Psychological triggers. Discovery calls. Pain points. Active listening and getting internal stakeholders to be your internal influencers and sales champions when selling enterprise deals.
Hopefully you’re intrigued by this stuff, because if you’re a marketing service business owner (whether independent or with employees) your business will live and die based on how good your sales process.
Lucky for you, I brought on one of the best at teaching service business owners onto the Credo podcast, and today here is that episode.
His name is Liston Witherill, and he’s a Portland-based entrepreneur and founder of Liston.io. He is an author, speaker, and advisor to agencies and consulting firms ready to move beyond the referral. Liston’s work is based on cutting edge psychology, behavioral economics, and his own sales experience. His mantra is “Serve, Don’t Sell,” and he believes selling should be an ethical, win-win arrangement 100% of the time.
Prior to creating his training business, Liston was the owner of a boutique marketing firm, and ran business development and marketing for a $12M consulting firm. He podcasts 3x a week, and runs 3 times a week, and lives with his beautiful wife, cat, and dog in Portland, OR.
John: Hey, hey, hey, what’s up, everyone? John Doherty, Founder and CEO of getcredo.com here back in your ears. Today, I have a very special guest on the podcast with me. Before I get into that, let me tell you a little bit about Credo. This episode is sponsored by Credo, which is my company, getcredo.com, where we help clients find that and ultimately hire the best digital marketing agency or consultant for their specific needs.
Today’s episode is with Liston Witherill who is a sales coach, a Portland-based entrepreneur, and author, speaker, and adviser to agencies and consulting firms who are ready to move beyond the referral and scale their sales. Liston’s work is based on cutting edge psychology, behavioral economics and his own sales experience running sales for a $12 million company. His monetary is serve, don’t sell. And Liston believes that selling should be an ethical win-win arrangement 100% of the time. Liston and I have been connected for a little bit.
I was a guest on his podcast about consulting a few weeks ago. And we think a lot along the same wavelength about sales, how service business owners, consultants, etc., should be doing sales, how to do it best so that you get micro buy-ins along the way, you build internal advocates to help you sell work into these bigger companies that are gonna pay you the big dollars. Our conversation here is about 25 minutes long. I think you’re gonna get a ton of value from it. He talks about a lot of things that are super actionable to service-based businesses as you’re trying to sell up the value chain. So without further ado, here’s Liston. And I hope you really enjoy this episode.
All right. So Liston, welcome to the Credo podcast. So today, we’re gonna be talking about the topic of sales. You had me on your podcast a few weeks ago talking about sales and how I see consultants and agencies on Credo, having the best success. But I mean, you’re the guy when it comes to sales and comes to teaching agencies, and consultants, and service business owners how to sell better work. So if you would to kinda kick it off for us, could you give us the cliff notes of who you are, what you do, how you do it?
Liston: Sure, I’ll do my best. So who I am? My name is Liston Witherill. My website is liston.io. And what I do is I help people who are not trained sales people and not professional sales people be much, much, much more effective at selling. The reason I focus on independent consultants and agencies in firms is because what I find is a lot of people get into the profession not fully respecting or understanding that selling is going to be such an important part of, you know, driving the bottom line that they’re after.
And a little bit, you know, this is classic 80/20 Pareto principle, just a little bit of training goes a long way. It’ll, like, double or triple your abilities very quickly. So, you know, that’s what I see, is I really want to have an impact on those folks. A couple things that I focus on that might be a little bit different than “sales gurus,” and dude, I really hate the term guru. I wish we could just all agree to kill it. Guru and Rockstar should just go away permanently.
John: Oh, yeah. And self-proclaimed experts when they have nothing to show.
Liston: Right. So, you know, one thing that’s a little bit different about me is I really look at science and data, behavioral economics and neuroscience, and kind of how the brain actually works in order to deliver the advice that I give. So you’re not gonna hear me citing academic papers all the time, but I am reading them all the time. So that’s something that’s a little bit different about me. The way that I do this is through coaching engagements or direct consulting. So I work with larger firms to train their people to write sales playbooks for them to uncover insights about their customers and how they can better sell themselves. And I work with smaller firms through coaching engagements and in particular, remote group coaching online.
John: Very cool. Very cool. And that’s at liston.io?
Liston: That is.
John: Which is a great domain name. I wish I had john.io. I should look at acquiring that. That’d be sweet.
Liston: You gotta get a really weird name first and then the domain becomes easier. But liston.com was taken, which is for me.
John: Oh, fair enough. Well, the .io, I like it. It’s one character shorter, right?
Liston: Yeah, there you go.
John: Awesome. So, I actually didn’t know that about you, that you go deep into the psychology. And I’m assuming, it’s a lot of like, you know, psychological triggers, and basically, like the human needs, and all of that. I’ve been reading Jeff Walker’s book launch, which is about launching products. It’s not about sales necessarily, though there are some carryovers, and methodologies, and all of that, that are very similar to what I’ve found in sales. I have a bit of sales training myself and pretty much the 80/20. I was trained in sales when I was selling Cutco knives in college.
Liston: Oh, man. Your training ground.
John: oh, my gosh, it was amazing. And that’s helped me out a lot over the years. So did you study that in university? Like, what’s your background with the psychology side there?
Liston: Yeah. So I studied economics and political science, and have a master’s degree in environmental science, which had a lot of economics as well. Like, I had a class taught by the Nobel Prize Laureate economist. So yeah, a little bit. It wasn’t really sales in particular, but the thing that drives me is really understanding what makes people tick. Why do they do what they do, right? And sales and marketing is a great place to apply that and to try to really figure that out.
Most of my sales training came through just doing. So I ran business development and marketing for a $12 million consulting firm. And then while after that, I kinda got into digital marketing myself and ran my own…I’ve been on my own for five years. And so constantly applying and, you know, knowing, as you know, if you don’t sell, you don’t eat. And so there’s no amount of pressure quite like that. And so what I realized along the way, you know, first, when I was doing business development for the larger firm, you know, I realized, like, we only had really one guy who was responsible for all the business that came in.
And I think that’s true of a lot of firms. And sometimes, they don’t even have one guy or one woman who’s responsible for it all. They have one client connection who’s brought in everything, and they’re reliant on a Fortune 100 to just bring it all in. But I also realized…
John: And then they basically have a boss.
Liston: Exactly. Yeah. And it’s, you know, it looks like a business but if anything happens to that one client, it doesn’t feel like a business anymore. It feels like you’ve been part of a layoff. So, you know, I also found out that when I was competing against other people, one of the edges that I had when I was on my own was not that necessarily my work was so much better, but that I knew how to run the sales process and how to sell effectively. And that was a differentiator for me right up front.
John: Awesome. Awesome. Yeah. And we very much found that at Credo as well, when an agency has a step process that they go through and I think we talked about my process that I teach, the Credo process that we teach our agencies and consultants, on your show, but we’ve also found that when, you know, it’s not a take a piece of spaghetti and throw it against the wall and see what sticks, right, which I’m sure we all did in college. I think my college house had like spaghetti hanging from the walls because we were testing it for, like, a long time. It’s really disgusting.
But when you have that process, that is…it’s scalable, it’s repeatable, you can teach it to others. So it’s not just Liston doing sales, but, like, you could hire other salespeople as the lead volume grew, you could teach them the process and know that. You know, you might close 75%, they might close 65%, but it’s better than closing 20% and then, like, you know, literally costing you money as they’re learning, you can just teach them the process and they can run with it. And then test it a little bit as well, right? They have parameters but test it a little bit. And if they find something that works well, then they can teach it to the rest of the team. But that process is what enables companies to scale.
Liston: Well, not only that. I mean, opportunity cost, right? So if you’re the owner of the business, and you’re the most effective salesperson, it doesn’t really matter, right, because if you need to grow sales and the only way to do that is by adding people, it’s okay if they’re not as effective as you. I’ll give you an example. Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president, was a famously fast typist. He typed over 100 words per minute on an old analog typewriter. He was a faster typist than his secretary. Does that mean Woodrow Wilson typed all of his letters? No, right? Like, he had bigger things to do with this time.
So same goes for you as the owner of a company. If you’re looking to, first of all, improve yourself and be in a position where you can teach someone else, you really need to have a process that starts to look repeatable and at least has core milestones that you wanna hit every time.
John: Totally. Totally. And also, if you’re not, you know, a sales professional, right, I mean, you, you were, I’m not, but then if you have that process and you’re kind of able to go through it, then, you know, say, I close 60%, right? And once my business gets to the point where I have that process, I can go and hire someone that is a sales professional. I did this six months ago and he’s basically like, almost doubled our close rates. Like, it’s unbelievable, because he is that professional, he knows that, right? But he could take the process that I know works well and build upon that. And so yeah, it makes it much more scalable like as a business, which is amazing.
So let’s get into that sales process since you brought it up. So one of the things that you’ve talked about and that we, you know, kind of have riffed on, I’ve read some of your stuff as well, talk to us about the initial, like, discovery process, that initial call that you have. What should the approach be to that call and getting to know the client?
Liston: So the goal of the discovery process really is to learn, right? And I think you mentioned in the pre-call, you wanna talk about mistakes people make. One of the biggest mistakes I see is people are pitching right off the bat. And it’s everything’s about them, right? So I’ve had this happen to me where I show up for a demo of software, or to hire a coach or a consultant myself, and I show up to the first call, and they just start really defensively promoting themselves, right?
Here’s why I’m so amazing. You know, basically, I’m gonna read my resume aloud to you. And first of all, that doesn’t serve me at all, because the thing that I’m thinking is, “Well, you don’t even know who the hell I am. Like none of this may matter to me,” right? So how can you deliver relevance to me without understanding first who I am? So the goal of the discovery process and most people, I think, you know, just to quantify it, we wanna listen about 70% of the time and talk only 30% of the time, which means we have to ask great questions. And what we’re really trying to figure out is what I call PGV, pain, goals, and value.
What’s causing the client pain that makes them think that they need some help right now? What are their goals that they’re trying to achieve in solving that pain? And what value do those goals have? If they’re able to achieve those goals, what would it be worth to them? Now, you don’t necessarily have to quantify it. If you’re listening to this, you know, you may be trying to drive incremental traffic, which is a lot easier to quantify. But you may also be, you know, selling logos, which is difficult to quantify. But there are emotional reasons people wanted, too, right?
They may say, “Well, we wanna be able to serve a different market. And we feel that our overall position and brand image isn’t there,” right? So we need to update it. Well, that’s a pretty strong reason, right? And so asking…
John: While moving up market, we’re trying to target bigger customers, our current logo that our CEO designed in Photoshop five years ago isn’t doing it, isn’t cutting it anymore. And so we’re ready to invest some money as part of the bigger picture.
Liston: We’re left behind by the competition. Like, we sponsored a conference in our logo next to the other five looked like crap, right? Like, those are the kinds of emotional feelings the people are gonna have. And so you’re gonna wanna figure out what those are. Now, the only way to figure those out is to ask questions and shut up. And then when they answer, ask a follow-up question, right?
So I could go really deep into questioning strategies. But the real key thing for that discovery call is figuring out pain, goals, value. And this is really the overall discovery process. So there’s something I call the physics of the sale, right? The more complicated, the more expensive the thing is that you sell, the more people on your by side that are involved, the longer it’s gonna go, right? It’s just, by definition, more difficult.
So if you’re selling to big companies, you’re gonna have to talk to legal, and accounting, and their boss. And they need to develop consensus internally with their team. Like, all of these things, you can’t really circumvent that. So you may wanna run multiple discovery processes, but the key idea is we really need to learn PGV, pain, goals, value, before we can ever pitch and only then could we determine, is there a fit? And should we take the time to pitch or write a proposal?
John: Right. Totally. I like that PGV framework. Can you give me an example of a question? We don’t need to go through all three of them, but a question that you would ask that a salesperson like yourself, if you’re trying to sign a new client or you’re trying to get a new, you know, coaching client, right, a new agency to help out their sales process. What’s a question that you would ask to get at the pain?
Liston: So I always start very open ended. I would just say, “So tell me, what made you want to have this conversation today,” right? And they’ll just riff on it, right? And so if it’s a coaching client, they may say something like, “Well, I just wanna be better at sales. I just want to, you know, have a process in place. I wanna feel more confident when I’m talking to clients.” And so if they said, “I just wanna be better at sales,” I’d say, “Why do you think you’re not good at sales? So I wanna get layers down, right? Well, I had this one deal go sideways and, you know, they’re gonna start to tell me in more details specifics about what’s actually going on. And that’s the stuff we wanna get to, right?
John: And then you can ask things like they had one sale go sideways. You can ask, “Well, like, have you gotten that same feedback from other ones, from others that you’ve pitched. Have you seen this a few times?”.
Liston: Exactly. Right. Is it a real trend? How much business is it costing you? Like, all these things, we wanna figure out. We don’t wanna just know overall, like, what is the problem, right? Because for, like, I get Credo customer, you know, the problem is, “we want more business.” Well, okay. But that means probably 15 different things to all the customers you have. So we wanna figure out the specifics. And, you know, I just wanna mention that this advice is really targeted at people selling more bespoke services and more higher end services. So 5,000 or more, 10,000 or more, something like that.
John: Totally, totally. No. And that completely makes sense. And we’ve seen the same thing with Credo, where, you know, a $1,500 audit is gonna sign pretty quick, or a $700 audit is gonna sign really quick, that we don’t really take those. We don’t really refer those along. But, yeah. In the past, so a few years ago, I had, say, a different model for Credo. And I had people that would sign up, they would be on. And three weeks later, they would churn out. And I’m like, “What happened? You contacted, like, the people I told you you’re gonna be able to contact. I, you know, hit what I sold you.” And they’re like, “Yeah, but we haven’t closed anything.”
And I’m like, “These are $5,000 deals here. Like, if you expect that to close in two weeks, like then, you know, expectations are a minimum mismanage there,” right? But then also, you know, I hadn’t done a good job of teaching them the process. It’s gonna take longer, you know, for bigger projects as opposed to smaller projects, that sort of thing. The process for when you go from, you know, someone that is doing the, you know, a 1,500? Well, actually, let me ask the question in a different way. If you have someone that’s going from selling $1000 audits to $5,000 audits, what’s different there? What are the things that people often miss as they’re trying to make more money from each client, pitch bigger work, pitch bigger clients?
Liston: Well, there’s lots of things, right? So, like, the overall value has to be greater that you’re delivering. So you’re packaging matters a lot more. Now, your overall sort of disposition, your confidence will affect your ability to sell that. But I think the most important thing is from the client side, they’re taking on greater risk, right? So like, this is the thing that most people miss about selling, is if you just have a little bit of empathy…I know it’s hard, especially for us men, but if you just have a little bit of empathy about how you would feel in that situation, you don’t wanna be ripped off, right? You don’t want to be in a situation where you feel regret. And you, especially, as a business owner, I can tell you, I don’t wanna waste my time, right?
So the greater cost to me of spending $5,000, well, that is real money, I don’t wanna lose the three months that’s going to go into that project. And so those are all very, very real risks. And so I think you need to spend a little bit more time to allay the risks and concerns of your client, and be able to surface the objections in a much more systematic way because if you don’t, you’re gonna find that this feeling of like, “Oh, it’s taking forever to sell these deals,” and, you know, it is gonna take more than likely a little bit longer.
John: Definitely. We see on average 8 to 12 weeks to close a deal that’s over $5,000. So that’s two to three months from the time you make the initial connection, so that’s really from the time we see them first, and normally we have a call within a couple days and introduce them within a couple days after that. So really, it’s like 7 to 11 weeks from the time we introduced them that they actually close. That’s pretty common, like, across the board. I’ve seen that in other, you know, just for my own consulting, right, past companies I’ve worked at, that sort of thing.
I think another part there is realizing who the point of contact is, the person you’re speaking with. Because in these bigger engagements, it’s all been, you know, a director of marketing that asked their, like, junior marketing manager to go research agencies. If they’re just having calls, they’re cranking through like 20 of them, trying to put together a shortlist and that sort of stuff. And if you’re trying to pitch, you know, James, who’s, you know, the junior marketing manager, but really, you know, Sally is the director of marketing that holds the purse strings, and actually is gonna be the person working on the project, you know, you’re off base. So there comes in some, like, salesmanship there with, “Who are you? Why am I speaking with you?” you know, “Are you the one making the decision?” That sort of stuff. But maybe that doesn’t happen on the initial discovery call, right?
Liston: So, yeah. So this is dependent on the process and who you’re selling to, right? So, like, I can’t give you one single piece of advice, it’s gonna apply to everybody. But what is true for sure in your scenario is if you’re pitching the junior person who’s basically like a step above an intern, responsibility-wise, you just don’t know your business very well. That’s your fault, right? So if you’re talking to James, but you know Sally is the person you need to get to, first of all, you can figure that out on LinkedIn. So do a little bit of homework.
And when you’re talking to James, one of the questions you would always ask, and I would do this early on is tell me how the process will work for you to make a decision about who you’re gonna bring in to help you with this. And then James will tell you, “Well, you know, I’m collecting some information right now. I need to go back and talk to Sally about it.” “Great. So for me to continue this conversation, I’d really like to get Sally on the phone the next time we talk. Would you be open to that,” right?
And now, we want to go directly to the decision maker. The larger the company, you’re never going to be able to talk to everybody. And you’re going to have to put a champion or influencer in the position to sell on your behalf generally, right, because they’re gonna go drive consensus. But, you know, that’s something that you definitely need to consider very, very early on, is who’s writing the damn check?
John: Definitely. I know I love two things about what you just said, Liston. One is, like, it’s your fault, right? Like, tough love there. But like, if you’re not figuring that out on that call, and, like, you’re pitching the junior marketing manager who has no internal cache, that is 100% your fault right there. That’s not the agency’s fault. It’s not the client’s fault. It’s not, you know, the person that referred it to you, it’s not their fault. Like, that is your fault. Shut up right there.
And the second one is that the internal advocate. I forget, the influencer, I think, is what you said. But, like, James, the junior marketing manager, as I said, no internal cache. He probably doesn’t have direct access, you know, to the CFO and whatever. But, you know, Sally, the Director of Marketing, she does, right? And she might have her budget. But maybe what you’re telling her she needs and what she agreed she needs is more than she has outlined. So she has to go talk to her boss, the CEO, right, or the VP of marketing. Yeah.
Liston: I’ll give you a current example, right? So I have a prospect. And I’ve been working this deal for months now, like five months almost. And it’s a large company midmarket, like, multibillion-dollar market company.
John: Good for you.
Liston: Ad the person I’m talking to is the global VP. Like, she’s a big deal at the company. But she still needs to go drive consensus with five of her peers, right? So I don’t have access to all of them.
John: Other global VPs, yeah, nor should you.
Liston: Yeah, right. Right. Well, you know, there’s also the bit about, like, let’s not overcomplicate it, because they have their own internal process. But, you know, I have to help her sell on my behalf, right, and really put her in a position to say, “Hey, we’re on a team together. We both wanna get this project done. What’s the best way to do that? How are we going to get other people to say yes to this?”
John: Definitely, definitely. I love that. I love that. So tell me about getting that person to be on your team, to be your internal advocate, to help you sell internally. You’ve talked a little bit in the past, you know, on your site about storytelling and telling a compelling story. Does that fit into this as well as you’re establishing what the problems and the goals are and getting this person on board to then, you know, make it a no-brainer for, you know, other global VPs to go, like, “Yup, check. Let’s write, Liston, you know, a huge check right here.”
Liston: Yes. Thanks for doing your homework, by the way, on my website. So, yeah, there’s a few different things. Storytelling definitely plays a big role in it. But I also want to create investment in ownership in my influencer, right? So like, one way I do that, and there’s kinda many steps you can do along the way. So, like, what I like to do before I ever write a proposal is I’ll put together a mind map or just a quick little Google Doc, right, jot down like, “Here are the main bits of what we talked about and here’s what I understand you want. Am I on track?” And they’re going to read it and give you feedback, right?
John: I love that.
Liston: Now they feel some ownership over how this whole thing is taking shape, right? And we have a reference point. If in the future, they’re like, “Oh, no, we don’t want that thing in your proposal.” And I’m like, “Well, what changed, because three weeks ago, we talked about this specifically,” right? So that’s…
John: You reiterated that you wanted me to include that. So let’s talk about that.
Liston: Exactly. Exactly. So having them feel invested in some ownership over the way the thing takes shape, I think is a really big step. And the more time commitments you can get from them, and the sort of more feedback loops you can put into the system, the better it’s gonna be.
John: I 100% agree. I call that a micro buy-in. And I teach all of our agencies and consultants that after even the initial discovery call, cinema recap, this is what we discussed. Get them to reply and say like, “Yes, that looks good.” And then you reply with, “Okay, cool. Let’s hop on, you know, a longer call and go deeper on it,” you know? And then getting them to do that after that longer strategy call, getting them to buy-in because then it goes from like, “Oh, you know, this brand name is pitching us on doing some SEO work for us, to, like, you know, Rick is at…this agency is pitching us on doing this specific work. And I really like Rick. So let’s look at his proposal first,” right?
Liston: Well, we wanna to give them the impression like, “I can’t get this anywhere else,” right? Like, we wanna position ourselves as the only person who can deliver this exact thing. And one of the ways is to start making it feel a little bit more custom and making it feel like an experience that they’re part of.
Liston: And so, you know, I think, you know, you asked about big mistakes people make. And going back to that topic, I think a lot of people will write a standard proposal in what’s supposed to be a custom consulting and large consulting relationship. They’re sending out the standard proposal after one single call. And that is just an absolute mistake. And now, you’re gonna pay for it when it comes to negotiation and when it comes to expectations at the end, right? So I would be an advocate of working in a few more steps before you go to the trouble of writing that proposal.
John: Absolutely. I actually get, and we’re working on this within Credo as well, about getting that buy-in a couple of times first, and then making them…and then basically asking them if they would like a proposal proposing to them, exactly what you just told them you’re going to propose to them. In which case, the proposal becomes a formality to get to the contract.
Liston: So one thing I tell all my clients is, I don’t wanna see any surprises in the proposal, right? So you should not be covering any new ground in that document, because if you are, you’re now opening yourself up to restart the conversation almost from scratch, and certainly opening yourself up to all forms of negotiation that you really don’t want a part of.
Liston: And so, yes, I agree. Verbal buy-in from the client where the proposal is just a reflection of your conversation is the way to go.
John: And we’re already talking about sales processes that are taking 6, 8, 12. In your case, what, 20 weeks in this one that you’re working on right now?
Liston: I measure it in months now. We’re almost to that one.
John: Right. Well, I’ve been measuring in a weeks, like, you know, you’re halfway to having a child at that point, right?
John: Like, that is, if you leave that door open for them to restart it, it might take you nine months to close that deal as opposed to five months, five and a half months. And so, yeah, there’s a lot more pre-work that has to happen there upfront in order, you know, to kinda lock it down and set yourself apart from the noise. Don’t let yourself just become another, you know, one of the 10 agencies that they’re speaking with. You wanna be that, “Oh, Liston was awesome,” you know, “Liston is at the top of the shortlist,” all right? You can be on the shortlist. If they have to have a shortlist, you have to be on the shortlist. But be at the top of the shortlist.
Liston: That’s right.
John: Cool. Well, Liston, this has been super, super helpful. I feel like you and I could sit and riff on sales, and psychology, and of all that a lot. So next time I’m in Portland, beer or coffee is on me. But if you would, tell our listeners where they can find you online if they wanna learn more about you, the work you do, and potentially discussing with you to help them square up their sales process.
Liston: Sure. So you can find me at liston.io. I run a couple of podcasts, one is called “Modern Sales,” one is called “Consulting Growth.” So one is just me talking about sales. So if you like this advice, there’s plenty more on “Modern Sales.” You can also go to “Consulting Growth” where I interview wonderful people like you, John. And that publishes twice a week. You can email me, email@example.com, or you can catch me on LinkedIn. And I’m the only Liston Witherill you will find there.
John: Wow. Fantastic. Fantastic. And I am actually subscribed to both of those podcasts and listen to them actively, and have learned a ton. So Liston, thank you so much for being on the show. It has been an absolute pleasure. I know I learned a lot. I hope everyone listening has learned a lot. And keep being awesome, man. Keep helping companies grow.
Liston: Thank you.