"Put your face in front of your customer's face": Networking and knowing your customer with Nicolas Warren
Over his career, Nic Warren has sold software, services, investments, and... chocolate. He joins us to explain how the real value of "networking" isn't about collecting business cards; it's about building trust, and getting to know your customer on a personal, human level. We discuss whether you can succeed in a sales culture that doesn't correspond to your personal values and priorities, and why the most successful sales people truly believe in the product they're selling.
- How the real value of networking is about understanding your customers, not collecting business cards
- What to do when your company's sales culture doesn't match your personal values and priorities
- Whether product and engineering teams are doomed to think in decibels and megapixels, instead of in the terms that customers actually care about
Geordie Kaytes: Nic, I’ve known you a long time now, and it seems like you’re always working on something new. Can you kick us off by introducing yourself and what you’ve been up to in your career?
Nic Warren: I'm Nicholas Warren and I have had a variety of professional experiences.
I started a software company right when I graduated college and took a software platform through a venture-backed accelerator and continued a career in software, from digital agencies to eventually working at SCVNGR which evolved into LevelUp here in Boston. And while I was there, I began a consumer retail product called Perfect Fuel, which we scaled in the New England area, eventually into 34 states before selling the brand to a holding company, and since then have wanted to focus on the real estate industry and alternative investment specifically.
And, I feel that moving across these these different industries, these different types of business has really been an interesting learning process for me on how different sales methodologies are still relevant to each one, but implemented in different ways. So it's a pleasure to talk to you today Geordie.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah, you're underselling the Perfect Fuel a little bit. You had quote unquote "healthy chocolate," that you managed to get carried by Whole Foods, if I remember, right?
Nic Warren: Yeah, it was. That's definitely a good, a fantastic customer. I respect them a lot. They are certainly all about what... They practice what they preach, and having chocolate, something delicious, and then something that's healthy, they definitely picked up what I was putting down.
Geordie Kaytes: That's awesome. So your latest role is in real estate investing. What makes that industry unique or different from where you’ve been before?
Nic Warren: It is the relationship business of all relationships, where people, to be really successful in this, is you know, after several years, five years even, of hard networking and laying the things in order. Like joining the right exclusive social clubs, joining the right athletic clubs, vacationing in the right places, and building years of networking, and that your success is a combination of of putting yourself in the right place, putting yourself in a lead's way.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah, that's interesting because I would think that that would be a pretty... Not just a long game, but also a not very reliable game. In the sense that...
Nic Warren: A volatile game, yeah.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah, I mean you're... ok, well, we're going to send people over to join this country club or you know, whatever but that like almost feels like, are we even guaranteed that a single customer is going to be at that place? You know, I maybe it's... If you're just doing you know, if anyone who has investable assets could potentially be a customer then maybe that's a little broader and might work a little bit better.
But, you know a lot of a lot of B2B or complex sales have extremely tightly defined customer targets, so maybe that would be less appropriate for that kind of thing. That's interesting, because I think a lot of people don't think about putting themselves in the context of the customer or the potential customer in an informal way.
And do you think there's something there around just immersing yourself in the customer's life, and actually understanding them a little bit better, so that you can sell to them? It's not just physically being there, right? I think if you join the right clubs and do networking in that way, the goal isn't just to put your face in front of the customers face, right? It's... There's something there around trying to...
Nic Warren: Trying to build trust. It's trying to somewhat be there physically. And there are certain adages that are shared within the industry about how simply, in sales, just showing up as 90% of the job. And making the call, the sale is half done. But I guess put you at 95% there, then there's only that last five percent that is actually executing, and making sure you have a proper product-market fit, and closing a deal.
So these are these are less products, and they probably are even looser and less less adherent to defined methodologies for a sales process, and much more about understanding the soft skills, relationship skills, and the things that probably separate the people who are are in the "relationship and trust-building consultative" sales, and the "try and call the right people to get in on the right phone number to get to an executive and do B2B" sales if you're trying to meet someone at a Fortune 500 company, right? Some things have to be done in person physically, face-to-face.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah. Yeah, you talked about spending some time really getting deeply integrated into the community with your customers and knowing them on a social level, but does that work when you are trying to make hundreds of sales per year? Do the numbers add up, or in cases like that are you just going to end up spending too much time on on developing social relationships maybe that could pay off a couple of years from now, but aren't quick enough turnaround or scalable enough to deliver on the numbers that you need in the shorter term?
Nic Warren: So I think it is quantifiable. And lists are made, lists of touch points are created even for long-term multi-year opportunities, and I see that where I observe rules of thumb. People talk about how long they've been in commercial real estate, and even talking with companies that that are hiring and the way they hire people, they set clear expectations.
For example at one top-tier investment brokerage firm, i t is very well known that salespeople could have one deal, one sale a year, when they begin. And that to get that falls anywhere between 12 and 24 months, and they further set the expectations with people by saying, so just so we're clear, we all know it's that that long. So after nine months if there hasn't been one, no one is worried. And furthermore, as many people as are in your Rolodex, we will compare by: after a year, you should have a certain multiple of how many people are there, so you can check in and make sure you're doing all right, but it's only a matter of time.
And and that's one of the reasons why they they set people's expectations by saying, expect to save up before you come and work here, have the expectation that you want to have six months, twelve months of — or greater — of money in the bank to support your sales process. Because your your time is up to you.
So that, I believe, is a different numbers game. You can check in with rules of thumb about all the lists you're making, but that when you're relying on not an accumulation of small sales, it's up to the people, the experienced people in the industry, who are going to let you know if you're doing well or not based on based on the much larger numbers you put down.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah, the idea... I think some people might be uncomfortable even with the idea of trying to develop really deep social relationships with people ultimately that you you hope to sell to. Do you ever run into that, or feel like you're kind of "using" people, instead of actually developing genuine relationships with them, or how does that work in the mind of someone who's really able to do this successfully? How do you balance that?
Nic Warren: So, that's a good point. It's not so much an idea of whether or not you're "using" people. A lot of the time that you're thinking in your head, what's processing is, "how can I help someone?" Because obviously there's a deal to be made, and people are actively networking with an agenda in mind.
But I do believe in order to be successful, you have to have a certain degree of discipline in knowing whether or not I'm wasting my time, or I'm wasting the other person's time, because if you were hard-selling someone onto something — and it's very difficult to talk someone into allocating a portion of investment money towards something new — if they're not feeling it, they're not going to do it. But also you, yourself, are you wasting your own time? .
So are you are you "using" someone? No, because you're coming with an offering of something that could potentially give them an opportunity, and opportunity is not a bad word. If you say, "Hey, here's an opportunity. Obviously, I will facilitate it, because often there are licenses and jurisdictions and things in play." There are very clear terms of engagement. And if this is an opportunity for you, I can only help you. If not, then then we'll just have beers but because we're in the same place having these beers, we can have a genuine experience and then you'll think of me when you are in need of a new opportunity, and I might just have one. And you know the the specific area of my practice where I could potentially give you an opportunity that you would like. So you can all go taketake a day on the boat. You can all go have beers and develop the relationships, because it may be yours in the future. And it's not disingenuous to to have a good experience and be the one who someone has in mind when they're in the mood for an opportunity.
Geordie Kaytes: And so I'm kind of hearing that you have to believe in the product, right? You have to genuinely believe that what you're offering is an awesome opportunity for someone, and selling it is more a matter of helping out a friend that you've developed a relationship with, rather than trying to close a prospect.
Nic Warren: Yes. Absolutely. You have to believe in the product. Also if you are selling an investment, you'd better have your underwriting down, you'd better have everything down, so when an opportunity comes by you're willing to give a real — in a very consultative sales approach — you're willing to give a personal opinion based on your experience and others, and the volume of deals that you see on a day-to-day basis, and let someone know if this opportunity is a good one to meet their goals.
When you see an opportunity at not only has to be the right one, but it has to be right for the person. So you have to have the experience to know whether it's a good one, as well as be trusted, because if I sold someone a bridge that would I would end someone's reputation for... Well, it would be over
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah. And do you think the part of networking as well is immersing yourself, not just in the customers life or the prospects life socially, but also just... if you spend a lot of time networking and you spend a lot of time in the same places as your prospects, do you think you get a better intuitive sense for the nature of how they think, and the problems that they face, and the way that they think about those problems? Is that just sort of an osmosis that can happen? Is that part of the benefit of networking, explicitly?
Nic Warren: I think it is. I think it absolutely is. I think it's very relevant. It's relied upon that you understand what's going in your customers mind. If we're talking about specifically real estate sales and investment sales, you have to understand what it is that someone's looking for and what strata of investment they're interested in at that time. If it's in the beginning of a year and they have more capital available, if they have certain goals and they have really overreached in certain industries and they're looking for one type of asset that's going to going to diversify them better.
You've got to understand what's going through their mind, where they are going to plan their vacation, and whether or not they can get a deal done in short order. If you have a project that requires equity within the next 30 days, are they going to be leaving and you've been socializing with them and you know they're going to be gone, well, then they are probably not worth the extra attention. And yeah, just knowing your customer more and more I think is very... Is more than important, it's certainly expected. You have to be there. You have to be among these customers, whether it's in the country clubs — not to be cliche — but at bars and after work is done. Spending time with them and knowing what their goals are.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah, you got to be... Yeah, you've got to actually like being around your customers to sell to them, would you say?
Nic Warren: I don't think it's required. I don't think it's required, but it certainly helps, it certainly helps. It would get very old if you weren't able to tolerate the people, or you you had truly different value sets and you didn't enjoy it, you would shoot yourself in the foot and you would stop trying when there was still a potential opportunity.
Geordie Kaytes: Yep. Yeah now that's really interesting because I think I've never really thought of that before heard that before the idea that you know networking isn't just about giving out your business cards or even really just trying to develop these relationships in a more instrumental, goal-oriented way.
It's really more about trying to immerse yourself in people's lives, from a social perspective, from a business perspective, and just blending all of those things together so that you can get a better intuition about the nature of their problems, and frame your sale accordingly.
Nic Warren: Yeah, you have to be able to walk the walk, so to speak. And relating to people on every level in order to, one, have the opportunity. You have to be to them, you have to be able to make a sale but then to be trusted to be worth the time to hear a pitch. And a pitch could be as subtle as a 15-second soft sale of an opportunity just to see if it piques someone's interest.
Because oftentimes if there isn't, you're barking up the wrong tree, stop. Turn around. Alter course, go in a different direction. Talk to another person. That could be who you're playing golf with, who you're taking a bicycle ride with. And yeah, being there is very valuable. But but also understanding the person is paramount you have to have both.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah, I think this almost goes against the idea of over-designing or tightly designing your sales process in a way, right? Because I think that would feel really unnatural if you had, "okay, well this person is in the second of six phases of our sales process, and that means I'm going to be talking to them about these kinds of things."
Do you think that gets in the way of having natural, quality interactions with people that ultimately will lead to a good relationship, or do you think good sales people actually naturally balance that sales process with the more human relationship side of things?
Nic Warren: I think the latter. I think it can get in the way, and that's probably what separates the very productive highly successful salespeople, because they're able to keep in the back of their mind what stage of a pipeline someone is in, and where the next step is, what the next step is going to be, whether they have to push the pedal and try and convey a little bit more more urgency, or if they have to pull back and get the person interested, because there is possibly a lot of other interests, so now their opportunity could be going away and they'll need to act because it may be of interest to someone else. And being able to balance those in the back of their mind while they're having a real, trustworthy experience with someone. And that could just be staying for the last drink of the night when everyone else seems to be shuffling out, and you're there actually enjoying yourself.
I think that's probably the key, and that difference that I have in mind when when someone has to enjoy what they're doing, or enjoy the people, enjoy the industry, is that if you're not enjoying it, you're not going to stay till the end of the night and just have a more authentic bond with someone by the end of the night, because you both really appreciate Highlands whiskey and and you've probably talked about that. That's a paramount value of networking.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah, and do you think that that can be taught? That ability to balance the keeping the sales process and the pipeline stage or however you're doing it, keeping that in your head at the same time as being able to have a normal human relationship? I think a lot of people struggle with trying to be both a person and a salesperson at the same time.
Nic Warren: Yeah, I do believe that it can be taught. Now, can everyone learn it? No. I don't think that everyone has the aptitude for absorbing those social pieces of information, and you have to develop that particular silo of pattern recognition. That is a skill that takes some people years. And some people, they fall naturally into it, and it's as different as learning a new work culture and a new job that has a slightly different working attire. You can learn that, you can adapt to it, but not everyone can pick up the... It can be tough, but not everyone can really pick up the more subtle social cues, and some people are more naturally adept at that type of sale.
I remember a case study, which is probably taught in business schools all over the place. I forgot which one this was exactly, which MBA student told me about it, but they're really turned on about some jet plane company that had these engineers — it may have been a German company — and they had these engineers who were selling everything, and they were experiencing a downturn because the leadership of the sales department had the best, smartest people, the highest achieving, you know, your 4.1 GPA graduate engineers in these planes, talking about the planes all day.
And the moment they got a former car salesman in to try, they had someone try a strategically different sales process, you could call it, which was really simply a tactical execution to get someone with softer skills in there making the sale, talking about how these jets had really soft seats. Now these these Jets...
Geordie Kaytes: Literally "softer skills." (laughing)
Nic Warren: Yeah literally softer skills, yeah, on the soft seats. And whereas the engineer would talk about, "the level of decibels is a little bit lower when you're inside of this airplane because of its insulation," and this softer salesman walks in and says, "You have no trouble hearing when you're sitting on this side of the plane. And you know when you lean over the armrest and you're looking up the aisle and the person's just three seats ahead of you on your G6 and and you can't hear them as well? Well, you can hear them better."
And putting the customer in that experience, and talking to — relating to them about being there in the plane, these kinds of skills, and knowing that you have to relate to the customer in a way that's going to appeal to them. Doesn't matter how smart you are, and how much better you know those specific numbers, that change to a type of sale, a change in truly a sales process, had the biggest gains, started selling their airplanes much more. And that group of salespeople was doing way better.
So I know that it would be very difficult to take those top-notch engineers and get them to think about the people who are sitting in those seats, and thinking about wherever they're going, and parents thinking about picking their kids up from school in this jet later.
Yeah, so I think can be taught, but not everyone can learn it.
Geordie Kaytes: So you think some people on the engineering side, the product development side, sometimes they're a little bit too focused on the product itself, rather than the — or the service — rather than the nature of how it changes people, and what they would expect if they were to buy it? Is that kind of what divides people who are able to frame things in the customer's point of view from those who just jabber about decibels about the product?
Nic Warren: I think so, I think you're spot on. And I'm thinking of a different example that is completely outside of a very technical engineering area. You're right, I think that for some people they get caught up in the product and wanted to sell it for its attributes' sake, and not based on what the buyer wants to buy.
And I've been next to people — let's take a Perfect Fuel example — where I was next to a rep, someone who was supporting our sales, and we were in a store and the person was talking to a buyer in a physical store. So this is one single outlet. And they started telling someone about the product, and they kept going on about the product, and simply time was lost, instead of leading with a question and saying, "Where in your store do you think this would be? Because we believe it's here, or parts of these sets," and pulling information, you can you can see what is going through the the buyers mind, or what their appeal about it is, whether it's case size, whether it's price point or something like that.
The person was just talking a lot about the product without stopping to listen that, if you potentially had the answer to one of their questions, it would have been the clutch question that, if answered correctly or simply met their expectations, this would've been over. So when you get bogged down in the technicals of a product or or not or not appealing to what the customer wants to buy then you can waste a lot of time.
Geordie Kaytes: What sort of a networking or social... getting involved in social lives did you do when you were doing Perfect Fuel sales? Because that seems like it would be difficult to find, you know, where do corner store owners and global grocery chain owners all get together? I don't know if that's a place where you can find all your customers in one place. How did you balance having such a broad customer base, and then and leveraging the networking for that?
Nic Warren: Yeah, so I think retail sales — because you're selling to businesses, you're not selling to the end customers — you're selling at different levels. You're selling through trade shows, and directly on large chain stores' buying schedules. So you're meeting them at their headquarters, you're meeting business people, and at the same time you're going after Mom and Pop stores, independent stores, you're going after co-op grocery stores, or you're going after convenience stores. And that is a multi-pronged effort, and you kind of need both, depending on how fast you you need to sell.
And I think one of the biggest pieces of networking that we did was engaging the athletic community, and as we said earlier, really walking the walk and talking the talk, generating a lot of buzz within the customer community. So we were selling to stores through the awareness that we were driving in the customers... I'm sorry in, the consumers, and generating opportunity for consumers to walk into stores and ask for a product.
So our business customers would know about our product, or would have heard about it already, so that when we go to them we say, "Hey, we have this product. We're a local player. You may have seen us. Here are some photos of where we are. These are our consumers enjoying our product. Do these kinds of consumers shop at your store? Really, they do? Well, that's fantastic because if we were here, I'd be able to say why don't you go over to 231 Mass Ave and and pick some up, and they'd turn around and go there."
So we would not network to the customer, but to the consumer, and that's part of a multi-faceted marketing process that feeds your sales and really supports your sales staff, because if you're not out there and you don't have any genuine branding and experience to relay to your buyer, then you're selling potential, but you're not selling actual.
Geordie Kaytes: Okay, so would you consider that kind of like "marketing networking" then, on top of sales networking? So you've got your marketing networking happening with the athletic community, and then you would get more pull-through from the sales because you'd actually have a lot tighter relationship with the end consumers?
Nic Warren: Yeah. Yeah, that I would call kind of the marketing networking sort of the second group that I discussed there about customers. To answer your question more precisely on the real networking, the sales networking, doing that is more effective when we're selling to the larger platforms: the Whole Foods, the distribution chains, the U.S. Foods, Aramark, in food service. Larger companies who attend a lot of trade shows, and making sure that were present at those trade shows.
So let's start that again. 90% of it, you got to be at that trade show. Now you're there you need to do the work and not just be at your booth or anything. Being at a trade show is about meeting the people doing that networking at the trade show, attending the happy hours afterwards, the parties, moving to the next party and meeting people and also getting recommendations.
Because when these buyers have a barrage, and they're just getting fired at from every angle, it's going to potentially be someone you met earlier at that bar who can make the introduction or look you in the eyes and say, "I know you're trying to talk to that person. I can I can make that introduction for you. I'm willing to do that. You strike me as a nice guy. We've had a good experience here. You're obviously not going to be a hard salesperson or I like your product and we've had a good time. I know that person we've done business together. So I'll I'll make that introduction for you."
The trade show selling within... Again, within the consumer packaged goods space, is very important. That's where the networking really shines.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah. And you mentioned before we started recording, the idea you're getting these very social relationships, maybe informal relationships, and sometimes that can lead to a little bit of a more informal sales conversation, which can be either good or bad, right? Potentially a direct, quick sales culture can end up a little "bro," even, in certain sales cultures? So, talk about that a little bit.
Nic Warren: Yeah. I think that sales culture is is to be monitored. It's to be aware of. I think the things that I was noticing as I changed industries out of a very friendly, much more casual, laid-back, jeans and crew-cut shirt kind of culture, into a more buttoned-up formal environment... I want to highlight that it wasn't... I'm struggling here. It wasn't that there was a big "bro" culture. It wasn't that there was a lack of "bro" culture in the previous industry. It was certainly more pronounced, and I think that's because changing industries into what I'm doing now, which is debt brokering and investment sales, there are so many more men around it.
You can feel it. It's palpable, the amount of "bro" culture, and a lot of it leads not... it isn't something that's totally negative, so I don't want you to think I'm taking that tack. That said, I find that the networking that happens is going to happen among a lot of people who are drinking, having beers, playing golf, things that are historically very very gendered groups of... very gendered activities.
And it comes out a lot more, and leads to people getting a lot more casual, and that can help or hinder sales, but probably relies on the soft skills that person who's in that environment.
Geordie Kaytes: Sure. Do you think you can succeed in the sales environment like that without buying into that culture? Is there a way to kind of live at arm's length from that, if you don't feel like that's you, and still be successful? Or do you really need to — to your point, get really integrated into it, to feel like part of the gang in order to really succeed in an environment like that?
Nic Warren: You ask a great question Geordie. I do think about that. I know that I have greater goals in investments and alternative investments. And I know that specifically real estate is not going to be the place where I will blossom most fully. And I think it's potentially because there is a culture that permeates it that is is very, very masculine. And sometimes it's not always friendly.
You're in an environment of endless posturing and being very authentic, being very personable, these are things that sometimes can be brushed aside, and conversations get down to brass tacks really quickly. And I know that I really enjoy real estate, and I've done some development, and I will do more. I have have some some realistic goals in mind, but I think that there is a threat that, I if I were to really be successful in this industry, I'd probably... I think would be difficult.
I'd have to change, or adapt at least within my generation. So if the next 20 to 30 years is going to be the time it would take for people like me coming from outside of a strictly real estate background to break in and then be successful, it could be a generational change. And being conscious of that, I think, well, why take a more difficult route? Rather, play to my strengths, seek out the environment and the community where I can adapt, but I can adapt slightly, because I'm already somewhat of that culture. I'm already cut from those similar cloths.
So would it be difficult? Yeah, I think it is difficult. And would it be required or necessary in order to be successful in that line of sales? Yeah, potentially. I think it would be, because I think the kind of cultural change would take an inordinate inordinate amount of time and I don't think I need to go on a more difficult path just for difficulty's sake.
Geordie Kaytes: Yeah, definitely. Cool, well, I think that's we can leave it there. I think that's a great way to wrap it up. Anything that you want to leave me with, before I let you go?
Nic Warren: I think that sales is very similar, and in my sales experience that has fallen across a breadth of different industries, I've had the pleasure of being different industries, so much would carry from one to the next. So I don't believe I've lost anything, but only jumped into new areas to learn and get better at the at the sales game and the sales process. So it's been it's been fun, going into new industries and recognizing all the same methodologies and skills, and the different ways that people people build on them.
Geordie Kaytes: Great. All right. Well Nick, thank you. Thank you so much for your time today. This has been great.
Nic Warren: All right. Thank you Geordie.