How to build a local sales machine with Foursquare’s David Greenberger

by Ramin Assemi

The last field David Greenberger ever thought he would end up in was sales.

It’s a pretty common situation—not many people think to themselves as children, “I want to be a salesperson when I grow up.” Firefighters, maybe. The President, definitely. Sales is less enticing for most people, and Greenberger was no different.

Fresh-faced from college, he interviewed at a New York-based startup called Yext, a provider of digital location management software. He said, “The only thing is I don’t really want to do sales.” They told him, “Don’t worry about it.”

He showed up for his first day of work, and discovered that he was one of the company’s first sales reps.

In a year and a half, Greenberger helped scale Yext’s 5 person sales team to 100 people. He did it again as a Director of Sales at Felix, an intelligent local advertising service which was then sold in 16 months to IAC (now part of HomeAdvisor)

Now Greenberger is the National Director of Sales for Foursquare, responsible for building out local (1–50 physical locations) and mid-market (50–500 locations) sales teams.

He’s at the forefront of local sales in tech, and has mastered the art of building and developing high intensity sales teams. He’s also one of Close.io’s favorite customers. Steli talked to David about his experience killing it in the local sales game, and how you can do the same.

Prefer to listen? Here's the audio version: 

Local sales 101: Prepare to suffer

Most people think of local sales as a more traditional avenue of sales, where reps pound the pavement and walk into brick-and-mortar stores all day to close deals. They picture dudes in ties shaking hands. They also couldn’t be more wrong.

At Yext, Felix, and Foursquare, all companies at the forefront of location services tech, Greenberger has managed supercharged inside sales teams. Reps make upwards of 150 calls a day to local businesses, only to land around 6 conversations with actual owners.

Selling to local is a high transaction game—you operate on smaller margins, and have to close more deals to keep your business profitable. Once you get a business owner on the phone, you’ve got to be ready to close right then and there.

Local sales takes relentlessness, persistence, and a high threshold for pain. It takes the ability to rise above the “no,” and thrive in the face of rejection.

When Greenberger first started at Yext, he wanted to quit every day. He came home from work to a tiny apartment in Chinatown, New York, feeling like he’d been punched in the face all day.

One day, everything clicked. He thought, “All right. I’m going to give this my best effort, I’m going to try as hard as I can. If it doesn’t work out, whatever.” He learned not to take rejection personally, and let himself relax a little and have fun. It made all the difference in the world, and within a year he became the company’s first sales manager.

In local sales especially, you need to relax a little in order to succeed. If you take each rejection personally, you’ll find yourself in the pits—your energy level and confidence shine through in everything you do. If you’re confident and comfortable, your prospects are more comfortable and confident with you, and you’ll close more deals.

Talk like a plumber

In local sales, you’re not calling up other tech companies or startups. You’re calling plumbers, coffee shops, and bars. In order to get through to them, you need to speak their language.

As Greenberger points out, one of the most common mistakes people make in the local and SMB arena of sales is overthinking things.

Don’t send an email that’s five paragraphs long, with a laundry list of call benefits. Don’t start a call by saying: “Ma’am/Sir, I’d love to talk to you about the solutions and optimizations that Foursquare has,” unless you like hearing the sound of prospects hang up the phone.

Instead, say: “Hey, do you have a quick moment? I thought this might be able to help you. Give me two seconds.” Keep things simple, and easy. Just get the conversation started, and see what sticks in order to close the deal. The closer you get to your customer’s level, the better.

At Yext, Greenberger would misspell words on purpose in email subject lines, and blast them to 100 people at once. Response rates shot up.

If your email is obviously automated, and decked out with marketing graphics, people don’t feel any responsibility to respond—nobody wants to talk to a machine. When people think there’s a real human behind the phone or the email, they have a real incentive to respond. Talk to people the way they talk normally.

“Don’t figure it out, find out”

In its early days, Yext didn’t have a model for conducting local sales. They built it through experimentation, grinding every day, and living on the phone.

Greenberger says, “There’s all these sales optimization tools today, and you hear things like cold calling is dead.” But at the end of the day, when you’re trying to call up the owner of a bar with three locations, you’re not getting a hold of him immediately, no matter how much fancy software you have.

You have to pick up the phone knowing that the first call won’t work out—you’ll get the bartender. And in the second call, maybe the janitor. You have to keep going until you get to the owner, and the only way to get there is to keep calling.

Greenberger advises newcomers to local sales to “just get out there, get the data [that's] out there, try a bunch of things, see what sticks, and then double down, and keep doing that over and over.” It was one of the earliest messages his mentor conveyed to him, "Don't figure it out, find out." [Tweet this!]

Most people don’t have the kind of resilience and stamina to succeed at local sales. They’re not willing to put in the work. If you are, you’ll win—it’s as simple as that. There’s no hack or trick that will magically part the waters, and close deals for you.

Grow your sales machine to crush local sales

A big part of Greenberger’s success is rooted in his talent at building and scaling high-intensity sales teams, and he’s gotten there through a managerial style that is consistently hands-on at every stage of the sales machine.

As you grow and start to scale your sales team, you’ll be tempted to shell out big bucks for veteran sales reps to keep expanding—don’t. Instead, Greenberger recommends hiring reps without much sales experience.

His operating mantra is: “I’d rather teach people my bad habits than have to correct someone else’s.” Inexperienced hires don’t come to the table with extra baggage, and set limitations for what they can and can’t do.

As a manager, it allows you to set limits based on what people are actually capable of, rather than what they think they’re capable of. Tell an experienced sales rep who’s made 50 calls a day his entire career that he has to make 150, and he’ll look at you bug-eyed. Tell someone with no sales experience, and he’ll shrug and think, “I guess I can do that.”

Look for hires who are aggressive, hungry, and team players. If you’re hiring fresh out of school, don’t look for someone who scored straight A's. Instead, find someone who got B’s, because they were overly social in school, took on a lot of activities, or worked a part-time job.

For local sales, you want hires who can work like a horse, and stare failure in the face without blinking.

Throw a curve ball during the interview

During the interview process, you’ll be tempted to attract the best and brightest by talking about how amazing the job is, and highlighting its perks.

Greenberger does the opposite, and gets real with prospective hires. It’s an incredibly valuable tool for letting the best sales reps self-select, and rise to the top.

In each interview, he tries to scare prospective hires out of the job. He tells them, “This is going to be the hardest thing you'll ever do. I don’t think you can handle it.” It’s both a true statement, and a subtle test of each interviewee’s resolve, and hunger to succeed.

There's two different reactions to this challenge:

  1. “Oh boy! What am I getting into?”
  2. “Don't tell me I can't handle it. I can.”

The first reaction comes with a deer in the headlights look, and a stutter. If someone can’t handle a bit of challenge during the interview, they’re probably not cut out for sales.

The second is an indicator of an amazing salesperson—they get revved up in the face of challenge. They’re the kind of person who can get yelled at all day over the phone without skipping a beat, who can’t see a roadblock without thinking of ways to push past it. And if they can handle the “you can’t do it” objection, they’ll probably be good on the phone too.

For your new hires, being on the phone for the first week is like getting punched in the face a hundred times. It's rejection after rejection. It takes a type-A personality to succeed at the job—someone who can bring it every day, and thrive from rejection.

Hire on trial

You can interview the shit out of your prospective hires. You can ask them deep, incisive questions, and get a sense of their personalities. But at the end of the day, sales is a full contact sport, and you need to throw someone the ball to see how they play.

When you’re building a team for local sales, you have to make sure new hires can get the job done. The only way to do that is to take them for a test drive.

You need a barometer to see if new reps can handle the heat, and get your salespeople going right from the start. At Foursquare, Greenberger hires sales reps on a trial basis. He establishes a baseline quota of deals closed within a 60-90 day period that trial hires need to meet in order to make the cut.

Set this quota based on what you can do yourself, and know is possible. Lead by example. If you can close 180 deals in 60 days, ask your new hires to close 40 deals in the same time period. You can tell them, “I know I can make three sales a day. I’m only asking for one.”

If you hire on a trial basis, you need to be transparent about the entire process, and do everything you can to make sure your new hires have the tools they need to succeed.

Greenberger is extremely high touch with his new sales hires. They go through:

  • 5-day training in the classroom with Sales 101, and everything they need to know about the product
  • Constant one-on-ones to evaluate progress, and coach new reps
  • A minimum of one manager to every 10 trainees

Throw your new hires to the wolves. Have them up and running right from the gate—but provide them with a support structure that enables their success.

Cultivate outsized results

“I got a really big team, they need some really nice things.”—Drake

When you’re struggling month-to-month to meet quotas in the early-stages of your startup, it can be hard to think beyond the next call, demo, or deal.

But what differentiates the most successful and effective sales managers from the rest is the ability to understand the long-term goals and ambitions of individual team members. It’s one of the most powerful ways to cultivate trust with your team members, and inspire outsized results.

As Greenberger says: “If you hire really ambitious, entrepreneurial people you better have spaces for them to go.” Salespeople are driven and ambitious, and it’s what makes them good at their jobs. By understanding where they want to go in the future, you can maximize results in the present.

Greenberger speaks to each of his reps about what they want, and why they’re doing the job.

  • Do they want to make a ton of money—why?
  • What do they want to spend it on?
  • Do they want to advance their career?
  • Do they want to learn how to build their own sales team?

If someone wants to start selling to enterprise, bring them onto your larger calls, and get them talking to enterprise. See if you can help reach their own career goals. If you can help them get there, not only will they perform better, but they’ll also trust you and stay with you longer.

Realistically, if you have 50 people on your sales team, you’ll only have a couple of manager and enterprise positions open at any given point. High sales rep turnover is a fact of life for startups—a Bridge Group survey shows around a 34% rate of attrition for sales reps at the average SaaS company. If you’ve taken the time to deepen relationships with your sales team, you’ll cut this number significantly.

But not all of your reps will stick around waiting for bigger positions to open up—and this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. When you coach young sales talent, you have the opportunity to build relationships that will last for life.

Even when people grow out of your business, it’s still good for your business. Invite them to your office, and show them off in front of your current team. You can say, “Hey, this is what a junior sales rep turns into after they work with us.”

Scale culture every day

Even with the best team, local sales is still rough. Cold calling 150 different receptionists, bartenders and baristas each day isn’t fun. It’s hard work. If you’re doing it in a cubicle with a bunch of 50-year-olds in suits, it starts to become impossible. For Greenberger, investing in the right culture for his sales team is one of the most important aspects of local sales.

Energy is contagious, and it’s especially important to keep tabs on it when you’re running a large team over 30 people. When one person’s down and out, it saps the entire team’s morale. When people are upbeat and bustling with energy, the whole team is more productive. Create a positive culture where you and your team look forward to walking into work every day, and you’ll reap the dividends.

Foster friendly competition

Sales people are naturally competitive, and fostering a culture of friendly competition is a powerful motivating force. It keeps the blood pumping and the energy flowing for you and your team. It pushes you through the slumps and the off-days. Get everyone to go above and beyond, by spicing things up.

Greenberger’s team at Yext would bet on everything: how many donuts they could eat in the morning, if a team member could keep his hand on his monitor for more than an hour, who could seamlessly drop Rick Ross into a sales call.

He kept a scoreboard up everywhere in the office, so team members could see how each other’s performance. In doing so, he’s gotten some of his sales reps to clock 300 calls in a single day.

You don’t need to spend a lot of time and money to incentivize your sales reps—and doing so can create a dog-eat-dog environment that you want to avoid. All you have to do is tap into that natural drive and competitive streak which caused you to hire them in the first place.

Take the top performers of the week out for ice cream, or drinks after work—little things that jazz up the work day. Keeping track of everyone’s sales success on a leaderboard is a great way to show public recognition for high performers, and induce the kind of friendly competition that will propel your business forwards. It helps your reps shift focus from getting pounded and rejected daily to the actual sales process, and behaviors that they can actually control and improve.

Optimize for fun

For David Greenberger, the other critical component to building culture is fostering an atmosphere of fun. You don’t have to blow a fat wad of cash to start investing in culture. It’s not about having TV’s for everyone on the team, or fancy gadgets—it’s about attitude. Create an environment where your reps look forward to coming into work every day, and your business will see immediate returns.

Step into Foursquare’s New York office, and you’ll see this emphasis immediately. Turn the corner to where the sales team sets up shop, and you’ll start to hear the music thumping, and feel the energy buzzing. (You can even listen to the same playlist as Dave's sales team on Spotify here.)

As Greenberger points out, sales is “like a party … if you come in and you hear people going nuts and having fun, it’s a party you want to be a part of. That’s kind of how you should judge your sales force, too.”

Even just playing music helps release tension from the day-do-day grind, and has everyone more relaxed and productive. You get the buzz going and the energy flowing. It’s also a lot easier to do your job when you’re not worried that the guy next to you is listening to what your saying.

There’s two main benefits to this:

  1. Once your team is comfortable and confident, that confidence translates into their sales calls—and they’re more successful. Making it fun for your team makes it fun for your prospects too.
  2. Sales is hard. A fun, enjoyable workplace culture takes the edge off the constant rejection.

You need to build a culture for your team where people enjoy spending time together, working together, and competing with each other. As Greenberger says, “If they believe that they’re having fun at what they’re doing, they’ll run through walls.”

Do it for the team

David Greenberger has come a long way from his time sweating it out in a Chinatown apartment with ten roommates. He’s one of the reasons why Foursquare’s revenue is doubling every year, and he’s taking his experience in local sales to crush the mid-market and enterprise arenas.

As salespeople, we love commissions. They’re part of the reason why we work so hard, and reward all-star performance. But in the startup world, what people often don’t realize is that what drives your larger personal and career success is the success of your company.

Greenberger got to where he is today by eschewing the dog-eat-dog mentality that salespeople often devolve into, and focusing constantly on the success of his team and his company. Ultimately, sales is a team sport.

PS. Check out Building the Sales Machine and David Greenberger’s sales blog for more extraordinary sales advice.