213: Tech Adoption & the Future of Sales | with Charles Laughlin

Is there a future that doesn’t require salespeople?

Charles Laughlin, producer and host of the Above the Cloud Podcast at the Local Search Association, joins us to discuss the implications of tech adoption around the globe. Charles also delivers his insights into what the future might look like for salespeople.


George: It’s the Conquer Local Podcast on road. We’re in Dubrovnik Croatia for a few episodes. Great episode coming up. We’ve got Charles Laughlin on the program. He hosts the Above the Cloud Podcast, he works with the LSA, he works with SIINDA, he works with ALSMA in Asia. He’s launching an organization in Africa called Big Five. Charlie is one of the best speakers that I’ve seen in a convention. He brings it on stage. We’re gonna talk about some of his learnings around conventions. How you could do them a little bit better, how you can be a better presenter, and then we’re gonna talk about Tech Adoption and what he is seeing. He’s done a bunch of research around tech adoption with small businesses and he’s gonna give us some insights on what the future for salespeople might look like. It’s an on the road edition of the Conquer Local Podcast, beautiful Dubrovnik Croatia, Game of Thrones city, and we have Charles Laughlin coming up next.

The Above the Cloud Podcast

George: Well, I’m really excited to take a few minutes here in beautiful Dubrovnik, Croatia to spend some time with my good friend Charles Laughlin. We’re gonna dig into some interesting stuff, maybe some controversial things. You’ve got this great podcast, and I’ve been listening to it intently around tech adoption. What was your thinking of creating that podcast? And why is tech adoption something that we should be thinking about?

Charles: Okay, well, thanks for having me first. I’ve been waiting for this invitation, George. It’s taken you long enough.

George: I was waiting to come to Croatia to do the interview. We could have done it in Chicago a couple weeks ago but no, let’s do it here in Croatia.

Charles: Much more fun to do in Croatia. So anyway, the idea behind the podcast is, I think the tagline I use is “through the voices of entrepreneurs”. In other words, find people who are building software for small businesses and ask them how it’s done. Whether it’s how to find the product market fit, how to build the sales model that works, you know, how to become a challenger brand. These are all issues we get into with the guests that we’ve had. And the idea is, you know, let’s talk to the people who are pushing that plow and understand, you know, how it gets done and find out what mistakes they’ve made. And I try to keep every podcast under 30 minutes and I try to keep the conversation all about solving an issue.

So, one example we talked to Josh from Broadly, you know, great guy. And we talked about the art of the demo and how he has fine tuned his sales organization to close inside sales quickly because if he doesn’t, his business model blows up because his costs go through the roof. So, you have to really master the art of a demo and how to in 15 to 30 minutes explain that product and if not closed, you know, move it very close to close. So, those are the kinds of conversations we have.

Conference Skills

George: What’s interesting, you bring that up and you’ve probably done 30 demos in the last 24 hours. And, you know, that’s a very important piece especially in a conference environment like this. I know you go to a lot of conferences and you do a lot of work with number of organizations. Tell me, do you think that people need to hone their conference skills a little bit better? I’m noticing in this event that we’re at here, the SIINDA event here in Dubrovnik Croatia, there are some groups that are better than others at getting engagement.

Charles: You mean from the stage or just in general?

George: Well, let’s do both. First, let’s talk about, you know, you’re around the booths and you’re at a convention and you and I go to a ton of different conventions. How do you master the booth piece of it and then we’ll get to the stage?

Charles: Okay. Well, I don’t have any magic insights there. I don’t think it’s about the charge because you’re giving at, I think those are great, but everyone has I think 100 tote bags already. So, I think it’s what you do before the conference that matters the most. I think if you’re prepped for the conference isn’t, you know, at the top of your game, you’re going to be chasing people around the conference. And if you’re good at that, that’s great. But I think doing a lot of content and a lot of outreach in advance of the show, so people arrive, knowing what you do and what you have to offer and it’s just a matter of meeting you and learning a little bit more instead of bringing in people cold.

George: Right. You know, so my take on this is, and, you know, challenge me if you want, if you don’t have your appointments preset, you shouldn’t even go to the convention.

Charles: That’s sort of what I’m saying. Yeah, I mean, if you haven’t done that work in advance, if you think you’re just going to land and make magic happen, if you have that kind of personality and that ability to work a room, God bless you. But I mean, not naming names, but a lot of these peoples manning the booth, they’re not extroverts necessarily and that’s fine. If you’re not that then you need to have it all set up in advance and just do what you do know, share your knowledge. If you don’t have those meetings setup it’s very difficult.

Presentation Skills

George: So, now, let’s go to the stage. And I remember seeing a fantastic presentation in Banff, Canada, that you did at the last VendastaCon. You are an expert presenter. You do it pretty much on an ongoing basis. Give us some tips on how to give that perfect presentation from the stage at a convention.

Charles: I don’t know if I’ve ever given a perfect presentation. So if you believe you have, you probably should check your ego at the door a little bit.

You know, I think authenticity is huge. I think having just passion for what you’re talking about is huge. I think I’ve seen people who were sweating profusely and all that but it didn’t matter because it was coming from the heart. And you really believed what they’re saying. And then you see people who are really, really polished and it just feels inauthentic. So, I think authenticity is number one, knowing if you’re funny, be funny. If you’re not funny, don’t try to be funny. I know some self-awareness is really important. And then tell a story. Don’t just put facts up there, tell a story. I think another one is for God’s sake, don’t sell and when I say don’t sell—everyone’s selling. And the best way to sell is not to sell. It’s a very Zen sort of thing. And people say this all the time, but you do need to make people want to talk to you more, because you’re interesting. And if you don’t mention your product once, that’s okay. You know, maybe mention it but I think the less you say about your product, the more you teach the audience something, the better.

George: And you know, that bringing value is a really important piece. I have a couple pet peeves that I just want to throw out there reading what’s on the slides, we can all read, I think, super annoying. The other thing is, is not owning the content. You find that to be, you know, with the difference between good presentations and not?

Charles: Yeah, I think that’s a big one. I mean, what by not owning the content, you mean making excuses for it or, or…?

George: Just, you know, you need to know the presentation inside and out. Like no practice, just going up there shooting from the hip.

Charles: Right. I actually am not a big rehearser, and I’m not a big user of notes but you sort of internalize it as you build it. So, that’s my style but no when people are up there, reading the slides is super annoying, having busy slides. Having busy slides, actually, I think what conferences need to do is have the stage version of the slides and then the version that they share with the audience later on the website. That’s the one where you want the wordy slides because basically, those are your notes from the presentation. But what’s up on stage should be, you know, an image in a word or an image in a number and then you tell the story of what that image and that number means. And for God’s sake, no bar charts, no grids. The slides people put up there, I just… I’m sort of ADD. I mean, I don’t think clinically, but I can’t sit through these things unless you’re just being really dynamic and telling a story. So tell a damn story. And don’t ever, this is a good lesson for everyone who speaks, if you’re before lunch, you don’t have to tell anyone, “I’m sorry if I’m the one standing between you and lunch.” Don’t ever say that. Don’t ever say, “I’m standing between you and drinks.” For one thing, it’s apologizing for being on stage which you should never do. And also it’s just a horrible cliché.

Do We Need Salespeople in Five Years?

George: So there from somebody who presents a lot are some lessons. So I appreciate that. Let’s get into tech adoption. I wanted to say some challenging things. Do we need salespeople in five years?

Charles: Yes. But I don’t think nearly as many and I think… So, I have a view and my colleague Neal Polacheck and I talk about this a lot. Yeah, we have some debates about it. But what I talked about with tech adoption is the idea of basically moving small business into the cloud. In other words, running their full business operation through mobile apps, essentially. So, everything from acquiring customers to managing the customer data to doing the marketing and customer engagement to collecting the money, paying the staff, all that stuff, everything, you know, supply chain, everything. Eventually that’s all going to be in the cloud. I think there’s a generational shift happening and so on and so forth. And I think as that shift happens, these applications are going to be increasingly purchased versus you’re going to buy them rather than have them sold to you more but I think a lot of times you’re gonna buy one application through some sort of inbound methodology.

There’s still a role for sales to play in sort of that up-sell and, you know, growing that from one application to multiple applications, perhaps. But I think increasingly, that’s going to be handled by a sort of a guided, intelligent guided system that watches your activity on the platform, and then pings you with suggestions as you go to, let’s say, there hasn’t been so much activity, maybe you should update your content, just, you know, maybe it’s a good time to send out a marketing message. But, you know, you haven’t upgraded to the premium service so you may want to add that. So that just sort of those touches along the way, which right now, I think that’s handled by a service organization. So I think the progression of my sense is from heavy sales orientation, to a heavy human service orientation to an increasingly automated system around that.

George: So, the prescriptions then come from the automation and you see the salesperson not having to do that prescribing the solutions. It’s just going to come through the tech?

Charles: Ultimately. But I think this is a staged thing. I think that that’s a vision that may be several years away. But I think what’s already happening is that the intelligence in the system is already making those recommendations. But perhaps a human being is conveying those recommendations to the customer.

George: So, I find that, you know, it scares me a little bit being a career salesperson. But I also deal with SMBs or SMEs, we’re in Europe so let’s use SMEs. You know, a group that I’m working with directly right now because I like to have some direct relationship with customers are like, “We could do this stuff ourselves today but we don’t know what to do. We need your guidance. We want to do it right.”

So, you know, a phone call the other day was the competitor is buying their keyword. What do they do? Yet, they have access to go buy Google Keywords but they don’t know the tactics and they’re nervous and they’re scared and they’re looking for that, you know, you’re saying something that I want to challenge a little bit. I think we may not have sales people doing a binary, yes, no, sale. We have sales people that are more teachers and advisors and happened to bring some technology along with it.

Charles: I don’t think those are mutually exclusive ideas necessarily, because I think it depends on what kind of software you’re selling. I mean, there is this notion that you have to have… If you’re selling enterprise software, for example, the guy who takes you to dinner and buys your drinks, is going to get, you know, a small percentage of your business. The guy who helps you think differently about your business will get 80% of your spend. You know, no one cares about relationships and all that stuff. It’s more, it’s about teaching, but that’s, you know, I think that’s kind of an enterprise kind of concept. You know, the small business level, I think you can sort of take that down a little bit and say, if you’re not educating the small business, there’s too much noise and you’re probably not going to get them to add products and add services. But so that never goes away. But I think the economics of, you know, moving to SaaS and platforms like this, you’re not going to be able to afford a large sales organization and have good margin on this business. So I think automation is sort of unnecessary progression at the lower end. I think salespeople will always be there for people at a certain spend level.

George: So it comes down to what the business person is prepared to spend. We need to automate that smaller customer and then, you know, maybe they turn into a larger customer down the road.

Charles: You bring the human interaction at the right time. It’s not when they’re spending $50 a month.

George: So, in the organizations that you’ve been speaking to, what would be some things, you know, we have an audience of, we’re up to 4,000 listens a week now around the world. We have an audience of sales people are listening and they’re looking for the nuggets. You know, you’ve been speaking to a lot of people, what are some things that you would advise salespeople on not to do or to do better that you’re hearing from organizations?

Charles: Well, I think don’t walk in there without at least cursory knowledge of their business, know what you’re selling better than the small business because that’s not always the case.

George: So what you’re saying, I just want to pull this out is you need to really understand what the solution is and how it can solve the problems?

Charles: Right. And I think there’s a lot of this notion that it’s very complicated. We just need some bullet point shortcuts, you know, and I just don’t think that’s gonna work.

George: I had a salesperson, I don’t know their name, but the story was related to me and it was carpet store. And they said, the salesperson came in and said, “Yeah, you probably understand digital better than I do.” They went and spent their money somewhere else.

Charles: Yeah, yeah, that’s gonna happen. I mean, and I think there’s this notion that small businesses, you know, don’t know anything about digital, blah, blah, blah. That’s true for some, but it’s certainly not for others. And I think this ties into something that we’re focusing on in this Tech Adoption Index Research that I’m leading which is that there’s a generational shift taking place in small business. And if you’re not aware of that, and ahead of it, you’re gonna get caught short because we’ve seen this number and then we’ve actually checked it out to make sure it’s true.

About 10,000 US citizens turn retirement age every day. Now, they don’t all retire because people aren’t retiring like they used to. But there’s a succession that will take place. Either, you know, a child is in the business will be given more decision authority or they will sell the business or they will maybe just wind it down. So they want to retire. And all those circumstances, a younger person is most likely to take over either that business or the business that comes up in its place.

The Generational Shift

George: It’s interesting that you brought this up. I wanted to talk about this on the podcast for quite some time. There’s only one reason why Tony Robbins has changed his entire pitch. And it’s all around business mastery and getting the value out of your businesses because this baby boomer generation, especially in North America, but it’s happening all over the world. The baby boomer generation is trying to exit their businesses and they’re trying to get value out of it. And they are either passing it on to a generation or they’re selling it. This is a monumental change that’s happening.

Charles: Right. I have an anecdote. A friend of mine, friend of Neil and I, someone that we used to work with, her husband left a corporate job, they’re moving across the country to buy some sort of service. I actually forgot what kind of business it is, but some sort of service business. They go in there and, you know, basically the current owners’ office is a bunch of boxes with paper in it, you know, and everything is, you know, receipts with duplicate, you tear off the receipts that are handwritten and very much cash oriented all that stuff. And this guy’s he’s not 30 but he’s, you know, younger than I am, but he’s been in the corporate world dealing with CRM systems and all that, you know, all the technology that is every day, you know, working in enterprise.

He goes into this business and the first thing he’s gonna do is get rid of all those boxes of paper and, you know, get a CRM system, get a modern point of sale system, cloud accounting, all that stuff. It’s just gonna be 100% cloud-based business. Repeat that over and over and over again, you’re gonna have businesses that are running their business through their smartphone. They’re gonna by necessity, you know, be a much more informed buyer.

So, one, you know, they’re going to sell purchase a lot of what they need to run the business. So, there’s a challenge built into that. The other challenge is they’re going to be much more digitally savvy.

How Will Sales Change in the Next 12 Months?

George: Well, and I think that we see it. I see it in my life. The only reason I have my Full Focus Planner is there’s this strange thing that if I write it down, it actually locks into my head. But I don’t, you know, I don’t go back to that thing ever. Everything that I have is stored in the cloud. So it’s interesting that you bring that up.

Let’s talk a little bit about what you think might happen in the next 12 months. Because, we had a lot of changes happening, you do a lot of research through your work with the Tech Adoption Index. And let’s just look at the next like, we said, maybe sales people go away over a period of time. It’s probably going to be they’re gonna change. They’re gonna transition, we won’t need as many of them. But in the next 12 months for our listeners, what are the things that you see happening?

Charles: Well, just to clarify, I don’t think in the next 12 months’ sales people are going anywhere. That’s a much longer term and it’s a progression rather than a eradication, you know. Next 12 months, interesting.

Well, I think we’re gonna see more companies that are sort of traditional media companies move into something closer to software as a service business. You know, we’re already seeing that companies like Thryv, DexYP, Thrive Business. If you look at that, you know, all their messaging is around that’s the future of their company and they have a print business, it’s, you know, eroding rather rapidly that’s no secret.

Companies like Viveo which used to be the bearing companies are now a marketing automation, SaaS platform. And so I think more and more companies are going to understand that they want to move into a monthly-recurring revenue business. I think the idea of selling leads is a sort of a commodity race to the bottom sort of business if that’s all you’re doing, you know, you’re not going to thrive. Spelled correctly. So, I think we’re going to see more companies sort of change their business model here in Europe as well as in the US. I mean, Sensis, we’re just listening to Sensis, Yellow Pages of Australia, basically described that they’re moving their business into a small business operating system. Now, that it’s not an overnight progression but I think companies increasingly are realizing that that’s the change they need to make in order to survive.

George: So, I think you jump on a plane and you go to Thailand next.

Charles: Well, I’m gonna go home for a few days and then I’m gonna vacation for a very briefly in Vietnam and then I’m going to be at the ALSMA. We are calling in Asia calm this year, the ALSMA conference. A-L-S-M-A, which is the Asian Local Search and Media Association, which is the
SINDA or LSA of Asia.

George: So, you’ve been involved with Oscar and that group for quite some time and I brought it up for a reason. I wanna talk about the Asian marketplace. What are you seeing in that market?

The Asian Marketplace for SaaS

George: So, I think you jump on a plane and you go to Thailand next.

Charles: Well, I’m gonna go home for a few days and then I’m gonna vacation for a very briefly in Vietnam and then I’m going to be at the ALSMA. We are calling in Asia calm this year, the ALSMA conference. A-L-S-M-A, which is the Asian Local Search and Media Association, which is the
SINDA or LSA of Asia.

George: So, you’ve been involved with Oscar and that group for quite some time and I brought it up for a reason. I wanna talk about the Asian marketplace. What are you seeing in that market?

Charles: Well, a few things. One, it’s absolutely a mobile first market, payments are huge. Difference markets have very different characteristics. I mean, if you look at China, you know, they have their own ecosystem of apps like WeChat that kind of run the world.

George: WeChat is unbelievable. You can do everything on that thing.

Charles: Literally. I mean, there is a great video out there, you can Google it, I forgot what it’s called exactly. But it uses the metaphor of the China has this… Because it’s sort of been a closed and, you know, not really connecting with the social apps and other things that have emerged around the world that they have this their swamp monster versions of each of the apps that are popular around the world. And those are all sort of merged into one which is WeChat, which I think it literally is like, you can store your driver’s license on there. It’s your payment platform. It’s basically your Tinder and your Facebook.

George: I don’t know what Tinder is.

Charles: And it’s literally I don’t know how you function in China without having WeChat. I’m not a China expert, but it’s a fascinating thing. And then sort of looking at from the sort of ALSMA, SIINDA, LSA sort of perspective, the legacy Yellow Pages industry there was never as big as it was in the US or even Europe. And it’s transitioning very quickly away from print and actually most of the companies have already moved out of print. So, they’re really looking, I won’t say desperately but urgently for a path forward. So, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for companies that can really, really listen, lean in and listen and invest in those relationships to help those companies. You know, see the next five years.

Big Five

George: Can we talk about Big Five?

Charles: Sure.

George: So, let’s set the table on this. Charles and a colleague of mine, Paul Plant, and you’ve got a couple other people that are working with you on this to bring an organization to Africa to help media companies and directory organizations. Let’s talk about Big Five. It’s time to get it out there.

Charles: Yeah, we know we’re excited to start talking about Big Five. So, the inside there, it’s quite simple that some of the fastest growing digital economies in the world are in Africa, Sub Saharan Africa and also some vibrant markets in the Middle East as well. And we thought there is no organization to bring an event to that market where people can come and network share best practice, understand, you know, if I’m selling to small businesses in Kenya or Tanzania or whatever, can I learn from something from somebody who’s doing in Nigeria or South Africa and so on. And so we wanna create an environment for that networking and best practice sharing. Certainly an environment for companies that are building software for small businesses, international companies to have an opportunity to meet these companies and see if there’s a fit from their solutions and these companies as well as African based startups, you know, Martech companies as well. But what’s interesting is that while you say, you know, it’s sort of for the local search aircodes “companies of Africa” the ecosystem is very different there. It’s really not about those companies as much as banks and telecoms are actually going to be more important to this organization I think and the Yellow Pages companies. It’s not a particularly large industry there. Though those companies are going to be foundational members as well. FinTech is huge and it’s the path into the small business in a lot of areas.

George: It’s really interesting to me. I spent some time in South Africa here a couple of months ago, and FinTech is massive in that market. We’re going to take the Conquer Local Podcast to South Africa, again to Cape Town here in a couple of weeks’ time. So, listen for those additions out of the African markets. So, probably the busiest man that I know, traveling a lot and doing a lot of great stuff, we really appreciate getting you on the podcast. Don’t worry folks he didn’t say there’s not gonna be salespeople, it’s going to be a transition.

But Charles has this great podcasts. It is the Above the Cloud Podcast, all about tech adoption. I recommend that you listen to it because it’s got some great guests and some great insights. Super smart guy that’s out there doing it on a day to day basis. Really appreciate having you on the show.

Charles: It’s been my pleasure. I’m glad to finally make it.


George: Big thanks to Charlie Laughlin for joining us on the podcast. Great speaker and super insightful in the things that he’s sharing. You can subscribe to his podcast on iTunes, and you can find him on and connect with him on LinkedIn.

We’ve got more episodes coming up in the next few weeks as we continue to record and interview people here in beautiful Europe. And looking forward to having you join me on LinkedIn. You can connect to me on LinkedIn or communicate with me. That’s where a lot of our insights on the podcast are coming from. Thanks to everyone that has subscribed. Our net subscriptions are up dramatically in the last month and we really appreciate the support and the comments from people. It is the Conquer Local Podcast, we hope that you’ll join us on another edition. My name is George Leith. I’ll see you when I see you.

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