Businesses and companies are, of course, driven by sales – which is why sales teams, in their own way, are the lifeblood of any given business. This increased focus on sales teams – their cultures and practices – has also led to the popularity of services that provide sales coaching that empowers teams. Elay Cohen‘s company, SalesHood, is one such service provider. Elay joins Steve Farber and dives into some of the qualities that make good sales teams. These teams, though built for work, are part of their own community and must be treated as such. Build a strong, kind, cooperative culture in your sales teams today!
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SalesHood: Building A Good Sales Team With Elay Cohen
My guest is Elay Cohen, who is the Founder and CEO of a company called SalesHood. This interview that you’re about to read is another that’s similar to another one where I interviewed Ivan Misner from BNI. This was another interview that I did in the research for the book, Love is Just Damn Good Business. I was introduced to Elay and SalesHood through my friend, Burton Goldfield, who’s the President and CEO of a company called TriNet, which is a $4 billion publicly-traded company. They have thousands of small to midsize clients. I asked Burton because he’s passionate about his clients. I asked him which of the TriNet clients he thinks I should talk to for the research in my book. I’m looking for companies that are congruent with the message that I’m laying down. Elay Cohen was the first person that came to mind with his company, SalesHood. What you’re about to read is the interview that I conducted with Elay in the research for the book. He’s a lively, engaging guy. I’ll tell you a little bit about Elay. He is the author of two books, Enablement Mastery and Saleshood. He is a recognized Top Innovative Mover and Shaker in the Sales Leadership World by Entrepreneur Magazine. He’s recognized by LinkedIn and is one of the World’s Top Sales Experts.
When he was in the role of Senior Vice President of Sales Productivity at Salesforce, he was recognized as Salesforce’s 2011 Executive of the Year by Marc Benioff. Elay is on a mission to improve and modernize how companies enable their people working closely with the world’s most innovative companies and most forward-thinking educational institutions. You’re about to read all about that. Elay is passionate about changing the future of work, which makes him my de facto soul brother. Please, enjoy this conversation with Elay Cohen.
I’d like you to start with a highlight overview. You were telling the average person on the street what the story of sales it is and you’re involved in it and all that. How would you tell that story? I’ll ask you a few questions where we’ll dig a little bit deeper. I’d like to know more about your culture, the relationships that you try to set, your philosophy. Keep in mind that the title of the book is Love is Just Damn Good Business. It doesn’t mean I’m looking for you to change your story or the way that you talk about things any differently. What I am ultimately trying to illustrate is that personal connection, that human element of business is so critical to business success. That’s the context for you. Start with the overview of the high-level story.
I founded SalesHood in early 2013. Our vision is to help salespeople, help sales teams be the best they can be. I worked at Salesforce.com for my eight years during the hypergrowth years from about $300 million to $3 billion. I was responsible for sales enablement. I was Senior Vice President of Enablement. I was recognized many times during my career for helping our teams be successful. I was responsible for all the training and onboarding and coaching. I added a lot of value to the business and grew the business. I used to call it a Hire to Hawaii. The moment that we would hire a salesperson to the moment they’re in Hawaii celebrating their success. I was responsible for them. I took care of them. I had to coach them and train them. We had to enable them. We had to help them win deals. We have to help those close proposals. I’m a giver in that sense. I remember eighteen months into my career at Salesforce, I started in products. I launched an amazing product and Marc Benioff puts me on stage and, “We’re going to recognize Elay. Best product launch ever.” It’s 2006 and I’m being recognized by CEO of Salesforce for an amazing product launch. He said, “Why we’re recognizing him is because he rolls up his sleeves and he does the coaching in the regions. He works with our sales teams. You’d think that he knows every single person in the company because everybody talks about him because he helps people to be successful.”
“We’re going to promote him from a Director of Products into Vice President of Sales Enablement and we’re going to have him amplify the work that he does on the one product to amplify it across the whole company.” I remember on stage I was like, “I don’t want that.” I didn’t want to be that person responsible for kickoffs or bootcamps.” He’s like, “No, you’re going to love it.” It was a great decision that was made for me. I grew the team from me and 5 or 6 people to 120 people. Anything that I wanted to do, Marc invested in and Alisha too invested in because they knew it the intent it’s going to add to the productivity of our salespeople. Elay has a knack for being able to give salespeople what they need because he understands them. Whether it’s case studies or stories or tools or pitch decks, I get them. Marc would coach me on what are some of the important things to drive the business. He’d say, “You go and you go train everyone on it.” That was an amazing career run. It started breaking, the numbers started breaking, the ratio started breaking. The 120 people in the team weren’t able to continue with the coaching. Marc said, “You need to train and certify all of our VPs and presidents, and then they need to go train and certify their teams, but it’s too manual. Couldn’t keep track of it.” That was when I started thinking about there’s got to be a better way. That was the beginning of my company, SalesHood.We all become more successful to the degree with which we're willing to share our knowledge. Click To Tweet
It is a platform to improve the productivity of sales teams. The way we do it was I’ve taken all the principles of how we did a salesforce with messaging alignment and peer coaching and collaborative deal reviews and meetings in a box. The way that I did it, the structured onboarding, I built it into a platform. We’ve cracked the code on enablement. At this point, we’ve got over 100 customers and about 40,000 to 50,000 salespeople. It’s spectacular having a big impact on the world. We’re impacting billions and billions of revenues. I’m a customer of TriNet, but they’re also a customer of SalesHood. We enable the TriNet sales teams. Very simply, think about it. Salespeople login to SalesHood and they’re immediately getting access to the top performers. They see their pitches, they see their stories, they see how they win. They can watch those videos, they can score them, and then they’re asked to record their versions, record your pitch, record a story, record a win. How are you going to handle this objection?
What we’re doing is we’re systematically moving companies through an experience where they’re practicing and then they’re sharing and like Salesforce where people would say, “Did I want to go sit through training for a couple of days?” No, but at the end of it, it has made me better. Companies feel the nature of SalesHood, it’s a carrot versus a stick. That’s who we are as a company and as a culture. That’s what we do. There’s a system that tracks what you’ve watched. There’s a system that tracks your completion, but that’s behind the scenes. The whole experience is here’s videos, here’s content. Here are things that you can be successful, do this, get feedback. That’s all goodness. That’s all positive.
It sounds like the underlying philosophy there, this is going to sound obvious to you, but it’s based on the philosophy that we all become more successful to the degree to which that we’re willing to share our knowledge to share what works. As opposed to the old school mentality, which is, it’s mine. It’s a zero-sum game mentality that says, “I want to be the top performer here, which means that I’ve got to hold my secrets back from you, so you don’t challenge me.” This is exactly the opposite of that, it sounds like.
I learned it during my days at SalesForce where the gratitude that I got over the years, the thank you’s was all about helping me be better. Thank you for connecting me with the wins and with knowledge. This idea of knowledge and knowledge sharing is something that when I founded the company SalesHood, the essence of it was a connected web of people sharing their experiences and stories. I had read through thousands of emails. I was sitting on a train from Vancouver to Seattle, March 2013. I left Salesforce in January 2013. I wanted some time to think about what I was going to build and so forth.
I was sitting on a train and I was reading through all the thank you’s and I started word patterning it. “You connected me, you shared the wins, and you shared the stories.” I started having this map like the Zen diagram, all these people connected little circles. I did that at Salesforce. They were saying, “I had reps in LA saying you connected me with the stories in Tokyo and I knew the wins in this industry, you can see it.” I landed on this word called Selfhood because I needed a company name. The word selfhood meant the fully developed person at one with nature, one with the community. I was like, “Exactly. What’s the fully developed salesperson? What’s a fully developed sales culture? What’s the fully developed sales profession?” It’s SalesHood because that makes total sense. I was like, “Someone’s got to have that URL,” and the URL was available. It’s this connectedness.
It’s the community accelerated learning was a big part of what my platform was born around and the idea that I will be better by learning from my peers. One more quick story. In those years when we were doing it at Salesforce, one year in August or July 2012, the way that we were certifying people was because we couldn’t fly around the world, there were budgets, whatever it was. I said, “Here’s what we can do. Why don’t we have an honor system and why don’t we have salespeople score each other and we’ll put a quota on the number of salespeople?” They had to fill out forms. I’m like, “I’ve got to know.” They’ve got to send all the forms to HQ. I had admins that were filling them in. One day I saw a stack of these forms of the salespeople filling out scores and writing comments. I can make you sit in front of someone and listen to them, but I can’t make you write a paragraph. In that paragraph of Texas, I love Steve’s opening. I learned a ton from his transition from pitch to story.
His clothes are something that I’m going to take with me. To me, that was enlightening because I realized that if I can learn a little bit from everyone, I can be better. That’s what the hood is about. That’s the business problem that we’re solving in the industry. Most VCs, and they didn’t believe me when I told them the way that corporations were moving and the way that knowledge is going to be shared was peer-to-peer. They thought, “People don’t want to share.” That’s not true. People do want to share.
Take me inside SalesHood. Tell me a little bit about your company. Start with the easy stuff. How many employees do you have?
We have 50 employees and 25 of them are in Vietnam, and the other 25 are here in North America. The Vietnam folks, they do our development. My Cofounder is Vietnamese, his name is Arthur Do. We founded the company in a true partnership and the efficiency and the capital efficiency of the business let us do that. We didn’t need to take on a lot of VC money because I was able to bootstrap it. Fifty people, we do a lot of sharing. We do practice what we preach. There are a lot of things that we do on a regular basis. I have a weekly team company all-hands call where every Monday at noon, everybody dials in. We use sales for it where you’re sharing updates, you’re sharing success stories, you’re listing out your goals and your successes and you’re listing our challenges. I’ve got a way to capture information in a fun way and then you can see who submitted it. It’s a big part of our culture. Our values are all about giving and sharing and collaborating and helping each other. That’s all positive. On the flip side, because we are transparent and because giving feedback and it’s not a culture for everyone. Some people don’t want feedback.
Give me an example of that. How is that a challenge for some folks? How do you see that play out?'Selfhood' is a fully-developed person at one with themself, with nature, and with the community Click To Tweet
I can’t think of a specific example. I know the specificity of examples are helpful, especially when writing books, so I’m trying to think of a real experience. When a salesperson joins my company and if they’re not the best and they don’t represent sales excellence and their hygiene of sales isn’t top-notch. If they’re not following up with customers, if they’re not curious asking questions, if not empathetic, then they can’t represent my company. We try and do as good of a job as we can to get that sorted in the beginning. Sometimes some of those characteristics, they fake it. You’re a couple of months in or a month in and you realize, “This person is not coachable.” You know why? They want to do things their way. We can’t have rogue people doing things differently. We’re an enablement platform and our mission and vision are to help salespeople be the best they can be. People come to us because they believe we’re going to help them have excellence in sales. If you’re going to be a salesperson and A) not be open to feedback and B) think you can do things your own way, you’re out.
We’ve had a couple of people on the marketing side that have come in and on their exit interviews I’ve said, “Tough culture.” It’s tough getting the feedback regularly and it’s okay. That’s not a regrettable departure. As a culture and as a business, I’ve learned as a leader to maybe temper it back a little bit and enable leaders to be more. What I do is rather than always feeling like it should be me giving everyone feedback. I’ll listen and observe, I’ll pass feedback through. If someone does come to me directly and asked me for the feedback, I’ll give it to them. At this point, I’ve got leaders and I’m giving them the feedback to give to their teams so they can develop them. They can temporarily in a way that it can be a little intimidating for a CEO to give you direct feedback all the time.
You’ve got the 25 people that are in North America, are they spread out?
We have about thirteen here and the rest is distributed.
People that thrive in that culture, what feedback are you getting from the people that are successful there? What do they tell you about their experience and why do they like it there? Why do they love it there? What do you hear?
First, they feel like they are doing the best job of their lives. There’s this woman Deborah in Toronto, we worked together at Salesforce and then when I founded the company, I come maybe a year after I started, I said, “Deb, come on, I need your help.” I keep checking in with her. She’s here for years. I’m like, “How’s it going?” She’s like, “It’s the best job ever. It’s my dream job.” Startups are tough. She’s up in Toronto and she gets to work with customers, help them be successful. She uses a technology that she truly loves. Because there’s much work to do, she gets to pick and choose the things that she works on because there’s no shortage. That’s something that I hear from people that have been here a while. The other thing I hear from people is they like working with founders. My cofounder and I, we’re responsible founders and we’re here to run a real business and create a real business. It’s scrappy but in a good way. We didn’t take $10 million to $20 million. There’s this culture of like, “Hire people and do this and throw these crazy events.” We’re thoughtful about everything and people appreciate the thoughtfulness of how we make decisions, the thoughtfulness of how we execute the company, the false thoughtfulness of what we say and when we say it. Those are some of the reasons why people are here. The fact that our customers love technology, you go to my YouTube channel, there are some videos called Hood Love.
It’s our customers saying what they love about working with SalesHood and you can’t make this up. They love us. They love the people. They believe we’re here to make them successful. We celebrate them. We help make our customer’s careers because they can scale. I got recognized by Marc multiple times during my career. I take that and I inject that into my customer success. The fact that we’re celebrating people all the time because it’s two sides to the coin. You’re going to give people feedback that we’re also going to celebrate the wins and learn from the losses. That’s something that’s magical here that people appreciate it. We use our tech. Video is big. People are sharing their stories and people are giving each other feedback. There’s a lot of peer-to-peer and that happens here in my company.
Your YouTube channel is Hood Love?
It’s the sales channel but there are some videos called Hood Love.
I’m tuned to that word and where I hear it and how I hear it used. What I’m hearing you say is that your customers are not shy about saying how much they love SalesHood, the technology, the people, the responsiveness, all those things. Would your employees say the same thing? Would your employees use that word to describe their experience working there? Do they love it there?In a culture of transparency, some people might not appreciate the feedback. Click To Tweet
I hired an HR consultant who I worked with at Salesforce. She came in and we had an employee who submitted a complaint about another employee. I was like, “Where did that come from?” I was wondering. I thought maybe it was systemic. I thought maybe there was something deeper going on here that I wasn’t in tune with. She was playing a game. She left, but I hired this HR person to interview all the employees. I can send you the deck, which has the verbatim feedback. There is a lot of love there and there’s a lot of love and gratitude. I’ll send you the presentation. It’s raw. I didn’t create it, but you can see the language and I’ll trust you to use what you think is appropriate. The combination of the Hood videos, it’s on the YouTube channel and why our customers love working with SalesHood is one of them. There are 3 or 4 there why our customers love working with sales. There are a couple of them here and you’ll listen to what they have to say plus the video, it will be interesting.
We also do something fun here, which is when someone joins the company, we use our system. They’re recording a story in their first five minutes of being here. What does success look like for you? What’s your vision for your job? I like people to put themselves out there. I also want them to get over the fact of recording. If they’re working for a video company and we’re all about video feedback and role-playing it, you’ve got to do it. About a week after they start here, they go through a path where they’re watching videos and doing exercises and using the system. They record a passion video. What are you most passionate about? People love that stuff here. They love getting to know people at a human level, understanding what makes people tick.
Folks, passions are spectacular, whether it’s someone brewing beer or someone cooking. For me, it’s music and DJing, hiking, running and gardening. It turns out my VP Sales has this awesome garden that he goes every night and looks at his fruit there. They’re his babies. Try and keep it human here a lot. It’s got to be human. As a leader, I’d like to believe that I’ve got the radars and that I can feel when things might not be in a good spot and I can feel the energy. That’s my job as a leader to try and be as close to the pulse of what’s going on. I’ll react quickly if I feel something’s going the wrong way. I’ll be like in the team meeting. “This happened. It didn’t make anyone feel good, let’s talk about it. Go.” I’ll do that.
That’s the premise, which serves as the foundation for my work. I’ve written a few books, I do a lot of speaking, I travel around the world and I’ve been on my soapbox for a long time. As the title of the book would suggest, Love is Just Damn Good Business, I’m not talking to California touchy-feely, hoo-ha people. I’m talking to business people. The case that I make is this. Your competitive advantage comes from when your customers love you, not when they’re satisfied with you, but when they love you. The only way to create that experience in a meaningful and sustainable way over time is to create a culture that people love working in. You can’t create that culture unless you have it yourself first as the leader.
You gave us a great example of that thread that goes all the way through. It’s not about love as a sentiment. It’s about love as a practice and as a discipline. What you brought to light there is, it’s hard work. There is such a thing as tough love. Giving feedback to somebody that needs it, is not comfortable and it’s necessary. The misconception is this. We want to create a love-based culture. The place that people go to first of all is people walk around with big goofy grins on their faces and nobody ever argues and you stop the action. Have a big group of hugs in the hallway and that’s where people go.
It’s a kumbaya culture. Nothing could be further from the truth because the culture, the people love what they’re trying to do. They love technology, love their clients. The standards are much higher than they are in other places because people don’t tolerate substandard performance. They don’t want anybody screwing up a good thing. Our willingness and ability to hold ourselves and one another accountable to the standards that we said is what keeps us sharp and competitive. It sounds like Saleshood is a great example of the gritty, scrappy side of the equation. Some people, it’s not their thing. They don’t want to hear that.
Some people don’t want to hear it and some cultures don’t and some company. When I spoke to Burton about his business, I asked CEOs the question, “Tell me about your culture. Tell me about what’s it like to give feedback? How open is your business to feedback into coaching? Give me some examples where either it’s working well, not working well.” If it doesn’t fit the CEO or the VP Sales doesn’t subscribe to the notion that peer-to-peer feedback is something that would be positive for the business, then we walk. We say, “We’re not a good fit for you because you’re not going to be happy in SalesHood.” Some people like the old way. I want people to do a test. I’m going to score them and we’re going to have the performance reviews. I appreciate all your kind words and you’re recognizing what we’re doing. It’s hard work, as you say, to be able to continue it, but it’s who we are and you can’t fake it. You can’t fake it because then you come across as unauthentic. I can give someone tough feedback, but they know when they look in my eyes that I’m coming from a good place.
In Salesforce, people knew I was helping them. Even though I make them sit through three days of training, they knew that it was for their good. People know that when they hit the record button on their phone and they’re recording that video for SalesHood, it’s a pain in the ass. I’m going to record it and after I record it, I know that I’m going to get feedback from a bunch of people and I know I’m going to be better. That’s goodness.
Customers feel the same way. I’ll share you one more thing. The word discipline is important to me. I learned it from my dad. My dad gave me a lot of tough love over the years. Tough as a kid when you’re always getting feedback and not all positive. He’s an Egyptian Jew. His mom was tough on him, so it’s there. When it comes to discipline, I’m disciplined about measuring the success of the business. How do you measure love? How do you measure if your customers love you? It’s super simple. Net Promoter Score is something that we subscribe to and I believe in it so much. I look at Net Promoter Score multiple times a day. I don’t look at Salesforce to check my pipeline multiple times a day. When I get a zero score from someone, because it happens, people give you zeroes. If someone gives you a zero and they write something down, “Your system is such crap.” Whatever they say, they get an email from me and a handwritten thank you note, “Thank you for taking the time to tell us we can be better. We’d love a chance to learn from you.” People are floored like, “You did what? Who does that? Do people even read this stuff?” They cared enough to say something negative about the business constructively and maybe they’re having a bad day.
A lot of the times I spoke to say, “I was hard on you, sorry.” You can improve this button. Like “Great, thanks for the feedback.” They become a friend and customer. I write handwritten thank you notes to anybody that gives me a zero. I get about 200 or 300 NPS feedbacks a month. It’s manageable. I’m the CEO. I think about it writing handwritten thank you notes to people. I don’t give the tens of handwritten thank you note. I give the zeroes.
Aside from the fact that it’s a personal touch, it’s symbolic. Getting that tangible handwritten note, what it represents? It was more than symbolic. It’s evidence that what you did is for X number of minutes, you completely focused on that person, that nothing else existed in those few minutes that it took for you to write that note. That’s not the conscious part that people recognize. They recognize the words and the care that goes into it, but it represents full, complete 100% attention to you in those minutes because that is what happened.
I speak quite a bit as well. I get the chance to speak in front of sales teams, keynote, and kickoffs. I always tell people sometimes they’ll buy them with my book, sometimes they won’t. I ask people in the room, “How many of you close a deal this month, this year, whatever?” Everybody raised their hand. “How many of you said thank you to your customers?” Half people go down. “How many of you who got assigned order PO wrote a handwritten thank you note to your customers?” Maybe two people and I’m like, “Are you kidding me? Someone gave you money and you’re not doing everything you can? Thank you very much for your business. If you know anyone, they will thank you forever. Here’s what I’m going to do. If anybody writes a handwritten thank you note to me saying, “Thank you for speaking,” I’ll send you a handwritten book FedExed to your home.” That’s what I do. I’ll get maybe 5 or 10 but I’ll do that gladly.
Another question that you may want to layer in there. It may not be for the same call to action at the end of it, how many of you have written a handwritten thank you note to somebody that told you “You suck?”
It’s my NPS story.
You’ll get no hands for that one. That’s fantastic. What’s the future look like for you?
As a company, we’re at the point where we’ve cracked the code with the technology. We have enough customer success. I’ve got all the metrics, the revenue growth metrics, good NPS, we’ve got low churn. On paper, when you look at the metrics, we’re about that point we’re ready to grow and hypergrowth. The question is what’s our strategy going to be? Do we do some growth funding? Do we keep staying scrappy the way we are? Do we look for a strategic partner? TriNet, does this get bundled? There are many scenarios and we’ve got options. SalesHood as a company, how do we spread the awareness of the impact we’re having on people’s lives at a much faster pace than we were? That’s my next 1 to 2 or 3 years. The way that I’m doing it is number one, working with universities. I’ve partnered with the University of Houston, John Hopkins, UTD, University of Dallas and Northern Illinois University. We’re giving SalesHood for free to those universities and those sales programs, giving them the videos, the content, letting them use it because I believe much in it. That’s one way to spread the word and raise awareness and increase our scale.
The other one is we’ve got to start hiring. I’ve got to grow from 7, 8 salespeople to 30, 40 salespeople over the next two years. Spreading the message and the importance of enablement is something that is still new and requires a conversation. You can’t go online, swipe a credit card and go, “I’m ready for an enablement platform.” The world isn’t there yet. This is still a human conversation. That requires human outreach. I’m going to get on the speaking circuit a lot more than I had been. I’m shifting my mindset from building products, which is what I’ve been doing. I’ve been a product-centric CEO, fine-tuning it, massaging and getting the product right to being a go-to-market CEO.
I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Elay. What an inspiring guy. I’m struck by this simple yet gutsy idea to take tough feedback from our customers and reply to them. Give them a call and make a new friend for somebody who took the time to throw shade on you. That’s a wonderful, audacious and powerful idea. One of many that I hope you took away from this conversation. Until next time, this is Steve Farber reminding you to do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.
- Love is Just Damn Good Business
- Enablement Mastery
- Saleshood – book
- SalesHood YouTube channel
About Elay Cohen
Elay Cohen is the CEO and co-founder of SalesHood and the author of the books Enablement Mastery and SalesHood. He is recognized as a Top Innovative “Mover and Shaker” in sales leadership by Entrepreneur magazine and by LinkedIn as one of the world’s top sales experts. While in the role of Senior Vice President of Sales Productivity at Salesforce, he was recognized as Salesforce’s “2011 Executive of the Year” by Marc Benioff. Elay is on a mission to improve and modernize how companies enable their people, working closely with the world’s most innovative companies and most forward thinking educational institutions. Together, they’re changing the future of work.