May 24

Unleashing AI in a 124-Year-Old Company

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Sale Leadership Awakening
Sale Leadership Awakening
Unleashing AI in a 124-Year-Old Company
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In this episode of the Sales Leadership Awakening Podcast,  Rob Ulsh, VP of Dealer and International Sales for Great Dane, discusses the use of AI in sales leadership. He shares his awakening moment as a leader during the COVID-19 pandemic and how he embraced AI to adapt to the changing landscape. He also explores the practical applications of AI in sales, including prospecting, customer retention, and pre-call planning.

“AI is a featured benefit that you can interact with, and it will actually help you develop and evolve.” – Rob Ulsh

Key Takeaways:

  • AI is not a threat to sales professionals but a powerful tool that can enhance their effectiveness. By leveraging AI, salespeople can access valuable insights, generate emails, and streamline processes, ultimately improving their productivity and customer experience.
  • Establishing strong relationships with strategic partners who can provide support and guidance is crucial during times of change. 
  • AI can significantly simplify pre-call planning by providing prompt research and insights about potential clients. 
  • AI can be used to improve customer retention by streamlining communication and providing real-time updates that enhance the overall customer experience and build stronger relationships.
  • Change management is essential when introducing AI into sales organizations. By addressing objections, providing training and support, and showcasing success stories, sales leaders can help their teams embrace AI and leverage its benefits.

Rob Ulsh on LinkedIn

Follow Colleen Stanley on LinkedIn

Follow Steven Rosen on LinkedIn

[Transcript]

Introduction

[00:00:05] Colleen Stanley: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Sales Leadership Awakening podcast. My name is Colleen Stanley, and joining me today is my co-host, Steven Rosen. Today, we’ll tackle the age-old issue of bridging the knowing and doing gap in sales leadership. 

Steven, I’m going to kick it over to you. I always find myself repeating this, but we’ve got another great guest here. Maybe it’s the law of attraction at work here. So, Steven, why don’t you introduce our guest? 

[00:00:37] Steven Rosen: Colleen, thank you. It’s great to be with you again today. We welcome Rob Ulsh to the Sales Leadership Awakening podcast. 

Rob, thanks for joining us. Maybe you can share a little bit about yourself, the type of salespeople you lead, and a bit more about your company. If you want to share anything personal—I know there’s been a lot of great things going on—feel free to do so as well. Welcome, Rob!

[00:00:57] Rob Ulsh: Yeah. Thanks for having me, guys. The most exciting thing I have going on is that we have a three-and-a-half-week-old baby boy at home, and that’s been keeping me very busy on the heels of finishing up my MBA program at the University of Georgia, Terry College of Business.

[00:01:13] Rob Ulsh: So, there’s lots of good stuff happening personally and professionally, and lots of exciting things as well. My role is vice president of dealer and international sales for Great Dane, based in Savannah, Georgia. We’re one of the largest domestic semi-trailer manufacturers in the country. As part of my role, I also handle the leadership responsibility for our truck body sales division.

[00:01:36] Rob Ulsh: I’m excited to be here today and look forward to the conversation. 

[00:01:39] Steven Rosen: Great. Welcome aboard. 

[00:01:41] Colleen Stanley: Yeah, and thanks for taking the time, Rob, with everything you’ve got going on. 

We always ask a signature question: What was your awakening moment as a leader? It could have been in your leadership approach, coaching approach, or hiring, but does anything come to mind for you?

[00:01:58] Rob Ulsh: I would say I had it four years ago; I think COVID, that period of time, has made everything recent. I had a moment in time where, as you can imagine, I traveled a lot in my job, handling dealerships all over the country and internationally. I was on the road literally when they called off all flights and sent everybody home because of the COVID-19 virus.

[00:02:21] Rob Ulsh: I was on a plane flying home from California, and there were six other people on the entire flight. It was very eerie. I got to Atlanta, which has always been a bustling airport, and it was also empty. I got on the flight home to Savannah, which is about a 45-minute flight, and I was just thinking about the whole thing.

Embracing AI: Modeling the Change

[00:02:42] Rob Ulsh: It was just mind-boggling to me as the next two years unfolded from a manufacturing standpoint, looking at supply chain issues and how you communicate with your customers. We’re on calls like this one: Teams, Zoom, etc. It really opened my eyes to the future of everything, but mainly my profession—the sales profession. Quite honestly, guys, that was one of the reasons that I decided to go back and chase down the executive MBA. I wanted to reconnect and find out what was happening in the academic world and the networking with my cohort.

[00:03:17] Rob Ulsh: I was finding out how other businesses were dealing with this drastic change, and here we are. That was my awakening moment when we touched base. That was the first time I watched all this technology, data, and digitalization, all that stuff coming to the forefront of every conversation. So, I would say that whole two-year period where I think we all opened our eyes to what’s next.

[00:03:39] Rob Ulsh: I’ve heard the term new normal. It’s an exciting time, but in the moment, you didn’t know what would happen. 

[00:03:44] Colleen Stanley: I give you a lot of credit because the popular words were pivot and new normal. You can say those words, but you can also not pivot. You should not accept the new normal. 

I’m curious about your executive MBA. Were there any one or two things that you took away from that? You were very proactive in preparing for the future, and again, kudos to you, but was there anything that came out of that particular program that has now set you up for continued success? 

[00:04:13] Rob Ulsh: Two things would stick out. One would lead to more of a topic here today. The first one is relationships. Everybody searched for their core strategic partners and who they could rely on to deliver the input or goods they needed and buy or bounce things off them.

[00:04:28] Rob Ulsh: There was a whole lot. We have an entire distribution network overnight, and we didn’t have customers coming to buy parts at our counters. So, through relationships, I think making calls to people who are experiencing the same things, getting enrolled in this program, and meeting a vast array of different people from different walks of life and different companies just help me bounce things off others and try to work through problems that none of us have ever seen before.

[00:05:04] Rob Ulsh: The second thing I would say that really hit me was the technology piece. In my time in the program, I was very fortunate to go through all these modules, with artificial intelligence and AI being that buzzword floating around. All of our professors, to their credit, introduced us to AI and made us embrace it, use it, work through it, and ask questions about it.

[00:05:31] Rob Ulsh: Those were the two big things calling that really stood out. 

[00:05:35] Steven Rosen: I think those are great. You are a leader in many ways because Colleen and I were both excited to talk a bit more about AI, but we didn’t expect it to come from someone working at a 124-year-old company. We thought it would be one of the technology leaders we’ve met and had discussions with, but most companies just don’t survive over a hundred years, much less thrive.

[00:05:57] Steven Rosen: So I’m not sure what to call you if it’s a unicorn or certainly I applied your efforts in terms of understanding what the new trends are because I have to agree, COVID changed everything, and it continues to change many things. Given your knowledge, how are you leading that sales leaderstransformation in your organization using AI?

[00:06:19] Rob Ulsh: Yeah, so back to the longevity piece for Great Dane, we are approaching 125 years, and when you think of a company being around that long, you typically think of all the hurdles that you clear from your product standpoint or how you do business standpoint. Thinking about sales, there’s a lot of transformation over 125 years that’s happened in our profession as well.

[00:06:42] Rob Ulsh: From the printing press to the telephone, all these little things you’d never even dream of being big changes, even as early as the nineties, embracing the internet. Then, in 2007-2008, we suddenly had these smartphones here that we had to embrace as salespeople and email. 

[00:07:02] Rob Ulsh: So, here we are today, right? With another piece of technology and another cutting-edge thing impacting our profession. I can say for us, we have just embraced it, Steve. We’ve tried to consume as much as a team around the subject. We’ve tried not to be afraid of it. Everybody sees the headlines, and a lot of them revolve around it.

[00:07:22] Rob Ulsh: ‘Hey, AI will replace your job, this and that.’ I don’t believe that. I believe it will impact your career if you don’t use it, get familiar with it, and evolve with it, but we’ve just been hands-on and tackling different things. There’s a lot there to unpack.

[00:07:39] Steven Rosen: One hundred percent. I’m trying to figure out how to use it in my business. I am sure many sales leaders and salespeople are afraid, so kudos to Great Dane and your leadership for embracing it. 

But help our listeners understand where you have utilized it and maybe give some examples of where and how it’s impacting your organization right now.

AI for Pre-Call Planning and Prospecting

[00:07:59] Steven Rosen: I know we’re in the early stages, but maybe some examples. We hear the concept of AI, but what does it mean in Great Dane? 

[00:08:07] Rob Ulsh: Yeah, sure. Here are some simple things from a salesperson’s point of view. Everybody is familiar with Google and what it brings to you. 

[00:08:20] Rob Ulsh: AI is more of a featured benefit that you can interact with and have it help you take your topic and evolve it. It’s not something you have to put a whole lot of input in to help it interpret. It’s just a simple task for a salesperson going on a first call to a new conquest account. You can prompt AI to go in and not only look at the industry. 

Look at the segmentation, look at the customer himself or herself, look at the questions you can ask it, like, ‘Hey, what are the troubles and what are the pain points that people in this segment of business typically have?’ An AI will generate a whole lot of information that you can keep pecking at and softening or building on or diving deeper into.

[00:09:02] Rob Ulsh: One thing I will say with all of that is I’ll caution you that AI is not always right. It has an ego to itself. It doesn’t want to be wrong. Right? So, it will keep generating output, especially from a financial standpoint. It doesn’t have all its equations correct. It won’t get all your humor, or it might not get the terms or catchphrases you use.

[00:09:24] Rob Ulsh: So, just a word of caution there, but for the most part, it’s almost a sounding board. It’s the coach who has this massive background of intel and information that can help you formulate how you’re going to knock on the door.

The Future of AI in Sales Leadership

[00:09:37] Steven Rosen: Okay. Let me just dig a little deeper into that. Is this an expectation from the sales team or an optional use?

[00:09:45] Steven Rosen: When a sales manager goes out with one of the salespeople, do they ask them if they’ve done this research? How are you implementing and leveraging this? 

[00:09:54] Rob Ulsh: It’s an interesting question. Currently, we don’t have any requirements or standards around it. It’s one of those things in the tool belt.

[00:10:01] Rob Ulsh: Every salesperson is different. Every salesperson has different working knowledge. I think, and I’ve seen this, the more leaders and managers become adept at it, the more it trickles down, right? Even managers and leaders sometimes shy away from things they’re not familiar with or don’t want to look foolish in front of folks.

[00:10:20] Rob Ulsh: It takes some time, and I think what’s happening with us is organic in nature. I see a time in the future when you wouldn’t do these types of prospecting upfront to ensure you covered those things. It’s no different than the way people use LinkedIn.

[00:10:36] Steven Rosen: Right. It’s become standard procedure, whether enforced by the company or not, but you guys seem to be taking the lead in this area, and I think, ‘Wow, how do you accelerate it?’

[00:10:45] Rob Ulsh: Yeah, it’s funny because it’s just like artificial intelligence. It continues to learn at a massive rate. Eight times over a short period of time, it regenerates its own knowledge.

[00:10:56] Rob Ulsh: The same thing’s happening with people using. The more you do it, the more you talk about it, the more conversations like this you have. It’s like, ‘Hey, try these prompts. Try asking it this. Tell it to talk to you like you are an MBA student, not a Harvard professor.’ You can shape your conversations with it any way you want.

[00:11:15] Rob Ulsh: I’ll become your administrative assistant if you do it right. 

[00:11:18] Colleen Stanley: Rob, this is interesting because we’re always talking about bridging the knowing-doing gap. You’ve led the charge at your company, and I’d be curious because I know you mentioned earlier that when we talked about why people aren’t doing it, there’s this fear of change.

[00:11:33] Colleen Stanley: If you can talk about that, then what were one, two, or three steps that you took to get this initiative? What impressed me is that you led the charge at the company. This wasn’t something you were like, ‘Okay, I’ll do it if you make me.’ Maybe talk about this change factor and then how you get started.

[00:11:53] Colleen Stanley: We talk about eating the elephant one bite at a time. Well, this is a herd of elephants for most people. How about we give them those one or two steps? 

[00:12:01] Rob Ulsh: Let me start where I started and how I got the conversation going, and then I’ll move into the change management piece. But calling from a personal standpoint, we are introduced to it in class here.

[00:12:13] Rob Ulsh: It can write papers for you, write content, and do everything. When you’re in a classroom setting, being a student—I know it was 30 years ago since I sat in a classroom and was writing papers before—but now I have this tool that can write papers for me, and I’m like, ‘Wasn’t that plagiarism or isn’t that a little bit close to the line?’

[00:12:32] Rob Ulsh: And you have your professors telling you, ‘No, do it, embrace it, get some ideas from it, draw on it, have it help you.’ When I started to do that type of stuff with some of my classwork, I thought, ‘Geez, I was on the side practicing this. Okay. If I’m going to call on this customer, how big a company are they? What kind of revenue do they have? How do they make decisions?’

[00:12:50] Rob Ulsh: Some of that information’s out there to be had. It concerned me because I was like, ‘Holy cow, all this stuff at my fingertips.’ I literally came in and talked with my boss and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know where this AI thing is going, but I’m concerned that from a proprietary standpoint, folks that aren’t familiar with it or don’t know how to use it maybe putting something out there that the company may not want out there.’

[00:13:15] Rob Ulsh: That’s when the internal conversation started. It was more about my concern of, ‘Hey, this thing’s a great tool, but can it harm us, or can it unintentionally or inadvertently do something that might not be good?’

[00:13:28] Rob Ulsh: That’s what started the conversation internally. Then, from there, the more I was introduced to it, the more I used it; that sort of thing was when everything changed from, ‘Okay, let’s let legal and IT and let them handle the do’s and don’ts.’ 

[00:13:42] Rob Ulsh: Let’s shift towards, ‘Okay, how powerful can we make this tool to help do our job and to sell equipment?’

[00:13:49] Colleen Stanley: Your internal IT department actually developed this for your company? 

[00:13:54] Rob Ulsh: Yes, they’re currently involved in all that. Again, that’s not my expertise or cup of tea, so God bless those guys. They’re really good at what they do. 

[00:14:02] Rob Ulsh: They’ve just listened to us. They’ve worked the backside to understand how to keep things safe and do what we must. But really, from there, we turn to, ‘Okay, we know this is coming. We know we’re going to take baby steps. Let’s look at the change management piece because it is scary.’

[00:14:18] Rob Ulsh: It can change, it can take your job, or it can change your job, and all that stuff, so we were just very upfront and intentional about the conversations we had. Leadership was already headed down the line of data transformation and digital transformation, and this stuff all tucks in behind that.

[00:14:34] Rob Ulsh: We have massive OKRs–objectives and key results–around all that as we move forward. There are goals around it and things like that. So it’s really just becoming part of our day-to-day lives. I’m not going to say the change piece was simple, but I think it was because it was such an unknown—it helped everybody just say, ‘Hey, come on, let’s figure this out together,’ and we did it that way.

[00:14:57] Colleen Stanley: What strikes me is that when you were in your MBA program, you almost immediately changed how you’d run a sales meeting or a coaching conversation. This is where I think of sales managers. I hope they’re listening intently to you, so you would sit there instead of doing your usual, maybe pre-call prep, now you bring in AI. 

[00:15:16] Colleen Stanley: Just like your professors were the shepherd or the Sherpa for you, I think managers really have to consider how they can utilize one-on-one coaching sessions incorporating AI to eliminate some of the fear or start guiding their reps like your professor so nicely did for you.

[00:15:30] Rob Ulsh: Yes, and an interesting way of doing that, Colleen, is, you know, many people don’t really like you in what they’re doing. They don’t like the change of their day-to-day, so using AI is an interesting tool in the sense that, if you look at a process or you’re trying to map a process, and you’re trying to do the things that could take hours or days, AI can do that in 30 seconds if it’s given the right information. 

[00:15:53] Rob Ulsh: Just a takeaway here. Anybody can do this if they’re listening and want to try it after the fact, but just go in and ask it to hang a picture on the wall safely; what tools do you need? How long is each step going to take me? 

Watch how quickly it shows you how to put a picture on the wall. People sit around wondering, ‘What am I going to do? Where do I put the tape?’ Just simple things like that. There’s no reason you couldn’t process map sales. 

[00:16:18] Colleen Stanley: Make it simple for people to see. Sometimes, that takes the scariness out if that’s how they’re looking at it. 

[00:16:25] Steven Rosen: Part of what motivates people to do things is that my old coach talked about WIIFM when I first started; what’s in it for me? I’ve always referred back to it. I’m a sales leader, and I listen to podcasts. Are there any specific examples of how the sales leaders on your team are using AI and benefiting from it in their day-to-day lives? If you have one or two examples to share, not from the salesperson’s perspective, but from the sales leader’s perspective.

[00:16:55] Rob Ulsh: Yeah, keep it simple. For instance, generating emails. If you have a topic you might not understand or are being asked to weigh in on something you may not have the time for, AI can help get you started. It can help give you outlines. It can push you to the internet so you can do more research.

[00:17:15] Rob Ulsh: That’s one of the things that I really embraced about it. You can do phenomenal things just by giving your words back. You can do stuff with photography, PowerPoint, charts, and other visualizations.

[00:17:28] Rob Ulsh: AI tools can get specific about anything you want to bring. We see our leaders doing much of that, not just the sales—letters, emails, 30-second elevator pitches—those types of things. There’s so much more from your overall portfolio of how you try to sell something AI can help you. 

[00:17:52] Steven Rosen: When we refer to AI, I always think of ChatGPT, but when I go through Instagram, people list 10 AI tools you can use. Can you suggest a couple of powerful AI tools you or your team use and what they can be used for specifically?

[00:18:08] Rob Ulsh: Yeah, sure. Chat GPT, for sure, is the one that’s been widely publicized, but you’ve got AI tools similar to it like Claude. It’s an AI that talks to you differently. It’s very relatable. It’s a good tool similar to what ChatGPT can provide for you. 

[00:18:24] Rob Ulsh: Perplexity AI is another great one. Microsoft has come a long way with its copilot tool. If you use Microsoft for your emails, Excel, Word, and other things, copilot can plug into all that stuff and help you immediately. It also has DALL-E, an image creator, so you can use it to create business logos or whatever you need. 

[00:18:47] Rob Ulsh: There’s a ton out there. Just because I’ve geeked out in it in my personal life, I probably have 50 different AI tools bookmarked in one of my folders on my computer that I mess around with all the time, and I’m nowhere near great at it. It is very fascinating. 

[00:19:02] Steven Rosen: We’re all learning and finding ways. Do you share best practices with your team and your sales team regarding some people we call super users who had business successes with AI?

[00:19:15] Rob Ulsh: That’s a great idea, Steven. We don’t formally do that today, but we have a lot of informal conversations about it. That’s a best practice we can hatch here today: if you have those folks doing a wonderful job with it or have something to pass along, we could do that.

[00:19:32] Rob Ulsh: We’ve got a sales meeting coming up in August, and a lot of this will be discussed, including bringing some speakers in and other things like that.

[00:19:39] Rob Ulsh: We’re growing as fast as we can in our boots and doing what we can. But all those are part of the future of our profession, and what we do is, how do you formalize things like that? Again, some people are coming along at different speeds, and we’ll need that help. 

Enhancing Customer Retention with AI

[00:19:55] Colleen Stanley: I’ve heard much of the conversation, not just this one but others, about new business development and client acquisition.

[00:20:02] Colleen Stanley: I am curious how your team has applied AI tools to customer retention. You’ve been in leadership for a long time. Sometimes, we get so focused on opening new doors that we forget about existing clients. Are there any or two things that have helped increase client retention or made it easier?

[00:20:22] Rob Ulsh: One of the big things we’ve done, Colleen, is again back to our internal usage. What we’ve developed is our IT department has been able to connect our systems so that the customer experience with dealing with us and the speed of information flow, what might have taken 2 or 3 emails and maybe a couple of phone calls to find out where your product is in production and things like that, we’ve now been able to have AI go search for that information proactively and bring it back to us in a very rapid period of time. 

From a customer experience standpoint, they love to know that, ‘Hey, I’ve ordered 50 trailers, and here’s the dates are coming off.’ If they call to say, ‘Hey, let me check on that.’ We can literally just hit a couple of buttons and have confirmation that we’re in good shape. 

[00:21:08] Colleen Stanley: Oh, my gosh. We all talk about Amazon, and the fact is, I think I’ve had friends who have said, ‘I want to give other companies opportunities, but Amazon makes it so easy,’ and that is what I’m hearing from you. That easy button in what we call a time-famine world—that’s huge so kudos to you for that. 

[00:21:29] Rob Ulsh: From a customer-facing standpoint, it’s great for them to consider the salesperson’s time back. Yes, that could be a whole another hour of prospecting calls or a lunch date or whatever else they may be able to be doing with the time not spent waiting for a return email or phone call from a plant. 

[00:21:47] Steven Rosen: Even from a customer’s perspective, responding in real-time to a question, such as where my 50 trailers are, is impressive.

[00:21:56] Rob Ulsh: Yeah, not to remove the human touch, but look into the future. Maybe that’s what a customer does on his own, and everybody gets alerted. ‘Hey, the question was asked here!’ The information was fed, and everybody goes off.

[00:22:08] Steven Rosen: You mentioned change management several times. You could share an example: Have you faced resistance, and how have you helped shift the organization to embrace AI from a sales organization perspective? What resistance have you faced, and how have you been able to move forward?

[00:22:27] Rob Ulsh: One of the big ones is working in the CRM. AI tools in our CRM help guide you through tasks and things you may want to say, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ 

It’s easy to hit the assistance button and have the chatbot or the AI engine say, ‘Hey, all you have to do is click here, here, and here, and you’ll get the information.’

[00:22:50] Rob Ulsh: So, more than resistance, Steven, I think we’ve removed objections through the process, but the resistance is there. Stuff like that was an easy excuse before, right? 

[00:22:59] Steven Rosen: I remember 25 years ago introducing a CRM system, and some of the older reps would have meltdowns. I had a very simple rule: If you can’t figure it out in five minutes, call for help. 

[00:23:11] Rob Ulsh: Yeah, and on the flip side of that, I think certain individuals love the fact that someone can walk them through something without them having to make a phone call or deal with somebody else to get them through something that they may or may not know about.

[00:23:24] Rob Ulsh: Again, if you’re open-minded to the possibilities of what I’ve experienced with this type of technology and what it can provide to you, the sky’s the limit. You can certainly buck the trend. You can certainly not embrace it, but I truly believe that good and solid salespeople will make this a part of their tool belt if we fast-forward even three or four years, five years from now.

[00:23:47]  Colleen Stanley: Absolutely. 

[00:23:48] Steven Rosen: Thank you, Rob. It’s evolving. Maybe we’ll have you back in a year to see what changes have happened because a year is long. 

Conclusion

[00:23:53] Steven Rosen: Colleen, if you were to take away one of Rob’s insights and say, ‘Hey, this is the one that resonates most with me,’ what would that be? 

[00:24:01] Colleen Stanley: The entire theme of what I’m hearing from Rob is if you want the change, you’ve got to model it. The fact that that was a huge step, Rob, and I’m preaching to the choir, obviously you, the fact that you enrolled in MBA because you knew the world was changing, and it would have been so easy to sit back and wait for it because I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, we’ve got about four or five years.’ As the leader, you must model it before you can expect it. 

[00:24:25] Steven Rosen: That’s great. So, I’m much more practical, but I am 100% with you, Colleen. 

[00:24:30] Colleen Stanley: That was practical advice! 

[00:24:32] Steven Rosen: No, it’s awesome that anyone would say, ‘Hey, you know what? After 30 years of not being in school, I will return and get a reeducation because the world has changed.’

[00:24:39] Steven Rosen: My walkaway is I’m very tactical. AI is a great tool for pre-call planning, for new clients, for prospecting, that you can do your research cause I sometimes know people, when they’re doing their prospecting, they could spend 20-30 minutes researching a client where if you’ve got the right prompts, you can probably do it in three minutes and make 50% more calls.

[00:25:02] Steven Rosen: Some very simple applications help make you more efficient, making you more effective. That’s my practical takeaway. As we evolve, we’ll find new ways and people who are doing innovative things with AI to help improve sales.

[00:25:19] Thank you on behalf of myself, Colleen, and Rob. This was another insightful episode of the Sales Leadership Awakening Podcast. We hope you’ve gathered some really cool strategies and are considering where AI fits your organization. It’s more than just knowing that AI exists; it’s actually using it that makes a difference.

[00:25:39] Steven Rosen: Thank you.


Tags

Colleen Stanley, emotional intelligence for sales and sales leadership, executive sales leadership, knowing and doing gap, sales leadership, sales leadership coaching, sales leadership development, sales management training, Stanley, Steven Rosen, the sales leadership awakening podcast


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