STEPHEN J. BISTRITZ, Ed.D. has more than 40 years of high-tech sales, sales management and training management experience. He is the best-selling author of Selling to the C-Suite (now in its second edition) and speaker in the field of sales, sales management and selling to executives. Steve spent more than 27 years with IBM in sales and training-related positions. He then worked a sales training company OnTarget, where he led the development of sales training programs, which were delivered to tens of thousands of salespeople worldwide. Steve holds a doctorate in human resource development from Vanderbilt University and is currently president of his own sales training and consulting firm, SellXL.
How did you get into the industry?
Early in my IBM career, I learned that I truly enjoyed facilitating training events for our customers. I taught manufacturing industry applications because originally that was my specialty. My IBM branch manager gave me a sage piece of advice – saying “Steve, you should become known as an expert in a specific field.” That served me well throughout my business life, because from that point forward, I was always looking for a niche where I could excel. Today, my niche is selling to executives and I have done a lot of work in that field, including the development of sales training workshops on selling to executives, as well as the second edition of my book, Selling to the C-Suite.
Any emerging industry trends?
The training industry is definitely seeing a revolution away from instructor-led training to virtual, just-in-time learning that can be accessed 24/7. That said, there is still an opportunity for instructor-led courses that enable learning to be easily measured and evaluated. Learning with and from your peers is much more easily achievable in a classroom-type environment where experienced learners can be mixed with those with less knowledge and experience. In addition, the concept of blended learning, i.e., combining classroom learning with virtual learning, is becoming more commonplace.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
With new technologies and efficiencies, like blended learning, bring huge opportunities for additional innovation, posing their own unique challenges. With virtual learning, how can you be certain whether key concepts are grasped or are participants engaged in other activities unrelated to the learning process, during the times they are connected on line. Certainly, testing can help in that regard, but that process can be both risky and flawed.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
I started my own business, SellXL.com, in 2002. In 1995, I was working for a small sales training company and we wanted to develop a workshop on selling to executives – but we wanted to have the workshop created in a fashion that mirrored what executives thought about their relationships with professional salespeople. In perusing sales journals and the existing literature back then, few articles were written by C-level executives discussing their relationships with professional salespeople or why they would want to meet with new salespeople attempting a first contact. At that time, most books and articles on this topic were written by salespeople about their anecdotal experience dealing with senior client executives. We then embarked on a research project to ask senior client executives, vice president or C-level executives, about their relationships with professional salespeople. Assisting me in that project were MBA students from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. We initially surveyed more than 125 executives in lengthy face-to-face or telephone interviews to get their perspective on this topic. The results of those surveys served as the basis for the original workshop I developed on selling to executives.
A real revelation to me (from our research with CXO-level executives) was that many senior client executives truly valued professional salespeople for the specific business and personal value they delivered to them and to their company. That validated me and my profession and it was something I always thought to be the case, but the research actually confirmed that for me. When I started my own business, SellXL.com, in 2002, I used that same research (and expanded research we had undertaken in 1999) as the basis for the current workshop that I offer, Selling at the Executive Level (SellXL). That workshop subsequently served as the basis for the original book, Selling to the C-Suite, that was originally published by McGraw-Hill in 2009. The second edition of the book was published in 2018. As a side note, the original title we proposed for the book was Selling at the Executive Level (same title as my workshop) – but McGraw-Hill suggested changing the name to Selling to the C-Suite, and we agreed to do so.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
I continually update my workshops each year to make certain they are fresh and vibrant. Simple things like updated copyrights and updated content makes the materials feel relevant. In our workshops, we tell participants that salespeople have to “sit on the other side of the desk and view themselves from the client’s perspective”. I try to adhere to that same concept as a developer and I always try to view my content from the participant’s perspective. One of my original clients told me why they selected me as their sales training provider. “We selected you because your content was current and relevant. Our previous training provider took us for granted – we were paying them substantial fees each year and they was using material that had copyright dates five years back and material they hadn’t updated in that same timeframe.” You don’t forget those lessons!
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
In our sales training programs, we remind salespeople that “Client executives buy not when they understand, but when they feel they are understood.” We try to adhere to that same standard – we need to listen to our clients and resolve issues as soon as they arise.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
One key learning happened a couple of years ago and I never forgot it. An important concept of our sales training program is that we should do our homework before meeting with a client executive – and we suggest three levels of learning: (1) learning about the client’s industry (2) learning about the client’s company and (3) learning about the client executive (himself or herself). We tell salespeople that they have to do their homework in a diligent fashion before meeting with the executive(s). At the last minute, I was asked by a low-level executive to deliver an “overview” presentation about my workshop to a panel of client executives who were considering using my workshop throughout their sales organization. The low-level executive assured me this was an “introductory” meeting and she convinced me that the presentation I had shown her was totally relevant to the audience I would ultimately address for this overview presentation. I actually only knew the names of a few executives who would be at the meeting. That said, I was totally prepared and delivered a thorough presentation on the topic. I later learned that one of my competitors (who actually arrived late for the meeting) had received a thorough briefing on all of the executives who would be in attendance at the meeting and had actually contacted each and every one of those executives prior to his presentation (via phone) to ask them several questions like the following: (1) “What 2-3 things are your salespeople not doing today that you would like them to do and which of those is most important to you and why?” (2) What key ingredient do you feel is missing in your current sales training offerings? Using those two questions, my competitor was armed with a substantial amount of information he could use to tailor his presentation to the specific audience – and, as a result, he won the deal. This despite the fact that we had a better, less expensive solution that could have addressed the same issues. Wow – what a lesson for me!
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
I look for clients to derive value from my workshops and/or consulting services. Value can only be ascertained by the client – even if I think value has been delivered. The client’s perspective is the only one that counts when it comes to value delivery.
How do you motivate others?
By being realistic, respectful and honest in all my dealings with each and every person – and always operating with the highest level of integrity. Lead by example – and others will follow you. By admitting mistakes when they happen and correcting them to the best of my ability. Being in my own business is the best job I have ever had. If I make mistakes (and I have made some), I always try to make it a learning experience.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Find something you enjoy doing – and become known as an expert in that niche. Develop a network and become known within that network as an expert and someone who always focuses on quality and operates at the highest level of integrity. In addition, make certain you ascribe to the concept of being a “lifelong learner” - don’t get complacent in your business life. One additional suggestion: At the end of each business day, I make a short list (handwritten) of what I have to accomplish the next day. I have been doing this for 15 years now and I still develop a list each evening. Lastly, be passionate about what you do – and remember: You can’t expect to start at the top – you’ll have to work your way up there!
What do I do best?
I am best at packaging my sales training content and developing cohesive workshops that achieve a prescribed set of goals and objectives. Early in my career at IBM – but more importantly at the small sales training company I subsequently worked at, I learned that when developing training programs, you should always begin with an agreed-to set of objectives. During the development process, you have to continually measure yourself against those objectives. You constantly have to ask – is this content truly consistent with the objectives. Since those early days at IBM, I have always been able to develop presentations and content in a succinct and cohesive manner. Learning that early in my career has served me well throughout the years.
What makes me the best version of myself?
By never compromising quality and always operating at the highest level of integrity – you can accomplish anything. Always strive for excellence and never let a client down. When you establish a timeframe for completing a project, always meet or exceed the project deadline.
What are my aspirations?
Never compromise excellence – I once heard someone say: “Just do the right thing and do the thing right”. That simple motto has stuck with me throughout my life - and it has transcended both my business and personal life.
My Biggest Success?
Being married for 50 years and raising three children who are truly exemplary in all they do.
My Most Challenging Moment?
I was blindsided when I was initially downsized at IBM (after nearly 26 years), and I vowed that I would never let that happen to me again. I subsequently found another position with IBM and stayed with the company for another 18 months – but then I left on my own terms. I then went to work for a small sales training company (in the town where I lived) and stayed with that company for 8 years until I founded my own sales training and consulting business (in 2002).
Buck Rogers was a senior IBM executive who once said that “if you lost your job it was significant, if you lost your health it was catastrophic, but if you lost your integrity – you lost everything.” I always remembered those words and have tried to always live up to that motto and maintain the highest level of integrity in everything I do.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
In business I had two role models. One was Buck Rogers, who I quoted above and the other was Alston Gardner, CEO of OnTarget, who taught me many things – including how to take excellence to the next level and how to be totally responsive to clients, to continually exceed their expectations and to always perform each task with a heightened focus on quality.
In my personal life, my biggest role model was my father. He was always so kind and compassionate. He was also extremely handy and could accomplish any task around the house. He also achieved a level of success in his craft (he was an electrician) and I can remember him studying night after night at the kitchen table for an exam he had to take to become a certified electrician. He never graduated high school, but he passed that exam!
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
I have had an opportunity to travel to many wonderful international locations including Italy, Europe, the Holy Land, Australia, New Zealand and many places in the US, including Alaska and Hawaii. It’s difficult to single out one location as my favorite – but the four islands we visited in Hawaii would have to be at the top of that list.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
One of my favorite products is my iPAD Pro and my favorite tool is a Channellock adjustable wrench. The reason for this favorite tool is that I can remember my Dad opening a package that he received in the mail, when the product first became available back in the 1950s. My Dad never ordered anything in the mail – but I can remember him gazing at that tool when it first arrived. He was so excited!
My Current Passions?
Two of my favorite passions right now are the symphony and live theatre. My wife and I enjoy both of these venues and we are so lucky to live in a place where we can still frequently enjoy them.