ELVTR’S LEADING SALESMAN: “SALES IS LIKE AN ART, YOU CAN'T RELY ON DATA FOR EVERYTHING”
Breaking into a competitive market such as online education is no mean feat. Tapping into its world-class learning material and top-notch instructors, ELVTR has rapidly expanded from California to the rest of the world as a leading professional development platform.
From the firm’s HQ in California, Head of Sales Max Romanenko manages a team of twenty five salespeople around the world. A seasoned salesman himself, with 12 years of experience under his belt and a knack for identifying gaps in a market, Max knows better than anyone else what makes Americans trust a brand.
In the following Q&A, he explains why a value-based sales strategy works in the US, what differentiates American customers from Europeans, and how AI is disrupting online sales.
How do you pick your unique selling proposition for ELVTR courses?
First, we are always looking for top-notch instructors who have been working at the top level for a long time and have tremendous experience in their fields. Many have been executives at Google, Microsoft, Meta and similar companies for a long time. This shows that they can make a difference; you are not offered that kind of position if you don’t get results.
There are books or other resources that you can find with some basic content on each subject. But when it comes to using that knowledge, to make a difference in your company, you need something more. That's where our instructors come in.
Our courses are live and interactive, which means that students can ask questions in real time and tailor the content to their own needs. During lectures or office hours, they are also giving them assignments. So they can communicate with instructors, who can offer valuable feedback on their projects and answer questions to help them understand the subject better.
How do you segment a huge market such as the US to reach out to different demographics?
Before we launch a course we're doing market research, trying to gauge demand: how many people are trying to find a course on a subject. Then we narrow this down, focusing on 3-4 main target groups.
Then we are trying to create a course that meets their expectations, needs and goals. Knowing in advance the target customer for each course and how it will help them is very important. We have a digital marketing team that targets these people directly. We know roughly their age, interests, whether they already work in the industry etc.
Is there an element of geographical segmentation, say East vs West Coast?
Not much. There are some courses, for example on instructional design, which helps teachers get better at their job, that involve a bit of that. We did market research, identified a few states where most teachers were located and focused on them.
But overall, despite the fact that the US is a huge and diverse country, our learners are people from all over the country.
What are the challenges of managing a global sales team remotely?
I manage 25 sales representatives. Some are in the US. We have an office in California and some sales reps who work remotely from Colorado and Hawaii. We also have a team in Ukraine, plus some sales reps in Mexico, South Africa and the rest of Europe. So my sales team is truly global.
It is a diverse team from various backgrounds and with a wide range of experience. My main problem is the different time zones. I am in California, so 9-10 hours behind Europe. My day starts at 6am, so that I can have six hours to communicate with that part of the team. That's one reason why we have team managers who help with coordination, monitoring reps and answering their questions during the shifts, because I can’t cover all the different time zones.
We also have weekly and monthly meetings where we discuss what happened last month, what we achieved and what our future goals and expectations are. There is also a daily chat where we share successes or discuss challenges we face.
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Is there anything that you can't do remotely?
Most of the team works remotely, so I do miss the time I had everyone in the same office.
What you miss is the common activities at the end of the workday, like staying together and having fun. That helps you build a team. The team members become friends, which also helps them to grow professionally. A good working environment enables you to grow as a professional, but it also helps the company build a solid culture.
An in-person meeting is much more engaging than a Zoom call, there is more connection. But after COVID, people got used to working remotely.
What are the secrets of a successful online sales strategy?
During the pandemic, more people realised that the future of education is not theoretical, academic knowledge, but more professional courses. Having on-the-job skills can help you work toward practical goals.
So the key to a successful virtual selling strategy is trying to stay in touch with the customers through constant communication: phone calls, texts and emails. In case they have a question, we have a nearly 24/7 support line that they can call.
You also need a human-centered approach. Although it's a business, you have to be as human as possible, so understand what your customers want, what their expectations are and whether our courses can help them or not.
If we think that our courses will not help them solve their problems, we openly tell them that. We explain that a course is for people who expect a specific outcome, so this might not be the best fit for them. That’s how you build trust.
Does value-based selling work in the US?
It's probably the best approach. Especially right now, because US customers are overwhelmed with sales. Since the 1990s, there has been a boom in sales of shares. People have been trying to get rich by buying and selling stocks, so sales reps are trying to sell you stocks all the time.
So Americans have become more cautious. That’s why value-based selling works. If your product isn't good enough to solve the customer’s problems, it’s pointless trying to sell it to them. If they are not happy, they will ask for a refund or leave unsatisfied. That’s a loss both for the company and the customer.
That’s why our sales reps try to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, basically understand what they're looking for and what they want to achieve.
Is it the price or the value added that matters more for them?
Well, usually it's about a balance between the two. If a customer cannot see the value for them, it doesn't matter how much it will cost, $500 or $10,000. They need to see the value.
That’s why the best sales approach is to ask questions and try to understand who the customer is and why they are here. If we can help them, we explain the outcomes and proceed with the product.
Any other trends in US sales you find interesting?
There’s a lot of marketing of products and services in the US, so it's always hard to fight for customer attention. The broader perception of the company makes a lot of difference for customers to end up buying.
Most do their own research before buying. That’s why you should have a proper website. In the US, the average website does not look great, there are many low-quality websites from the late ‘00s.
If it’s not updated with recent customer reviews, they won’t trust you. People always try to find reviews about the company and its services beforehand, trying to justify a purchase and see if it’s a scam. They want to know if it's worth their time and money.
That’s why your communication with customers matters, even before they contact you. You have to help them understand who you are, what your values as a company are and what your mission is. In our case, our mission is to help you elevate your career to the next level.
What are the main differences between US and UK customers?
Both speak English obviously, but they are different people with different mentalities. In the US, people are very open and warm, always trying to help you, even talking to strangers.
But when it comes to sales, they appreciate a more straightforward approach, rather than beating around the bush. You have to get to the point quickly to build trust.
In the UK, you have to do small talk first. People like that. So it’s not necessarily a less straightforward approach, but it helps if you slowly explain where the value is and how a course could help them.
What’s your take on AI and sales automation?
In sales, there are tools that can help you make data-driven decisions, rather than relying on intuition. AI can help you understand what kind of things you can do in advance to achieve better results.
For example, there are AI programs that help you to analyse sales calls. Without AI, you have to listen to the calls to get feedback, which takes a lot of time. AI can help you analyze phone calls to identify patterns and understand which sales techniques work and which don’t.
You should always try to make decisions based on data. For example, you can use that data to see who sells better in each segment. I have a lot of great sales reps. But even if you're a top sales rep who can sell courses better than anyone else, that doesn't mean that you are equally good with all courses. There are topics that you may not understand that well.
So based on results, we distribute the calls to different people. If you are good at selling a particular course, you will have a lot of calls about it. If not, you have fewer calls or none.
Are there occasions where you don't trust the data and you have to use your intuition?
Sales is like an art, so you can't rely on data for everything. Data helps you identify patterns and what lies behind them. Then you turn to intuition and logic, digging a bit deeper with your experience in sales to analyze.
Sometimes numbers might show that a sales rep is not doing a great job. But the data can't see what's behind all that: the hard work, the dedication and willingness to go the extra mile during the conversation with the customer.
Listening to the calls can help me as a manager give better feedback, but data indicates things that you need to pay attention to.
What software programs are crucial to your team’s success?
Nowadays, if you don't have a CRM system, you don't have a business. If you still use Excel to keep notes on your customers, you cannot do much with the data. So a CRM is a basic tool for any company to work with your customer base and personalise that content.
With a CRM you can add text on each customer. You know what may interest them in the future. If you launch a new product, you can filter and export the data to make personalized offers that suit their needs.
There are analytical tools like Power BI, Tableau or Looker Studio that help you build deeper analytics. We have also developed our own tool to help us distribute leads to the sales reps, because that way it’s a more data-driven and automatic process.
Are there any emerging technologies used in sales that you find exciting?
Virtual reality (VR) is booming. We have a few courses about it and people are asking about it. In two to five years, there will be more job opportunities in VR, because it will be part of our everyday lives with tools like Apple Vision. Right now it costs a lot, but in a few years technology will be better and cheaper.
Regarding sales, AI tools can help you understand what’s going on during calls, basically get more data. You can understand your audience better, because each customer is unique with their own problems and expectations. So with AI you can analyse the data in a few seconds and propose solutions to them much faster.
So how will VR change sales?
I think it will be a bigger part of our lives in general, so people might be switching from MacBooks to VR devices. We will be able to work or hold virtual meetings through VR tools.
Regarding sales, while talking to a customer the AI system within your VR system will help you analyze the customer, so you can better understand their potential ‘pain points’. For example, the device will be analyzing their eyes or the whole face and point to you important things that you might want to suggest or ask them about. Essentially you will be able to have a more personalised approach.
Any last comments about US sales?
In my 12 years of experience in sales, I've been trying to develop a human approach to the selling process: being compassionate with customers and passionate about your product. You're trying to help the customer, but to do that you need to get better at asking the right questions. So you're trying to put yourself in their shoes to understand why they're here.
Many salespeople don't ask these questions, although Americans are probably the most open people in the world – you can ask any question and they will answer.
If you think your product might help them, go for it. If not, don’t sell it. There’s no need to spoil your relationship with future customers. You need to be as transparent as possible with your customers.