Work Hard

The woman on a mission to professionalise the sales industry

'Sales' can be a dirty word, but it's fundamental to each and every business. Jessica Williams from Just Williams is on a mission to change the industry.

Written by High Life North
Published 16.07.2022

One word we’d use to sum up our interview with Jessica Williams is purpose.

This is a woman with laser-focus on her business, what she wants to achieve and how she’s going to do it. Her mission isn’t easy. Sales is a profession that many people fall into by chance. You can’t get a degree in it, and let’s face it, not many people grow up with the ambition of being a salesperson.

Yet the irony of that is startling. No matter what business you’re in, sales is a fundamental part of its success or failure. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all salespeople for the businesses we represent.

Good salespeople are heavily sought after and well remunerated, and rightly so. It can be an exciting, rewarding and lucrative career. Which is why Jessica has dedicated her business to professionalising the sales industry.

Seven years in, she’s faced highs and lows (hasn’t everyone), and the result is a business with a diverse product offering, strong foundations (including working towards a BCorp accreditation), and a well defined purpose.

So let’s cut to the chase on sales. It can be such a ‘dirty’ word in business despite the fact it’s so fundamental. Why do you think that is?

I think if I look back on my career, sales has always had such a negative connotation, which is actually quite unique to the UK. If you look at the USA and our European counterparts, that’s absolutely not the case – it’s seen as a very well-paid and well respected profession.

In this country I think we associate sales with PPI, car dealerships, cold calling and door-to-door sales. Unfortunately everyone has experienced a negative, aggressive and pushy sales person and we remember that. We’ve probably experienced that in lots of other industries as well, but we don’t necessarily hold on to that same negative association.

There is no professional qualification, you can’t get a degree in sales, and there’s no entry criteria. It’s not a career path that many people choose, they often fall into sales because perhaps they can’t find another role, or perhaps they’re looking at entering a new market and it’s a good way in.

The irony is, you can have the best product or service in the world but if you can’t sell it, it’s going to fail. I personally don’t believe in unique selling points (USPs). People can change, prices can change and anyone can replicate your offering. You’re always going to need someone to sell your product in an often crowded market.

Talking about money is uncomfortable for a lot of people.

One of my soapbox topics is why we don’t teach financial education in schools because it’s so fundamental for everything. We have issues talking about money because it wasn’t talked about in school, but in our hierarchy of needs, if you don’t talk about money you’re going to be in a sticky situation.

Professional sales isn’t about mis-selling or trying to get more money out of people. Let’s say you’re a business that’s had the same customer for five years, but you’re still offering them the same thing for the same price. The likelihood is your business will have improved and your offering is more advanced. Being able to have conversations to introduce them to new products that add value to their business is vital. Instead of looking at always finding new leads, you should look at your customer journey and how you can add more value to customers that already like working with you.

Conversations like this can make people feel uncomfortable because it’s around money and it can feel like you’re exploiting someone but it’s not. As a result, people shy away from having those conversations and their business suffers as a result.

OK, so tell me about Just Williams and the sales solutions you provide.

We started in May 2015 when I saw a clear gap in the market for outsourced sales. We all know that finding good sales people is like finding hen’s teeth. It’s such a challenge for businesses and will continue to be a challenge.

Many businesses want to hire a salesperson and come up against the following obstacles:

  1. They don’t have the infrastructure in place to fully support them in their role
  2. It’s a big cost to hire a salesperson internally and there’s no guarantee that it will work out. It can take three to six months for them to build a pipeline to evidence whether it’s going to work or not and as a small business, you’ll have outlaid a lot of money to find that out.

I just thought – ‘there’s a different way to do this’.

It was just me when I launched from home and essentially I acted as an interim sales manager for businesses that were looking to grow. I was in essence freelance then got a couple of consultancy positions as an interim sales director which I loved, and then I hired my first member of staff and moved into our office at Fusion Hive in Teesside.

Just Williams at its core is an outsourced sales function to help businesses grow. I’m a strong believer in an outsourcing model – it helps businesses to control costs whilst accessing specialist skills and a team that is only focussed on doing one thing well.

We act as the sales team for a business, creating a strategy and executing it to help businesses grow.

The pandemic was tough but in the last two years we’ve had a 95% retention rate on our client base and I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved.

Sales Academy

The transition of sales in the last two years alone has been the greatest we’ve ever seen. Because of the pandemic we’ve had to operate differently and there isn’t currently any infrastructure for sales people to learn how to adapt to that, which is why we set up the Sales Academy.

We actually launched the Just Williams Sales Academy training at the end of 2019, offering face-to-face training with sales teams in businesses. We often work with them for a long time and set up a training plan for their team and have trained around 3000 people in the past 12-15 months.

It’s now been digitised and the online sales training is in pre-launch stage now, officially launching on 7th September at the Sales, Service and Success Conference in partnership with Teesside University Business School.

Sales, in my opinion, is a challenging career and we’re able to support teams through that and give them the infrastructure they need to succeed. We’ve got plans to take the Sales Academy national and have some really exciting partnerships that we’ll be announcing later in the year.

Hybrid

In 2020 we launched the sales and marketing arm of Just Williams. I’m incredibly lucky to work with Emma McDonald who heads up the marketing side of the business and is incredibly creative.

If you look at some of the most successful businesses in the world they’re ran by two people. If you can find the right person, it unlocks so much potential and also gives you someone to share the journey with, because it can be an incredibly lonely place.

We knew we wanted to add a marketing element based on feedback from our clients but we didn’t want to become a marketing agency. There are lots of marketing agencies but there aren’t any dedicated sales and marketing organisations for smaller businesses looking to grow and I could feel that.

Sales and marketing is often combined into one role but the skill sets required are so different. It requires specialist knowledge and focus.

So our hybrid offering does just that. Emma has a great marketing team and I run the sales team.

It hasn’t always been easy, has it? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

We think as business owners that we’re supposed to know everything and it’s impossible – especially when you’re starting a business from scratch. I’ve got a lot to thank NatWest for as I took part in its accelerator programme and it really helped me to get clear on how to scale my service-based business, as well as to stop procrastinating and just launch a minimum viable product at first. I took the leap and launched, and now we’re on version 20-something seven years later after learning, taking on feedback and developing our product.

Surrounding yourself with a similar network really helps and I believe it’s really important that we provide support for start-ups. I’m a massive advocate for mentoring and now I do a lot of that on a pro-bono basis. I really think we have a duty as business leaders to give back and support our next generation.

After I took on my first employee in 2016 and productised our offering into three solutions, we grew exponentially. We took on lots of apprentices and interns, took on loads of staff, won loads of contracts, won loads of awards and had some amazing years.

But I have to say that at the time I was actually in probably the worst places I’ve ever been. Anyone looking from the outside would wonder why, because we were doing so well but I struggled with keeping the infrastructure alongside our growth.

I think there’s too much pressure on businesses to scale – particularly in the current climate, survivability is key. I started feeling a bit of imposter syndrome. Whilst we were doing amazingly well, suddenly we weren’t. I was on the verge of having a breakdown and we started losing clients and losing staff. And I’m very open about it now because I think it’s really important to talk about.

So I took stock, made changes and it’s the best thing I ever did. This month we’ve just launched our new five-year plan. I’ve really learned from my past experience and feel very comfortable and excited about it.

One thing that’s served me very well is that I’m very reflective as a person. It’s important not to think that you’ll get everything right the first time because you won’t. So if you can be reflective you can always learn from it.

What kind of career can someone have in sales?

Sales is often not a career choice. Great sales people are remarkably difficult to find and are remarkably expensive, and rightly so. We operate in a world where your network is incredibly important and good sales people spend a lot of time curating that, so if they leave, it can have a huge impact on a business.

I absolutely love the world of sales because you get to find out so much about the business and support their growth. A great salesperson adds huge value. But you have to keep up to date and keep your knowledge where it needs to be.

At Just Williams we have a strategy of growing our own staff. We take on apprentices and have a partnership with Teesside University to take on graduates. Sales is a great industry to do that in because you learn the business and learn the network inside out.

It’s not just a young person’s game. I don’t think there are enough women in sales. There’s a real opportunity there for women who want to work in sales. Having people from different backgrounds in your sales team is incredibly important so they can relate to the different customers you have.

How would you like to see the sales industry develop in the coming years?

Our purpose for Just Williams is very much to professionalise the sales industry and for me that means creating entry criteria.

I would love to see everyone going into sales you say OK, can I see your CPD and your Just Williams Sales Academy certificates. We’re looking at providing training for 50,000 learners in the next year and have really big ambitions with that because there’s got to be an industry standard.

The other thing we’ve got to understand is that sales need a seat at the board table. It so rarely happens and there should be an understanding and respect for why sales need a seat at the table. Because I’ll say it again, you can have the best product in the world but if you can’t sell it, your business will fail.

We’ve got to change our perception of sales, and I like to think we’re at the forefront of that in the North East.

And finally, tell me how BCorp is about strengthening your foundations as a business?

When we started to look at the next stage of growth for Just Williams, it was all about getting a solid infrastructure. We started looking at how we can be more sustainable because environmental, social governance, equality, diversity and inclusion is really important to me.

Last year we came across BCorp and read about purpose over profit. And when I started looking into it I realised that’s exactly us, but we just hadn’t formalised it. BCorp is about getting the structure of the business right and ensuring that the business is a force for good. It’s not fluffy, it’s not about being a charity or saying you can’t make a profit, it’s about doing the right thing and for me that’s more important that anything else.

We’ve now submitted and are waiting for our audit to come back from BCorp and I’m confident that we’ll get that. I’m looking forward to becoming part of the BCorp community in the North East, because there are so many great businesses that are a part of it.

As we launch into our next five years, 5% of our profits will go to our charity partners, this year it’s the Girls Network and Red Balloons. I really hope that businesses start to look at the impact that they have and start to think about ‘what’s their purpose?’

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