Today we’re joined by sales legend that is John Maffioli. As the youngest ever BD Director at EY, John was the first person within BD to get onto the firm’s prestigious Accelerated Leadership Programme. However, he then caught the entrepreneurial bug and launched two content platforms, CLIC and FEBE, through which he now interviews the UK’s greatest business leaders and entrepreneurs.
I’ve known John for many years and he is quite simply one of the most charming bastards in business, so I’ve been really looking forward to this. Some of the themes we’re going to talk about include: how sales has evolved in recent years for B2B and professional services, what to look for in a great BD person, and why cold calling is far from dead. We’ll also be competing for the most embarrassing moment in pitches and presentations. I’m pretty sure I’ll win but you’ll have to be the judge.
John, thank you so much for joining us.
Dan: I’d love it if we could just kick off with perhaps you giving a little overview about what it is that CLIC & FEBE do, because quite unusual business models, big overlap between the two, but I know they’re also quite distinct in themselves. So if you could just give us a bit of an introduction to those two brands, that’d be fabulous.
John: Sure. Well, thanks, Dan. Thanks for having me, really nice to be chatting with you. You know, I’ve been seeing the videos that you’ve been doing, which I’ve seen on LinkedIn which are absolutely awesome. I find myself sometimes crying with laughter at some of the, very frank, abrupt ways that you say stuff. So I thought this would be a really fun podcast to do. So I don’t know if I can be as entertaining as you, but we’ll give it a go.
But in answer to that then, CLIC & FEBE, they’re content platforms, in a nutshell. CLIC has been going, some time now and initially very much focused on professionals. And then we started to increase the content into entrepreneurs.
You know, it’s not like CLIC came before FEBE. FEBE has been in the back of the mind for ages. FEBE stands for: for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs, and it was always set apart as being, in my mind, the place where we would put the ultimate entrepreneurial content, the kind of platform that if you looked on it, your jaw would drop you would be like: “Wow, look at these people that are on this website.” It’s taken years to get to the point, because we were hustling the person that owned the .com for ages, trying to get that. And as you can imagine for many, many years, it was, “Uh, I don’t want to sell that”. And then when we did get the.com, it was then getting all of the trademarks all around the world done. So we wanted to keep it mothballed and quiet.
So the very long answer is CLIC is a content platform which focuses on professionals and entrepreneurs. And FEBE really is a content platform where we focus on the household names, the entrepreneurs that you would have read about or you’d have heard about, because we wanted to create the world’s greatest concept platform for entrepreneurs with FEBE. So content is the name of the game. And then on the back of that, we just sell some nice services to people that are interested in content services.
Dan: That’s awesome. So just focusing on the professionals side of it for a moment then, cause I think, I mean, your background is a fascinating one. I think I’m right in saying that you were the youngest ever business development director for EY or something to that effect.
That’s not a million miles off, is it?
John: Yeah, no, I proudly was back in the day, been keen to put that on my resume.
Dan: And then obviously over the years you’ve spent lots of time around some of the UK’s most impressive entrepreneurs as well. So, you kind of understand all parts of the business landscape, the business spectrum.
I just wonder, if you were just looking at the professionals for a moment, what would you say were – in 2021, because the landscape has changed a lot – what are the kind of two or three unifying traits that the professionals that are doing exciting things now share?
John: Well, great question. So Dan, just to go back on that, the business development is kind of where I ended up, but I actually did many years before that in audit. Trained with the EY, many spent as an auditor and was given an opportunity by chance to go into business development and absolutely loved it because, you know, I was lucky enough to therefore do something that just excited me.
Business development by the definition for me, was learning how to pick up the phone, get in front of new people and then the whole fun and games of how you then build a relationship. That really was the start of an obsession with professionals. And I think for me, the human side of professionals is so important now, you know, long gone are the days when you would differentiate someone necessarily or completely through their technical knowledge. I think, because we now live in a knowledge economy where people can far more freely work out or get access to the facts, that’s where the key differentiator for me with professionals is now. It’s really about everything else in terms of their ability to really build up rapport with a client, the ability to be able to take the technical side of what they’re talking through with the client, and then actually make that, so that it comes across in a really authentic, real, interesting way. So I think it’s the way that advice is delivered. I don’t think people want to talk necessarily to technocrats.
They want to talk to people who understand and have a very deep understanding of their specialism but can deliver it in a way that is just real, that has got a real human aspect behind it, some authenticity. Which is why I think it’s fascinating how you see so many professionals these days not donning, suits and ties. That for me is unthinkable, really, when I was back in the industry all those years ago, it was always a shirt and tie because that’s what we did. We lived up to the cliche, you know, you’re an accountant, so you dress like an accountant. And that’s no longer the case.
It’s all about the context. It’s the ability to take that knowledge and be able to deliver it in a way that really brings it to life and in a way that people like, and they see the human side of the professional. Cliche free, completely cliche free.
The second thing for me is passion. Now, passion to me is such a cliched word, but if you actually think about the most passionate people you’ve ever met, they don’t rock up to you, shake your hand and say: “Hi, my name’s John. I’m really passionate about what I do.”
Dan: That’s literally what you said to me the first time we met.
John: Well there you go. I mean, I love Gordon Ramsey. I can watch him with the volume off, he’s just absolutely wired. And this is a guy that never, ever needs to announce to you that he’s passionate about what he does. It’s just so obvious and maybe some people, as I’m saying that are saying, “Well, I don’t agree with the way he conveys his passion”. I don’t think that matters. I think that’s the point. My point is you can just tell he has an infectious passion that hits you between the eyes.
You’ve got to be able to see that when they’re talking to you about the things that excite them, it’s just something to experience and enjoy. So for me it’s passionate, let it out and just don’t hold back. Don’t be constrained by the cliche of what you think is the stereotype of a counsellor or a lawyer. They gone, you know, they are the new breed of superhero professionals these days. They just own their skin and they bring it.
So that’s the second thing. And the third thing for me would be the importance of culture. Really knowing what the values are in the organisation and just being the complete personification of those values and living them and eating them and breathing them. I mean, how often do you see values on organisations websites, and they’re just the same old, same old, same old, same old stuff that you read on every other website. I think you’re starting to see the uniqueness in terms of how people articulate what they are as a group of people, what unites them? You know, what is the commonality amongst these people that are the reason why they are a part of their organisation. For me that brings a tangibility again, to professionals because you understand what they stand for, you understand why they do what they do from a personal point of view and even from the organisation’s point of view.
So I think being able to really articulate that is a great thing.
Dan: One of my first impressions of you, or one of the first things that really struck me about the John Maffioli brand was whilst in some respects, you’re an incredibly confident person and you’ll always put yourself out there, I think like most people, you’re very honest about how you’ll experience some anxiety in this situation, that situation, you don’t necessarily think you’re like God’s gift to everything. But what you’ve always done is you’ve never allowed that to be a barrier to you getting stuff done.
And I think one of the ways in which that was always so evident to me was your willingness to get on the phone and open up even the most tightly shut door. You just had an ability to, I think, partly through your kind of disarming honesty and very self-deprecating manner, you just had an ability to create opportunities out of nothing, very often, via the telephone.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on that for a few minutes. Is that stuff old hat? Is it all social media now? Or is there still a role for those people who are able to create that cold calling magic?
John: So, thank you very much, you said some lovely stuff about me then, I really do appreciate it.
Just to clear up a few facts on the earlier stuff, the difference between being confident and projecting confidence, I think is a massive thing. I’m crippled of anxiety, pretty much every day I wake up, self-doubt, uh, which I thought would get better the older I got, but seems to be getting worse. So anxiety is always frustratingly being something that’s has held me back. And I think it’s just an absolute determination to not let it hold you back. And you know what, learning how to fake it, because one of my favourite people I’ve had the pleasure to meet is a chap called David Beech, who is the CEO of Knights PLC. And he’s built that into a formidable firm and he’s such a great person. And it always used to make me laugh when he used to say, you know, just imagine you’re about to go under the knife to have your heart operation and the consultant pitches up bumbling and looking very worried, anxious, nervous. You don’t, you probably don’t want that. You want someone to walk in going, right. Okay. We’re going to be operating in the next couple of hours. This is what we’re going to do. These are the risks, you know, but at the end of the day, this is what the primary objective is. This is what we shall do. And we’ll see you on the other side. You know, you want that kind of person to come in and you’re not going to question what they say. It doesn’t matter. You just straight away you’re brought into the fact that they are confident and it wins you over.
So I think for me it was just learning how to protect confidence. Even if you don’t believe it, it’s a skill to do because you want people to believe in what you’re trying to do. And the beauty of that is the more you learn to fake it, the more you start to, the more you, do you start to believe it? I don’t know. But the more you start to think well, you know what I can do this. I can do this.
Dan: I think you get a little bit conditioned to it, don’t you? I think it’s not necessarily that you ever fully buy into it, but I think like anything in life, the more that you do something, the easier the kind of setbacks become and the more able you are to kind of, you know, shrug the challenges and disappointments off.
John: Exactly, the more you learn to fake it, the more you put yourself into a position where you have to therefore deliver on what you said you’re going to do. You don’t have a choice. ‘Cause you can get found out if you don’t. You know, you’ve got to go, right. Okay. I have said, I’m going to do that. I’m going to do it. And the thing is you start to see a track record where you start to go, well do you know what, I said I was going to do this and I did it a second time and a third time. And that for me is where you, therefore, start thinking I can do this. The inner demons in me are telling me I can’t, but history proves I can do it. So I’m going to do it.
So that, for me, is confidence. You know, you’ve got to let the anxiety not be the thing that limits you in life and takes you over. And it’s how you just start to really let that confidence come out in spades even if you never really believe it.
So how does that link to cold calling? I have so much respect, you know I hate it when people on LinkedIn bash cold callers. I saw it a few weeks ago, someone saying, “Oh, I had this call and blah, blah, blah. And this is how it made me feel.” Of course, cold calling done badly is awful. No one wants to receive a bad cold call. But when someone who’s probably having the door shut on them, hundreds of times a day, picks up the phone and you can tell they’re smiling and they’re trying their best to try and get you to engage with them. You know, first of all, I think to show them some damn respect and just talk to them and even if it’s just of no interest, thank them for the call and what have you.
But my point is I have a huge amount of respect for people that do that on a daily basis. Do I think this is the way to do business these days? No, I do think social media and what have you seems to work because people are short of time and it’s very focused and, you know, it seems to be a good way to be able to interact with people.
However, I think that we now hide predominantly behind social media and we’ve stopped picking up the phone to talk to people. So I will often, if I can access the number, and there’s always a way to get through to someone, I would always call it and just say, “Look, I’m just about to send an email. This is what I’m gonna be putting in. Please look out for it and if it’s of no interest, no problem”. But I think it’s a really powerful way to differentiate and stand out. I think a cold call done really well is a great thing, but so much respect for people that do it every single day. Good on them.
Dan: I totally agree. I think it’s a bloody difficult thing to do. I trained to do cold calling for Next Directory about 400 years ago. And I won the award in the team that was being trained over this kind of three-day training process. And then we actually started and within about seven minutes I walked out the building. I couldn’t do it. I was having palpitations. It was awful. So huge respect for anyone that can.
Just on your second point. Absolutely, in a world of digital saturation – and this might sound like an odd thing for someone who runs a digital agency to say – but in a world of digital saturation often, it’s the conventional methods and channels that enable us now to cut through the noise because everyone’s on LinkedIn. Everyone’s on Facebook. Everyone’s sending out emails and everyone should be doing all these things, but if everybody’s doing it, then actually those traditional media have become the periphery. And it’s at the periphery where interesting things happen.
John: Absolutely. It’s such a good point, Dan. You know, you’ve got a cold call, then you’ve got a warm call. Now I love warm calls.
Let’s take an example of a networking event. You meet someone that you enjoy talking to, someone that could be great for business. You know, both of you could work together. Why waste your life sending an email after that? You know, if you’ve exchanged cards, you’ve got a number, pick up a phone and straight away get a dialogue going, because nothing beats human dialogue, voice to voice, face to face. It is the most powerful way to start to build a rapport and start to very quickly work out if you like each other. And if you like each other, you can do business together.
So for me, you know, cold call. Yes. Still a great thing to be able to do. A lot less than it used to be when it was the only way really that you could get in front of people. I think it’s nice when used in conjunction with all the other routes that we have to get to know people.
However, I think a warm call, the minute you’ve met someone that challenges that the key is to then be able to start to talk and get over the awkwardness of it. Because I think we’ve all got accustomed to feeling awkward talking to people we don’t know. I think that’s just what’s happened over the years of digital evolution. We are much less happy speaking to people.
Dan: Back to professional services. What is it that pisses you off most about the industry? Is there anything in particular that you look at and it’s obviously changed a lot in recent years, but is there anything, in particular, you look at and you just want to pull your hair out? You’re like, I can’t believe that companies, that professionals, are still making these same mistakes.
John: I think cliches, they drive me nuts. They drive me absolutely nuts. And I still think people use them too freely, you know, I was talking about passion earlier, you know, the amount of times people introduce themselves in pitch documents or whichever way, announcing their passion for your business. But yeah, I think cliches drive me crazy. Responsive, proactive, partner-led all these just yucky, corporate words that we see constantly on websites and pitch documents or when you ask someone to really tell you about them and all of a sudden you get these horrible cliches spewed out to you.
And I think that comes back to my point earlier, which is just be yourself, be human, let you out and talk like you would to someone you’re not trying to, you know, you’re not worried about putting that act up. Use and speak freely.
So yeah, cliches drive me absolutely bonkers. I mean, proactive. What does that even mean? Well, proactive means you’re thinking about your client, even when they’re asleep or, you know, even when you’re on your train home, you read something, it makes you think of them. That’s proactive. That drives me crazy.
And then linked to the cliches and the corporate guff is the values, all the time, the same stuff. I really thought that we were going to move a lot quicker in terms of seeing firms being able to express themselves and use language that really differentiates them by showing who they are.
Dan: Awesome. So I wonder from your experience of operating in these two very different worlds, right? So professionals at one in the spectrum, entrepreneurs at the other, maybe over the last 10 years, those two worlds have kind of come together a little bit, but fundamentally, still two very distinct parts of the business community.
I wonder from your experience, what you feel professionals could and should be learning from the entrepreneurial community? Because in a lot of professional service markets, it’s these kinds of startups, often tech organisations that are disrupting and doing interesting things and setting new standards, and established traditional professional service companies can just watch it and react and hope not to become obsolete. Or they can actually try and maybe learn some of those lessons and try and get ahead of that activity.
John: Well, great question. I love that. And I think there are certain things that really are very unique to the entrepreneurial mindset. The first one is the fearlessness of certain entrepreneurs. And what I mean by that is I find the entrepreneurs that we interview are just incredible people. I just can’t help but be knocked out by the courage, the persistence, the, you know, the doubters, the people that don’t think that, or advise that maybe this isn’t a good idea, what you’re doing, et cetera. There are a lot of very heroic characteristics that make entrepreneurs beautiful people to get to know and interview. And most importantly, to be able to really open your mind and open your ears to what they’re telling you and learn from it.
And for me, I think fearlessness is one. What I’m not saying is that all entrepreneurs do not experience fear. What I’m saying is that I think they embraced the fear and realise that actually they don’t have a choice to allow it to hold them back, to stop them. What I’m saying is the ability to realise that there were some major challenges ahead, but they have just got to get through them.
They have got to knock down walls and they have got to get to that end destination because failure is not an option. Failure is not an option. They’ve got to do everything that they physically can in their power to get through a certain situation to the end. And for me, I think that that’s a great lesson for professional services organisations, which is to sometimes stop allowing themselves to be managed by consensus, you know, everybody’s opinion slowing the process down, you know, have conviction, stop thinking of a thousand reasons why not to do something and focus on the one, you know, get everybody behind that one reason. Talk about it. And once you’ve made up your mind, you go for it. And if there are obstacles, you’ve just got to deal with them.
And I think that persistence, which is very much related to what I was saying just then with the fearlessness. It is the persistence of these people that is just sensational. It’s just beautiful to see just the determination dogged determination to achieve that end goal.
When you think of a lot of the entrepreneurs, how much they’ve had to hustle to get their product known, to get their brand out there, to get people listening, hearing to them, to get customers buying their products or their services. I think the art of the hustle is a mindset. And again, I think that hunger and that ambition is something that sometimes is lacking in the professional services industry.
Dan: And from a business model, from a commercial perspective, because obviously a lot of these entrepreneurial businesses, these kinds of tech startups they are structured very, very differently and they’re in a position where they can afford to have certain non-commercial metrics by which they measure their success – particularly during the early phases – and a traditional partnership, for example, it just would never fly, right?
They’ve spent 30, 40 years climbing the greasy pole and now is that time to, you know, make hay while the sun shines. And they may only have five years to do that. So I’m oversimplifying it, but if they don’t take that profit out today, while they’ve got the opportunity, they’ve missed their chance. For a more entrepreneurially minded business, they might focus on what they might call like a north star that has nothing to do with revenue or profit for those first few years.
I just wonder if you have any thoughts on that? I guess more from a kind of business model point of view?
John: Well, what a great observation. And you are bang on. I think the key thing there, the observation is the difference between short-term and long-term thinking, you know. Short-term thinking is being absolutely paranoid about what that profit figure is going to be at the end of the year, because that’s basically, that’s what we all want. And higher that figure is, then great. And I think long-term thinking, especially when you’ve got so many more metrics that are helping to point towards that end destination when you’ve made it, is thinking about some of these tech businesses. For example, the whole decision-making process completely changes because it’s not about profit. It could be about followers. It could be about something completely different, but by focusing on those metrics that ultimately are going to keep on building value, long-term, medium long-term value in the business, the profit will come, hopefully. And when it does come, it comes in a big way.
And as a result, the decision-making process, the people that we hire, the things that we invest in, some of the really ballsy projects that we’re going to have a crack at to ultimately transform the way that we deliver our service to clients becomes completely transformed as a result of a long term thinking strategy.
So I think short term versus long term ism is a fundamental thing that as you rightly say, can with these entrepreneurial businesses, really set them apart from conventional profit-focused models. So, yeah, cracking question.
Dan: To finish on a slightly different one then. So I always admire and enjoy your honesty. So I’m going to hope that you’re going to be really honest in your answer here.
What was the biggest, most excruciating mistake you’ve ever made? In one of these environments?
John: There have been many. And the older you get and the more life delivers certain cruel things to you. I’m proud to say it’s certainly one of the things that I’ve started to adopt and practise which is you learn from it and you move on. I used to spend so much energy worrying about the mistakes I made. Hating myself. How could I be so stupid? And I think the minute you start embracing them and then making sure that you put systems in place to make sure they don’t happen again, you’re able to just apologise profusely if that’s what’s needed, and move on.
At the beginning, I think some of the most excruciating things were, so I got a date wrong, a complete date wrong for an instruction meeting with a massive prospect that I worked really hard to set up and when I think about how stupid this is, I just didn’t think to confirm the meeting the day before. And what happened is about a week earlier, I’d gone and put on the day before for the meeting, to which the prospect just looked at that and thought, “Oh, I thought it was the 13. It must be me that’s got it wrong. I’ll put it in my diary now.” So as a result, I just rock up with a very prepared team. We’d spent an hour and a half, two hours before getting ready, practising the questions that might come out of it and travelled an hour and a half to a completely wrong day.
So that was excruciating. Why I didn’t think to send a confirmation email, or even send diary invites, I’m afraid, is beyond me. But that was back in the early days.
In excitedness for picking up the phone – you have to get yourself so wound up to pick up that phone – I couldn’t remember whether Mr Smith’s name was David or John. So I picked up the phone and said, “Oh, can I speak to Mr Smith, please?” To which, you know, having worked so hard to get through to the plaster and secretary, it was, “Uh, okay. Which one?” And I was just like, oh my gosh, there’s more than one Smith? You’re kidding me. It’s a family business. It’s full Smiths. So, then I just started plucking names out. I mean, honestly, Dan, I’m just crying inside. Needless to say, the phone was put down on me.
So many stupid things. It’s unbelievable. Getting just hysterics talking to people at networking events. Someone said their surname to me in a very interesting way. I knew exactly how it sounded but the way they pronounced it was completely different. And this person was a big deal in an organisation, you could tell by their badge, the CEO of a great business. And I was just hysterics by the way they pronounced their surname. So yeah, I’ve done some pretty stupid stuff, but I’m glad to say that I’ve learned from them and don’t allow them to happen again.
Dan: Do you know what I think that it can beat you. I was going to refrain from sharing any stories, but I think I can definitely beat you.
So I think around the time that we first met you, remember we held an event in Leicester? That was when we’d known each other for a year, but just around the time we first met, I held a very similar event in Leicester. There were around 130 people there including my dad and my sister, my brother-in-law and then lots of, you know, pillars of the local business community. And I’d spent so long helping everyone else with their slides that I had somewhat neglected mine.
I’d always been a big fan of this saying that goes something like bullet points kill kittens or something, right. The idea being that you should basically make them very visual, avoid bullet points. So I did that and I had the most beautifully visual slide deck. The trouble was, when I started it – in front of however many, 120, 130 people – I immediately forgot what the first slide meant. It was just a picture. So I went onto the next slide in the hopes that it would trigger a thought. And it didn’t. At this point, I stood in silence for about 12 seconds in front of a large number of quite confused people. So I went back a few slides and sort of started again, still nothing. But at this point it’s probably been about 20 seconds. Right. And I feel like my brain is leaking out of my ears and I basically just introduced the next person and I went and sat down.
I had spent months organising this event, getting everyone in the room.
John: I remember just thinking how well you styled it out when you realised the mistake you’d made earlier. So I thought you did a great job then.
Dan: That definitely is not honest. If you were there, you would know just how tragic it was.
John: Oh, sorry. I’ve just gotta say one more.
I was speaking at a conference that a competitor had invited me to speak at. Right. Just as a joke, I thought to myself, oh, I’ve just got to make sure that I don’t put the other competitor’s logo anywhere in the slide deck.
So lo and behold, I get up to speak – there must have been about 300, 400 people in the room – it looks massive because everyone’s at the table. So as you can imagine, those 300, 400 people then look like a thousand because it’s just so spread out amongst his massive auditorium. And the one slide I had not checked was the very first slide. And the very first slide was their biggest competitor’s logo. So that was a lesson in disaster recovery.
You know what it’s like: the sweats, the hot flutters. You feel like you just want to disappear. You feel like that’s it, you’ve ruined it. But I had a forty-five minute slot, so I didn’t have a choice. To this day, actually, that is the most excruciating thing.
Dan: I’m just going to wrap up with one that actually will put all of ours in some perspective. It’s a chap that you and I both know – not going to mention his name – started a presentation in front of a very large household brand and opened up his laptop, on the enormous projector behind him appeared a page from PornHub. And he just had to carry on.
There’s always somebody in a worse position.
Well, John, thank you so much for this. It’s been tonnes of fun. Really, really enjoyed it. Learnt loads. Some challenging ideas there, particularly I think around some of those more traditional methods. Those good old techniques, they just don’t really go anywhere. And as you say, I think in the professional world, we start to kind of lose ourselves. I think if anything, some of those methods may become more impactful than ever.
John: Thanks, Dan.