Zero to Won: Beating Internal Biases with Martin Duhamel (Front)
In this episode, we grab coffee with Martin Duhamel (Head of Sales EMEA at Front) and talk about defeating internal biases and boosting creativity in sales. Martin combines experience from SaaS and consulting. He joined Front 2 years ago, opening the EMEA HQ and hiring a team of 20. In our discussion, he opens his playbook into how to start with customer needs before moving to the solution, what it means to sell software for multiple use cases, and how to go beyond the script to address each customer on their own terms.
- YC’s culture-add: 0:45 – 4:30
- Creativity in sales: 4:30 – 8:10
- The 5 “why’s”: 8:10 – 9:50
- Need-based selling: 9:50 – 11:20
- Selling to SMBs AND the enterprise: 11:20 – 16:00
- The dissertation framework: 16:00 – 20:30
- Encouraging new ideas: 20:30 – 23:59
3 Key Takeaways
#1 Going beyond internal biases
If you’ve been doing things a certain way for 90% of your deals, it’s easy to stick to the playbook and replicate it. You begin internalizing your methods, your pitch, and even ASP. And forget to think differently about what could be done. While repetition of healthy behaviours is foundational for a high performing sales team, addressing each context as unique can unlock new opportunities. Whether it’s thinking about how to accelerate the timeline on a particular deal or how to demonstrate value to a particular customer, Martin suggests going deep on your one-on-ones to challenge your team to think creatively about what could be done.
#2 Asking why (5 times)
A good salesperson is someone that’s great at uncovering pain points. And to do so, you need to uncover the root cause. A powerful tool to do so is asking “why?” Five times. Because no two answers will be the same, the “Five whys” will help to find the uniqueness of each situation. It’s also a great way to address feature requests. Rather than taking them at face value, understanding where the pain point stems from will allow you to take a step back, deconstruct the need, and build a new workflow that could bring value to that particular use case.
#3 Spreading Growth Mindset
Happiness at work isn’t just what the company can do for you. It’s also about what you can do for the company, while fulfilling your career and ambitions. Opportunities to build your skills are everywhere in a high growth environment. Finding them requires sales leaders to stay close to their team: Martin asks each of them every quarter what challenges they’d like to face next, and what they consider to be the most promising business opportunity not currently addressed. He then uses these insights into his team members’ drivers to plan for the workload for the next quarter as well as each individual’s progression.
Full transcript of our chat with Martin Duhamel:
Let’s jump right in and talk about the sales culture at Front. As a company Front has quite a distinct identity, and I was curious as to how that manifests itself – that uniqueness – in your sales team.
Very good question. I think one of the main mistakes of Front’s company culture that we definitely find in our sales organization is what we call “scrappiness”. Front has a strong culture oriented towards connection and pragmatic bias. It needs to get things done, and this is how we scaled over the past five years. Another trait that is more unique, I would say, to our sales organization and that’s very related to our business model is customer centricity. Think of a new business, for a new business team that’s responsible for bringing in new business. Typically, in a sales organization, you would have people very incentivized on making deals happen as much as possible and not necessarily thinking about the implications for that for the customers and the way it will play out when they’ll start using the product and get onboarded.
At Front, given approximately 50% of our growth comes from our existing pool of customers, the way they use the product, they add users, they add new features. Everyone across the funnel from SDRs, Inbound SDRs, Account Executives, to Customer Support Representatives and Customer Success Managers is really incentivized about thinking how this customer can benefit from the solution from day one and then thoughtfully scale the way they use our platform.
If you think about Front’s story for a minute, when did this start being a thing? When did you start thinking in terms of scrappiness and in terms of long-term revenue goals with each customer?
I joined Front two years ago in San Francisco, so I don’t want to answer the question for the three years before when I wasn’t there. But my guess is that our founders, Mathilde and Laurent, were very scrappy from the beginning. The first thing that Mathilde told me when I joined Front in San Francisco on day one is, “Do things that don’t scale,” and that’s a very strong motto in everything we do. Same way with our product, for example. You would never invest in another complex feature in a scalable process if you feel like you can solve 80% of the problem right now with 50% less effort. We solve only for what becomes a huge pain point, and we wait for things to be huge pain point before addressing them That allows us to be super agile and scale thoughtfully while keeping the freedom to go where the market wants us to be instead of having super longterm strategic plans in terms of product or the sales roadmaps.
That’s really, I think, that was a very impactful moment in the company’s trajectory. That’s when they decided to stay in the U.S. and to scale from there to bring the very first engineers and their families that were located in Paris. It was a bold, ambitious, but successful bet down the road.
And that culture still lives on today, so how do you transmit that to new sales people on the team at Front, and how is this culture embodied in your day to day as a salesperson in Front?
I would say that the first thing is company-wide, and that’s really apart from Front’s DNA no matter if you work in Paris or in San Francisco, no matter the team you’re in. There is this strong sense of accountability. You have to get things done, and everyone is responsible for bringing something to the table. That’s something that I call personally, in the way I work with my teams, with my boss, with my colleagues, a sense of ownership. You can really trust people and rely on them. They’ll do what it takes, and they’ll do whatever they can to bring what they want and what they’re committed to bring to the table.
Then, I think that scrappiness comes down to creativity. A lot of people in the sales industry, no matter the company they work for, have internal biases, what I call anchor biases. If you’ve been doing things this way for 90% of your deals, it’s very easy to stick to that and think about this playbook that you could always replicate. Something I care about every week in my one-on-ones and the meetings with the team is how to think differently about what could be done, how to make sure that we can accelerate this deal, this timeline in a thoughtful way by thinking about something you’ve never done.
Sales is about methodology, playbooks, repetition of healthy behaviors. I’m all for that, but that shouldn’t prevent you from bringing the best of your creativity and of your brains every day in what you do, and we are very fortunate at Front to have brilliant teams of committed people with strong experience and many different teams, and I want to benefit from them by encouraging and even challenging people every day to think creatively about what they could do.
A very clear example is every SaaS company has a typical ASP (average selling price). What that means is that, you are used as an account executive to close some deals at a given amount. People have a tendency to internalize that. For disclaimer, I come from a marketing background, so I am passionate about psychology, too. If an account executive has internalized what is a normal large deal or a small deal, in his daily life, the minute that a customer with a lot at stake with many users or something is not this account executive will not be accustomed to, will mention a scale that is 10 times, 20 times, larger than what we typically do, the account executive will show to the customer size potentially of, he would be not necessarily afraid but they could become skeptical, or they could become over-excited, they could become unresponsive because they wouldn’t know what to do with that opportunity. So, I’m really coaching people and addressing each context as unique as it is and leverage the team that we have in Paris, in San Francisco as it’s going to come up with unique solutions we need to make such a deal happen and let the customer know that we have a way to help them. What matters is really understanding precisely what they want, what they need, what their pain points are. And, then, forget about your internal biases to find out the best solution and not replicate some stuff that would not be relevant for that particular case.
Take us into that coaching session: what do you explain to your sales reps who are finding difficulty in breaking the playbook and going into unknown territory?
I think I’m not teaching anyone anything by saying that a good salesperson is someone that’s great at uncovering pain points. In the SaaS industry, that’s critical. And there comes, not my marketing background but my former life as a consultant. It’s all about understanding the root cause, and a tool that I use that is super useful is “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” Five times.
Not only in coaching the team, when we’re discussing deals, but every interaction I have internally, everything that you do with a colleague, force yourself to try to understand why people are asking that or asking themselves this question or struggling with that or are coming up with different ideas. And when you apply that constantly in your activities and your one-on-ones, people start to think in this scientific, hypothesis-driven way. That’s something that’s really important, the five “Why’s.” There’s one thing I would like to convey as a very simple message to get to the bottom of things, it’s this five “Why’s” rule.
What’s great about the five “Why’s,” obviously, is that you’re never going to get the same answer twice presumably?
And that relates to what we discussed a few moments ago about the uniqueness of each situation. If you don’t have that, you may not find the uniqueness in that situation.
So, what you end up with is, basically, building a solution together with your client before you even get to showing the product and getting into an actual sale.
And that also allows you to avoid the trap that we typically find in the software industry which is customers and prospects who have very legitimate pain points often come up with feature requests. If you process that feature request as a given, for example, someone says, “I need this particular feature that they used to have in my ticketing system, which is a category of software that we often complete with that form. We are not a ticketing system on purpose. We do what they do, but we provide much more in terms of collaboration and ability to integrate everyone internally.
So, the way to address such a question is to try to step back, ask the prospect why do they need that feature and get to the bottom of the need, and then constructively build a new workflow, a new process that we could definitely match probably in a better way. But for that you need to take the time to consider the feature, get back to need, and then build the software. And that takes time, and that necessitates relationship building, amazing discovery skills, and creative thinking, and solution-driven mindset.
When you add all these tiny parts that make Front a unique sales organization, if you look at the other side, what makes it special as a customer when you’re going through that process? How is their experience unique and different when they’re interacting with sales from a Front versus a ticketing system or any other tool for that matter.
Is your question about the product or the experience you get as a customer when you’re interacting with our sales organization?
I would say both because at some point the decision-making process is going to take both of those into account, I suspect.
I think what’s really unique about our product is that we are not trying to fit customers into the technical and functional constraints of our product. We work the opposite way. Front is a very flexible, integrated platform where you can put all your colleagues, communication channels, integrations. We really try to first understand, “How do our customers, our prospects, work as a business? What do they do? Why? What’s working? What’s not?” And then we can build this unique value proposition that we feel fit their needs based on the flexibility of our product.
The idea to simplify the way people work and communicate by having them access everything within one simple platform is a very popular trend right now in SaaS, and we believe that, for that, we are in the best position to address it because everyone in the world, every knowledge worker, starts their day by opening their email client and ends their day by processing their last few emails.
So, that’s why this vision of bringing everything and everyone in the same place as far as the most innovative value proposition that we have to offer. From a sales perspective, given the network effect that goes with social platforms, the more colleagues you have in it, the more fun you will have. Think of Facebook. If I’m on Facebook, on my own, I can maybe create and manage a private calendar. One unit of value. If you join me on Facebook, Jon, we would be able to both manage our calendars, but also send each other messages. So, for one to two people, we each get two units of value per individual so we have an exponential effect. One to four units of value.
Front works the same way. So, if you know that by joining Front you benefit personally from having colleagues join you and your colleagues understand why. What’s the need for them to join you? Then the only thing you need to take care of as a sales organization is understanding the customer context. What is their digital maturity? How do they work internally? What are the strongest pain points to start with? And then, as an account executive, you would need to draw basically the ideal customer cycle you would like them to take on at your side to grow successfully and benefit from Front.
And that could mean in very digital savvy and small organizations rolling it out everyone at once. But that would also mean that in large organizations with much more complex decision processes or change management issues, to thoughtfully first do a proof of concept, make sure that people realize the value of the product in the most pressing teams that have urgent needs, and then thoughtfully land and expand in other teams. This ability as a salesperson to come up with this plan – and craft what are we going to bring to that customer over the course of time – is something that’s quite unique at Front. It’s something we’re super proud of. For the customer, it’s the assurance to have people that are really caring about how to make it a success for you.
We know that as a SaaS business if adoption is not there from day one, people won’t stick with us. And I would add on top of that, the last, very important thing that our CEO, that our investors, as a company, and in our sales organization, we all look at very carefully is usage. And that relates to adoption and change management. At Front, we are very proud to have a business where usage KPIs – that are unique to each product in the SaaS industry, think of it as number of comments, emails per individual for example for Front – are going faster than our revenue. And when a SaaS product you have usage growing faster than revenue that means two things. First of all, probably something that matters. Second, you have super healthy foundation for growth. And that’s something we take a lot of pride in. That’s not on me. We would have to say that to our engineers that have built such an amazing product, but I’m super glad to work in such a company.
You guys are obviously doing something very right and getting people excited about email. I mean, that’s something cool.
Email is not dead. We’ve been saying it for the past 10 years and the number of emails per individual keeps on growing.
Just to switch onto the subject of videos, specifically, video for sales. How do you guys use video for sales at Front? Is it part of your strategy, and is it part of your typical sales cycle?
It is very important to understand early on what people want and then show them how you can solve that. Typically we would have video conferences with very popular tools available on the market where we are showing how to solve that problem. And that for me relates to what we call a demo, the very well-know exercise that every sales person does on a daily basis. And a demo is often seen as a way to showcase the different capabilities of our product.
When I tell the team what we work on altogether is, “How do I tell a story?” Back again to what we discussed before. You have to understand the needs and then explain to the customer, “Okay, you have pain points A, B, C. Let me explain to you how we solve that.” And then each time, during the demo, like A, A1, A2, A3. “That’s how we solve that. B., that’s how we solve that.” And make sure that each stage of the process you iterate. Okay, so that was a “Do you feel like that could help you solve it? Okay, then let’s move onto B.”
It’s like, in French, we have this exercise called “dissertation”. It’s basically, since we are in Kindergarden until we graduate, we are trained in writing very logical, three-part essays. You are doing a story with an introduction. First part, and you synthesize the first part. The second part. And third part. Why is that? Is because when people discover a new tool, they’re completely lost. They don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s super tough for the brain to identify yourself with a brand new software. So, we are telling them a story that relates to what they told you a few minutes ago. Then they work through it super easily and they relate to what you’re trying to offer them.
It’s interesting that you rely on that kind of classic French education background. But, obviously…
That’s a very personal metaphor…
Also blend, let’s say, more of the American side from, obviously, the time you spent there with some more European sales techniques. How do you, personally, maybe not for the entire company, but which elements of both do you pick from?
A very sensitive and tough question. Obviously, it’s fascinating to work in the local EMEA office of an American company founded by French founders. Things are constantly traveling back and forth. I would say that, by DNA, Front is very, very American. It was founded in France, but we quickly scaled from the U.S. and, most of all, the work force is American. That has a lot of strength. First of all, obviously, funding, a whole market with a huge potential which allowed us to scale as fast as we did. And then when it comes to working on a daily basis in a sales organization, there is a strong bias towards action, results, optimism, let’s leverage also the tooling to use, let’s invest in the resources we need to be successful.
I was trained, actually, in sales in a French startup three years ago before relocating for Front in the U.S., and what I really loved also about the French way, I think, to address problems. But, once again, this is only based on my humble experience in two SaaS startups is the reason, so this scientific approach, this frugality, I think, that forces us to reflect with the limited resources we have which is fully from an American company, as you’re growing, allocation of resources and time is a constant struggle, with the limited resources I have, where can I have the most impact? How do I analyze this problem? How do I understand this particular request? And, then, deconstruct it and get to the root cause? That’s a scientific mindset that I think is very valued in the French culture, and not to tell you that French are better at that and Americans are better at that would be a complete lie because people are unique and all come with their strengths and weaknesses.
That’s a great segway, also, into, one of Front’s values which really emphasizes in each member of the team – bring your unique skills, bring your unique mindset to the table – How does that fit in, just to tie things back to your initial discussion about the sales team at Front? Do you feel like you constructed a team that’s made of unique and distinct individuals and that they all bring something of themselves to the table?
You would have to ask them. But that’s the way, I think that’s right to challenge myself on a daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis: the way we work with the team. Typically, what that means is we went from 0 people to a bit more than 20 people in Paris in one year. So, you imagine that there’s a lot to be done, and we can’t do everything at the same time. But what I do on a quarterly basis with my team, for example, is ask them, like, “What is the next challenge we’d like to face? What is the most promising business opportunity we are not yet fully addressing or not at all, but we think it would be interesting. Well, do we want to prove there could be value in investing time and resources on it?”
And, then, what we do is leveraging their skills, their experience, their current aspirations. We like those kinds of challenges. Basically, you have a job, a target. You know what to do and you are constantly improving at it. But let’s start a few hours a week on something a bit different that could help us uncover new business opportunities. So, it could be trying to figure out channel partnership opportunities in a very young and growing business community. It could be about improving the sales marketing and partnerships and really invest totally in the verticals we know we’re good at.
And something that I really like in the team I have the pleasure to work with is that each of them comes with their own set of experiences, skills, and ambitions. And then it becomes a very open conversation about, “Where do you think you can help the business?” In an ideal world, you want people to come up with those ideas. It’s not you having ten ideas you want to staff the team with. You really want to foster a culture where people think about, “What can I do for the company?” At Front it’s something that we really care about.
I’m sure you’ve read about it, Mathilde (Collin, CEO of Front) is super vocal about it: happiness at work. Happiness at work is not only what the company can do for you. Obviously, we have amazing officers, amazing teammates, amazing culture, and I’m grateful to work here. But the thing I find the most interesting about Front is that the idea of being is, “So, what can I bring to fulfil my destiny or at least to fulfil my career at Front on a daily basis?” And that’s something we strongly encourage. We even, for example, give HR trainings about this growth mindset, how to ensure that people know what it is, know what it takes, and are encouraged to get to that state of mind.
Check out the full video on Youtube. For more Zero to Won, visit bonjour.io/show.