The former HubSpot chief revenue officer on the formula sales managers must have to get hired

Ladders recently spoke with Mark Roberge, author, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, and former CRO at HubSpot, about what attracted him to sales, his tips for salespeople when it comes to cold calls and emails, and his criteria for hiring sales managers.

What initially attracted you to sales?

It was a bit serendipitous. To be honest with you, I started my career coding on the tech side. That was enjoyable but I found myself more interested in the business aspects of entrepreneurship, so that led me to business school. I was really excited about the revenue side of the business and during business school, I had a hard time figuring out whether marketing or sales was a better fit for me. I liked marketing because it seemed the world was moving in a direction in which marketing was becoming more important and more data-driven. It seemed my abilities as an analytical person and the MBA degree was more tailored to a marketing career.

But I like sales because I enjoyed the face-to-face aspects of that job, especially in B2B where it tended to be a more powerful role. They made more money, so those were the factors. I actually started a company after business school and was a consultant to HubSpot when they were a one-person company and they just happened to put me in a sales role. So that’s basically how I got started and then as that evolved, it became my full-time job and then I scaled the team. It actually ended up being the best of both worlds in the sense that I got to do the practice of selling in a company that was revolutionizing marketing. I got to do both in a way.

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What was your hiring criteria for hiring salespeople and sales managers?

The big aha moment I had there, in the first year I hired 12 people in sales and the eighth one I hired was the number one salesperson at a very large public company–like they were number 1 out of 500 reps. What amazed me is when they joined our firm, even though we were small, they weren’t our best rep. They weren’t terrible, but they weren’t Number one. I realized that the criteria you should be looking for in your sales hires needs to be customized to your business context.

In sales, that usually means ‘What are you selling?’, ‘How complicated is it?’, ‘How long does it take?’ and ‘Who are you selling to?’ Some people naturally do better with CIOs versus CMOs versus consumers. People sell jets, they sell pencils and they sell software. The best salesperson for each one of those is different. It’s really important that people, first off, appreciate that and second off, work to engineer their own formula of what criteria is best for them.

What happened with Hubspot through that iterative process of me studying and measuring it, the top 5 criteria were Coachability, Curiosity was number two, Work Ethic was #3, Intelligence was #4, and #5 was Prior Success.

What technology/innovation/platform has had the most profound effect on sales in the past few years? out in San Francisco. It’s an artificial intelligence software that listens to calls and translates them into who’s talking and what they are talking about. If you read their blog, they’ve been able to statistically prove or disprove anecdotes in selling, like how often does the seller talk versus the buyer in the opening call and does that yield success. Their software has enabled correlating sales behaviors to sales success.

Speaking of AI, how has it directly affected the sales world?

AI is one of the innovations affecting sales. There are a lot of machine learning opportunities. As an example, AI has opportunities in, say, digital marketing. If you think about pay-per-click ads, all you’re doing is rapidly moving through matching different messages and advertising to different audiences to maximize click-through rates and lead generation. Machines can do that faster and that’s an easy application. Once you do that, it’s not hard to take that same principle and attach it to sales emails and sales voicemails in terms of what the optimal message has been and the frequency. People like and Sales Loft have helped to make that rapid experimentation possible.

It will take a while for machines to drive the more complicated part of the sales process like the discovery and demonstration.

Are the worlds of sales and marketing converging? Do you think they should remain in their own distinct fields?

I don’t know if they’re converging, but the need for alignment is critical. Traditionally, those two functions have not necessarily gotten along. In most organizations, they tend to blame each other for missed numbers. And as such, they tend to do their own thing, whether it’s trade show booths and branding on the marketing side or cold calling on the sales side.

But now, with so many buying journeys starting in a domain owned by marketing, like the website and email, and then moving to a domain that’s owned by sales, like Web X or whatever, aligning the two groups is critical. Organizations that figured that out have a competitive advantage and those that don’t are not really well-aligned with where modern buying is going.

In regards to cold calling and cold emailing, what are your key steps that salespeople should take?

First off, people don’t invest in other channels like content marketing to attract people enough. That’s just natural bias, but when you do cold call, there just needs to be a much higher value-add, much more customization, much more personalization. I’ve seen people get really creative with personalized gifting, doing a lot more research on the buyer before they reach out.

What should salespeople avoid?

Anything non-personalized, like the 10 attempts of a very generic email time and time again.

What spurred your career move from heading sales at HubSpot to entrepreneurship and lecturing at Harvard?

One of the attractions of being an entrepreneur is that if you are successful, you can really customize the blueprint of your life — in terms of how much time you spend as a dad, as a husband, working out, hobbies, and other stuff. Fortunately, I came out the other side of HubSpot with that autonomy. But at the same time, I’ve been given the great gift of an experience around revenue generation, which is a great passion of mine, especially in helping entrepreneurs. I have a vision of how much time I want to spend on my profession, and I want to maximize the impact I can have on entrepreneurs from a revenue perspective.

Harvard Business School actually approached me, based on my work on the book, to build a sales curriculum for the school. It was hard to think of a better opportunity or platform to help influence entrepreneurs in terms of a best-in-class revenue strategy.