In this episode, we chat with Nazma Qurban (Chief Revenue Officer at Cognism) about hiring, driving, and building a sales culture suited to millennials. Nazma was one of the first employees at Cognism where she grew revenue by 600% in 2018 and built a base of over 200 clients in just 18 months. She's also been included in the Top Women Leaders in SaaS of 2018 by The SaaS Report. In this episode, she shares her tips for building - and scaling - a team of high-performing millennials in sales.
Cognism is proof by example that investing in a millennial workforce pays off. The team brings on plenty of graduates and junior people onto their team, and favors internal progression over external hires to achieve a 98% retention rate. For Nazma, millennials need to a clear path to progression to stay engaged. They also excel at collaboration, so putting it front and center in their culture has also helped drive performance within the team.
Nazma is a strong advocate for including the team into strategic decisions. They have a different perspective to hers, and allowing team members to share their opinion openly has been a big driver for Cognism's exponential growth. The reason why inclusion is a strong driver of performance is that it demonstrates to the team that they are valued. It also sets a standard which the rest of the team are inspired to replicate.
Selling a product designed for sales professionals can be intimidating. The thought that everything is going to need to be perfect can hinder your performance - and it shouldn't. Nazma treats her prospects no different from other professionals. As a salesperson, you're trying to add value to your prospect's day-to-day - not one-up them. Also, a strong discovery to determine how you're going to deliver value will get you respect in that relationship. And finally, sales people can sense the bullshit. Be straightforward about what you can and can't do, and schedule a follow up later on if the timing isn't right.
You were Employee #1 at Cognism which you joined three years ago, could you tell us a little bit about the sales culture that you've established there and what makes it unique?
What makes our sales culture unique is that we have very like-minded individuals on the team. We like to hire people that are ambitious and very driven and yet different because we don't want to hire the same people. And, so, we do have people with different values. We all have different backgrounds, and yet we collaborate all together because we have very common goals and ambitions.
It's often said that culture comes down to who you hire and who you promote. Could you tell us a little bit about your process for those two things at Cognism?
If you're familiar with Cognism and follow us on social media you'll notice we talk very openly and proudly about how we invest in Millennials. So, we do believe that there's a lot of stigma attached to Millennials, and I believe that as a business that we invest heavily in graduate students, giving them opportunity and mentoring and training them into great sales individuals so that we can promote them. What's unique about our sales culture is that it's complete organic growth. Every single person in the sales team, whether it's our sales director or senior business manager started off as an SDR, as I did. And, I think that's definitely something that makes us unique.
Our culture is all around bringing in graduates or people that have one or two years of experience and trained in our way and then promoting them. That helps build trust. We have a 98% retention rate and stay with us because they trust that we would put them before external hires, and we will continue to invest in their development.
One of the challenges of hiring a young sales force is that you don't have as much of a track record that you can assess candidates on. So in a large part your process revolves around finding the right culture fit with the candidate.
What I found when I started is that I made a lot of mistakes and I failed. But I failed very fast. And, so, I was able to learn from my mistakes because if I did hire somebody and they didn't work out, I knew that there were things that maybe there were alarm bells that were raised during the interview process that I ignored because maybe liked this person. I think that definitely helped as I evolved in my role and understood that it was actually possible, that I need to have other people in the team involved in the hiring process. If I have any doubts, then I need to walk away and not make that decision because 100% of the time when I thought that I had a doubt, I was right.
And the culture fit, as we've grown and evolved, we haven't stopped having multiple people in the hiring process. So, even now, if we're hiring a graduate that comes in, they get to spend time with the team, assess individuals, and to ensure they're aligned with our culture. So, the thing about collaborating and involving others around you so that you feel that you were right about your decision.
You mentioned earlier that Cognism's workforce was mainly Millennials. What sort of challenge does that bring? Is it really that different?
Yeah. It's completely different, and there's a few reasons for that. And I'm very fortunate to be close to being a Millennial myself. I think for Millennials, they really need a clear progression. They need to understand what they're doing is going to lead them somewhere, and it just needs to be clear. I think if you're hiring somebody and you're not giving them a progression and they don't understand exactly what they need to do, they will leave because they just don't feel like they're going anywhere.
What's really unique about Millennials, also, is the way that we've been educated. So, we've been graded while at school or at university on teamwork and collaboration. I've definitely been part of that, and if you take a Millennial who excels in collaborating and putting them at a desk and telling them to do tasks and not collaborate and they're not used to it, and it's just going to hinder their growth because they're not used to performing in a way which is just individual based. And I think that's something that we see, not particularly in sales, as in all of the other functions in the business, we are a very collaborative business and, so, it's the perfect environment for a Millennial to strive in.
But I think if you do have somebody who comes from another generation, they'll probably struggle to act so closely and to have so many different fashions of collaborations because it's not something that they're comfortable with. So, it's about having an environment that they're comfortable in.
One thing that you had touched on previously was the notion of rules of engagement and how when it comes to a younger sales force it's important that those rules of engagement be built together.
I'm huge on involving everyone. Before I came onto this call, and it's really difficult for me to describe and look from the outwards exactly what makes us unique. So I was like "guys, I have a call for an interview... what makes us unique?" and it was actually the team that started talking to me and telling me about all the things that they feel are unique because I'm so far into it it's very difficult to see from the outside what it really looks like.
Inclusion is something that we do again and again, so we include everybody in decisions. You don't know how much value one individual can add. Because they have a very different perspective to the perspective that I have, it's driven our exponential growth over the last few years, having that freedom and having that voice.
What are some concrete examples of how that culture transpires in your team's day to day work?
So, to answer that question, I think the best way to describe how that impacts all of us each in our day-to-day is, I am now waking up in the morning and coming to work, if I have a choice of of staying and working from home, I wouldn't, and when I discuss, and I was discussing this with the team, about how things affect me and everyone feels the same way, they love coming to work, I hope. I think it impacts your performance because you're included in all the decisions, you're driven because you know that you're valued which is incredibly important. The team are valued, they're driven because they understand where they're going, because they have clear goals. And they love the people that they work with, so they're driven because everything that they're going to be doing, there's going to be a direct output. And having that kind of culture, it ensures that there's a culture for performance because everybody is like-minded and everyone is performing because there's a standard and everyone's here to help you.
I think that this is also translated in how the team to interact outside of their working hours. So, 9 to 5 - 8 hours a day - that's a lot of time to be spending with people, but if you're building a culture and you're loving and enjoying the work that you do and you have similar roles, and you have similar challenges, and you're still willing to spend time on weekends, in the morning, then that's something special, I feel.
Sometimes I'll walk in and I'm and early bird. Sometimes I get in at 8:00 a.m. - and that's fairly late - and half the team is already here. So, they want to get to work. They want to be the first ones on the phone. And if I'm here at 7 o'clock, I'd say half of the team is still here, and whether that is just to hang out with each other or just on the phones, yet everyone wants to be here and people want to succeed.
I had a quick question regarding video and, specifically, how it fit in your sales process at Cognism.
We love video. And I think it ties in very nicely with the culture that we have. So, we have young graduates or we have very young professionals are very tech savvy. They love social media which has really helped us with our branding because they're always posting on LinkedIn or Facebook. So, video is great because it's definitely helped with prospecting. We are a very heavy outbound sales engine. And, so, I also give room for creativity. I when I say, creativity, and they have room to experiment as long as they're getting the output. And, so, video has been helpful because it's part of our cadences where you can send a quick 30 second video and interact with prospects. It helps with the beginning of the pipeline, to help engage with those that you can't because perhaps those people that aren't receptive on LinkedIn, or emails, or phones.
And that also helps throughout the sales process when we're trying to engage in people that aren't readily available, so we have a platform - an outbound, lead generation prospecting platform - and in order for us to check the value, we need to show it over screenshare. And, so, it's a fundamental part of our process. Without that, we wouldn't be where we are without that. So, it helps in prospecting. It helps with demonstrations, but then it also helps with the closing. So, now that we're evolving into the enterprise space and we're sending video recordings of demos, so we're doing a demo specifically with one individual and we know that they're somebody else who's a D.M. that we can't get ahold of because they're in a different time zone, we just send them a recording over. So, yeah, it's crucial.
One final question: Cognism being a tool for salespeople, obviously, selling to other salespeople is a lot of fun, but it's also quite challenging. I was wondering if you had any advice for sales teams like Cognism or like Bonjour who sell to other sales reps.
That's a really good question because it was definitely something that was daunting to me as a sales professional going into a role where I'm selling to other salespeople. The first thought that popped into my mind was, "Oh, my god, I'm going to have to really up my game because I'm going to be pitching to people and they're going to be judging me. They are going to judge every single job process, and this needs to be perfect." So, the first barrier that you need to remove is the barrier you create in your mind So, you need to go in with an understanding that the person you're talking to is just a salesperson and you're trying to add value.
The second is a strong discovery and because then you'll be respected because the sales individual knows that you are just trying to determine whether you can help them. So, I'd say, having really strong discovery and the third is just don't bullshit. As salespeople we smell it a mile off. Always be honest and be honest about the flaws and be honest about things that your product or your services lack if need be because you'll be respected. If that is offered at the right time for that sales professional to actually look forward with the opportunity when the timing is right, perhaps when your product has evolved and they won't hesitate to reconnect with you. So, just be honest.
Check out the full video on Youtube. For more Zero to Won, visit bonjour.io/show.
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