Lead interview: Matt Sykes

Managing Director, Salescadence

Our lead interview in the TEAMWORK issue of Norfolk Director business magazine is Matt Sykes.

Published in UK Director Magazines Spring 24

Giving sales training momentum

“There is no accreditation to be in sales; there is no MBA. You’re given a phone, a laptop and car keys, and sent off out into the world. That’s why sales gets such a bad name. We’re releasing people into the environment, who don’t know how to do the job properly.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock / Anna-Marie Casas Pictures: Warren Page

Matt Sykes talks to Norfolk Director

What is a business without sales? The lifeblood of every company, it drives a business forward and is the main contributor to its very existence and future growth.

So, why is it that the sales team playing this crucial role is not given the training focus that’s required to deliver that? It’s a question that sales specialist Matt Sykes has long been asking and is now addressing.

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The Secret to Sales

Heading up his own sales training and coaching company in Norfolk, Salescadence, Matt spent two decades working in sales before finding the key that unlocks sales success and showing others how they can too.

“There is no accreditation to be in sales; there is no MBA,” he observes. “You’re given a phone, a laptop and car keys, and sent off out into the world. That’s why sales gets such a bad name. We’re releasing people into the environment who don’t know how to do the job properly.

“When you think how important generating revenue is – or the risk that comes with brand deformation by getting it wrong – why on earth would you not find some way to ensure that your salespeople know exactly what they’re doing and that they get it right every time?”

After delving into the psychology underpinning sales and self-development, Matt has become an authority on the subject. He has two published books to his name, hosts a successful podcast, trains sales teams across the country, and is a keynote speaker at conferences, including the Norfolk Director event in December 2023.

So, where did it all start for this sales supremo helping companies maximise their sales potential, and was he a natural born seller from the off?

Acting Aspirations

Matt was born in 1968 and grew up in the Norfolk village of Poringland with his parents, and two older sisters. His father was the general manager of Jarrolds printing company in Norwich, while his mother was a PA at architectural firm, Lambert Scott & Innes.

A pupil at Poringland Primary School and then Framingham High School, Matt describes himself as ‘not very academic’, but enjoyed drama and sport and had a happy childhood. With aspirations to become an actor, he took the lead role in a school production of Rumpelstiltskin.

“I can still remember wearing the big ears and long hair to this day. I’ve just always enjoyed being front of house and knew I wanted to be on stage. I’ve never had a problem standing up in front of people, which is why I’m probably doing what I am today.”

Matt toyed with applying for drama school, but the idea never progressed. After high school, he enrolled in sixth form, but was asked to leave after three weeks for failing to turn up to lessons.

“It was the Thatcher days of rolling up your sleeves, going to work and making a contribution; my parents were both of that ilk,” observes Matt, who then got a job at a shoe shop, and found his first ‘sales mentor’, store manager, Mr Barton. “He was so good front of house and became my first hero.”

Matt’s customer service skills began to get him noticed, and he was offered a job at a Pepe Jeans store next door. However, he was dissuaded by his dad and encouraged to take up a local print apprenticeship.

“My dad said I should learn a trade, not sell jeans for a living – which I could always go back to. Best bit of advice I was given.”

The Printing Trade

Matt began working on the printing machines at Green Wade & Wilson four days a week, while attending Norwich College one day to study lithography. It was a financially lucrative role with printing skills much in demand.

On completing his three-year apprenticeship, Matt’s father secured him an interview for a production assistant role at Vogue magazine, part of Condé Nast, in London. He moved to the capital and began renting a flat near the Royal Albert Hall, visiting the print factory in Norwich once a month to oversee the printing of the magazine.

Matt was ‘living the life’, rubbing shoulders with magazine celebrities and making the most of extended pub meetings with ad agency clients.

“Aged 20, I was burning the candle at both ends; I ran out of cash and was exhausted,” he says. “I briefly moved back to Norwich before returning to London to take a job at NatMags’ Harpers & Queen. I then became a casualty of the 1991 recession and was made redundant.”

So, Matt decided on a career change, taking a YMCA fitness qualification. With his parents now living in Lagos, Nigeria, he roomed with a friend and became a PT instructor for a year, taking his own first steps running a business with the establishment of Fitness Formula.

In an attempt to boost his self-employment cash flow, Matt dabbled in a water filter and air conditioning unit pyramid selling scheme, which proved unsuccessful, marking the demise of his inaugural entrepreneurial journey.

In 1993, he returned to his printing roots working for the global packaging manufacturing company, Nananco. While the 12-hour continental shift patterns were hard, Matt was earning good money and living rent-free in a flat owned by his parents while they were abroad. Describing them as his ‘wild years’, in 1994 Matt met his wife-to-be, Sue.

“I needed some balance in my life and Sue brought that. I met her in a bar and knew immediately that she was the one. That was the start of me becoming Mr Sensible.”

Moving Into Sales

Setting himself a five-year target to finish working on the print factory shop floor and move into management, in 1998 Matt secured a job as a sales executive for the company in the north-west of England. With responsibility for a multi-million pound client-base, and with his key account Crown Paints based in Blackburn, the couple relocated to Manchester.

After marrying in 1999, but with no plans to have a family, Sue called Matt one day to give him news that would change the course of their lives.

“We’d never thought about having kids, but Sue was pregnant, and Ollie was born in 2001. I knew that for this to work properly, we needed to be back in Norfolk where we had a support network, so we sold up in Manchester when he was six months old and bought a cottage in Shotesham, on the outskirts of Norwich.”

The Training Dilemma

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Over the course of 21 years at the same company, Matt progressed from regional sales exec to European sales director. From the outset though, he was aware that sales training was not high on the priority list.

“When I first started in sales, I was sent on a Tack training course where everything was crammed into three days – it was information overload and not all of it was relevant to my specific needs. I still see this ‘old fashioned’ approach in the market today.”

“The salespeople in my company were very good at negotiation because we were always under threat. Why? Because we didn’t know how to sell. We didn’t invest in teaching our salespeople how to sell value, so we were always under price pressure, which was why we taught negotiation to try to slow down the inevitable race to the bottom.”

After being made UK sales director in 2011, Matt was keen to address the training issues, but says his concerns fell on deaf ears. Frustrated, he started looking into training options in the wider sphere.

“In my quest to find external support for my team, I stumbled across the personal development industry and became fascinated in the subject matter.”

Franchise Opportunity

Matt’s new-found interest coincided with meeting a friend, Gavin Drake, who had set up the personal development training company, Mindspan, and was looking to franchise it.

“I was getting frustrated in my job, and I was under huge pressure from senior management and shareholders to grow the company and reduce cost. I had a good sales team, but the ‘let’s make this happen’ approach wasn’t really working.

“I brought Gavin in to train the team, and I saw enough in those sessions to trigger a return to self-employment and ultimately become his first franchisee.”

In 2014, Matt bought the pilot franchise, risking it all. “I quit the corporate life and walked away from a six figure salary, pension and life cover, with a wife and son at home, and a massive mortgage on the dream house.

“The plan was to grow the franchise model. I knew I had bought an exceptional training product; I just needed to find the right people who needed the outcome the training delivered. What I didn’t know was how difficult working for yourself could be, and the painful process I’d have to go through trying different approaches to create a steady flow of new business for myself.”

One of the first contracts secured was delivering personal-development training to Humberside police force, which he describes as one of the toughest gigs in winning people over.

“It was six full days in front of a hundred police officers who were sitting there with their arms crossed waiting to be motivated – it was a real baptism of fire.”

Matt says he also felt a pang of imposter syndrome after being invited to deliver a keynote speech at a golf day. “Having returned my company car, my father-in-law lent me his old 1995 Honda Civic. When I arrived at the car park and saw the Porches, Bentleys and BMWs belonging to my audience, I couldn’t bring myself to park in the ‘Designated Speaker’ space, opting instead to park 250 yards away.

“I just thought, who’s going to listen to a personal development guru driving a car like this? But the keynote went well, and I got a lot of business from it as a result. I realise now it was one of the key fundamentals of sales success, people don’t care much about you, what they care about is what you can do for them.”

Make or Break

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While Matt’s expertise was flourishing, his franchise wasn’t. Recognising that he had to convince his wife to stick with him on the self-employment journey, he set a future target date to be making enough money or return to the corporate world of employment.

With a very substantial mortgage hanging over their heads, the couple sold their dream home and downsized, needs must as they say.

He becomes emotional recalling the day of the move. “We’d self-moved to save money and support my dream. I caught myself in the mirror looking knackered. I had just £4.29 in my business bank account. I had deals in the pipeline, but I thought, what have you done? I had a breakdown moment, and I don’t think that ever leaves you… yet there’s nothing like being punched in the face to make you more resilient.

“The challenge I had with the franchise was that I had such a diverse range of potential customers that it was difficult for me to get a specific marketing message across.”

In 2016, Matt decided to narrow his lens and focus on training in a strictly sales environment. Going it alone and staying in his lane, he set up Salescadence.

“Cadence means momentum – doing something continuously. Sales training can’t just be an on-time three-day programme; it has to be ongoing if it’s to be embedded,” explains Matt.

“The world of sales has moved on significantly since I took the Tack training course, customers buy differently today. An organisation that adopts a ‘train them once’ approach is exposing their salespeople to failure and their business to risk.”

Despite the low entry bar, the world of sales is complex. Matt believes there are three skills that every successful salesperson has: curiosity, empathy, and the ability to inspire.

Almost every sales team will comprise of ABC players: A – high-achievers; B – achievers; and C – under-achievers. Managing and developing these individual personas is a critical element of achieving sales success.

Competitive teamwork and regular role play are crucial. “You want to make the mistakes on the training pitch, not on matchday in front of a customer. Practice in-house in a safe environment so that the team can learn from each other. That’s the way everyone can improve,” he explains.

While networking through the chamber of commerce to find opportunities for his sales training solution, Matt wanted to fast-track his leads pipeline by having a business card with a difference. “I wanted to leverage my lead generation activity, so I decided to write a book to open more doors.”

Making an Emotional Connection

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Inspired by entrepreneur and author Daniel Priestley, Matt set about writing his first book in 2017. Sales Glue would be followed by Converted during the Covid pandemic.

“I knew if I had a book, I could make a connection – an emotional bank account that would allow me to build up credits in order to make a withdrawal.”

Matt’s catalogues of experience include anecdotes like the day he learnt about ‘the silent majority’ – the real decision maker who is not usually the person in front of you having the sales conversation.  

“I once lost a multi-million pound account because I had been guilty of complacency and not aware of the power of the silent majority,” he explains. “I had a great relationship with the buyer, but she ultimately wasn’t the one deciding the direction of purchasing strategy, her boss was!”

Things were going well for Matt’s business in 2019, but Covid was about to hit. In mid-2020, Matt met Rob Masson, CEO of data protection specialist, The DPO Centre in Ipswich, and was asked to deliver sales training. “The more I worked with Rob, the more I was impressed with him and how he ran his business.”

Matt was offered and accepted the role of head of sales and the company achieved significant growth in new business revenue over the following 30 months, he says.

However, as they emerged from lockdown and with external demand for his sales training expertise picking up, Matt felt the urge to scratch the self-employment itch once again, and he left corporate employment for a second time in May 2023.

“Whilst I’m essentially building the business up again, I’m fast-tracking it because I now know what’s required to be successful and have avoided making the mistakes of the past. In two years’ time, I’d like to be able to license my training to other trainers and grow it to a position of exit,” says Matt, who is also part of the Business Growth Coaches Network (BCGN).

Keen golfer, Matt is also a Freeman of the City of London with membership of one of the City of London’s 111 charity fundraising livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Tinplate Workers.

While admitting to occasional ‘moments of weakness’ when he sees a highly remunerated sales director job advertised, Matt’s now acting out his childhood dreams in a one-man show.

“For me, it’s not just about the money – it’s the experience I get from helping people. I’ve always wanted to be that guy at the front of the stage, and now I get to do it for myself. That’s as good as it gets.”

www.salescadence.co.uk

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