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Sgt. Phil Esterhaus

When following up with prospects, let's be careful out there.

Sometimes we marketing and sales folk seem to have a death wish when it comes to new technologies.

Not a death wish for ourselves.

A death wish for the technologies — and the possibilities for audience outreach and value-add, win-win each might enable.

Case in point:

Last week I clicked through to the website of a leading marketing automation company. I’d just read a third party’s blog which quoted one of the company’s execs. A new piece of content, an infographic, was mentioned. Curious, I clicked, poked around a bit, then downloaded said infographic.

Mind you, I’m NOT a qualified prospect for the company’s software as a service. To describe me as a potential influencer might even be stretching it. As a business developer and marketing strategist working for a content marketing firm, at best I might someday be on an account team that might someday be in a position to someday recommend this SaaS to a client. Even then, that solution would likely originate with, and be vetted by, one of my more technology-savvy colleagues.

Thanks for Sharing
Still I was not very surprised, but did find myself a little irked, when my brief web visit triggered an e-mail from a sales rep. I’d visited the company’s site once previously and downloaded an ebook. Clearly that earlier  “engagement” had earned me a cookie, plus status as a “lead” to be tracked and scored within the company’s lead management system.

But this particular example of sales follow-up triggered by a website visit left me wondering: Haven’t we been down this road before?

Haven’t marketing and sales types taken a marvelous new technology (e.g., e-mail, fax) for reaching out and engaging directly with audiences, and done our level best to turn that potential into something often intrusive, ham-handed and annoying?

I’m pretty sure this particular e-mail was Exhibit A for how NOT to do lead nurturing based on web visitor tracking. A few of the do’s and don’ts that jumped out:

DON’T make “Prospect on Website” the subject line of your e-mail. That’s right. This sales rep received an e-mail alert from his company’s marketing automation system, then simply forwarded that e-mail to me, adding a three-sentence message of his own. Although I did open his e-mail, “Prospect on Website” is not exactly an inviting subject line. In fact, it sounded ominously like a security system loudspeaker warning “Intruder on Premises!”

DON’T show the prospect your lead intelligence underwear. Because the web tracking alert e-mail was forwarded, I could see the lead scorecard the company is building on me. How many times I’ve visited their site. Pages viewed. Downloads. Date of last visit. Even a paragraph of directions for sales reps: “Your personal notification of activity on your website. Target prospects, identify visitors, and develop sales relationships with your online visitors.” Felt a bit like reading Big Brother’s dossier on me. Kind of creepy.

DO take a few minutes to customize follow-up. If this company were really interested in developing relationships, they might look to customize this type of e-mail. For example, they could require that reps research web visitors on LinkedIn prior to sending follow-up e-mails. If that were standard operating procedure, the rep would have discovered I work for a marketing firm.

Based on that, the e-mail might have had as its subject line: “How agencies win new business with marketing automation.” And the message might have read: “Would you be interested in talking a bit about how agencies likes yours can be heroes, and be more profitable, by recommending marketing automation to your clients?” Instead, the generic e-mail sent to me read: “I received a notification that you have returned to our website. Is there anything I can help you with? Let me know if you’re free to chat for a few minutes at some point today?

DO offer value beyond the opportunity to talk about your product. To simplify, let’s say there are two primary buyer personas for marketing automation. Corporate marketers who buy. Marketing consultants who recommend. Would it make sense to develop some relevant lead nurturing content for each persona? Based on a solid content strategy, the follow-up e-mail might have offered me a report on how other marketing firms have grown business with Fortune 1000 clients by implementing and managing their clients’ marketing automation systems.

DO try to recognize when it’s best to hold your fire. If this sales rep were really ambitious, he might have clicked from my LinkedIn profile to this blog. He might even have spotted a post in which I express irritation toward over-eager retail clerks who assault shoppers with “what can we help you with today?” before we’ve stepped both feet in the door. Granted, it would have taken some shoe leather to glean that insight. But it would have been a valuable clue to not send a standard follow-up to this particular web visitor.

 

Because We Can Doesn’t Mean We Should
If “do not track” sentiment and regulation gains momentum in this country, and if e-mail spam laws and penalties expand to include this sort of web tracking-prompted e-mail, marketers and sales execs will have only themselves to blame.

The ability to track visitors’ on your website, then respond via e-mail or phone, is now a given. Whether we do it carelessly or thoughtfully will determine whether this particular technological advance proves a relationship builder or an engagement barrier.

If your organization alerts sales reps to contact web visitors while they’re still on site, or shortly after, think through how best to leverage that communication moment. Start by making sure you have a relevant content strategy that extends to this particular touch point.

“People,” as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to caution fellow police officers during roll call on TV’s Hill Street Blues: “Let’s be careful out there?”

_____

What do you think? Am I a luddite on this website visitor follow-up issue? Does your organization alert sales to the presence of web visitors? Any thoughts on best practices for effective follow-up? Would welcome your comments and discussion.

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We’re all familiar with the concept of an “elevator speech.” A concise but effective sales monologue. A way of describing and positioning your product, service or idea that, while succinct, is compelling enough to consistently pique the interest of a listener. Your target audience. 

I recently spoke with a corporate marketing chief who is having trouble crafting his organization’s elevator elevator speechspeech. Regardless which marketing or sales employee takes a crack at the perfectly pithy pitch, they’ve been unable to make their software as a service (SaaS) value proposition short, clear and compelling. “Our story’s too complicated, too dense,” the marketers say. “Too many words, not enough impact,” the sales people agree.

The conversation got me thinking: What does it take to craft a great elevator speech?

And that got me thinking just how important it is to focus on the person with whom you’re sharing the elevator.


Fire Up Your Message
Picture yourself boarding an elevator at lobby level, about to make the ascent to your 11th floor office. Just before the doors close, a firefighter steps in.

She’s in full blaze-fighting gear. Heavy yellow rain coat. Black helmet with visor. Oxygen tank on her back. Axe in one hand.

What’s the first question that pops into your mind? Is it:

1) WHAT sort of customer-centric approach, experienced team, advanced training and leading-edge equipment do you folks operate with down there at the station?

2) HOW would you and your associates implement a world-class fire suppression and life saving initiative in a high-rise building such as this one?

3) WHY are you here? In other words, is there a fire in the building?


All Ears?

If you answered 3), you’re in the majority. The vast majority.

When placed in a situation where an elevator speech could be forthcoming, our ear for information tunes quickly to: Why should I care? Why should I care a firefighter is in my building? Why should I care this person next to me is in the SaaS business? Or plastics? Or distance learning?

My theory regarding elevator speeches — and effective marketing messages more generally — is this:

If you’re struggling to articulate a concise, compelling message,
maybe you’re answering the three key questions out of sequence.

You’re spending too much time and putting too much emphasis on:

WHAT does our organization do?, and/or

HOW do we do it?

Then maybe, just maybe, you’re getting around to WHY. WHY the person you’re speaking with (your customer or potential customer) should care?


Why, Oh Why

If you feel the need to take your organization’s elevator speech to another level, make sure you’re starting with WHY?

  • WHY: There’s this particular issue or challenge in the marketplace that matters greatly to certain people or businesses. It might even be something you, Mr. or Ms. Listener, care about.
  • WHAT: Here’s what my company does to address that issue and deliver the desired result.
  • HOW: And we do it in a way that is different, even unique, in these ways, for these reasons.

Answer three questions in the right sequence and there’s a good chance, in 100 words or less, you’ll have an elevator speech that’s considerably more compelling.

Then don’t be surprised if you find yourself with more people pressing the elevator “open door” button in order to ask for your business card.

Does your sales organization struggle to articulate a relevant, arresting elevator speech? Any secrets you want to share about getting more upside from an elevator speech? Welcome your thoughts and comments.

 

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If your organization hasn’t conducted a customer focus group lately, you should. There’s nothing like listening to customers for a couple of concerted hours to get your blood boiling and brain buzzing.

I was fortunate to attend four, two-hour focus groups recently. The company commissioning these groups provides a ubiquitous B-to-B service. Its customers range from Main Street to multinational.

To this company’s credit, the focus for these groups was content. Specifically, sales-support content. What some organizations would call their sales and marketing “collateral.”

This company’s marketers recognize that while the service is what customers buy, the communications and experiences they have via the sales force are a major factor in whether customers ultimately resonate to their brand.

Thus, if a company hopes to retain and build customer relationships, it had better understand customers’ needs, expectations and turn-offs when it comes to sales-support collateral.


Four Causes of “Collateral Damage”
After eight hours listening to business decision-makers talk about the way companies communicate with them via the sales force, I came away with this:

There are four things your customers probably dislike — maybe even detest — about your sales-support collateral. Eliminate these and you’ve taken important strides to having more, and more engaged and delighted, customers.

1. One size fits all
Does your organization claim to listen, to be a solution provider, but then send the same off-the-shelf capabilities brochure or collection of e-mail attachments as a follow-up to every new sales conversation?

If so, you’re failing to deliver on a brand promise. And believe it or not, customers recognize it.

They appreciate it when a sales rep actually does listen to their needs, then follows up with information responsive to those needs. By contrast, if your reps only pretend to listen — or listen but have only generic, one-size-fits-all content by which to follow up — your customers and prospects are in for a let-down.

If you’re not empowering front-line sellers with collateral system that enables some degree of on-the-fly customization — at least to a modular, if not granular, level — your customers would appreciate it if you did.

2. Selling past the close
A consistent theme from the focus groups: Why does this content look and sound so “salesy?” After all, I’m already a customer!

More than one customer pointed out that, having been a customer for years (decades in a few cases), they felt disconnected and underappreciated when every piece of sales collateral seemed to be written and designed for a newbie prospect vs. a long-standing, supposedly valued customer.

Darn them anyway. Customers have fairly sensitive antennae for detecting when they are being sold vs. informed.

Does your collateral system let you “modulate” tone and message depending on whether you’re communicating with a customer or a prospect? If not, maybe it should.

3. The impersonal touch
Customers are quick to notice when communications feel generic vs. personal.

They might have just spoken with a sales rep hours or even minutes prior. But if the follow-up communication reads or appears stiff, over-designed and templated — as though coming from a corporate marketing monolith vs. a flesh-and-blood person — any warm and fuzzy connection they might have been feeling can quickly diminish or disappear.

In our rush to consistently “brand” all sales-driven communications, care must be taken not to bleed them of a simple, personal touch.

4. Limited shelf life
Customers know the world of business is moving and changing continually. That means they are only so trusting that the information you provide — especially in printed and PDF formats — is current and accurate.

If you have a relatively long sales cycle, and you’re hoping customers will file your collateral away for future reference, don’t bank on it. There’s a good chance they’ll toss it or delete it, assuming things (e.g., product specs, service features, terms of use, etc.) will change soon.

 

A Fifth Element
As the company’s marketers listened to the focus groups, they found their own reason to hate the current collateral system: Inefficiency.

Here they were, spending low seven figures annually to create, print and distribute collateral, and customers were essentially saying: We’re just not that into your sales-support content.

It’s broad-brush, even generic. It doesn’t make me feel listened to and valued. Come to think of it, it’s probably out of date. And you always sound like you’re trying to sell me. What’s up with that?

Given all that negative feedback, it’s hard to imagine customers hanging on to your sales-support content, or investing decision-making confidence in it.

Sound like any sales collateral system you know?


Epilogue: Repairing the Collateral Damage
Did the company’s marketers despair over the harsh reviews?

Fortunately, no. They’re already well down the road toward implementing a Web-based content asset management and delivery application that will drive dramatic advances in how sales provides content to customers.

In a nutshell, this company is reinventing its traditional collateral system by bringing Web 2.0 thinking and technology to it. Making it possible for:

  • Content to be centralized, maintained and quickly, cost-effectively updated online vs. as printed documents or PDFs
  • Collateral assets to be custom-assembled, in collections unique to each customer’s needs and interests
  • Customers to have greater opportunity to self-serve for content relevant to them
  • Having visibility over whether, and how, customers consume engage with the content provided them by sales

If you’re pumping precious marketing dollars into an outmoded collateral system that customers probably hate, time to consider a change for the better.

After all, in this era when we’re all focused on engaging customers in dialogue, and providing them relevant content, a smart place to focus is where you already have dialogue underway: Between your sales force and your target audience.

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If you had to pick two groups inside a corporation that must work together effectively for the enterprise to realize its potential, which would they be?

Manufacturing and R&D? Finance and Legal? HR and Operations?

For my money, it’s Marketing and Sales. No inter-departmental alignment will have greater impact on awareness and affinity for a company’s brand. No tag-team will have quite the same impact on customer experience, for better or worse.

If you agree with that premise, then effective, ongoing communication and collaboration between Sales and Marketing should be a top priority for any company.

That’s why it’s surprising to see how wide the gulf sometimes gets between these two functions, especially in larger organizations.


Case Study: In Search of Corrupted Selling Time
Recently I met with one that has developed, in recent years, an emphasis to the point of obsession on stamping out “corrupted selling time.” Some time ago, leadership decided sales reps were spending too much time on what were deemed to be unproductive activities. 

In fact, someone decided the Marketing people who produce sales support tools and content, including the sales intranet, were among the most egregious of corrupted-time culprits.

Turns out they would sometimes ask sales reps to fill out online satisfaction surveys and need assessments. It also wasn’t unusual for them to involve selected reps on teams planning new sales support campaigns and tools.

At some point (probably during a short-term dip in revenue), it was determined that Sales was spending too much time collaborating with Marketing. So, leadership decided to curtail those interactions. Significantly. No more surveys. No more fact-finding interviews or sales focus groups.

The assumption being that time saved could be devoted to selling. Sales productivity would skyrocket. Results would register on the top line.


Unintended Consequences

But the pendulum swung too far. Sales reps, cut off from an outlet to express their needs for new tools and specific messages, grew frustrated. And, because sales people don’t take no for an answer, they began to create their own content. Presentations. Fliers. How-to instructions. Case studies.

In most cases, these materials went in front of customers and prospects with no creative or quality review by Marketing, much less by corporate Legal. Strategic positioning and selling messages, not to mention brand design guidelines, were left to the interpretation of individual reps, many of whom were not peak performers in their high school English or college art classes. 

Because every sales rep was creating his or her own communications, there were no synergies or efficiencies. Within one regional team of 16, each had his or her own collection of leave-behinds. Each had a different, homespun PowerPoint to describe the company’s core value proposition to its most important B-to-B audiences.

Meanwhile, Marketing continued to produce batches of new sales support materials and load them to the intranet. But they were dismayed to see, from Web metrics, that site use was declining.

Weren’t they providing effective, on-target communications tools? Maybe. Maybe not. It was difficult  to say, because they were operating in the dark. Essentially banned from asking Sales for input and validation, for fear those conversations would constitute — you guessed it — corrupted selling time.


Accidental Alignment
Then, almost by chance, two sales reps got invited to a Marketing team off-site. They’d benefited greatly from a new tool Marketing recently developed. They attended the meeting, primarily, to thank their Marketing colleagues.

What transpired, though, was a two-hour, freewheeling discussion over box lunches about what Sales truly needed in the way of new support tools. More customer-relevant content. More step-by-step how-to documents and videos. Shorter PowerPoints, able to be customized with customer-specific data points.

One rep repeatedly flipped open a three-ring binder to show pieces he’d put together. “But I’m not a creative person,” he said. “If you guys could just give us something like this, I know everyone would use it.”

The marketers mostly listened and scribbled notes. This was manna. Internal customers, expressing their needs and challenges, clearly and passionately. It had been so long since this sort of exchange had taken place. Too long. All the meeting participants acknowledged as much.

Moral of the Story

Sales needs uninterrupted time to sell. But Marketing also needs access to talk and co-create with Sales, so effective, high-quality support tools can be developed, reviewed by the right stakeholders, and shared efficiently across all sellers.

Rather than reduce corrupted selling time, constricting collaboration between Marketing and Sales can have the opposite effect. With no one to listen and respond to their needs, sales reps are forced to go off on their own to develop tools they need. In doing so, they become a user base of one for each tool being created.

By contrast, having Marketing and Sales collaborate in a focused way, on an ongoing basis, is a powerful strategy to reduce corrupted selling time. Because the tools Marketing creates are more likely to be those Sales truly needs and will value.

Which means Sales will spend less time crafting their own customer communications.

After all, they’ll be too busy selling.

_________

What about your organization? How do you strike the optimal balance between maximizing selling time and making sure Sales and Marketing are in productive, ongoing dialogue? If you have best practices to share, please do so with a comment. We’ll summarize them in a future post.

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When sports commentators extol the virtues of Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, you’ll often hear them say, “He plays the game the right way.”

Joe Mauer

Joe Mauer

Unless you’re a baseball fan, you might not even recognize Mauer’s name. He’s an all-around athlete who grew up in St. Paul and now stars for his hometown major league team.

At 6′ 5″, with a pro quarterback’s arm and a basketball player’s agility, Mauer (pronounced “mao” — as in Chairman Mao — “er”) is a two-time All-Star widely regarded as the game’s finest defensive catcher. 

On the offensive side, Mauer’s starting to be mentioned among the premier hitters not just in baseball, but in baseball’s long history. He’s already led the majors in batting not once, but twice. By end of play this past Tuesday, he was again atop the American League in hitting, making him a definite threat to win a third batting title.

Admirable Attitude
Given the tremendous aptitude Mauer demonstrates with bat and glove, it’s the attitude with which he plays that, as much as anything, earns him admiration from fans, hard-nosed former players and curmudgeonly media commentators.

On Tuesday night, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mauer merely added to his legend. He was perfect at the plate, four hits in four at bats, driving in a run and scoring two in a Twins’ 8-2 win over the Pirates. With the bouquet of hits, his average blossomed to an eye-popping .429.

But for all the showy stats, here’s the telling highlight from Tuesday’s game. An example of what it means when people say Mauer “plays the right way.”

In the bottom of the 5th inning, with two out, his team ahead by two runs, Mauer occupied first base. One of his teammates lofted what looked to be a sure-out fly to short center field.

Now understand, Mauer’s young, just 26 years old. He has a contract that plays him millions each year to play a game — a game at which he’s ridiculously accomplished. According to one report, he was battling a cold Tuesday. He plays catcher, the most physically taxing of all positions. And the baseball season is a physical and mental grind — 162 games, one flowing into the next.

Some players in this moment, with these credentials — whether to conserve energy, or to demonstrate a certain level of self-satisfaction — would have jogged lazily toward second, slowed to a walk to watch the pop fly being caught, and then veered toward the dugout. 

But Joe Mauer elects not to be an ordinary player.

Instead, he ran hard from first, as baseball players are taught to do as kids but so often forget or fail to do as millionaires. Remarkably, Pittsburgh’s center fielder lost track of the ball in the Metrodome’s roof. What should have been out No. 3 dropped 10 feet to his right. By the time he retrieved the ball on a bounce, Mauer was chugging into home plate with another run toward a convincing victory.

The Not-So-Little Things
What on God’s green baseball diamond does any of this have to do with marketing, sales or even business?

Maybe not so much, but then again…

Most days we don’t get to produce an award-winning Super Bowl ad. We aren’t closing a new, multi-million-dollar piece of business. We’re not making a speech, writing a speech, or even setting up the audio-visual equipment for a global economic summit in some romantic-sounding European capital.

A lot of what happens day-to-day in marketing, sales and corporate communication is not all home runs and high fives. It’s about:

  • Finding ways to make the user experience on our Web site more valuable and engaging than it was yesterday. 
  • Making time to scan that industry news article and think about it’s implications, so the next e-mail touch with a customer isn’t simply “How are you doing?” but instead, “You know, I’ve been thinking….”
  • Going on calls with a sales rep, or asking her to show you the home-spun cheat sheets and leave-behinds she’s developed to fill gaps in the sales support toolkit provided by Marketing.
  • Looking at every program and campaign we create to see how we can make it better, smarter, more efficient, more measurable.

As we summon focus, creativity and commitment to do all these relatively unglamorous, seemingly incremental things, it might be helpful to recognize that even superstars are very often doing the little things on their way to the All-Star Game.

At least they are if they’re playing the game the right way.

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carlin_dvd_frontThe late, great George Carlin was one of my favorite comedians. Carlin died last year at age 71. At least for me, no comic before or since has combined intelligence, facility with language and offbeat insight into humanity’s flaws and foibles with quite his flair.

According to Wikipedia, Carlin was a five-time Grammy winner, the first person to host Saturday Night Live, and is ranked second, behind Richard Pryor, on Comedy Central’s list of all-time list comic greats.

So what does Carlin have to do with creating and delivering communications to support your sales force?

Seven words.

 

Words to the Wise
Noteworthy in Carlin’s legacy is a routine he crafted around “Seven Dirty Words.” The routine became central to a U.S. Supreme Court case in which, by the slimmest of margins, the court upheld government’s right to regulate “indecent” material broadcast over public airwaves.

Now, to be clear, I don’t plan to restate Carlin’s seven words here. And using rough language routinely is not likely to get your sales force far.

But it strikes me there’s a string of seven words that, if able to be stated by more sales reps, would unlock fresh opportunities to be nimble and strategic in how they approach and communicate with customers.

These same seven words would allow marketing communicators to be more immediate, efficient and versatile in how they deliver content to sales — and ultimately to buyers and specifiers.

And, unlike Carlin’s seven, which you could argue are in fairly common use, these seven are considerably underutilized in day-to-day selling.

So, what are these seven magical sales-support words?

 

Let me show you on the Internet.

 
Acceptable variants would be  “Let me show you what I mean,” or “Let me show you how it works,” with the Web as an eventual destination implied.

If the conversation were happening by phone, the seven words might be, “Have you got Internet access right now?” If a rep bumped into someone in a hallway or lobby, the seven words might be: “Can we go back to your desk?”

So it’s not really about seven specific words, but more to the underlying point:

The Web, surprisingly, is still a relatively untapped resource in how most organizations deliver sales support.  


The Net-Net of Effective Sales Support

Think about how much time, effort and resources go into getting reps equipped to deliver an effective, consistent message and presentation. The printed brochures, sell sheets and collateral systems. The PowerPoints. The lugging along of projectors, samples, flip charts and display boards.

Now ask yourself how much more empowering it would be if a rep, after an initial conversation, could simply go to any Internet-connected computer and explore — in a way tailored to the particular client — a treasure trove of customer-facing content. Information. Case studies. Research. Visualization tools. Calculators. And more.

Is this an argument for keeping your corporate Web site in a perpetual state of brochureware?

No. It’s about making relevant, value-adding, even inspirational content readily accessible online — either within a special section of your Web site, or on a separate, dedicated microsite.

Do that, with the right content, and no joke: You’ll notice customers and prospects smiling. And you’ll see more sales reps, more often, laughing all the way to the bank.

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Straight up news: If your organization relies on an inside sales force to keep the pipeline full and leads nurtured, you’ll want to know about a new professional association just launched here in my home state of Minnesota.

The American Association of Inside Sales Professionals, born March 27, bills itself as the only organization of its kind “dedicated exclusively to advancing the profession of Inside Sales.”

Larry Reeves, COO of AA-ISP, estimates there are as many as 1 million professionals working in, or managing, inside sales organizations in the United States.  Reeves, along with AA-ISP founder and CEO Bob Perkins, hope to attract members by the thousands from that universe, including sales execs and managers, the inside reps themselves, plus sponsors interested in reaching inside sellers with products and services.

AA-ISP already owns an attractive, business-like Web presence, including a sprinkling of white papers, registration for an e-newsletter, and just-launched functionality for member forums.  Plans call for offering members leadership and career development, a jobs board, a speaker’s bureau, a marketplace for consulting services, plus educational conferences, Webinars and other networking and best-practices sharing opportunities.

AA-ISP also is developing online accreditation courses for inside sales pros. Among its early affiliations, it’s struck an alliance with The College of St. Catherine, a St. Paul liberal arts school which offers two bachelor’s degree programs in sales, one concentrated in business-to-business, the other healthcare.

Perkins, a sales executive at Merrill Corporation, was quoted in a news release announcing AA-ISP’s launch that not long ago “inside sales was perceived as annoying telemarketers or unsophisticated ‘order takers’ who smiled and dialed.

“Today,” he said, “inside sales is an integral part of many organizations’ overall sales strategy… It’s not unheard of for inside sales representatives to build and manage multi-million dollar accounts and close six-figure sales.”

The association’s first annual Leadership Summit is set for June 9-10 in Minneapolis.

For more info on any and all things inside sales and AA-ISP, call 800.604.7085, ext. 130, or e-mail info@aa-isp.org.

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