How Did A Shy Academic Turn Into A Star Sales Performer? - 6th July 2017

Nicola Robinson was interviewed by Paul Owen, our MD, for his forthcoming book: SECRET SKILL. HIDDEN CAREER. The myths you’re told and the scandal you’re not. 20 successful business leaders who started their careers in sales were interviewed for the book.

Shy academic becomes Sales Director of the Year

Nicky Robinson is responsible for 320 salespeople visiting 6,800 shops a month representing the 150 brands of Coca Cola Enterprises. In 2015, she won the Sales Director of the Year Award at the Women in Sales Awards. Judges believed her passion for the brands and her belief in lifting people with her as she climbs made her the sort of inspirational leader that everyone would like to work with.

Yet if you’d met Nicky in her student days, you’d have found the idea of her winning this award surprising. And so would she!

“I was very much an academic and, knowing me then, you’d have pictured me either entering one of the recognised professions such as law or finance of staying in academia and perhaps doing some teaching too.” So, what happened?

“In my Human Geography and Business Management degree, there were a couple of modules on retail and a specific focus on driving new business. I loved it. One of my professors said that the interest in showed in that world should lead me to look at working in retail. The suggestion changed the course of my life.

Nicky’s first job wasn’t in sales but in a business analyst role at TNS on their graduate training scheme. However, after a year, it was clear to Nicky and to TNS that she should move to one of the big brands and she switched to Kelloggs, still in an analyst’s role. Though not for long!

“I used to help the sales teams with preparation for their negotiations with stores across the UK. I’d give them training on how to get away from just negotiating on price. As I did this, I realised that I had to help them further back in the process first. How they analysed a client’s needs. How they positioned our products. After a while, Kelloggs realised that I’d better join the sales team and put my ideas into practice. I loved it immediately.”

How did a shy academic turn into a star sales performer for one of the world’s biggest brands?

“My academic mind made me realise the importance of research. The best way to research a client’s needs is to ask them questions. Needs analysis is the first key step to being able to genuinely help clients. Added to the fact that I have always been very curious about people, I became very good at making people feel valued (through my interest in them) and then matching them to the right kind of deal. This meant I built very good long-term relationships with them.”

But how did a shy introspective type handle the toughness you need in sales?

“I realised that confidence is not necessarily innate but something you can build. I learnt to be confident. I came out of my comfort zone and realised that other people weren’t so scary after all. I’d operated with very small groups of people when I studied; I was practically in an academic bubble! Coming out of that gave me an immense sense of freedom and changed not just my career but also my life. I learnt to become outgoing.”

With 320 people under her watch, her number one priority these days is to inspire each of them to be the very best they can be. She loves the fact that they’re all so different.

“We have such a diverse group of people with different styles of working. They share a passion for what we do, a desire to do it well and a curiosity that leads them to be interested in their clients. Beyond those 3 elements, they’re all completely different. Are there any other professions with so many versions of success?”

What does Nicky look for in her salespeople? What would she need to see from you if you were interviewed by her?

“The ability to build rapport quickly; an attitude for learning; and strong communication skills. Everything else, we can teach them. It helps to be memorable too. If we can still remember you 24 hours after your interview, that’s a great sign!”

And her tips for anyone thinking of going into sales?

“It gives you the freedom to create your own career and to work in your own style; It’s also one of the most meritocratic careers you could ever have. If you’re ambitious, hard-working and successful, you will progress. Plus, if you ever want to change sector, every business sector wants great salespeople.”

Yet more freedom. Thank goodness for those two modules and that one professor. That set a motion a successful career and a happy, fulfilled life.

The book “SECRET SKILL. HIDDEN CAREER. The myths you’re told and the scandal you’re not” will be available in September 2017 in both paperback and e-book formats.