December 6, 2021

How Tom Carter at Kaiser Permanente Empowers Sales to Have Strategic Conversations | Building Modern Sellers Blog Series

Meet Tom Carter, National Vice President, Business Marketing at Kaiser Permanente. In this interview, Tom shares how the partnership between marketing and sales made all the difference in rolling out a new digital sales strategy. 

“If you continue to focus on just telling your company story, it won’t work,” Tom said. “What works is finding out how your story can become a part of theirs, so they see you in their solution and can imagine what it would be like having you as a business partner.”

Tell us about your career and your current role as National Vice President, Business Marketing at Kaiser Permanente.

I’ve worked myself into a marketing job, but 80% of my career has been in sales, account management, and creating marketing programming and other services to support sales teams. 

My passion is around creating customer value—and I saw an opportunity to do this at Kaiser Permanente. 

My job is to make sure that we’re creating as much market awareness on the “upper funnel work” so that it gets down into the pipeline for sales to take it from there. We work with brokers, consultants, and lots of channels to have them prefer a Kaiser Permanente model. 

How do you think about sales and marketing today? 

Gartner and all the other big research giants out there say more than 60% of the research customers are doing is all digital before they even want to be contacted by a salesperson.  

The role of a salesperson pre-COVID was already leaning this way: customers don’t want to be sold anything. They want to spend time researching on their own, especially now that everybody’s at home. Then, if something catches their eye, they are ready to engage in the sales process whether that’s through an advisor or directly.

At Kaiser Permanente, we had the opportunity to create a digital strategy with techniques that allowed our teams to push content out and get B2B customers to engage by running B2B digital campaigns (something we’ve never done before) utilizing our sales teams. 

Kaiser Permanente customer quote 1

What are the ways you are thinking about digitizing the sales process? 

The first thing is to connect the processes between B2B sales and marketing. Before, marketing would push out core messaging and measure clicks, downloads, maybe other engagement metrics—but nothing linking to B2B sales. 

When I stepped into this role, we asked, “What impact is our market messaging making, and how is it leading to more sales?” 

This first part was establishing the connection between the digital marketing investment we were making and the outcome of our sales engagement work. The second part was making sure the salespeople are more invested in how to have a strategic conversation since we’ve learned that no one has time to be pitched anything anymore

A lot of the sales training over the decades has been very feature-benefit-oriented. Now it has to be about creating customer insights through unique storytelling—and sharing with customers something they didn’t know about their business. Most of our investment has gone toward the competency of sales engagement with customers: uncovering their business problems, creating unique insights, and surrounding them with thought leadership opportunities. 

For example, mental health has become a real hotspot for many employers due to the pandemic. We know a lot about mental health and how to communicate this to employers: the drivers, adequate treatment, delivering care, and so on. When our sales team engages with a customer, they can help them think about new ways of approaching the problem and give guidance

How do you set up a sales enablement organization for success in today’s digital world? 

I would invest a lot in coaching rather than in more training. 

Too much emphasis has been put on individual training and never enough on coaching of sales teams. At Kaiser Permanente, we have Sales Effectiveness Consultants that are assigned to every market. 

We also have a learning institution that couples with the Sales Engagement teams to deliver effective adult learning techniques so we aren’t just training all the time. As an example, we have an 80/20 rule. It says management should spend most of their effort on coaching a salesperson through the evidence-based sales engagement process instead of training everybody on how to have a “strategic conversation.” 

With 60% of customers now doing their own “digital research,” sales effectiveness has to include how to create a connection with a customer’s business challenges and “their” business solution.   

Can you talk to us a bit more about how tech supports your move into a hybrid selling environment?

First, it’s never just about serving up new technology. For us, it was about embedding a sales process into the technology we chose to use. If you take all the technology away from an outstanding salesperson, you still have an outstanding salesperson.

For me, it’s how technique meets technology. It’s knowing your customer, creating those commercial insights, and leading them to your solution as opposed to pitching your solution to a customer.

One of the things we heard from the team as we were testing technology was, “Why am I Googling the information I need every time I want to engage with a customer? Don’t make me do all the research about their business problems and industry.” 

We’ve invested in a set of tools that will successfully host the information our sales team needs to draw to the point of making the sale. 

We already had Salesforce as our CRM, and then Showpad came along. Showpad is the platform we’re using to serve up the most relevant content. We’ve built a strategic conversation framework and guide in the tool. We set up over 20 different industry profiles with specific conversation tracks. As they click through Showpad, our sellers are served open-ended questions they should be using to engage with their customers, data points to create the commercial insights, downloadable assets, content that can be pushed out through Shared Spaces, and more.

When I asked a sales manager how this framework and the tools we implemented through Salesforce and Showpad have helped him, his response was unequivocal: “It’s hours per prospect you’re saving me. I just go in and pick right up on the questions or techniques I need as opposed to Googling or researching on my own, which takes hours per account.”

What advice do you have for individuals working on marketing and sales teams? 

If you continue to focus on just telling your company story, it won’t be as impactful. I’ve had plenty of team members come to us and say we have to tell our story better. My response is, “No, we have to help make our story, our customer’s story.” 

People aren’t just interested in what Kaiser Permanente’s story is; every company can tell a good story. What works instead is finding out how our story can become a part of theirs, so they see us in their business solution and imagine what it would be like to have us as a trusted advisor.  

Getting good at this requires listening not only to your customers, but to your sales teams as well. Finding out what your customers are struggling with and how your sales teams are meeting those needs will help you focus on what’s most important in creating customer value.