Interview with Razi Afghan: a “degree in people” to succeed in sales

Author Patrick Sommerfelt
July 17, 2023

At Carter Murray, we support sales professionals across the full marketing spectrum.

Our own Patrick Sommerfelt is a specialist in the recruitment of sales professionals across the commerce and industry space with a particular focus on the SaaS and technology sectors.

In his latest industry leaders interview, Patrick sat down with Razi Afghan – a VP Sales professional with over 20 years of career experience.

Can you tell us about your role?

I manage enterprise teams selling data, information and SaaS solutions into the life sciences sector. My role is to lead, manage and coach team members to grow and deliver on personal and team goals. Sales is how we keep score, though there are important leading indicators to consider as well.

My default approach is EQ-IQ balanced leadership. From my experience, the fundamentals that help to achieve consistent levels of performance include: 1:1 coaching, a robust performance management framework, cross-functional collaboration, building senior-level advocates and sales/buying process execution.

Can you tell us about your career to date?

My career is best summarised as white-coat-to-white-collar. Having started out in the lab I transitioned into startup biotech soon after the dotcom bubble burst. Within biotech, I earnt the right to move from the lab to commercial side. When funding dried up in the sector, and in the face of being told I was too academic, I forged a career in sales. Surrounded by good mentors, I was put on a leadership path which has culminated in managing enterprise salespeople for almost ten years. I’d like to think I’ve been doing something right for customers and colleagues alike!

Why did you want to become a sales professional?

I fell into sales largely through actions in adversity. It’s a story worth sharing as it might inspire others in a similar situation.

My journey into sales was like that of Daniel Larusso in the Karate Kid movie. In effect, I was inadvertently training myself for the career. The difference was I had no Mr. Miyagi to help me get there quicker. But I think I’d have been half the person I am now.

Back in the early 2000s (pre-LinkedIn) funding had dried up in startup biotech which meant I was effectively back on the job hunt. Getting considered for commercial roles was tough, especially as I was being pigeon-holed as an academic. That was despite sitting across the table at top tier investment banks, professional services firms, law firms and VCs.

Several hiring managers told me I’d never make a career in the commercial world, let alone sales. That seemed to spur this stubborn Scorpio on even more!

I had amassed four A4 Lever Arch files full of target companies on which I’d researched, built senior level contact lists, cold called, speculatively applied for and followed up on in a structured way. I attended hundreds of interviews over a two and a half year period.

Even Datamonitor, the company that eventually took a “punt” on me, interviewed me five times before reaching a decision. Bear in mind, I’d originally applied for a Healthcare Analyst position, but one of the interviewers thought I’d get bored and referred me to the Head of Sales and Head of Healthcare. Through the protracted process I was offered a sales position which I accepted.

So on entry into the profession, I did not have a burning desire to be in sales. The first six months were also tough – cold calling hedge fund managers that used colourful language as you sought to establish credibility. However, my thick skin helped me get through this phase (I’m an eczema sufferer after all), great people around me and the Daniel Larusso training.

After that first six months “rites of passage”, I had a good sense of why I wanted to build a career in sales. The excitement of knowing you could have a positive impact on the people and companies you engage with is a major driver. Linked to that, proving you can deliver value can be a strong basis for long term relationships. Because whilst technology is here to better “enable” sales, we are still engaging with humans (thankfully).

What do you value most about working in sales?

  • Helping customers solve problems
  • Building long term relationships (internal and client-side)
  • Embracing diverse backgrounds of team members (they coach you as much as you coach them)
  • Making a positive impact on others (in and out of work)
  • Pace of change e.g. technology, economy (conducive to accelerated learning)
  • Transversal view that enables development of business acumen

What key skills do you think sales professionals need to be successful?

  • Positive mindset (focus on controllables, do them well)
  • Industry knowledge (credibility gets you in the door quicker)
  • Customer-focused (think like a buyer, not your commission)
  • Delivering value (keeps you in the room – personal and business value)
  • Adaptability (cf. Einstein definition of insanity)
  • Collaboration (adopt an equal partner mindset – serve but don’t be sub-servient)
  • Develop a personal brand (linked to credibility and value – build your trusted network)

Is it important to have qualifications in sales or can you learn from experience?

Having a “degree in people” is important. Character even more so. We’ve heard of the Will-Skill-Hill analogy.

You can learn from experience.

Regarding experience, like any walk of life it’s how you invest your time, and your ability to reflect and adapt/reinforce accordingly. One of my mentors once said to me early in my sales career that you haven’t really made it in sales until you’ve experienced all of the following:

  • Won a deal from a winning position
  • Lost a deal from a winning position
  • Won a deal from a losing position

Fast forward to today those were wise words!

What advice do you have for those trying to get ahead in the industry?

  • Be the most accessible person
  • Hard work is a given – the force multiplier is building and leveraging a network through giving value. Aim to be the go-to person in your industry
  • Priority #1 – develop business acumen (e.g. MBA in 30 days)
  • Jim Rohn once said: “Invest in yourself, invest in your own self-education and then take that knowledge and use it to help others get what they want and need out of life. In the process, you will acquire power and financial freedom.”
  • “We get paid for bringing value to the marketplace. It takes time… but we get paid for the value, not the time.”
  • Be goal-oriented: Take a holistic approach (not just work-focused). Write them down, share with select people in your close circle and track progress (accountability)
  • Focus on the process more than the outcome (where the development lies)
  • Be curious about new technology and trends (e.g. AI/ML, data)
  • Meet as many different people as possible
  • Listen to understand, don’t judge

Do you have any recommended resources?

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