not people.  The art of talking to humans and deep conversation is dying and it deeply concerns me. Just look at our political climate and the discourse.  Sales is about helping others get what they want. And to do that, we need to deeply understand who they are, what they do, how they do it and what we can do to help them.  And that requires deep conversation.

Big picture, do you feel the worlds of sales and marketing are converging, and if so, is this a good thing? Or should they remain their own distinct fields? Please explain.

Yes, they are, and that’s a great thing!  For too long, they’ve been at odds. When things aren’t going well, sales blames marketing for weak leads and marketing blames sales for being weak closers.  The tighter the stack gets, the more we are forced to collaborate and co-create solutions. The best teams recognize this and create a learning loop to accelerate their path to the truth about how the market responds to their marketing and sales efforts.

Why has social selling become so prevalent nowadays?

Let’s begin by defining this term…social is a communication channel, not a sales methodology and it should be treated as such. It’s no different than “digital marketing.” Digital is a channel, not a method. Its prevalence is merely due to going where people hang out and interacting with them in a way that generates a response.  Let’s not overthink this. The key takeaway here is to find out where and how your customers like to interact and adapt your message to them. Strive to make it easy for people to get engaged, stay engaged, interact with you, learn from you and buy from you and keep buying from you.

What was the best piece of advice you’ve received when it comes to sales? 

That your success comes from the success of your customers.  If you help them be successful, you will be successful.

What advice do you have for those just getting into the field?

Develop Yourself

  • Begin with the belief that there is no distinction between personal and professional development.  Develop the person and you will develop the professional. This is a human to human business after all.  If you work just a little every day to improve yourself, you will improve your work.

Develop a growth mindset

  • Meaning you are a learn it all, and not a know it all.  And you don’t know what you don’t know and that’s ok. Embrace mistakes!  If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying. And replace the word rejection with feedback and view feedback as a gift that makes you better at helping your customers get what they want.

Develop Business Acumen

  • The best way to know how you can help others get what they want is to know their business as well as they do.  Who are their customers? What do they do for them? How do they make money and how do you impact that with what you do for them?  How are your users/individual customers measured in their role? How is their boss? Or their bosses, boss? This will help you connect the dots between what you do and how that impacts their business in a measurable way.  People only buy for four reasons..to make money, save money, create a competitive advantage and stay out of prison! When you understand that, you will understand how to help.

Market Acumen

  • The best sales professionals can sell any product in any market.  They can quickly adopt an industry’s culture and language. So immerse yourself in an industry by studying every aspect of it as if it’s your only passion.  How it works, the words used to describe it. Adopt the language of the customer and use their words to help you help them. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you gain credibility and see results.

Communication

  • You can be proficient in all the above, but if you cannot articulate value to your customer it’s all for naught.  Study and master all forms of communications. Conversation, presentation, writing, non-verbal, dress, style, in person, over the phone, through email and social channels, on a web conference and any other screen. And most importantly your behaviors. How do you conduct yourself at trade shows, conferences, social events and around alcohol? Like it or not, everything communicates.  And people will always give you more credit than you may deserve if you can communicate effectively while conducting yourself with the utmost professionalism.

When it comes to hiring sales managers/salespeople, what criteria do you have?  What do you look out for? 

I look for a growth mindset, emotional intelligence, grit, ambition, curiosity, authenticity, willingness, and coachability.  My favorite backgrounds to hire from are former athletes who lost a lot and never got used to losing. They are always learning and they never gave up. Remember, it’s not how you act, it’s how you react when things get hard (and they will get hard) that matters most.

What has been the most satisfying moment of your career/proudest career achievement, and why?

As I stated above, my success comes from helping others.  And building the first of its kind sales curriculum at GrowthX Academy for selling in startups and watching our alumni succeed and pass along what we taught them is the most rewarding achievement of my professional life to date.  They always do the right thing, and they put the needs of others ahead of their own.