Sales Leadership In A Post-Pandemic World With Brian Risse

The world has changed post-pandemic, and the way businesses work has changed along with it. What does sales leadership have to offer in this brave new world? Lance Tyson sits down with Brian Risse, VP of Public Library Sales for Cengage Learning, to discuss the ways this pandemic has altered how we do business, the importance of leadership and mentorship, and the one factor that will have the biggest impact on your sales process. After listening to this episode, you’ll agree with Brian that while technology has changed how we conduct business, it still comes down to a person talking to a person to create an opportunity. Want to know more? Then tune in to Brian’s insights to learn more.

Listen to the podcast here:


Against the Sales Odds and Brian Risse Focus on Sales Leadership In A Post-Pandemic World

I’m excited about this episode of the show because this is a whole different story. A lot of times, we are getting sports entertainment and some tech companies on here but I met Brian not long ago and we never met in person. I’ve got a phone call, and it was probably the greatest compliment I’ve ever got. It was, “Lance, I’ve got your book in Chicago Airport.” I’m like, “That worked.” Somebody reached out, and that big investment we made was good. Brian inquired about our services. Brian Risse is the Vice President of Public Library Sales. Before you check out, everything needs to be sold, and everybody has a sales story.

As we started to talk to Brian, I found that he was a student of sales training and had invested in sales training for his people in the past and asked us a lot of tough questions. Through the pandemic is when we started to do business together, and we were coming to Detroit for the sales meeting, and all of a sudden, the pandemic slammed into us. We have created our relationship essentially over Zoom. This is my first formal all-in Zoom relationship. Brian, I’m excited to have you on. Tell everybody who’s reading a little bit about your team and what you manage a little bit about your business, Cengage?

Thanks, Lance, for having me on as a part of the program. It’s great to be here. I managed a team of representatives who called into public libraries. Many years ago, when I’ve got into the business of helping libraries, my first question was, “Do libraries buy stuff?” It never occurred to me. I didn’t even think about it. The fact is when libraries have a brand of books, it’s a well-earned brand and they certainly circulate a lot of books. Libraries do a ton of other things around the workforce, early literacy, adult ed, you name it.

They are doing a ton of things that are impacting the community in a big way and they all need resources and tools to do that. We provide them with resources ranging from everything to business plan creators for would-be entrepreneurs to high school diplomas online via the public library, as well as a variety of self-paced and instructor-led learning materials through the public library.

That might be outside the lane that many of your readers are reading this interview might be aware of what public libraries do. My team is focused on that as well, as part of my team that does sell specialized books in the libraries. If it’s a public library and they are impacting the community, then they are probably doing business with Gale, our division of Cengage.

For everybody reading, the best way to think of the bigger book publishers that you remember from school, Gale is part of Cengage. Competitors would be like who, Brian?

Competitors in our space are old-style reference competitors such as Sage. At the higher level, Pearson and McGraw-Hill. Companies go all compete with Gale or Cengage in some way, shape or form.

If you follow us, we do a lot in sports and entertainment. Everything needs to be sold. At the same time, we all have very similar challenges in the way I look at it as what’s more the same as it’s different. How many people do you manage all that?

I’ve got about 35 different people on my team across the various groups that report to me.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so take the shots when the shots present themselves. Take them because you may never have that opportunity again.

They range demographically across the board, people that have been in it for years or newer people?

I’ve got twenty-year vets, folks who are brand new and everything in between, men and women. It’s a very diverse customer base that we have as well. It’s well-designed to support the people we are calling on.

In a nutshell, now and a lot of leaders here who would probably want to know this, you have a specific from a sales leadership standpoint. You are struggling because you have to do business much differently inside this pandemic. What are some of the things you are dealing with that are roadblocks to how you saw them?

One thing that we are all dealing with, and this goes across to all of us, is we are dealing with all of the social and emotional issues. They are going on in the world at large. Our salesforce and customers are experiencing those things. As people are going through all of that, they are more distracted, and at the same time, receiving more emails and messages from people than ever before because face-to-face is gone, and every company is out there trying to reach as many people as they can.

Early on, we were crazy busy because our customer base libraries largely shut down as institutions that you would visit but they were well-prepared to be open digitally to the community with all of their online resources and tools. We were very busy and engaged in the first 3 or 4 months of the pandemic. Business is good, and it’s still good. One of the things that we had to do is we make a conscious decision to take the approach of the tortoise versus the hare because, in this environment, everybody couldn’t be racing full speed 24/7. There were too many distractions in everybody’s life.

The fact is that’s probably how we ought to be operating anyway in terms of being patient, taking our time, working through the sales process, and engaging with the customer. It’s worked for us, and we have been able to do pretty well in 2021 while keeping our folks focused and still able to deal with all they are dealing with at home and what our customers are dealing with.

I’m here from a lot of sales leaders and salespeople. You are working from home and jumping from your personal life to your business life in a matter of seconds. It’s hard to manage some people. I have known a lot of sales leaders, and I don’t know if this is your case. We are dealing with a lot of our folk’s headspace a little bit to counselors at some level. I was an RA at Penn State, and I took Counseling 302. It’s the best thing I ever did because, as an RA, it’s boded me well.

I’m not happy about the pandemic but I’m certainly happy that I’ve got the 10 or 15 years of leading people’s worth of experience that I’ve got as opposed to going through this early on in my leadership journey because I probably would have been an absolute catastrophe trying to help people move through this.

One of the reasons I asked you to get on is because I have an affinity with folks who were into developing and getting their people better and even themselves. Let’s go back. What was your first sales job? A lot of our sales leadership is formed from how we sell because we are the ones that end up getting promoted. It doesn’t mean we are ready for leadership either.

ASO 33 | Sales Leadership
Sales Leadership: In the corporate world, especially early on, finding the humor in something that wasn’t that humorous doesn’t go over well. You have to learn when to temper your humor and not to use it.

I happened to watch one of your other interviews about Ethan Casson’s story with the T-Wolves Minnesota Organization was interesting because he wasn’t necessarily the greatest basketball player in the world but now he’s running the Timberwolves Organization and that applies to sales as well. My very first sales job is funny because some people reading this will go, “What? Do people sell that?” I was walking around for a company called Executive Phone, going from building to building up and down streets, selling telephone systems that had 850 different things.

I was as horrible as you could be because I would go in there, and if I could get past a secretary or a gatekeeper, and talk to somebody about the phone system, I would go into every one of those 8:50 things that the telephone could do. The only way to know in retrospect, all they cared about is, “Do I get a dial tone when I pick it up, and can I time my calls?”

Most companies spend 75% of their training on product knowledge. The adage goes, you should probably know ten times more about your product or service you ever use. Like I did when I was younger, some of us took that literally that meant not selling the donut hole but selling the whole donut. At that point, how did you start formulating your philosophy around that?

Where I began to develop my idea around management probably didn’t happen until I’ve got to Gale, which was in 1999. Maybe it’s why I have been here so long that I feel like I’ve got real sales training. I saw how managers operated. In the Jostens, you were an independent representative and managed pretty loosely.

It was the first time that I’ve got to see and notice the difference between what I liked and didn’t like in a management style, people who coached, focused on activity, got to see a lot of different things. It got to be managed by people who I was simply closer to and more engaged with and gave me the opportunity to get better, which I needed to do to be successful.

You get into Gale. It sounds like this is way more corporate, so you’ve got to make a change. You are way more independent on the road and the other thing, but now button it up a little bit. What were you not prepared for there?

Looking back at it, I deal with a lot of things through humor. You have experienced that over the course of our Zoom. I’d probably still have to learn to temper when to use that humor and when not to use it.

That served you well when you sold.

It was certainly when I sold but in the corporate world, especially early on, me finding the humor in something that wasn’t that humorous didn’t go over well. I had to learn to temper my thoughts and learn how to have not to be managed. I don’t want to say having not to be managed but having a close relationship with a manager when I hadn’t had a close relationship with a manager in the past, having to work within frameworks when I was free to do and operate however I needed to prior to that. It also provided me with a structure and some direction that I needed if I was ever going to get beyond being okay at what I was doing.

There’s no bigger variable to who’s going to have the biggest impact than a sales rep.

You start probably getting ranked more specifically on the board because now, you are closer to the top of the organization.

Early on out of the gate, some people came in with a little more experience. The team that I was on were the first group of K-12 organization that put together to sell them the K-12 space. I was middle to top half in the first year or two. It took me that long to get my bearings straight. I’ve got my very first sales training ever during that window, which was a PSS, Professional Selling Skills, back in the day.

It took to me because it gave me a structure around selling that intellectually I knew existed but I had never applied it and hadn’t thought about it that way. To be fair, I was probably too rigid in my approach to it for a number of years. I was still focused on myself, hitting my number and all of that but it gave me the foundation to grow off of and get better.

That’s what a lot of salespeople don’t realize, too. They think it’s a lot of glad-handing and the overused word of relationship. What happens is they don’t realize there’s a science to sales, and you have a lien. You are either really good at the glad-handing or the process. I find more people that are good at rapport building are highly focused on the people-skills sides. Their sales processes are longer because they were more worried about not offending somebody as opposed to driving a process. It’s a blend.

You will love this, and I’m sure anybody reading this that deals with salespeople will. The number of times somebody comes out of the thing and says, “That was a great presentation. That was amazing,” and then when you start asking questions about, “Who does what? What’s their need? What’s going on? What are we selling to?” It’s vagaries around that stuff. They did like it, and you are good but we are not in school. That was a great presentation but it won’t get you anywhere.

How many people are going to tell you your presentation sucks? Most people don’t like to deliver bad news. It’s a contribution bias. Most salespeople want to hear that they did well and are going to look for anything that tells them they are good. When you are saying middle of the pack at that point, you would say they are focused on you. You are more focused on what to do or what not to do and less focused on the customer. Is that what you are saying?


How long before you start breaking through a little bit and pulling away? At some level, you get to a spot where you start getting some recognition.

Midway through my 2nd year going into my 3rd year with the company, I switched managers and developed a good relationship with that manager. She challenged me in ways that people hadn’t challenged me before but not in ways that were intimidating or felt negative to me. It’s simple things like, “You talked to me about this. What’s your plan to replace it if not this month, next month?” Some of it was the same old things.

The Challenger Sale

She also coached me and talked to me about, “What did they say? What are they talking about? What do they need? What are they trying to do? Do we need to present every function that’s in this product or do we need to talk to them about other things?” I realized that through that time with her that I was able to be much more successful when I was focused on the customer and helping them do what they were trying to do it.

Coaching more around and trying to get you thinking about the next steps, is it like playing checkers or chess a little bit?

Yes, a little bit. It was eye-opening. The light bulb went off when I started hearing what customers were trying to do and achieve, identifying the current and desired situation, and seeing the gap they were trying to hold. It allowed me to talk about what I was doing so differently in terms of how it would help them and achieve what they were trying to do.

Once it became clear to me that, “It’s about helping them achieve something,” everything spun differently for me at that point. I had a different perspective. What’s funny is I probably moved into management within a year or two of that. Honestly, in preparation for this, I thought about this a little bit.

It’s the person who finally the light bulb goes off on that weight loss program, they finally lose the weight, they finally figure it out and they were like, “I can help other people have this same light bulb go off. I can be good at helping people do this.” That’s what encouraged me to decide that, “I’d like to go in and help a team because I can help people do what I did, which had that metamorphosis.”

That metamorphosis, was that an awakening or yielded way better results? Did you propel to the top of the board?

At the end of that third year, I was the rep of the year. That year was delivering the goods. I won’t tell you that I was necessarily the best rep on the team but I had the highest sales, I had the most revenue and I’ve got the rep of the year. I wasn’t silly. I didn’t leverage that into the other opportunities that I was interested in doing.

A lot of people that I know that are successful were never flashing in the pan. I even look at when I sold Dale Carnegie Training, which has been corporate education for years. It flashes words at the top of the board, and I would surge a big one but then I dropped the number two or whatever. I was in my own way. I was focused on myself. I was outside my comfort zone. As I started to get coached on little tiny things like that and I’s and cross the T’s, that’s when I developed the passion. I said, “I can do this.” Over time, I become a better salesperson.

You move up into management and get your first management job. What would you say at that point? You had been more of an independent rep from what you said and made it from being loosely managed and not coached very much at all of the product knowledge dumb person to progressing in something a little bit more structured. You get introduced to a predictable process. How does your leadership or your coaching philosophy start to form, and what is it?

If you’re going to be in an organization and move forward, you have to do important things. You’ve got to be seen as a valuable and meaningful contributor.

What it is now versus what it was then is certainly a bit different. I took over a team that I had been a part of. The team that I took over managing was all my contemporaries prior to me managing it. For the most part, they were all great and understanding about some of the missteps that I may have made at that time.

Much like when I’ve first got a sales process structure, my sales coaching structure probably was Richardson Training that we were doing around the time around sales coaching. I probably had pretty much that same rigid structure, “What do you think went well? What do you think you didn’t do so well? Let’s talk about that.” To the point where I still remember some of my reps, we would leave calls and they would be like, “Here’s what went well.” It’s probably a bit too predictable and interrogative.

That’s expanded over the years to be more inquisitive around things where I don’t have to be there and see it, and I can talk to a rep about, “What went in there? What did we uncover? What did they tell us that we knew that we didn’t know? What are the things we can help them and not help them with? The bad things, the budget authority, need timing and all of that?” I can have a good understanding of how they did, what they pulled out of it, what they called it and what we should be talking about, based upon that, by being more inquisitive, conversational, talking about it and not putting them through a Law and Order SVU Elliot interrogation in the room.

What I hear from you is you’ve got a lot from somebody investing in you in the fundamentals, and over time, you mastered the fundamentals and made them more natural. It sounds like you have made that a theme around your people, and what I do know about you, listening to this interview, you are going to provide your team with tools. When you have nonperformance of a salesperson, what frustrates the hell out of it?

What frustrates me is when they want to blame the customer. When they come out, “It’s the customer. It’s the person I’m calling on. They are not reasonable and understanding. I have been calling on them forever and I can’t get anywhere.” That frustrates me. The only other thing that frustrates me besides that is when they expect somebody else to do all the work for them. I want to be fair.

If any of my team happens to read this, I feel like I’ve got a solid team that doesn’t ask that too much of me but in the past, that’s like, “I’m not telling you to come to me with a solution. I’m not telling you to come to me with it all baked out but do some work, do some background. If you are going to come to me, do your work.” I get frustrated by those two things. In the middle, it’s life.

Sometimes, even the best reps get hit with things out of the blue or don’t have their best day. You’ve got to anticipate that it’s going to happen and be able to deal with it and not get too high or low over any of that stuff to keep things moving forward. More than anything is when they want to blame the customer because that’s pointless.

It’s uncontrollable too because, for every single deal, 25% of it is on the customer on what they do. Most sales are made because you have dressed an opportunity or have good timing and there’s a need. Some salespeople do everything but blame the customer or the marketplace. We did some surveys with some clients where we look for the salespeople that blame the market because they are salespeople that are always going to struggle because it’s never that.

There’s one of the things that frustrates me. We are all familiar with the Challenger Sale book. That’s one of many that I have read. With these books, there’s always one thing I find in them that resonates with me. It was the sales rep has the largest impact on the sales process. There’s no bigger variable to who’s going to have that, where the impact is going to come from and drive, whether that sale happens than the reps. It drives me bananas when reps don’t see that and get it right. They don’t understand why here’s this competitor that we blow away in 90% of the country but in this one little geography, they are kicking our butts. I can tell you why that’s happening. It’s the rep.

ASO 33 | Sales Leadership
Sales Leadership: We have learned that we can be more remote, that we probably don’t have to spend as much money and time flying around to see customers all over the country.

The rep succeeds or fails if you take that challenge or comment, creating an opportunity where one did not exist to the rep, where the client doesn’t have the momentum, the rep creates artificial momentum, does something that forces one check-in that says, “It sounds like this is what you are struggling with.” It’s the theory of the flywheel. It only takes a little push to keep us a fidget spinner moving.

What would you say from a sales perspective now that is going to change in the future? I’ve got sales reps that are calling on making big media deals all the way to cutting a deal with a public library in the midst of how competitive that is with books. Do you think it’s going back to the same or we are going to be in this hybrid model, or this different model moving forward?

There are things we have learned in this that it’s going to make sense for us to use. We have learned that we can be more remote, that we probably don’t have to spend as much money and time flying around to see customers all over the country. In our world, I don’t expect that they are going to be wanting salespeople to be racing in. Even with this technology, Zoom or being able to have conversations with customers like this, you’ve got to breakthrough.

There’s more noise to break through than there ever was before for these customers. In the end, with all of the automation, the tools, and the video things, it still comes down to something a person says to a person that resonates with them and makes sense. No matter how many tools and how much it changes, it still requires a person talking to a person to create an opportunity where one does not already exist.

Last a couple of questions before bringing this bird down for landing. Great interview, and I hope reading as a salesperson, there are a few big nuggets here like predictable process and fundamentals. It doesn’t matter what you sell. We are struggling with the same thing. It’s more about what’s the same and what’s different. At the same level, what resonated with me was a lot of folks are like, “Somebody helped me succeed.” I would like to do that. It’s interesting that the manager that coached you on a few fundamental things changed your perspective. What was her name?

Her name was Tori. I will leave it at that.

The last couple of questions and I ask this to all my guests. If you had to define success to a 7 or 8-year-old, how would you define success from your perspective?

It would be about doing what you like and enjoy. Be a person that people want to be around and not be all about winning all the time. I want to circle that all the way back around to selling is an away game. If you do all the things right, pulling into the driveway is a piece of cake. Closing and being successful in all of that stuff happens. Be somebody people want to be around and who’s good, whatever that definition of good is. If you do the right things, it’s going to work out for you. Don’t be a jerk.

I love a good reminder because I say it all the time. The plane is going to come down. Just land it.

If you are focused on everything, you are focused on nothing.

I try to stay away from sports metaphors only because there’s only a handful of people on my team who get them when I use them. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so take the shots. When the shots present themselves, take them because you may never have that opportunity again, whether you make it or miss it, take it.

Last question. You are recommending or gifting a book to somebody because you and I have talked about a lot of books. I know you like to read. What book do you recommend?

I reckon I don’t give too many books but I do talk about books that I read with my folks, probably ad nauseam to the point where a lot of my teammates get tired of it but there’s a handful over the last couple of years that have been powerful for a variety of reasons. I will name a couple of them. One is Linchpin by Seth Godin. If you are going to be in an organization and you want to move forward, you’ve got to do important things.

You’ve got to be seen as a valuable and meaningful contributor. That piece was an odd book but you might not guess it, there’s a book called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos written by a guy named Jordan Peterson, who’s a bit controversial up in Canada. One of the things he says in the book that stuck with me was, “If you are going to change somebody’s mind, you’ve got to be willing to upset them a little bit. You can’t change somebody’s mind without risking upsetting them.” In selling, if we are going to try to move somebody from, “I don’t need this to I need this,’” we are going to risk.

That’s what people love about that challenge. You are not going to ruin a relationship because you disrupted somebody’s thinking but if you are worried about ruling a relationship that you haven’t done commerce with, why? This relationship at first, we have done business.

I read a book that we still use some of the languages from it nowadays. It’s called The 4 Disciplines of Execution. It talks about what’s important and what’s the whirlwind floating around you. If you are focused on everything, you are focused on nothing. It’s a process for focusing on the stuff that matters and letting the other stuff wait until you get to it.

In a leadership role and even as a sales rep, those are powerful and go across all lines. One other book that’s an odd one, Stuff: Good Players Should Know, which is written by a guy by the name of Dick Devenzio, who’s since passed away, runs a basketball camp called Point Guard College. It’s these 100 things that good basketball player do in this case but if you are paying attention, it’s easy to make the connections between these are the things these people do, and if you apply that in the world of sales, it works.

Brian, I love the conversation. I love the deliberate journey. You ultimately get recognized and you are a student of the game. You definitely stayed in the game and you knew my business as well as anybody. I was excited that we ended up doing some stuff. I’m looking forward to getting this out, and thanks for being on.

Thanks, Lance.

Important Links: