PODCAST 150: Driving Sales Home: Tips From an Auto Dealership with Michelle Benfer

If you missed episode 149 check it out here: What Makes a Great Sales Leader with Hunter Madeley

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Show Agenda and Timestamps

  1. Show Introduction [00:02]
  2. From hubcaps to Hubspot: Michelle’s sales career [1:27]
  3. What has changed in sales leadership since 2005 [8:43]
  4. How to establish trust and credibility as a leader [14:41]
  5. Lessons Michelle learned in 2020 [20:37]
  6. Michelle’s advice for women leaders [25:00]
  7. Sam’s Corner [31:24]

Show Introduction [00:02]

Sam Jacobs: This week, we’ve got Michelle Benfer, VP and head of North American sales for HubSpot. An incredible sales leader, Michelle has risen up the ranks over the last 20 years. She started her sales career at an automotive dealership where she sold PT Cruisers and Jeeps, and then moved on to media sales at places like Vogue before getting into the world of SaaS. Today, Michelle leads a large team at HubSpot, which just came off a strong year, despite — or perhaps because of — the pandemic.

Before we get there, we want to thank our sponsor. Outreach has been a longtime sponsor of this podcast and they just launched a new way to learn. Outreach on Outreach is the place to learn how Outreach does Outreach. Learn how the team follows up with every lead in record time after virtual events and turns them into revenue. You can also see how Outreach runs account-based plays, managers reps and so much more using their own sales engagement platform. Everything is backed up by data pulled from Outreach processes and their customer base. When you’re done, you’ll be able to do it as good as they do. Head to outreach.io/onoutreach to see what they have going on.

Now for some other great sales ideas in my conversation with Michelle Benfer.

From hubcaps to Hubspot: Michelle’s sales career [1:27]

Sam Jacobs: One of the things we like to do is just learn a little bit about your career because I think you’re at a stage that a lot of people would like to be at. How did you get started in sales in the first place?

Michelle Benfer: My mother was in sales and she had kind of a BDR-type function that she would do out of my house. So I would hear her on sales calls every day. She was one of the best on her team. Her parents were both in sales. So I just think I kind of came up with understanding sales as an industry.

And then I graduated from Boston College. I had been waiting tables at a restaurant in the Boston area called Legal Seafoods, and I realized if I didn’t leave that pretty soon, I’d become a lifer. So back then I opened up the newspaper, and I saw an opportunity at a local car dealership. That was my first official sales job. I sold Jeeps and Chryslers, and the big hit back in the day was the PT Cruiser.

Sam Jacobs: What are some things you learned in that first role?

Michelle Benfer: You could write a movie about it. Some of these legacy car salesmen are pure characters. You basically had to stake your claim on the parking lot, especially on really nice days, to see if you were advantageously positioned to be the first person to accept that lead before they come in the door. So that was one.

The best sales guy had keen product knowledge. He was obsessed with Jeeps and knew all of the external add-on packages that you could add. And he really worked the referrals. And so he was never the guy who was standing waiting for the next lead. He really worked his referral business so that was pretty interesting.

And then the last one, which was a real bummer, is there were some people who would leverage anything they could to get the car that they wanted. So they’d pay terrible interest rates. You knew you weren’t giving them a good deal. They just wanted the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, and they’d have an 8 or 9% interest rate. They didn’t care. That’s when I felt really bad selling people that, even though they were signing up for it themselves.

What has changed in sales leadership since 2005 [8:43]

Sam Jacobs: Then you moved to Vogue. What has changed over the last 10-15 years that you’ve been part of leadership positions?

Michelle Benfer: I started in media in 2002, and I started in SaaS in 2013. So I had a good 11 years in the media space. I left print media because it was an industry that was contracting. My first customers were Macy’s, Louis Vuitton, Gucci Group. A lot of really big fashion brands and jewelers and watch brands, that was a lot of relationship selling, which I like, but it’s not my favorite. As I started to move up and oversee large teams, I really liked the metrics and the predictable revenue, more than whale hunting.

But obviously, the media world was contracting. Everything was moving online, and that too became highly measurable. So I think from my point of view, it was moving off of that relationship sale to what I’m in now. It’s a lot more high volume, high velocity, very metrics-driven.

One of the things I didn’t see in my media experience was some of these sales playbooks that are repeatable and help enable the sales teams better at scale. For example, take a look at some coaching frameworks. When I was in the media world, there wasn’t a lot of coaching coming from the organization, which the best companies spend a lot of money doing now.

How to establish trust and credibility as a leader [14:41]

Sam Jacobs: You joined HubSpot as a VP after an incredible run at LogMeIn. When you’re at the executive level joining a new company, what do you do to establish trust and credibility?

Michelle Benfer: Once you come in at the executive level it’s all about listening to your people, understanding their pain points and opportunities, and knowing what we’re getting wrong. The most important people in sales are the front lines and the managers. They have the most immediate pulse to the market and to their buyers and what’s working and what’s not working.

And then of course there is often an internal process that is stuck or clogged, so I try to start out every year and every quarter with a survey to my team: If you had a magic wand and I could fix something for you that’s not working, what would that be? I do skip levels and ask, “How can I coach your manager to be more effective for you?” And so it’s just gathering a lot of that feedback and sharing the feedback back with the team, and then, in turn, showing them that you are crossing things off that list in order to make their day-to-day better.

When you create those opportunities and start ticking the boxes off of areas for opportunity, I hope it brings that credibility and trust.

Lessons Michelle learned in 2020 [20:37]

Sam Jacobs: What are some of the lessons that you learned over the last 12 months, just in terms of how COVID impacted the business, how it impacted how you go to market, your forecasting, things like that?

Michelle Benfer: The HubSpot executive team, they were planning for everything — a U-shaped recovery, a W-shaped recovery, a V-shape recovery, or an L-shape. They put together a lot of models of where might this go.

We were one of the companies that were fortunate in the midst of COVID. There were a lot of small and medium-sized businesses that realized they needed to pivot to more digital-first go-to-market strategies. We didn’t forecast that though. No one really knew how it was going to work out.

One of the things that HubSpot did really well, and it was a lesson I certainly learned as a leader, is solved for your customers first.

We have a partner channel and we knew that our partners might get hit pretty quickly. They were helping small businesses out. They’re a small business themselves and so we front-loaded their commissions for part of 2020 because we knew that they might really be at a loss. And so I know that that went really far with our partner community and a lot of them said it helped keep them afloat in what was a challenging year.

So one of the things that I appreciate about HubSpot, even when the economy was booming, they talked about preparing for when it’s not. If the market takes a downturn and you’re impacted, do you have a remediation plan?

Michelle’s advice for women leaders [25:00]

Sam Jacobs: What advice do you have for female sales leaders, sales executives, women that want to be in your shoes?

Michelle Benfer: Every time I get this question I’m not quite sure how to answer it. When I was in media the first half of my career, I worked with almost all women. So I never thought about my gender.

Then as I got into the tech world, gender was talked about all the time. Even when I was the only female leader sitting at a table, I never really felt like the only female leader. I felt like I was a player at the table just like everyone else. That said, I hear from other women how important it is for them to see women in leadership.

Sam Jacobs: Do you think people can have it all?

Michelle Benfer: Yes and no. I don’t think it has to do with gender. I don’t think it has to do with being a mom or being a dad. I think honestly, it’s about personal wellness. I see men struggle. I see women struggle. I see marriages struggle. I see parenting relationships struggle. And so I don’t necessarily think it’s a female or a mom thing, I think it’s a life thing, and I see it happen to everybody.

Sam’s Corner [31:24]

Sam Jacobs: Hey everybody, it’s Sam’s Corner. Great conversation with Michelle Benfer. I loved hearing those lessons that she learned selling Jeeps and PT Cruisers. One of them was the importance of following up with leads closely and quickly. The second thing that she mentioned is product knowledge. The best salespeople have taken the time and demonstrated the curiosity and level of interest to explore more about the product and how it works. Finally, a pitfall that a lot of early managers make is that they might try to become the super rep. If you’re always helping your team members, they’ll never develop independence or autonomy.

Don’t miss episode #151!

Our sponsor is Outreach of course. If you haven’t checked out the new thing that they’re doing, it’s Outreach on Outreach, which is the place to learn how Outreach does Outreach. Then, head on over to outreach.io/onoutreach to see what they’ve got going on.

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If you want to get in touch with me you can find me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/samfjacobs. You can also email me, sam@revenuecollector.com.

I will talk to you next time.

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