An interview with Ian Koniak, sales coach and a former #1 AE at Salesforce

Ian Koniak is the former #1 Strategic Account Executive in the Enterprise Select Division of Salesforce, a sales coach, and an all-around great guy. In his career, he’s been a top seller at several Fortune 500 companies, exceeded his quota for 42 consecutive months, and trained dozens of teams. We wanted to pick Ian’s brain, so we sat down for an interview. You can connect with Ian on LinkedIn here, or inquire about his services here

First off, how did you get your start in sales? When did you know that it would be your career?

Like many people, I came from a non-traditional background. I didn't want to be a salesperson when I grew up and I didn't really know about the industry. After college, I wanted to be a photojournalist, and I was taking pictures, traveling, and teaching.

At the age of 23, I had to figure out how to make at least $50K to support myself and my girlfriend, with no experience. So I ended up going to a sales career fair, where I found a job selling copiers door-to-door. It was one of the most difficult jobs in the world. I would close one out of four deals and the average deal size was 8K. I had to close one deal a week to hit my quota of 30K a month. But within one year, I was able to support myself and my girlfriend, all because I got paid based on my performance. That's how I got hooked. There was nearly uncapped earning potential, and I was willing to do whatever it took. That was 20 years ago, and I’ve never looked back. 

You were previously the #1 AE at Salesforce. How did you get there in such a hyper competitive environment? What does it take to be the top AE at a company like that?

Before Salesforce, I spent 10 years working at my previous company. I definitely developed a lot of grit and discipline, but I realized I was playing the wrong sport. I had a feeling that SaaS was the future. We had brought in Salesforce to my previous company and I had a lot of success with it. I was running the sales team, and we had about 80 employees and were running a healthy business.

I had to take a big step back and leave my ego at the door to get into SaaS. I decided to be an individual contributor because I knew I wouldn’t get hired as an executive or a VP at Salesforce. So it took me taking a step back and changing Industries to get into SaaS. And after a few rejections, I was brought into the Enterprise division at Salesforce. I had no enterprise or SaaS experience, but my first year, I got Rookie of the Year through hard work and persistence.

I thought I was really amazing, but then I fell pretty hard. I missed my quota three years in a row – year two, three and four, I missed it. I realized it was because I had this inherent belief that activity yields pipeline yields results, because that's what had worked for me in the past. I took that approach to enterprise software and it didn't work.

So in order for me to become the #1 sales rep at Salesforce, I had to completely unlearn everything I was taught and what it took to get there. This involved shifting my focus from quantity to quality. Rather than being in a lot of accounts, I went high, wide, and deep with fewer accounts and really applied the 80/20 Pareto Principle.

The big shift I made when I went from missing quota to becoming #1, was that I focused on fewer accounts and started selling to the C-suite and really having business conversations instead of trying to find low hanging fruit. I was focused on the top accounts and multi-threaded within those accounts. I would meet with the C-suite across sales, service and marketing. I had to map to a problem that they cared most about. Instead of trying to sell products and services, I tried to solve massive problems and help clients achieve their biggest outcome. So once I shifted the focus away from trying to make myself successful to trying to make my client successful, I saw the greatest success.

The qualities that it takes to get to #1:

Patience: you need to care about the success of the people, even more than you care about your own success. I know that sounds counterintuitive to the industry of sales, but if you help customers achieve what they want, you are always going to get what you want.

When you shift your own goals to be the same as their goals, and make that the focus of every conversation, customers will be more receptive. If you don’t do this, they’ll be able to smell your commission breath a mile away.

So I think becoming number one requires shifting your focus away from yourself and putting the focus on your customer. It requires focusing on fewer accounts and being deeper within those accounts and selling to the c-suite.

Do top enterprise sales reps who work for huge companies have any work-life balance? How many hours do you think they’re putting in? 

I used to think hours spent mattered. But it's more about how you spend those hours. To get to #1, it’s going to require you to singularly focus on your goal. So if you're going to make seven-figures in sales and your goal is to get to #1, you're not going to do that by working 20-30 hours a week. Realistically, when I was the top performer, it was probably between 45 and 50 hours a week. Sometimes it involved working some nights and weekends depending on the velocity of the deals.

I had two years in a row where I killed it at sales, but I made a lot of sacrifices in the process. My family, my health, my mental health, and I didn't have that balance in my life.

And so, it took me nearly losing everything to figure out what was most important and realized that, you know, it doesn't matter how well you perform, performance is only one aspect of success, right?

I learned that if you're chasing money, you're going to feel unfulfilled and you're probably going to behave badly in the process and do some things that lack integrity in the pursuit of wealth.

Why did you decided to 'retire' from B2B tech sales and go into coaching/teaching?

I had a near-death experience and I realized that even though I had been so successful in this one area of my life (sales), I was very unfulfilled and if I died at that moment, I would have had a lot of regret where I didn't actually help people and didn't make an impact on the lives of others.

I have a great family, great life, but what was missing when I had that near death experience is that I actually hadn't contributed to the lives of others.

So in 2019, while I was still at Salesforce, I decided to start making videos and sharing content. I didn't even plan to monetize it. I just genuinely wanted to help people. That grew and I started getting coaching clients. So now I had a side hustle going and when I had that side hustle, my balance of work-life shifted.

I focused my time at Salesforce on revenue-generating activities (RGAs). I made sure all my time at Salesforce was spent either advancing pipeline or creating pipeline and everything else was noise. I still hit my quota while I worked on my new side hustle. But I enjoyed coaching so much that I wanted to make it my full-time gig. It’s incredibly rewarding getting to serve and contribute every day, and the reward that I get from helping people improve their lives is so much greater than the reward I felt just by focusing on improving my own life. So it really is the next evolution of me in helping others. And for me, it's a very spiritual thing.

It's about fulfilling my purpose on this planet and using some of the hardships and the failures that I’ve had to help the lives of others and help people from making similar mistakes, such as sacrificing their family and their integrity. I struggled with addiction, I struggled with a lot of things when I was at the peak of my achievement. But now, I don’t face those struggles anymore. So if I can help people succeed the right way and have it all without making these sacrifices, my time on Earth will have been very well spent.

There are an endless amount of sales coaches out there. What makes you different from the others?

I think there's a few things. Number one is life experience. I’ve been in the field for 20 years, not only as an individual contributor, but as a sales leader. 

Second: my track record. I wouldn't get coaching from somebody who hasn't performed at the highest level. I fundamentally believe that if I am going to run a marathon, I want people that have coached marathon runners. So people need to look at the track record of the person.

Another reason is what I coach on. A lot of the sales coaches just coach on tactics and strategies, negotiation, or modeling, or mirroring, or neuro-linguistic programming, or prospecting strategies, and it's all tactics and strategies.

What I coach on is really mindset and habits. That's a key part. Because if someone doesn't have the resilience, if they don't have the qualities that make you a great person, they're not going to be a great salesperson. 

So for me, it's all about the individual and helping bring out their best qualities and helping them develop that discipline, that grit, that customer-centric focus, that caring that's going to make them great at sales.

There's a great quote from Jim Rome:

‘When you work on your job you can make a living, when you work on yourself you can make a fortune’ 

My program is really about self development for salespeople. Not to make a million dollars but to become the person that's capable of making a million dollars.

I am not offering gimmicks. It's a year-long program. A lot of these other programs are 12 weeks or six weeks, and it doesn't work that way. It took me 19 years to get where I am. You need to develop your mindset. You need to develop your habits, and you need to develop your skills.

It's a three-phase approach, and we spend a great amount of time on all three so that the person can really see an impact.

If you apply what you learn, if you go to the coaching sessions, if you follow what I say, you’re going to be a different person at the end of these 12 months. So it's really for people seeking personal transformation versus just trying to learn sales per se. The other thing is it’s Enterprise focused – strategic-selling focused where there's just not a lot of programs out there that hit those Enterprise selling skills.

What's one piece of advice you have for someone who's just starting their career in sales?

My biggest piece of advice would be to embrace the suck. When I started in sales, I was door knocking, I was getting thrown out of buildings by security guards. But I had my ‘why.’ I knew why I was doing it. Connect with your ‘why’ and remember exactly why you're doing it.

I think so many people, especially now, fall into these get-rich-quick schemes that make it seem like there's an easier path than doing the hard work.

But the reality is, if you want a career in sales and you want to master it, you're going to have to start at the bottom where you're doing a lot of phone calls, you're doing a lot of prospecting, where you're doing things without, maybe making the money you want to make.

If you just do the task at hand to the best of your ability and give it your all, the next opportunity will naturally present itself. Focus on the process, not the prize; focus on the process and show up every day and give your all every day and the prize will come.

What should someone do if they want to break into an enterprise AE role with a major tech company? Any tips?

One of the most important things is to make sure you’re at a company that has an enterprise ready product. A lot of times, startups don't necessarily have products that can meet and scale to a large enterprise, or they’re too early, which will make your job unnecessarily difficult.  I would try to start at a company like Salesforce or Oracle, somewhere that has products that can scale to large enterprises.

In terms of working your way into these companies, one of the most underrated ways to get a job is to find people who work at your target company, reach out to them directly, don't just apply online but leverage your network.

In a lot of these large companies, there’s usually a referral program where a full-time employee can refer you and earn a significant referral bonus. 

What is your favorite sales movie?

Baby Boom. It's not a cheesy sales movie like Glengarry Glen Ross or Wolf of Wall Street or anything like that. It's a real story about a founder who had the tenacity to solve a problem that was pretty important to grow her business.

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