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The Visionary

An interview with Stephen Denton, president and chief revenue officer of Collective[i]

Stephen Denton, the president and chief revenue officer of Collective[i], lives along a vista overlooking the Jersey Shore, with Manhattan’s skyline just out of view. The home he shares with his wife and two children, surrounded as it is by sea grass and sand dunes, serves as a respite from the bustle of the city, where Denton and his colleagues have been amassing what may be the world’s most robust B2B sales networks­—an endeavor every bit as disruptive as Madison Avenue at rush hour.

Since his formative years leading sales teams at FedEx and PepsiCo, the West Virginia native has demonstrated a preternatural knack for seeing the big picture and, like the NASCAR drivers he admires, anticipating each sudden turn of the wheel. At eBay, where he served as vice president of marketing solutions for eBay Enterprise, he oversaw a roster of more than 2,000 retailers, using bleeding-edge technology to plot out innovative strategies for users of the ecommerce website.

Following three successful exits—GSI Media, LinkShare and eBay Enterprise—Denton and his colleagues launched Collective[i] in a bid to harness artificial intelligence and predictive analytics in service of a state-of-the-art B2B network. Unlike anything before it, the technology, which streamlines customer-relationship management software with a multitude of other data sources, has the potential, he believes, to transform the sales industry and behaviors of the modern salesperson.

“Expect that sales teams and professionals who embrace emerging technology and artificial intelligence will be better positioned to navigate this new sales arena and win at even greater rates.,” Denton told The Modern Sale in August. “Sales professionals will make themselves available to the companies that provide them with the best tools to win deals, and not just report on what they already know.”

“It’s time for sales teams to have the same visibility into their sales investment as a CFO has with the capital expenditures.”

The 25-year sales veteran spoke with The Modern Sale about unwarranted fears surrounding machine learning, the future of sales and the book he can’t live without. 

The Modern Sale: Why do so many people fear artificial intelligence?

Denton: People fear change. Given the unprecedented pace of technological innovation where the world is evolving faster than any other time in human history, it’s no surprise that people’s first reaction is fear. AI is the natural progression of the digital and mobile transformation that has taken place since the late 1990s, but for many, it’s the first time they are really feeling the impact. In my view, the fear around artificial intelligence is less about technology than the unknown. Will my job go away? Will artificial intelligence replace the need for human intelligence?  

The reality is that while artificial intelligence has tremendous potential to improve our lives—I mean, can you imagine driving without Waze?—in professions where the most valuable skills are judgment, empathy and strategy, artificial intelligence will remove the most unpleasant tasks associated with doing those jobs and elevate the value of what people do.

As an executive, I need to help manage my team and help them embrace artificial intelligence, and not simply fear the changes it brings. As a sales leader, it’s my obligation to replace fear of the unknown with clarity around the benefits that this technology will bring to the profession. I truly believe we’re about to enter the golden age of selling because AI offers us the ability to understand buyers so much better.  

You’ve said this may be the best time in modern history to be a sales professional. Why?

It is. Sales has been tasked with doing the impossible—predicting what motivates buyers, committing to the timing of when deals will close and even forecasting the future, which, at our best, are educated guesses. We are severely penalized for guessing wrong.  The reality is that if any of us could predict the future, we’d be sitting on a beach somewhere buying and selling stocks.  

Artificial intelligence, and more specifically machine and deep learning, can vastly improve the process of selling. The statistic that still surprises me is that most sales professionals spend 60 to 70 percent of their working hours on non-revenue–producing tasks—internal meetings, forecasting, market research, inputting data into CRM, etc. Put another way, in a 40-hour workweek, we are only spending 12 to 14 hours selling.

The other problem with sales today is that teams are managed based on activities—what did you enter into CRM?—and rewarded based on outcomes. The reality is that there is no correlation with the number of activities performed and outcomes.  

All of the above is what sold me on Collective[i]. Seeing an application that automated manual work that was distracting my team and me from generating revenue and that improved intelligence around the buying process meant that I could focus on the things that brought me to sales in the first place: coaching, negotiating, managing resources and formulating strategy.  

Sales has also suffered from an underinvestment in technology. The reason I’m so optimistic about the future is because that is about to change. At LinkShare and eBay, I had a front-row seat to how marketing evolved, and I believe the same thing will happen to the sales profession. Advancement in artificial intelligence, lessons learned from marketing—CMOs are now one of the largest purchasers of technology—and applications like Collective[i] means that selling is about to get very exciting.  

 

(Ebbe Sweet photography)

Name the biggest technological shift in sales you’ve witnessed in the past 25 years.

Two things: first, networks. The emergence of personal and professional networks, how that information is shared and mined. Your network is your currency. And second, the level of information buyers are armed with in the sales process has completely shifted the role of today’s modern sales professional.

Describe a key decision that significantly altered your career trajectory.

Very early in my career, when I was a sales professional for Pepsi, I was responsible for eight large chain stores, and this job involved both selling to and merchandising the stores. The challenge was someone had to be first and someone had to be last, and that was based on how the trucks ran their routes. Clearly the managers of those stores that I got to last were not happy with the condition of their Pepsi area until I got there, and that did not create a great frame for selling or a productive relationship. I was a young guy in a new town, so I decided if I could work my stores at night, I could get the job done quicker, and everyone would be satisfied because when the store managers came into their stores in the morning the Pepsi section was perfect. Makes sense looking back on it, that changing the way you work to solve customer challenges is a good idea, but back then, I was just trying to figure out how to not have upset store managers. By making the shift, a couple things happened: One, I got my job done in half the time because there was no traffic on the roads or in the stores. Two, my store managers were really happy, so I was able to sell them more products, which really helped my numbers. This got me on a pretty fast track to get promoted versus being in that job for three to five years. I was promoted in one year, which got my career off to a really good start.

Looking back, the power of my decision was being able to map my actions in accordance to my buyers’ needs.  That one insight launched my career.   

Name the most useful sales lesson you’ve been taught.

Manage a pipeline like a stock portfolio, and value your team’s time. Every time I assign a play to a team member or schedule an internal meeting, it must have an outcome that’s worth the tradeoff of taking them out of the field. Same goes for killing deals that have eaten up too many internal resources. Too often I’ve found that managers and sales professionals cling to opportunities for too long and at the expense of other, more lucrative ones. When you have put your heart and soul into a deal, the hardest thing to do is write off that investment and move on.  

“The best sales professionals are experts in and advocates for their buyers… They welcome coaching, exercise discipline with their time, do their homework and win  for the team. They are true athletes.”

What sales or self-help book would you describe as
indispensible?

I love the “Little Red Book of Selling” by Jeffrey Gitomer. It’s an easy read; it’s common sense, and it’s always a good reminder of what works and what doesn’t.

Salesforce: Indispensible or overrated?

Salesforce is a great database to store basic information, but it’s highly overrated—and expensive—for doing much more than that. As a category, CRM is overrated. Sales leaders expect their CRM technology  to serve a different purpose than the one for which it was intended.  It’s the delta between the expectation and the reality that’s leading so many of them to question the massive investments they have made in it.   

What can we expect for the sales industry over the next 10 years?

You can expect that companies will no longer accept the metrics we’ve seen associated with sales over the past 25 years. It’s time for sales teams to have the same visibility into their sales investment as a CFO has with the capital expenditures. You should expect that buyers will continue to do their own discovery and be even more informed, and you should expect that commodity-based sales teams will be replaced with online marketplaces and self-purchasing.

What is the quality you most admire in a sales professional?

The best sales professionals are experts in and advocates for their buyers. They won’t represent companies they don’t believe in. They won’t get on a call without being prepared to make the most of their and their prospect’s time. They know how to leverage every technology, colleague and contact to augment their skills in order to produce optimal outcomes. They welcome coaching, exercise discipline with their time, do their homework and win  for the team. They are true athletes.  

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Personally it’s my family, and being able to share this journey with them and celebrate the wins in their lives. Professionally I’m proud of achieving some mild success in four completely different industries: CPG, transportation, digital commerce/media and artificial intelligence. It’s been a lifelong journey of learning and experiences that have allowed me to work with amazing people and learn new technologies. Without a great family support group, it wouldn’t have been possible.

What is your greatest fear?

Heights and snakes.  Can’t stand either. So if you were to put me on a ledge with a snake it would be the absolute worst thing for me.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

People who spend time breaking others down to build themselves up. People who try and make themselves seem bigger by making others seem smaller are quickly exited from my network.

Which living person do you most admire?

My mom. She raised three boys all within 30 months of each other during a time when my dad was away from home a lot due to military duty, and looking back, I can’t imagine how she did it. Even when times were tough or things seemed pretty bad, she always kept us together. We moved a lot, and she had to make a lot of sacrifices to make it all work.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

My calm exterior. My game face doesn’t always align with my internal thought process. If they ever invent a mind reader, I’m in trouble. I’m intense and always prepared.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

I hate it, but find myself saying “net-net” way too much, or “at the end of the day.” When I hear myself say those things, I cringe and try to make the adjustment, but the damage is done.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Living at the beach. It’s not the easiest commute, and it requires some more overnight stays than I want, but when I’m home, it’s awesome. My family loves it, it’s a great gathering place, and it’s all worth it.

What is your most treasured possession?

My son made me a duct-tape wallet when he was 10, and I carry with me every day. It just reminds me to enjoy the things that really matter and what we work so hard for. I love that wallet. On the other side of that coin is a custom Patek Philippe watch that the leadership team received when we sold LinkShare to Rakuten. It was one of the largest transactions involving a NYC headquartered technology company, which was exciting in and of itself, but the fact that we all have the same rare watch reminds me of the very special team of people that accomplished so many amazing things.  

(Ebbe Sweet photography)

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