Effective early career development for recent grads with Salesforce’s Steve Bullington

Collin Stewart, CEO

07 November 2019

Sales is a fast-moving game.

Trends, practices, software tools – you name it – spring up all the time and have the power to shift the dynamic of the entire industry. This shifting landscape means training and education are paramount for those starting out in their careers. 

As such, building the proper philosophical foundation, having mentors, and the chance to practice and hone various sales skills is something every young sales professional would be lucky to have.

And that is what Steve Bullington, Senior Manager of Solutions Engineering Talent Development at Salesforce, provides. From involved internships, to a robust sales academy with multiple cohorts and real-life projects…Bullington has been rather busy training the next wave of sales leaders. 

“There is no plateau in sales – you are either getting better or getting worse. There is always something you can learn,” says Bullington, on a recent edition of The Predictable Revenue Podcast. 

“That’s why baseball players take batting practice every day – it is not because they need to hit more baseballs. It’s part of the gig, and if they aren’t doing it, they know someone else will be. That’s why it’s critical to build this from the beginning.”

Bullington’s sales journey and Salesforce’s training program

After a long and successful career leading sales teams (large and small), Bullington found himself in a reflective place about 7 years ago. What would his next chapter be? Where would his career go in the future?

The answer was training and development.

“I found that the part of sales leadership he liked best was training and development. So, I went to it full time,” says Bullington.

“I taught a class. I started mentoring with college programs – I threw myself into that world.”

From there, Bullington joined a software company to start a sales academy for recent college grads. Now at Salesforce, Bullington is doing the same there.

Currently, under Bullingtson’s leadership, Salesforce boasts a robust internship program, and a sales academy for recent college grads. The sales academy supports two cohorts each year, one that starts in January and one that starts in February. 

The academy, adds Bullington, is often populated by standout interns. In fact, having both streams running has been extremely successful (and efficient) for that very reason: the internship programs give both interns and Salesforce a chance to get to know each other and determine if there is a good fit, while the sales academy is a more in-depth run-through of sales skills aimed at educating and inspiring attendees.

“We would learn the biggest risk with salespeople through these programs: can they succeed? Do they have the resilience to do it? What better way to learn than spending a summer together?” says Bullington.

“You’ll learn a lot about that person that way – and they learn about you. The worst thing is thinking you are going to a great place and then learning that it isn’t a good cultural fit for you.”

Of course, Salesforce is a company with seemingly endless resources. As a result, they are able to provide a lot of opportunities for a lot of college grads (according to Bullington, more than 70n students have passed through the Salesforce sales academy in the past year).

But that doesn’t mean that a scaled-down version of a similar offering can’t work. In fact, it can work well, says Bullington. The key to providing excellent training and guidance is to establish a training framework that your business can support.

Don’t try and do too much. Rather, do what you can well.

“The key is operating at the scale your company can handle and teaching what is useful to your company,” says Bullington.

“Scale and usefulness – these are two pillars to guide your decisions here.”

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Finding the best recruits

Naturally, designing a sales mentorship program (regardless of its scale and duration) is only the first part of the process. You also need to fill it with top-notch students.

So, where do you find them? Well, you got to go back to school.

“Since I moved into this space I’ve established relationships with universities at the departmental level, and professor level – not at the job fair level,” says Bullington.

“Departments and professors give you insight and get you involved in speaking at classes. It gets you on the inside and you may get an inside track on the best students.”

Be warned, however: some departments and some universities will ask you to cut a cheque for access. If you can afford to pay, then Bullington suggests you should. But, don’t let that payment fool you – you should still work to be involved with the school in any way you can (teach a class, attend job fairs, judge business competitions etc.)

“I’ve been working with a masters program where we do some event-based sponsorships and have been getting candidates for 4 years,” says Bullington.

“The teachers in that program want their folks to have jobs, and I have been giving back by running career exploration days. Even if you can write the cheque – you still need to be involved.”

(Editor’s note: we had Pendo’s Bill Binch on the podcast a while back to discuss effective hiring and training, You can read about our chat here, or listen to the whole in-depth interview here)

Positive interview traits 

Getting your tentacles into local (or not so local) colleges and universities is a great first step. Now, you have to decide which candidates to choose.

When interviewing prospective candidates, Bullingtopn says he likes to “uncover potential” in early interviews. Since grads rarely come with a full resume of sales accomplishments, that’s really all that can be done.

According to Bullington, there are numerous ways an interviewer can dig to see what kind of sales potential a candidate has. But, three of his favourite areas to examine are:

  1. Do they have a proven work history?
  2. Are they bright (this is not necessarily book smart, rather, can they take in information)?
  3. Are they great communicators (both written and verbal)?

“I want to hear about you working at the gas station at 15. That shows me you have had those face to face customer experiences. You have already had at-bats. And I always ask about the most important lesson they learned from that job,” says Bullington.

“I also ask about why they went to university? Why did they choose their major? Stuff like that. I want to know what they are about.”

In subsequent interviews, Bullington says he tries to get to know more about each candidate, on a personal level. For example, he asks them what the last thing they read was (that wasn’t assigned to them). Are they curious about more than what they are being told to be curious about?

“That shows a lot about their willingness and interest to take things in,” says Bullington.

“Finally, I ask them to explain something to me in 5 minutes. And it can be anything. Their task is simple: at the end of that 5 minutes, I should have a basic understanding of that topic. That is one of the most telling ways that people are effective communicators. It shows they can think on their feet, articulate things persuasively, and concisely.”

 Professional development skills

And…what should these blossoming, soon-to-be-sales-leaders be taught? 

Remember: these are recent college grads. Some have professional skills development and some…none at all. So, each cohort needs to establish a level of parity.  As such, each sales academy starts with the foundation – public speaking.

“Students do presentations, and really get to hone their speaking presence,” says Bullington.

“Almost everything we do for 5 + months has an element of public speaking involved.”

That leads into a detailed stretch of learning about storytelling. Customers want to hear about how you can help them, how your product used to help them…that is storytelling at it’s finest. Forming the foundation of those sections of the academy is Nancy Duarte’s acclaimed book Resonate – a methodology Bullington has been teaching for years.

Finally, they cover more “advanced’ sales skills such as whiteboarding, how to craft an effective presentation (short presentations, crafted specifically to support the story you are telling), and demo skills. By the end of teaching these skills, each student should be able to do a small customer presentation.

But don’t forget…practice makes perfect. Each of the skills is taught so students can deliver presentation after presentation. That’s what makes Salesforce’s sales academy so strong: regardless of what books and frameworks they use to teach skills, they extract only what they need and have students use those frameworks to build presentations based on real companies.

Because sales is a real, living, and, as we already established, fast-moving industry. And when you’re a young professional just starting out, building the foundation to support that movement is paramount.

For more on Bullington’s thoughts on training, development, and mentorship, check out the rest of his interview on The Predictable Revenue Podcast.

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