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A strong, high-performance sales team is critical to a successful business. But what makes a sales team truly great, and what strategies can leaders use to create a team that's highly successful? To address these questions, we're talking to CROs and sales executives about "How To Turn a Good Sales Team into a Great One." As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Warshauer.

Bill Warshauer

Bill Warshauer

Bill is a B2B industry veteran and a respected authority in developing and managing impactful incentive and reward solutions that lead to fruitful, long-lasting relationships. With more than 20 years of experience in sales and incentives—16 at Blackhawk Network—Bill has amassed a deep understanding of how companies can leverage rewards and incentives programs to achieve market differentiation, drive operational efficiency, create heightened engagement and generate revenue. By focusing on the lifetime value of customers—and sales team members’ engagement—Bill has become adept at driving measurable results for his clients and has led award-winning programs that have been honored by top incentives industry organizations and media outlets.

Thank you for doing this with us! To start, can you share a bit of your 'backstory' and what brought you to this specific career path?

Today, I run the North American go-to-market initiatives for Blackhawk Network (BHN®) but my journey started back when I was 12 years old delivering newspapers. I took pride in providing value to my customers—ensuring they could expect the morning paper on their doorstep each day. I’ve carried that service-oriented attitude ever since. 

Through the years, I’ve transitioned to selling tech products and services and my roles and responsibilities have increased. I spent time at Palm helping build out mobile technology offerings and then moved to a company called parago that offered reward solutions (e.g., rebates) to retailers, service providers, manufacturers, and other businesses. 

When parago was acquired by BHN®, I reflected on where I was with my life at the time and seized the opportunity to evolve into a leadership role complete with my own leadership philosophy and style. Since then, I’ve tried to nurture a team mentality, culture, belief system and structure that evolves our thinking to constantly look at what customers and prospects are trying to achieve—and align our products and services to solve for those needs.

This strategy helps us deliver better value to our customers and creates long-term tenure with our company. It is my goal for us to be viewed as partners and strategic, trusted advisors—not as vendors or suppliers—and I try to carry this practice across all I do to help drive our success.

Can you share an interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or takeaway? 

Back when I was selling technology services in partnership with one of the world’s largest IT companies, my team had delivered an incredible, forward-thinking proposal that I knew should have won us more business with the company—and we were told verbally that we had. 

While we were waiting on our contract to go through, another industry pioneer and stellar businessman joined the conversations and ended up securing the business for his own company instead. We had no idea what had happened. We knew the businessman was an intelligent, forward-thinking innovator, but we didn’t know the depths to which he fully understood—and knew how to solve—a problem no one else knew how to address. 

Turns out, the IT company had 14,000 old computers taking up a significant amount of space in the basement of its headquarters, and the company desperately wanted to dispose of them. The businessman offered to solve their problem in return for being considered for the contract. And they accepted. The businessman brought 18 wheelers to the IT company’s headquarters, loaded the computers and disposed of them in an environmentally friendly way. And the IT company loved him for it. 

This story is a constant reminder that you don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s paramount to always look to uncover different angles for how you can help and be of service to your customers and prospects. This lack of preparation can end up hurting you and your business in the long run. 

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Tell us about it!

We actively seek out effective ways to place our products in the sphere of any ecosystem to drive meaningful impact and results—and our new embedded reward solution does exactly that. 

Instead of asking our customers to implement new tools that add to their (likely) increasingly large and expensive tech stacks, we help them leverage applications and tools they already use within their existing software. So for instance, businesses that rely on Microsoft Teams technology can use our tool to reach their employees—including hybrid and remote ones—right where they are within everyday workflows. 

We custom-built and integrated groundbreaking, innovative features within an app in the Teams ecosystem (including Live Meetings, Teams Channels, and 1-1 Chat) so employers can reward and engage their employees digitally from anywhere. Managers are able to distribute digital gift and prepaid cards during live meetings within seconds to individuals and large groups spread across the globe. And people are also able to recognize each other. This cutting-edge technology is helping end users work smarter using their existing resources to nurture their company culture and engagement with employees—a true win-win for both sides. Our research1 found 82% of respondents are interested in leveraging employee recognition platforms like ours that enable them to send and receive recognition to or from anyone at their company.

While it’s one of the most exciting projects we have going on at BHN® today, we’re still in early stages of broadening the global impact of this digital technology. We started out helping marketers and market researchers drive engagement, and have since expanded use cases across different industries and applications. And this technology is just one example of how we help our customers identify opportunities to drive better value from their rewards and incentives programs beyond traditional SPIFs.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?

My father has been my idol ever since I can remember and I’ve had a front seat watching him mature throughout his career. During one particular business trip I was fortunate to take with him, I observed how he interacted with his employees. He worked with them day in and day out and I’d heard all about them before meeting them in person, but to see firsthand how he worked amongst them with respect, care and a genuine nature was inspiring. He inquired about their families, knew what was going on in their lives, understood their needs, and offered a listening ear when they needed one. His actions weren’t superficial and I carry that lesson along with every interaction in my life. 

I genuinely care about my people, their families and the realities in their lives. We know the professional pressures placed on our teams every single day—and they all also have their personal challenges they’re working through. Awareness and empathy are foundational to my leadership approach, and I have my father to thank for that; every day I try to emulate his actions. 

Can you tell us a bit about your experience leading sales teams? How many years of experience do you have, and what size teams?

I’ve been working in leadership roles for the better part of three decades. When I first moved into a sales management position, I didn’t have a large team and did a lot of simultaneous coaching and playing. As my role evolved, the size of my teams has grown; today, I have a team of nearly 100 people spread across the continent. 

As I established a foothold in my leadership roles and the size of my teams increased, I realized the benefits and value of splitting teams into specific disciplines based off their interests and skillsets. This specialized approach helps our business hunt for new opportunities while also curating and mining existing tenured relationships. Traditionally, sales teams farm for opportunities, but that limits you; a mining approach can allow a deeper and wider exploration among your existing client base (which is your second most valuable resource behind your people). It also rounds out your team by establishing an inside sales faction that specializes in micro-transactions with a higher velocity of opportunities.

My experience as a leader has opened my eyes to new ways of approaching client relationships, and I strongly believe that team alignment on vision, goals, value and an understanding of client needs helps the collective team work better together. For instance, an organization the size of BHN® requires a structure that provides a clear line of sight for sales goals. This includes using a common CRM, consistent set of sales disciplines and outreach cadence, shared reporting structures and team dashboarding to provide optimal visibility into our unified sales efforts. It’s critical that we talk to our target markets with one cohesive BHN® voice. No one should have tunnel vision because of company silos. 

As a leader, I have learned that the most successful sales teams don’t just sell one solution or product, and you may do your organization a disservice by not thinking more holistically. Sales aren’t simple; larger businesses have more complicated systems and tool structures, and technology has come a long way. As a former bag-carrying salesman, I didn’t like CRM systems and platforms when they first rolled out for everyday use. I didn’t want to share my information and felt like Big Brother was looking over my shoulder. But that mindset has shifted—for the better—to a more organization-wide viewpoint. All of our company teams need a view of what’s going on (e.g., product, legal, finance, operation teams) and I built that philosophy into my role.

Over the course of the last few years, there’s been a lot of buzz around marketing stacks, but we have also invested in sales stack technology. These tools empower my sales team and managers to be even more effective in what they do because we can analyze our interactions with prospects and existing customers to better understand their needs. Think about Tom Brady after he threw an interception. The first thing he’d do on the sideline is grab a tablet to see what happened so he could learn and grow from it. In my experience, the same mentality is beneficial for sales teams. 

What do you think makes a sales team great? What strengths or characteristics do you try to cultivate?

First and foremost: collaboration and honesty. Our leaders and managers are individuals who don’t hesitate and are encouraged to roll up their sleeves and sit next to team members during the sales process—which is more effective and engaging. When we are willing to identify the challenges and opportunities in front of us as a cohesive unit, we become far more collaborative. We want to battle together and win together; and when we lose, we do so together and will all work to get better. This approach also affords us the opportunity to have a broader geographic reach. There are so many great, talented salespeople out there who all have their own approaches and backgrounds, but if all are armed with same philosophy and set of expectations and solutions, we can be incredibly effective. 

For teams to be truly great, we need to be focused on the problem(s) customers and prospects are trying to solve. You can’t just throw pasta against a wall and hope it’ll stick, just like you can’t throw your solutions at a prospect or customer and hope they’ll need it. We discuss which business challenges are front-and-center, the impact of those challenges and ways by which these have been addressed in the past. Examining our own solutions to determine our ability to impact those challenges is where we shine, and I consistently challenge my team to explore our customers’ operating realities through the customers’ lens to help us get a clear view of how to help. 

The best teams understand that getting to the “no” is just as important as getting to the “yes.” Too often, sales cycles are extended because we get “happy sales ears.” One good phone call or meeting, and we become overly optimistic that the relationship is progressing. But I challenge my team to ask the hard questions so we can get to a yes or no more efficiently. Even if the answer is no, we can move on and free up resources for ourselves and companies with which we’re trying to do business. We don’t try to force our solutions into an environment that isn’t a fit, and our customers and prospects appreciate that. 

Timing is also critical. This thought process is now outdated: “…Well, my contact is on vacation, so I won’t bug them on Monday and will give them a few days to get back and settled.” Don’t sit back. Call your contact Monday, not Wednesday. Welcome them back, check in, and keep things moving at today’s pace. It will have a direct correlation to sales success. 

I also encourage my team to feel comfortable not going about sales activities on their own. Vertically integrated partners have helped us amplify what we were trying to do for years and we will continue nurturing opportunities by leveraging channel partners to broaden our reach.

As with any department, there can be a lot of different strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. How do you manage such diversity on an individual basis? Is there such a thing as a blanket motivator?

BHN® specializes in understanding how rewards and incentives motivate people in a variety of situations on a global scale. It’s one of our core offerings. We counsel our partners on how critical it is to know, really know, our people and what drives and motivates them as individuals—not just professionally—and appreciate the diverse backgrounds, preferences and styles they all bring.

Know what they are focused on personally, how they are trying to better themselves, their family, and their involvement in their community. The more we learn about our team, the better. In some cases, even your team’s virtual meetings can provide you with insights since they’ve become more personal as a result of COVID. You’re seeing into each other’s homes and coming together on a more personal level compared to professional events, customer meetings or sales huddles—and you’re likely doing it more frequently. 

While most salespeople are traditionally motivated by two things—recognition and money—one size doesn’t fit all and businesses need to understand how delivery method, timing, reward type, reward presentation, reward value and so forth must be personalized and tailored for each person. It’s imperative that you know which motivators work best for your people; our research found that 75% of respondents whose employers offer recognition and reward programs reported that these programs don’t actually recognize people the way that they prefer. 

For instance, some members of my team prefer public, peer-to-peer recognition while others prefer private one-on-one recognition from a supervisor. Some prefer to receive gift cards for spot rewards or work anniversaries while others would rather have an additional day off. This spectrum of preferences isn’t unique to our company and the onus is on supervisors and management to find out your team’s most preferred and effective motivators. 

You may lose good people if you don’t motivate them properly and acknowledge their individuality. Research1 we conducted found that among the nearly 80% of people who aren’t happy at their current jobs, nearly half would seek out new employment with an employer that better incentivizes and rewards them. 

Incentive programs have to be structured the right way. It’s not just enough to have fair, competitive market compensation and benefits plans. Doing so certainly attracts great talent, but companies need to engage and keep the people that walk through the doors and make companies run and perform. 

What strategies have you tried to increase motivation, engagement, and productivity? We want to hear it all!

At BHN®, we have a robust internal recognition program that enables everyone at the company to acknowledge and engage with each other—and our feedback on this program has shown our people find it to be an excellent motivator. While the traditional options are in place where supervisors can recognize their teams, people are also encouraged to recognize their peers; our research1 found that nearly 80% of respondents feel it’s important to recognize others for their positive contributions at work. We hear all the time how giving these peer-to-peer accolades provides our team members with a sense of personal satisfaction and enjoyment.  

We also offer opportunities for employees to step away from work and recharge. One of our unique initiatives is our annual holiday break. Our founder realized a decade ago that even though the holiday season is the most important time of the year for our company, the months of hard work leading up to it can be exhausting and stressful. To motivate and engage our employees, we give them a much-needed and well-deserved break—shutting down during the last week of the calendar year. We also started a recurring “Hawk Appreciation Day” tradition where the entire company is given a random day off with almost no notice (people love the surprise) and offer our team two days off each year to volunteer on company time.

In addition to what we have in place as a company, I have my own approach as a leader. Although I don’t consider myself extraordinarily creative, I actively try to show and express authentic appreciation presented in a personal way that comes from the heart. When I have team members who have anniversaries or are traveling with their families, I’m the guy who will thank them and send champagne or flowers. On a normal day at the office, I’ll send a Teams message to the people I work with thanking them for their contributions. My team gives me feedback that these day-to-day, frequent check-ins and methods work—telling me I’m moving in the right direction—but I’m always looking for and open to building out my own style based on that feedback.

Of all the strategies you've tried, which did you find to be most effective? Did it have a direct correlation to sales? 

After years of thoughtfully structuring our incentive, rewards and recognition programs—and by following the same advice we give to our partners and prospects—we’ve found that our programs and company-wide engagement strategies are powerful and keep getting better. We regularly evaluate our performances, ROI and employee feedback to ensure these programs don’t become stagnant. And by incorporating feedback to continually evolve our programs for maximum effectiveness, we have seen a direct correlation with shortened sales cycles and sales wins as an outcome.  

Can you tell us about a time that your sales team outperformed their targets? How high over did they go, and what was that like for everyone? 

Our new business development team had lofty goals in 2021. We knew our goals were challenging but we were confident in what we could accomplish—and there were those that were skeptical we would knock it out of the park. But we did. 

To cast out a wider net for new customers and partners, we properly sized our existing vertical marketing plan, made note of where BHN® was and wasn’t in-market, and found opportunities for other applications for our products. In doing so, we identified a new market segment reaching far beyond our standard use cases. And it happened at the right place and the right time—driving a significant impact for our business, existing clients and new partners. 

We attacked the new market with our Payments for Good program, which helps nonprofits, government agencies, private businesses and other organizations provide aid and disbursements simply, quickly and economically via prepaid cards as opposed to traditional methods like cash or checks. There are many benefits to leveraging prepaid options that organizations weren’t aware of, and our solutions helped many streamline resources, provide better end user experiences, increase delivery speed and broaden the methods by which cardholders could use their funds.

All of the sudden, we were engaging with hundreds of state agencies, nonprofits, local municipalities and other organizations when we had never put our products in those environments before. Next thing you know, we went from $0 revenue with those organizations to $295M after one year; after another year, revenue had exploded to $3B.

We owe this success to our collaboration, creativity and dogged pursuit of out-of-the-box solutions for our customers’ problems.  We challenged the norm and weren’t comfortable within our current markets and applications. We thought of new tactics, found new people to get in touch with, took in outsiders’ views and perspectives and those efforts paid off. 

Great things often take time. What do you think is a realistic timeline to take a sales team from good to great? 

It’s key to start with a good team; from there, you can turn it into a great one. Sales teams and managers need to honestly ask themselves if they have “good” pieces in place that can be turned into great. Often, good salespeople want to get better and have a hunger and desire to evolve and grow. Once you have these types of people in place and provide them with the right support and technology, you can more effectively explore opportunities for your business and make progress quickly—in months, not years. 

Based on your experience and success, what are the five strategies that will help turn a good sales team into a great one?

1 . Clearly understand what the overarching goals and objectives are for the company for which you’re selling. For example, what are you trying to deliver to market on behalf of your customers at a holistic level? And how do your products, solutions, use cases and applications fit their needs? You have to be well-trained and articulate in everything you do, and know your values and goals at the highest level to understand how you and your team factor in and can contribute. Our Payments for Good example fits perfectly here; we understood a new market and knew how to solve for significant pain points; this carefully constructed holistic approach was incredibly successful.

2 . Understand your customers’ operating realities as quickly and thoroughly as possible. What are the business challenges, goals, objectives, strategies, issues your customers and prospects are trying to solve for? 

3 . Be trained effectively and be proficient in leveraging sales stack technologies. No matter your role as the largest enterprise solution seller or someone who’s running transactional sales, there are benefits from those technologies that you should absolutely include as a part of your overall sales strategy. Think of Tom Brady and the tablet example I mentioned earlier—technology can absolutely help you improve and is at your fingertips.

4 . Collaborate, learn, and recognize. Collaboration with peers, leaders and cross-functional teams is critically important. Constantly asking and rating yourself similar to how athletes watch game film to learn about how you can be better and identify what you can put into practice or motion for better outcomes. Then recognize your own accomplishments, those enabling those accomplishments, and your customers and the value and impact they’re having on you personally and professionally.

5 . Knowing how your customers view you. Supplier? Vendor? Partner? You should always strive for partnership on that scale as the best measure of success. And it’s not hard to find out how your customers feel. I remember shortly after coming to this realization that by simply asking my customers, I easily learned where we fit into their business model and could adjust my outreach and sales tactics accordingly for more engaged, longer-term relationships

Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the most people, what would that be?

This sounds cheesy, but I’d like to inspire “The Genuine Movement” where everyone is real, raw and honest (which is inherently difficult to do). For instance, we ask our colleagues, “How are you?” And more times than not, the answer is a simple “good” or “fine.” But is that how they really are? We’re all facing challenges and have our own baggage, and if we were all more genuine we could be more supportive and impactful to each other’s lives, communities, families and ourselves.

How can our readers further follow your work online? 

You can follow and connect with me on LinkedIn.

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Phil Gray
By Phil Gray

Philip Gray is the COO of Black and White Zebra and Founding Editor of The RevOps Team. A business renaissance man with his hands in many departmental pies, he is an advocate of centralized data management, holistic planning, and process automation. It's this love for data and all things revenue operations landed him the role as resident big brain for The RevOps Team.

With 10+ years of experience in leadership and operations in industries that include biotechnology, healthcare, logistics, and SaaS, he applies a considerable broad scope of experience in business that lets him see the big picture. An unapologetic buzzword apologist, you can often find him double clicking, drilling down, and unpacking all the things.