How often have you found a product so good you had to buy a stake in the business? Probably not often. But that’s precisely what happened to Shaun Thomson when he brought Sandler Training to the UK
Often the path that leads to someone running their own franchise is rather artificial. Once they’ve made the conscious decision to purchase a franchise, a good part of their journey is a trawl of franchise publications and shows, and meeting and greeting various franchisors making the hard sell. But, for Shaun Thomson, becoming CEO and master franchisor of Sandler UK was a much more natural journey. “I didn’t go out thinking, ‘I wonder where I can get a sales training company from?’” he explains. “It was an evolution.”
Even before taking on Sandler Training, Thomson was no stranger to the world of sales. “I worked with companies such as Apple, HP, IB and Lucent Technologies setting up channels and that type of stuff in 56 different countries,” he remarks. Despite working for such high-profile firms, Thomson found that what he was interested in was the entrepreneurial elements of his role. One of the best examples of this was a European division he set up for Lucent Technologies for one of its new pieces of software. “When I started, really the division was just me and I grew that to a $35m turnover business,” he comments.
It was perhaps inevitable then that eventually he would come to set up his own sales and marketing enterprise. But even though the firm grew very quickly, Thomson began to realise he had a problem on his hands; despite setting up sales meetings for his staff across the UK, they were receiving very few conversions. “I’d ask, ‘How did you get on?’” he recalls. “And I used to hear things like, ‘Yeah, great, brilliant!’, ‘Oh fantastic – what did they buy?’ ‘Oh no, they didn’t buy anything.’” Fortunately, a watershed moment came when he relayed this situation to an ex-colleague from Lucent in the US. “He said to me, ‘What you need is Sandler Training’,” relays Thomson.
Thomson found the training was a real eye-opener. “I had many what I call ‘ah-hah’ moments,” he says. On his return to the UK, he promptly put his staff into one of its programmes and received some very striking results. “Over about an eight-month period with the same people – I didn’t lose or gain anybody and we were selling the same stuff – I doubled my business.” This sparked his interest in Sandler Training.
When he asked why they didn’t have any UK training centres, they asked him whether he knew anyone who would be interested in buying the master franchise rights. “I said, ‘Leave that with me’,” he laughs. They soon began discussions and he bought the rights for the UK in 2003. “The reality was that I’d been a customer, so I knew it worked over here.” After running his pilot centre in Oxford for a year to ascertain whether there were any last tweaks to be made to the model, Thomson began to add franchisees.
One such franchisee is Andy McCredie, the head of the Exeter Sandler Training centre, which deals with clients from all over Devon and the south west of England. He had plenty of sales experience before purchasing his franchise, having worked both in sales and sales management while living in Australia. On returning to the UK, he decided he wanted to work for himself and a franchise seemed the logical choice. “All the franchises I looked at gave me the sales pitch, telling me how great it was,” he says. “Sandler was the only one that wasn’t pushing it on me.”
Long-term training relationships are what Sandler is all about. As Thomson remarks, “It’s not an event. We don’t do two-day seminars.” With more than 1,000 hours of material divided between sales and management, it certainly isn’t lacking in content but its focus is more on providing sustained, targeted training. “I’ve got clients who are now in their ninth year with me,” Thomson continues. “We do that ongoing reinforcement.”
But its method is not only differentiated by its delivery. Thomson is also keen to stress Sandler’s broad focus. “If you were to speak to most people on the street and ask them what they’d expect from sales training, they’d expect the technique to be the main focus,” he says. While he notes that its training is hardly lacking in this area, it is only one of the areas that Sandler Training deals with. Technique is just one corner of its ‘success triangle’ – the others being attitude and behaviours. “The technique is the easiest bit to get,” he says. “What we’re really in the business of doing is that ongoing change over time, really changing attitudes and behaviours.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Sandler’s customer base isn’t just limited to UK-based sales teams. Since Thomson became Sandler Training’s first master franchisor outside of the US, Sandler has a presence in around 30 countries, meaning they can provide truly international training. “One of our biggest clients is probably Lenovo, which bought the IBM laptop and PC business,” says Thomson. “It wanted the same sales process in Singapore, South Africa and Sweden as it had in Swindon. And we can now deliver that.”
But what is it like to run a Sandler Training franchise? Even for someone such as McCredie, with extensive sales experience, it’s far from a lifestyle business. “It requires constant failure, constant learning of lessons and constant effort to really keep it growing,” he admits. Despite this, each year since McCredie bought his Exeter franchise, he has seen the training centre grow and has found it very gratifying to see the return on his efforts. “It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. And it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he concludes.