April 12, 2023


Nikki Popoola: Telecom sales genius

Hosted by

Oluwanifemi Kolawole
Nikki Popoola: Telecom sales genius
Expert and African
Nikki Popoola: Telecom sales genius

Apr 12 2023 | 00:27:08


Show Notes

On this episode of Expert and African, we document Nikki Popoola's pivotal role in Nigeria's pursuit of a reliable digital future, spanning from the 2000s to the 2020s and beyond. While at that, we also uncovered what it takes to be a sought-after salesperson.

Nikki has been the Sales Director, West Africa, for WIOCC (West Indian Ocean Cable Company) powering the Open Access Data Centres (OADC), for the past seven years. For the past 23 years, she has sold a wide range of products and services beneficial to telecoms and ISPs to solve the continent's challenges.

00:00 - Sales isn't rocket science
00:07 - Intro
00:32 - Journey into sales
01:27 - Helpful skills
02:32 - Fresh out of uni
03:44 - Climbing the ladder
04:49 - People buy people
07:06 - Benefits
11:03 - Sales is black or white
13:34 - Can a sales person work in any industry?
16:03 - The art of selling
17:20 - The sales journey
19:22 - Selling to NITEL and Telkom
20:59 - Certifications aren't important
22:13 - Work-life balance
24:06 - Other interests
24:23 - Maintaining customer relationships

View Full Transcript

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Nikki: Sales to me is not rocket science; It's more about the personality. [00:00:15] Oluwanifemi: So, Emmanuel told me that he feels Nikki would be a very good profile for Expert and African. And I'm like, "I don't know anything about data centers and telecommunication." Then he said, "no, no. She's a sales person. I said, "oh! cool, cool." So I think we should just start from you getting into sales. [00:00:36] Oluwanifemi: Yes. [00:00:37] Oluwanifemi: Your journey into it. [00:00:40] Oluwanifemi: Do you have an academic background in it? [00:00:47] Nikki: No, not at all. Not at all. It was nothing to do with my academic qualifications. I think sales isn't more about your personality as opposed to...I mean, obviously it helps to have the academic qualifications, especially if it's specialised, but my entry into sales, I would say was the tough way. Advertising. Advertising, sales. I started selling advertising to businesses and directories. This was before we had the Internet and you needed to be in, it was a publication called the Yellow Pages, and it was just phoning businesses randomly asking them if they wanted to be in the directory. So that was hard. [00:01:27] Oluwanifemi: Talking about personality, what would you say you have that made you feel like this is the field you will thrive in? [00:01:36] Nikki: You have to be outgoing. You have to be willing to put yourself forward. You can be introverted internally, but outwardly, you always have to be willing to have a smile. You have to be thick skinned, to be able to take all those knock backs. I think empathy is key. Because I think too many people are guilty of wanting to talk, to pour out all they've got to say, as opposed to listening. Listening is key. You always need to find out a person's pain point, what they actually require. You don't go in thinking, "oh, this is what you require." Find out what they require and then try and tune your offering to what they need. [00:02:33] Oluwanifemi: So fresh out of university, were you looking for a job and didn't find any, and decided "okay, let me try sales", or that was what you were? [00:02:43] Nikki: No. Fresh out of university, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I studied English in university, which has nothing to do with what I'm doing. The only reason I studied English was because I did art subjects and I had no clue what I wanted to study. I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer, which unfortunately, you know what Nigerian parents are like. If you study science, you become a doctor or an engineer. You study arts, you become a lawyer. And I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer. The only thing I knew I wanted to do was to travel. That was all. I had no other ideas about what I wanted to do. Started looking for work. I remember I got a temporary job in a call center for a company that was called Vodapage at the time. And then I got a job in their sales team, a permanent job in their sales team, and it just went from there. [00:03:43] Oluwanifemi: So, moving on from that, after you got a permanent job and you felt like, "okay, I think this place fits me and I'm thriving," how were you able to climb the ladder? [00:03:56] Nikki: Initially, it wasn't about climbing the ladder, it was about learning about sales. As I said earlier, I worked in Yellow Pages, and that gave me a real thick skin. But then I moved, I worked in pharmaceuticals. I worked in soft drinks. I worked in entertainment. And one thing I found, is compared to advertising, it's like you can't convince everybody that they need advertising. But to a certain extent, things like going to the pharmaceutical industry, it seemed so much easier because you were talking to people who needed these things. You knew they needed it, but it was a question of who were they going to buy from? You're not the only one selling it. There are other people selling it, and that is why, in fact, people buy people. I think relationships are key. I've got a product. You've got a product. What differentiates the two? Me. And I need people to trust in me. There's this argument whether you need people to like you, but I think what is key is that they respect you and that they trust you. That they believe what you are saying and what you are talking about. I think those are very key ingredients to get people to buy your service or product. [000:05:23] Oluwanifemi: Yeah, so people trust people telling them what to buy, not necessarily the product? [00:05:28] Nikki: No, Look at it, when you've got identical products, it's like person A has a car, person B has a car, and person C has a car. The cars are identical. So what would make them go and buy from one or the other? Of course there's price. But imagine the product's identical and you've got the same price. At the end of the day, I think what would drive them to buy is the person. It's like, "Hmm. I like Nikki more than I like John." "And Nikki said when I finish, when I bought the product from her, she's going to keep in touch with me." "She's going to give me additional..." So, you need trust. [00:06:11] Oluwanifemi: Yeah. So from what you said now it seems like companies should not just focus on maybe their unique selling points or their product or their prices, they should also look at the person that will be doing the sales for them. [00:06:24] Nikki: It varies from product to product. If you're selling a product...Imagine you're a a retailer selling a chocolate bar to a consumer. That's just the one off sale. Obviously, he wants the consumer to come back again, but that's just a consumer sale. But when you are buying something, a high value product that a consumer has to think about, then you have to put a lot more thought into it and that is when people buy. That's what I'm saying. There's so much more to it. It varies from product to product, from sector to sector. It just depends on what you are selling. [00:07:07] Oluwanifemi: Looking at your journey, what would you say you've grown into? Like you didn't start with this, but now you have it. [00:07:14] Nikki: If I go back to when I got into telecoms, I had quite a number of friends in the telecom space, and I loved what they had to say about what they were doing. And I wanted to get into telecoms. And unfortunately, lots of agents were saying, "no, you don't have the right experience." They were only putting me forward for jobs that I felt I could do better. And I was just very fortunate that a friend of a friend gave my CV to the person that recruited me into telecoms, Dennis Jones — I'll never forget. He called me and he said, "right, I'd like you to come and sell for me into Africa and the Middle East. And my first question to him was, "have you read my cv? Have you seen I have no experience in telecoms?" And he said," yes. Can you sell?" I said, "yes." And he said, "well, then come in, I'll teach you." And that was it. I was lucky he gave me that break, and that is one thing, I think too many people, including myself, we are guilty a lot of the time of looking for what we call experience as opposed to potential. To be honest, I'm not undermining what I do in any way, sales to me is not rocket science; It's more about the personality. Even sales in telecoms, I would say to a large extent with the right person, it can be taught. With the right guidance, that person can go out and be your best sales person with no background at all. As I said, I studied English, but over the years I've learnt. I started selling satellite space when there were no cables in Africa, and then cables came and I started selling capacity on submarine cable systems. And yeah, there's a lot of reading. A lot of internal courses, but I've learned so much that I, that I've had people ask," oh, are you an engineer?" And it's like, "no. No way. I'm not an engineer." But yeah, you pick up. I was just drawn to it. As I said, I had friends in telecoms and it just seemed so exciting. It seemed so much more fast paced than what I was doing and it was forever changing. It was the technology area. There was so much happening then. If you recall, that was when the Internet came about. Mobile phones were coming. And I feel I've been privileged to see all the changes and the impact that it's had on everyone across the globe. And more especially in Africa, what telecoms has done, the way things have moved forward. It's just amazing. And yeah, I did also mention a desire to travel. I've been privileged to travel around many, many countries in the world that I wouldn't have had the opportunity. Well, it's unlikely that I'd otherwise I've had the opportunity. But yeah, in sales I've been traveling quite a bit. Yeah. [00:10:43] Oluwanifemi: So that is the attraction. [00:10:45] Nikki: One of the attractions. No, it's not just that. Sorry. It's not just travel. No. I might as well be an air hostess if travel was just–or a pilot if travel was my only [reason]. No, I like to win. I'm a poor loser. I really, really love to win. With some jobs, your achievements are subjective. But with sales, it's black and white. No one can argue with what you've achieved. It's there. You either win or you lose. No one can. It's like your results speak for themselves. What you achieve is black and white. No one can say, "oh no, you haven't done this, this, this," when it's there on paper. You win, you are judged by the amount of business you bring in. And that's it. With sales, it's just your performance is evident. No one can say you haven't achieved if you have. [00:11:45] Oluwanifemi: That sounds quite hard because you know when you are dealing with people, you really can't make them do what they don't want to do. And I think that's my fear with sales. Getting people to do what they ordinarily do not want to do or buy what they ordinarily do want to buy. And it seems quite hard. How have you been able to do this? [00:12:08] Nikki: Sometimes it might be the timing is wrong, but then again, I have to bring it back to what I sell. What I sell and the people I'm dealing with, I know they have the need for it. The question is, do they have the need for it from me? Do they have the need for it right now? So the timing has to be right. And the fact that they need it from me has to be right because I'm not the only one selling this service. There are other people out there. So first, and when I say the need, it might be maybe they don't need it today. Maybe they need it in six months time. This is where planning comes into place and they say, "oh, sorry Nikki, I've just bought from X, but in six months time I'm looking to grow." You need to make sure you keep in contact. You need to make sure you build a relationship. Even if they don't need it from you right now, you want to be top of their mind. What if their plans change? You don't wanna wait six months to contact them next. Maybe something's gonna change in their business plan and say, "oh, I need it tomorrow." And you want them to pick up the phone to you. [00:13:24] Oluwanifemi: The other time you mentioned that the person that took a chance on you asked you that, can you sell? And that was all he needed to know. Will I be right if I say that a sales person can work in any industry. [00:13:41] Nikki: With the right support. Yes. But for instance, it would take a lot of training for me to go and sell a Boeing 737 or some airplane. You may need an engineering background. But then saying that, I think with the right training and with the right support, because as a salesperson, you don't sell in isolation. You have a support team round you. You have solution people. You have marketing people. You have all sorts of people around you. And I think with a good support team, I believe you can sell in any industry if you have the great support. But then again, you need to have enough knowledge yourself to build confidence with your customers, your clients. They need to have the confidence that you know what you are talking about. But when it comes to the more technical aspects. Maybe there's some nuts and bolts and whatever, you may need someone more technical than yourselves. I think there are different types of sales people and there are different types of industry requirements. It's hard to say one size fits all. You need to look at the industry. You need to look at the requirements. But I'm all for people taking a chance on people like someone took a chance on me. And giving them the right training and the right support. Yeah. [00:15:13] Oluwanifemi: And learning a lot, because you have to understand the product. [00:15:18] Nikki: Absolutely. And it's a continuous learning process. It's not just about what you are selling, it's also about what your competitors are selling. It's about new innovations. You need to keep up with what's going on in the market. What could be affecting your client's downturn or upturn? There's so much you need to know about the economy, the industry, just so many things impact on sales. And you need to make sure. Again, you want to be able to talk with your customer about all aspects. Not just their direct business, but things that might be impacting on either their growth or their downsizing. You need to understand that. Yeah. [00:16:03] Oluwanifemi: So there's this part of selling, you know you want to collect your client's money, but you have to make it look like you're looking out for their own good. I think there's a skill around it. I don't have a name to it. Is it empathy or? [00:16:19] Nikki: Yeah, but it's not just about collecting their money. I actually say it's not. Because especially in our kind of business. I don't want them to just buy from me today and go away. I want them to buy from me today and come back tomorrow and the day after and the day after, and the day after. In the wholesale business, as I said, I think relationships are key. You can't survive on the one sale. You need to build up the relationship and as I always say to my customers and clients, I just say, if you don't survive, I don't survive. I need your business to grow, for my business to grow. So it's like we are sharing the pain. I need them to feel that I understand, which I do. I take on what issues they have, what's driving their growth and whatever. We work together. [00:17:19] Oluwanifemi: What's the sales journey like? What do you do first before thinking of selling? For instance now, maybe if I want to interview someone, I go ahead and look for the person's profile. Read about the person, reach out, then fix a time for the interview. Something like that process. Does that kind of process exist in sales. [00:17:49] Nikki: Yes, there is a process, but then it's not prescriptive. I won't say there's one right way or one rule that things need to be done, but you need to know your audience. The same way you said you would look up the person's profile, I would say, look up a business. Understand where they're going. Understand what you feel their needs could be. Try and get as much information. Have they been in the news recently? Could there be things that are impacting them? Could there be some government legislation that would drive their requirement. Just do as much research as possible. Then of course, you target the person within the actual organisation. In our business, it's generally the CTOs or the CIOs we would target. But then again, it varies from organisation to organisation. That's who I would target naturally, but then, some organisations will say, "no, it's so and so." This is who deals with that part of the business. So yeah, a lot of work needs to be done before you speak to them to understand. But then again, don't have it fixed that yes, this is correct because you need to verify at the same time that what you've understood is correct. And don't just go in, it's like, "oh, I heard this, this and this." Try and draw it out of them about what's going with their organisation. [00:19:22] Nikki: I can't go into specifics about deals that I've lost, but I've lost many. And every salesperson, if they've been honest, has lost many. The win rate is, it could be, you're talking about 1 in 10, 2 in [10]. I mean, it'd be fun. I would love to have a win rate , say 9 in 10. But no, I think that's virtually impossible. I can remember selling into Nigeria, the old NITEL's first, connectivity on SAT3. It was a joint endeavour. NITEL had also invested in SAT3, so they had their own half and I sold them the second half. It was many years ago. And in South Africa as well. I did the same withTelkom South Africa, selling them their first connectivity on SAT3 and yeah. For me that was big because we didn't have cables at the time coming into Africa. The only cable coming to Africa at the time was SAT1 and that was into South Africa only. But SAT3 was the first cable. That was back in 2001. [00:20:47] Oluwanifemi: Yes. Yeah. The first time mobile telecommunications came to Nigeria. [00:20:51] Nikki: It was after SAT3 came, and then you had the mobile networks come on board. [00:20:59] Nikki: Certifications are not the important thing here. I mean, there are loads of people out there selling sales courses. There are loads of sales tips on the Internet . Yes. read. I know there are all sorts of [books] about how to sell but a lot of it comes naturally, I think. And like I said, people buy people. And I've recruited a few salespeople in my time and it's not always the best people on paper that make the best salespeople. Sometimes it's just a gut feel, and you just click with a person. You just know, yes, they can sell. But as I said, a lot of understanding your market, understanding the industry, a lot of reading, keeping up with what's going on. You need to make sure that you know what's going to affect your client, what could impact their business, whether it be negatively or positively. You always have to be on top of that. Keep on top of what's going on with your clients. [00:22:13] Oluwanifemi: And how do you refresh? There are only so much nos that people can take. For instance, I can't take too many rejections. I can't. Okay, so how do you refresh? How do you get back on your feet? [00:22:31] Nikki: Sometimes you need to take time out. And that's easier said than done. Because one thing with sales, what I always say, you never know when that big sale is going to come. So even when I go on holiday my phone is always with me. Just in case I have that big sale that I don't want someone else to get it. I always want to be available .Occasionally it's not always possible. But you do need downtime. You do need things that give you joy, whether it be just getting out in the open. Personally, I have a daughter. I love spending time with my daughter. I have two dogs. I love going on long, long walks with my dogs and just being out in the open, fresh air, clear your head and that's the way I try and start most of my days. I try very much, if I can, to keep my working hours to working hours. It's not always easy, but I try not to work round the clock. I think it can do harm. You always need to make sure you have time out. Just try and give yourself that time. Try and have other interests as well, and try and find things that give you joy . You need joy in your life. You need that break. Yeah. [00:24:06] Oluwanifemi: Talking about interest, do you have? Of course you have other interests apart from selling. What are your other interests? [00:24:11] Nikki: I love travel, traveling all the time, whether I'm at work or outside of work. I love spending time with my daughter and my dogs. Those are what I do most of the time. [00:24:23] Ogheneruemu: How do you maintain relationships with your customer? How do you foster those relationships? [00:24:28] Nikki: Honesty. Honesty. Being honest builds trust. Don't lie. Don't exaggerate about your service. Your service being the best thing since sliced bread if you know that it's just... [OLUWANIFEMI: But that's what sales people do.]No, no, no, no, no, no, no. One thing I always say, to anyone, I can't sell for an organization that I don't believe in their product. If I don't believe what I'm selling is any good, I can't work there. I would rather leave because I want people to know that I'm being honest with them. I don't want to lie to people. And you just be honest. And I think again, what that builds up when you have issues. It's how you deal with them. In our business, connectivity, we have network issues. All sorts of things could happen, but it's how you deal with it after. Are you honest with your customers? What happened? What caused it, and what you're doing to do to fix it? So I just believe in being honest, and again, selling at a fair price. Yes, you want to get the highest price you can get from your customer but at the same time, if you know, somebody is selling that same service for 50% less, you want to make sure you're pricing according to the market. Because tomorrow when he finds out, he's not gonna come back to me. It's like, why did you sell it to me at that price? [00:25:56] Ogheneruemu: Yeah. Interesting. Interesting. But have there been any point where you had to make a compromise that you didn't want to make? [00:26:06] Nikki: I mean, yeah. I want to sell for as much as I can for as long as I can. It's a give and take. I mean, it's a two-way street. I'm compromising. They are compromising. All transactions should be a win-win. You don't want to walk away saying, "yes, I won!" And meanwhile your client's thinking, "damn, that's a bad deal. But I had to go for it." I try and make sure it's a win-win. It's like I've given, but then they've also given. It's always important that you ensure whoever you are selling to sees the value in what you are delivering. Don't let them walk away feeling cheated or bitter and always think about the next time. Can you come back to that person again? Make sure you feel you can face them in the future and stand up to what you've sold them.

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