Sue Rees in conversation with James Francis
James Francis enjoyed a highly successful 20-year career in sales in the scientific instruments sector, rising to business unit VP for a multi-billion dollar global enterprise. His career saw him conducting business in over 30 countries, building new local sales teams, developing existing internal and external sales forces, and designing and implementing sales training and development programmes. With an enviable track record and a passion for selling the right way, a change in circumstances and a period of reflection led him to form his consultancy, Gaido Scientific, in 2021.
Now with a team of five after less than a year in business, and with ambitious plans for the future in development, I wanted to find out from James more about his life and business background, the tools he has developed, and his thoughts on what successful sales and marketing should look like in the life sciences sector.
Sue Rees: James, thanks for taking the time to talk today. Can we start by finding out more about Gaido Scientific and how it can help organisations in this sector?
James Francis: Hi Sue, it’s great to meet you. It came out of my fascination with what makes a sales team and the challenges that a sales team and a marketing team face as they try and get on and work together. Gaido helps business leaders and sales and marketing managers when they are looking to launch, strengthen, or accelerate their business.
All the people in sales have an idea of what should be done in marketing, and all those in marketing have an idea of what should be done in sales. I’m doing a lot of work on harmony across those departments and putting solutions in place that eliminate the “they should be doing more of x” complaints that each will have about the other.
The other passion that’s driving my work at the moment is making sure that salespeople are actually told what their mission is! This was key in my previous leadership roles, where I was tasked with merging sales teams after acquisitions. So I’d have the situation where I needed to find out what sales team A was doing – lots of appointments, lots of visits. What about team B? They write lots of proposals and don’t do demonstrations. And team C? Well, they send lots of products out for people to try.
So I ended up with all these different salespeople, all working to different sales models, and in merging those together, it was common to find that the local management didn’t really have a good idea about what those people were actually doing and how well their approaches were working.
This all got me thinking. So much so that I ended up having to write a book about it. And that’s where I developed my model called SalesDISK, our sales strategy design tool. Effectively, this clearly shows you that you’ve got choices to make because your individuals can’t do everything. Let’s look at those and devise what’s best for your business based on your constraints and your customers’ buying journey. We also offer training, market opportunity assessments, go-to-market strategies, and advice and execution on transferring key skills into businesses.
SR: You had a long career in sales leadership in the sector before you decided to form your own business. Can you tell me more about your education and journey into the sector?
JF: Sure. I took a chemistry degree at Swansea University – but I’m not sure why! There’s no academic background in my family, and my generation was the first to go to higher education. But it was a bit of an expected path at that time – go to school and learn about 20 subjects, then do 9 for GCSE, then 3 for A-level, and then one degree. And unless you were really fortunate to know exactly what you wanted to do, you’re left blinking at the big wide world at the end of it! I did know that I never wanted to go anywhere near a lab again – lab work was not for me.
SR: So you didn’t have a particular path in mind?
JF: No. Other than I felt that if you went on to university, your options then became greater. And because at that time, studying for a degree was still free [in terms of no tuition fees], there was a bit of a different focus than today’s students have to have. I think we were all a bit naive that we’d turn up, get congratulated for our good A-levels for three years, and then get given a scroll and off we’d go and earn more money than we would have otherwise. The reality is you have to actually work while you’re there!
By the time I graduated, I knew that I was done with academia, and now I wanted to go out and start earning money. I’d always been a bit entrepreneurial as a kid, so I just wanted to do something, give value, and get paid for it. I’d always known that if you put effort into things, you’ll get something out of it.
I had a weird six months after graduating – just doing odd jobs to tick over and going fishing and vaguely attempting to “find a career”. One of my older brother’s friends was a recruitment consultant, and my brother had asked him to help me get something! He said, “we don’t really know what to do with people who’ve got science degrees but don’t want to do hard science except being salespeople.”
So that’s what I went off to do, and started as an internal salesperson. So I did that, did it well it turns out, and then became an external salesperson. I did the full old-school model – company Vauxhall Vectra doing 40,000 miles a year selling products to people in universities because it’s science and I could explain it to them.
Then that company was bought out, and I became the manager for the UK, and then the manager for the UK and Germany; and then the manager for Europe. Then I was asked to move to the US and help there, but I said no. So they said ok, you could help from the UK. And then I got asked to be head of sales in the US, and I still said no. Two years later, they called me up and said, “we’ve sacked your boss; you can run the US from the UK”!
So I stayed pretty much with the same company working my way up. But what was interesting was the constant stream of acquisitions which meant I was doing a lot of sales team amalgamations and development. That’s where my passion for training came from – because we could only really afford to hire graduates at this point rather than experienced professionals. So I had to design and develop training that would get people’s sales skills quickly to where they needed to be.
SR: Things seemed to be going well, then! When and why did you decide that you wanted to really kick in that entrepreneurial side you mentioned and start up your own business?
JF: We were acquired in 2019 by a huge corporation who then decided to merge us with a sister company. But they did it without actually knowing what the merger should look like – their attitude was, “it’ll be fine, just leave it as it is”.
So there was a constant bumping of heads between the two original teams, and eventually, the owners decided they needed to merge it properly and said, “you’re going to lead Europe”. I said, “I did that ten years ago; that’s not going to happen.” So it was a breach of my contract, and I left.
Now consultancy had been in the back of my mind for some time because I’d always loved the training and also when people from outside the business would come in with an unencumbered and emotionless eye for what was going on.
SR: What was the gap in the market that you felt you could fill?
JF: Over the last five years, my role moved over more into marketing. What I found there was that there is a tremendous disconnect between marketing people and small businesses. Everyone seems to have this appetite for spending huge amounts of budget on social advertising. I have a bugbear about companies getting on the bandwagon of every “World Something Day” there is. Look, there are obviously some of those that we should all be embracing, International Women’s Day, for example, and other universal diversity and inclusion causes. But for anything beyond that, I think there needs to be a link to what you do, or it’s just lazy marketing and filler.
So a lot of businesses have a big disconnect between marketing and marketing communications and how this links into sales. So that got me thinking that a lot of marketing has to be more impactful, especially if you are trying to sell into a niche market because niche markets are not well funded.
You see companies deciding to sponsor an academic event for a large amount of money. And when you look into what they get for that it boils down to your company name on the opening slide, and a note of thanks from the keynote speaker, and that’s it. There’s going to be no real value for you for spending that money, so don’t do it.
I think many small businesses burn out in the early days because they spend too much time and money trying to do everything.
So that combining solving that marketing disconnect with my experience of how to make sales teams and sales leadership more effective was the gap I felt needed filling.
SR: Can you give me an example of one aspect of your work that you’ve been helping your clients with recently?
JF: It turns out that almost all of my clients want to send out spam. Now, they don’t ever think they are spamming; they all think they are giving tremendous value. But in effect, they all want to send everyone adverts.
I’ve been working with them to help them identify the right people to send their information to so they can have conversations. It’s so much more powerful to approach someone with, “I see that you’re involved in field X; I wonder if you can help me work out if these things are useful to other people working in that area?” So now you’re not spamming. What you’re doing is outreach. And from there, your salespeople can then do really valuable prospecting.
So showing my clients the tools they can use to do this helps them, but it also helps the customers stop receiving so many adverts!
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told: “we bought 10,000 email addresses and didn’t get a single reply!” When I ask what they sent out – turns out it was an advert! How many ads do we all receive each day? How many do we ignore or delete?
SR: And you set this up in the middle of a pandemic?
JF: Yes! It coincided with me having some time to think. I was leaving my previous employer, and I was also having a knee operation. One of the things I always used to say to my regional sales managers was, “get bored; it’ll start you thinking”. So I did. And I was able to gather all my thoughts, my experiences, and everything I’d learnt over the years and brain dump the lot. I’ve never been one to be able to just do nothing, so I took advantage of that!
That was when I thought I need to write a book because I’ve now got to curate all this stuff into something contextual and valuable. That became SalesDISK and the kernel of setting up a company that could be scaled and offer wider support and advice than I could ever do with the individual consultancy work that I had done here and there.
SR: Can you tell me more about the SalesDISK tool and how it can help businesses?
JF: SalesDISK is a tool that helps companies understand and develop their existing sales model, or build a new one from the ground up.
By showing you where your sales focus should be, the tool helps you to define the role of your salespeople really precisely, which helps you recruit the right people for the job and bring them up to speed more quickly.
It also assigns individual responsibilities across the whole sales journey. So many salespeople aren’t 100% clear on what their responsibilities are and where other individuals, teams, or departments should be taking it on. By defining these, you directly impact the efficiency of your sales team by showing them where they should be spending their time.
A classic example is defining who should be doing product demonstrations. Is it the salesperson’s responsibility, or is it an application specialist? Do you want to be covering the UK with four salespeople doing everything, or two salespeople and four application specialists? If both cost the same amount of money, which will give you greater returns? What about an internal sales function? They could be doing half the calling, allowing your external team to be doing more closing. This lets you build a cohesive team across the business.
There’s a whole raft of other benefits to the tool, including increasing hit rates, understanding how your customers are buying from you, assisting you to really get to know your market and spotting the gaps you can fill.
For existing businesses, it’s an evaluation and improvement tool, and for new businesses, it helps you build a go-to-market strategy and an effective sales function from the ground up.
SR: It seems to me that SalesDISK could be extremely valuable when companies are looking to recruit?
JF: Indeed. Here’s the job specification for every sales job, ever:
“Respond to incoming leads and generate new business; Understand what’s happening within your market; Perform demonstrations, sometimes with assistance…” and so on.
They are always generic, and they never tell you what you are meant to do during your day. If the answer is “you work it out”, then it’s not a scalable business! If you ask a business manager what they want in a salesperson, most of them will give you a list of everything they’ve heard about sales, and that really doesn’t help you find the right people.
That’s where the graphical representation of the SalesDISK model helps because at a glance your salespeople can see exactly how much of each area of focus they are responsible for, and therefore how much of their time needs to be given to those areas and what’s expected.
If you’re interviewing, it gives you the ability to choose candidates whose strengths coincide with the areas of responsibility your sales model now shows they need to perform in.
SR: Do you agree with the stereotype that academics never make good salespeople because they tend to be introverts or not as empathetic as non-academics?
JF: I think you have to draw a distinction between people with an academic mindset and people with higher academic qualifications. For example, in the businesses that we are helping that sell into universities and pharmaceuticals – really technical fields – PhD’s can have a real advantage in terms of having empathy with those customers, and there’s a comfort in communicating with them. Those people can make very successful salespeople, but not if they have a full-on academic mindset. I’d say in this industry at the moment, 40 to 50% of the performing salespeople have a PhD.
I think part of the reason why some academic people avoid going into sales is that they have a view of selling as if all salespeople are like Danny DeVito’s used car dealer character in the movie Matilda. It’s all about putting sawdust in the gearbox to make it sound smoother or winding the miles back to trick people into thinking it’s had an easier life.
But sales should never be like that. Sales should always be about helping customers achieve something while also helping yourself. Consultative sales is the right way to be successful in the industry we’re in.
I don’t think it’s true to say academics always tend to be introverted, either. I know plenty who are extremely charismatic, who have run huge labs, or come up with a fantastic idea and won large amounts of investment to start great businesses, and so on.
And sales can be an attractive proposition for people who have been immersed in academia for a while but they’ve come to the end of that journey, particularly if you position it correctly. How do feel about going out and telling people how clever you and your company is while driving a car that someone else is paying for, and at the end of the day you will get to help them do their science? Oh, and by the way, you get to do the science every day with zero responsibility for it! If the science doesn’t work, it’s not your problem anymore. Losing that personal responsibility for spending three years in the lab only to find that your science doesn’t work can be a huge relief.
SR: You took the big personal step of starting your own business. What do you think are some of the key challenges entrepreneurs need to overcome?
JF: I think the sheer “mathematics” of starting a business is one! But I think if you can’t get your head around the accountancy and the related financial planning then you’re probably not cut out to be an entrepreneur because it’s vital.
Working out your pricing is part of that challenge. But so is defending it – sometimes from yourself. When you startup, you’re in a situation where having something seems very attractive if you have nothing. However, I think that if you’ve decided after several years that you’re ready to go it alone you will have built up so many contacts – so many people who would want to hire you – that you won’t be in the position of not having any work when you first open for business.
Another thing you need to be really critical about is what you decide you are NOT going to be doing! It’s almost more important than deciding what you are doing. An example is deciding the right time to bring staff in – because when you do, you’ve got to stop some of the other stuff you were doing (and getting paid for) to manage them properly.
You also need to make sure you put time aside for future-proofing the business. If you’re not spending time every week on working out how this thing becomes bigger, then you’re never going to reap what you’ve sown. If you do a piece of work for a client, you’ve effectively just done a shift! And now the shift is finished, and the work is stopped, and you have nothing. So you must keep that in mind.
Sue Rees is an expert C-Suite executive search specialist with over 25 years of experience in Pharma, Biotech, Lifesciences etc.