Trust and Selling to the C-Suite: Interview with Ken Roller

Ken Roller is an experienced B2B salesperson; he spent the past 35 years in Corporate America working for 2 industry leaders (including 21 years at Intel), serving Global 1000 customers.

Ken’s classic sales credentials are impeccable: he exceeded his quarterly sales quota for over 20 years straight – 83 quarters in a row – in a time and in industries that faced brutal competition and roller-coaster global economic conditions.

I came to know Ken during his tenure at Intel; he was extremely helpful to me at a time I was writing Trust-based Selling. We’ve stayed in touch; I asked Ken to share with us some hard-earned wisdom from his career.

Charlie: Ken, it’s great to have you ‘here’ on Trust Matters. I’ve always thought you embodied many of the things I write about.

Ken: Thank you. I’ve always thought that we’re kindred spirits in our concepts and feelings on how we work and relate to customers and people. One of the inflection points in my professional career was when I read “The Trusted Advisor.” It succinctly captured the essence of selling with integrity, something that is paramount to my being and who I am.

Charlie: Well then, you’re a great person of whom to ask this question: How do you establish trust with “C” level execs at some of the biggest companies in the world?

Ken: First, I’ve always taken seriously my counsel with my customers and would never jeopardize their livelihood, career and their family’s future with my guidance. That’s not pablum, that’s truth; it is the root of my answer to your question.

It’s easy to tell somebody about your experience and the benefits of your products and services. It’s harder to demonstrate that you “truly care.” That has always been a differentiator for me. You quote the late great George Burns as saying, “you can’t fake sincerity.” He’s right, and the continued attempt to do so is why there’s a pervasive view of salespeople being the proverbial “used car salesperson,” with their only concern being themselves and their company.

Charlie: Now, let me just get this straight. I ask you about selling to the C-suite, and your answer is “you have to care?” I don’t think that’s the typical canned response from most sales ‘experts,’ is it? Maybe you can give an example of how you showed a customer “you cared” in this manner?

Ken: Sure. I was blessed that the companies I worked for had world-class products. Even so, the reality is that not all products are always great – or even good.

I was working closely with the CTO and his staff at one of the largest Financial Services companies in the world. Our competitor’s product was 78% faster than our comparable product out of the box! That was the context in which I put together a several day meeting at our facility in Ireland, and had this company’s entire senior staff fly in from Europe and the US for a strategic update.

During the meeting, I asked them if our technical team could work with them to ensure that they implemented our solution properly so we could have a fair bake-off – and, I told them, if our competitor were to beat us, they should purchase their product and shame on us.

When I said that, you could hear an audible gasp come from my company’s execs. They had a look on their face of “Did Ken really just say what I think he said”?
The thought that my career was over suddenly crossed my mind.

However, my customer’s CTO noticed the ruckus I caused and immediately stood up. He said, “Thanks, Ken, for putting together this wonderful 3-day gathering; you’re a breath of fresh air in an industry that is polluted with unscrupulous salespeople.”

“You educated us to the fact that your next generation product, coming out in a few quarters, will have a new micro-architecture that will enable you to leap-frog the performance of your competitors. We believe you, and trust you, and are looking forward to testing your new platform ASAP. We want to work with you Ken.”

He basically told my executive management that my candor and “caring” should be applauded; and if anything were to happen to me, my company would lose their future business.

And…our next generation product did perform as promised, and has been the industry leader ever since.

Charlie: What I called the Acid Test of trust is whether you’re willing to recommend a competitor to a client. In effect, that’s what you did here.

Ken: It’s not that hard if you have a long-term perspective. If you want to build a long-term strategic relationship, and have faith that the next iteration of your product will fix your issues, you’d do what I did. If not, you might sell them your current product, but your reputation will be ruined forever.
Be honest and live to sell another day!

Charlie: Switching gears: I think when a lot of people find themselves in the C-suite, they get tongue-tied. Their pulse rate goes up, they get flustered, and they end up making any number of rookie mistakes. Advice?

Ken: Senior executives have no time for those who are in “awe” of whom they’re meeting.
Confidence – especially, confidence in yourself – is critical. You don’t have to be an expert in everything – but you’d better be expert in something, very clear about the boundary lines – and just as forthright about what you don’t know. Be prepared, and do your homework: then tell the truth. Honesty trumps ignorance.

You have to have great respect for them – but also remember they’re your equal! Deal with your insecurities and don’t psyche yourself out.

Talk about what’s important to the executive. Being STRATEGIC and not tactical is critical. Don’t discuss problems, just solutions. The higher up you go, the more you’ll find people who are surgically focused on growing revenue, innovation, and garnering a competitive advantage.

Charlie: Any additional tips?

Ken: Creating long-term relationships with senior executives is like shooting a good game of pool – you’re always shooting for the next shot!

As we discussed earlier, listen more than you talk, but be prepared based on your research to share some 30-second “nuggets” that will be of interest to them that also demonstrates your reputation as a known expert in your specialty.

Ultimately, if you want a trusted advisor relationship with executives, you have to make sure they see you as a “Player” that a) constantly educates them to things that they and their staff don’t know, and b) does so respectfully but in an insightful, direct manner that clearly shows you have the customer’s interest at heart.

Charlie: In your experience, what’s the single biggest obstacle to a salesperson building trust with their customers?

Ken: That’s an easy one! Sorry for my politically incorrect answer, but it’s imperative that salespeople learn to STFU and LISTEN!

So many salespeople are myopic – enamored with themselves and their voice when the conversation is not about them; it should be about their customers and helping them solve their business / OPEX problems and issues.

That’s why I feel the “Trust Equation” is the single most important sales theory ever created. With Self-Orientation in the denominator, the more you talk about yourself, the less trust you build! So in the words of the Kevin Spacey character from “Swimming with Sharks”, Shut-up, Listen and Learn!

Charlie: Thanks Ken for sharing with us your thoughts and ideas.

Ken: Thank you, as always, it’s been a pleasure!

Books We Trust: Interview with Frank Cespedes, author of Aligning Strategy and Sales: The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors that Drive Effective Selling (Harvard Business Review Press)

Aligning Strategies & SalesThis week sees the publication of a new book I want to bring to your attention. It’s by Frank Cespedes, a professor at Harvard Business School, and an old friend from our mutual consulting days. The book is called Aligning Strategy and Sales, and it might have been called “The Massive Business Gap Sitting Right Before Your Eyes.” To use an overly simple athletic metaphor, the handoff from strategy to sales is the source of a great deal of lost value.

I hesitate to call it a revolutionary book – but you haven’t seen anything like it. It’s very important. Especially for those of you in sales, I recommend it.

Meanwhile, here’s Frank.


CG: What brought you to this topic of aligning strategy and sales?

FC: My academic research always focused on go-to-market elements, including channels and sales management. Then, when I left academia and ran a business for 12 years, I had to meet payroll and sell. Then, after getting lucky in business and returning to academia, I taught Strategy for a few years. Despite decades of attention to planning, there is remarkably little research about how to link strategy with the nitty-gritty of field execution, especially sales efforts. If the gods of strategy even mention sales, it’s typically advice from a fortune cookie: get incentives right, or work as a team, or re-organize. In other words, do good and avoid evil.

CG: That sounds about par for the course.

FC: Conversely, there’s a vast literature about selling. Much is anecdotal, but some—Neil Rackham’s work is still the best, in my opinion—is grounded in good research. However, this advice is misleading in a different way: the consultants and trainers who make their living this way tend to promote the universal applicability of a particular selling methodology (again, Neil is an exception), and they treat sales in isolation from strategy. The result is that much sales training has a perverse effect: people work harder but not necessarily smarter. Selling, no matter how clever and creative, can’t generate sustained returns if it’s not linked to good strategy. That may sound obvious, but it’s not been discussed actionably.

CG: Let me get this straight: you’re saying there’s a big fat chasm of under-performance in business because strategy and sales don’t align? Just how big a deal are we talking about?

FC: None of this would matter much if de facto alignment were the norm. But it’s not. The research results are cited in my book and, as they say, they speak volumes. Studies find that few strategies—some research indicates less than 10%–are executed successfully and that, on average, firms deliver only 50-60% of the financial performance that their strategies and sales forecasts promise. That’s a lot of wasted money and effort. Ever wonder why I-Bankers and other capital-market analysts tend to be a cynical bunch? Companies regularly over-promise and under-deliver in their espoused strategic goals and sales forecasts.

CG: So, why does this happen?

One reason is that the strategic planning process in firms generates a disconnect with the requirements of sales decision making. About two-thirds of companies treat strategic planning as a periodic event, typically as part of the annual capital-budgeting process. Companies tend to do plans by business unit or P&L unit, even when sales sells across those units. The average corporate planning process takes an estimated 4-5 months per year. While this is going on, the market does what the market will do, and sales must respond issue by issue and account by account. In other words, even if the output of planning is a great strategy (clearly, a big if), the process itself often makes it irrelevant to sales executives.

CG: OK, I get the time disconnect. Give us a simple real world example of how all this can go wrong?

FC: Here’s an example I discuss in more detail in the book. It’s unfortunately representative. For many years, a company I’ll call Document Security Management (DSM) had a great business in retrieving, shredding and/or securely storing organizations’ documents. Executives and their assistants loved its one-stop-shop value proposition, and DSM’s sales force cultivated good relationships with them. DSM provided a complete service and their customers could then dedicate their high-paid lawyers and other professionals to better uses. By the early 2000s, however, cheaper digital storage technology, especially the cloud, changed the market. DSM’s CEO was determined not to be fatally “disrupted” by an emerging technology, and DSM introduced its own cloud-based storage and directed the sales force to bundle it with traditional services.

The results were awful. Many of the salespeople lacked the technical knowledge to work with clients’ IT departments. Pricing was a problem, because the physical and digital services had very different cost structures. And in spite of repeated training efforts, reps often sold only the lower-priced digital service, not the bundle. Contract renewals for traditional services fell sharply, as did profits. So DSM modified its sales compensation plan, but then digital sales declined and emerging competitors established strong footholds with multiyear contracts, effectively locking DSM out of accounts as storage increasingly migrated to the cloud. Ultimately, DSM spun off its digital unit and remains a much smaller company.

What’s the problem here? Surely, you can’t disagree with the basic strategic intent. Anyone who has absorbed the lessons of Clay Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation would find it hard to argue that DSM should not have responded to emerging market reality. That’s a recipe for becoming yet another case study about market myopia. The ultimate problem was senior leaders embarking on a strategy without considering the field realities facing the people key to executing that strategy at customers. And this occurs, very often, in many situations: M&A situations where the investment thesis rests on cross-selling or packaged solution bundles, entering a new segment with different buying processes, introducing a new product, scaling a business beyond early adopters, or dealing with new entrants.

Many senior executives, years removed from actual customer contact, are often blithely unaware of the embedded strategic commitments that sales activities daily represent. For example, executives can worry prudently and diligently all they want about disruptive innovators; you need a sales force aligned with strategy to do something about it. Otherwise, all you’re doing is worrying in a currently respectable manner.

CG: Wow. So, where do these disconnects happen? The subtitle of your book is “The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors that Drive Effective Selling.” What are they?

FC: The basic idea is this: In any business, value is created or destroyed in the marketplace with customers, not in planning meetings or training seminars. The market includes the industry you compete in, the customer segments where you choose to play, and the buying processes at customers that you sell and service. Those factors should inform strategy and required sales tasks—what salespeople must be good at to deliver and extract value and so implement your strategy effectively.

Then, the issue is aligning selling behaviors with those tasks. Managers basically have three levers to do that. People: who your salespeople are, what they know, how you hire and develop their skills so they can execute your strategy’s tasks, not those of a generic selling methodology or what they learned at another firm with a different strategy. Control Systems: performance management practices, including sales compensation and the metrics used to measure effectiveness. Sales Environment: the company context in which sales initiatives get developed and executed, how communication works (or not) across organizational boundaries, and how sales managers (not just reps) are selected and developed.

Ultimately, selling effectiveness is an outcome of these factors, not only the result of heroic efforts in the field. And this has very practical implications. If you’re a sales manager, this way of thinking may change how you select and use available selling resources, how you develop your people, and how you look at your own career and development needs. And if you’re a CEO, strategist, or Board member evaluating sales numbers, it can help you to avoid being a sucker for glib generalizations about selling–and, believe me, as someone who works with PE firms and has served on Boards, it happens.

CG: Can you say more about that? It seems that we hear daily about how social media and online technologies are “disintermediating” sales forces and transforming how companies sell.

FC: Yes, based on the business press, you could easily assume that proficiency with social media or digital marketing now determines business success. But consider the basics: US companies spend, annually, more than 3X on sales forces than they spend on all media advertising, 20X more than the total spent on digital marketing, and more than 100X what they currently spend on social media ads. Whenever I see those numbers, I always think about Mark Twain’s comment: “If you’re gonna’ put a lot of eggs in one basket, then keep your eye on that basket!”

CG: But what about all the claims of the Death of the Salesman? Just four years ago this was a big headline in the sales industry.

FC: It’s simply not true that sales forces are being replaced by ecommerce, social media, or other elements of the internet. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people in sales occupations in 2012 was virtually the same as in 1992—before the rise of the internet. And this almost certainly understates the real numbers: as you know, business developers in many firms, especially professional services firms, are called Associates, Partners, Vice Presidents or Managing Directors, not placed in a “sales” category for reporting purposes.

In fact, if you peek behind the server farms of online firms themselves, you find face-to-face and inside sales organizations as the engine of profitable growth. At Groupon, over 45% of employees are in sales; at Google, it’s about 50%; and at Facebook, the sales force’s ability to translate “likes” into advertisers will make or break that company’s valuation going forward.

The internet is realigning sales tasks. For example, relatively few cars are actually bought online. But about 90% of Americans research the purchase via or other online source before going to a dealer. The average car shopper now spends more than 11 hours online and only 3.5 hours in trips to dealerships. But this makes selling more important, not less, because it puts more pressure on the sales person’s value-added during the shorter sales experience. Smartphones, online reviews, social media blogs—all these tools are having a similar effect across many buying/selling situations.

But, perhaps focused on technology or the media buzz, many execs ignore the implications for sales tasks and the links between Sales and other parts of their companies that deal with customers before and after actual selling takes place. Don’t believe the hype: salespeople, and the customer trust they do or don’t generate, are not becoming obsolete. With Paul Nunes of Accenture, I wrote an HBR article over a decade ago—at the height of another hype cycle when most commentary was predicting (in fact, assuming) disintermediation of sales forces. The article attracted a lot of attention, most of it very negative. We were labeled as reactionaries, oblivious to ‘disruptive innovation,’ and so on. But look at empirical reality years later: they were wrong, and we were right.

CG: What’s the biggest, over-arching problem or issue you see in the field of selling?

FC: Selling is probably the most contextually-determined set of skills in a company: what works there does not necessarily work here. There’s now a century of research about salespeople. Sales talent comes in all shapes and sizes, because selling jobs vary hugely in the kind of product or service sold, price points, the customers a rep is responsible for, the numbers and types of people contacted during sales calls, the relative importance of technical knowledge, and so on—in other words, selling effectiveness depends on the particular sales task. You wrote an excellent piece about this last year (“Half of What You’ve Learned about Sales is Wrong,” TrustMatters, April 15, 2013), and I agree with you: one size doesn’t fit all.

Yet, sweeping generalizations and outright stereotypes about “sales personalities” and the alleged core “traits” of effective salespeople still dominate the field. Why? The novelist Saul Bellow liked to explain the difference between ignorance and indifference this way: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Many executives and sales managers don’t know about this research. In fact, as others have pointed out, many sales managers have a classic cloning bias: they hire in their own image. And many trainers and consultants just don’t care: they have a hammer, and everything looks like a nail.

In my experience, these generalizations are destructive and not just abstractions. They encourage quick-fix approaches that substitute for more fundamental sales and strategy issues confronting firms. Those approaches may be quick but rarely a fix. The stereotypes also blind managers to the interactions between strategy, sales tasks, and selling requirements that they are, presumably, paid to manage.

CG: OK, time for some key takeaways about aligning strategy and sales. Let’s focus first on the Strategy side.

FC: I don’t think I’m saying anything truly original about effective strategy formulation. But I don’t apologize for emphasizing the fundamentals because, for various reasons, executives and sales people tend to forget them. Many companies confuse strategy with things like purpose, vision, or values. That’s bad news for your firm and your career. It’s the responsibility of those crafting strategy to insist on those distinctions. Any organization’s strategy, purpose or vision cannot be independent of how the world changes. If you simply cling to those abstractions, you’re just stubborn, not principled, or you may believe your aspiration is just too big to fail; it’s not.

Then, you must communicate what your strategy means for market priorities, who are and are not your customers, and the implications for sales tasks. Most firms don’t do this—either because leaders are not clear about strategy or they worry this information will get to competitors. If the issue is the former, then clarify strategy: it’s hard for people to execute what they don’t understand. And if the issue is the latter, you have bigger problems to worry about than competitors reading your strategy documents if your salespeople don’t understand them.

CG: And the key takeaways for those carrying a bag or managing a sales effort?

FC: First, as always, People: You need disciplined hiring that’s linked to your strategy, focused and customized training initiatives, and on-going attention to broadening salespeople’s skills as markets and sales tasks change. Sorry, but almost all serious research about people in business underscores these fundamentals and debunks glib prescriptions about talent acquisition.

Second, Performance Reviews are still grossly underutilized levers for influencing behavior in many sales organizations. Busy managers treat them as drive-by conversations that are really about compensation, not review, evaluation, and development. But so much of strategy – sales alignment is only visible and manageable through on-going account and performance reviews. This is a trainable skill and there’s lots of room for improvement in most sales forces when it comes to conducting performance reviews.

Third, Perspective: Strategy is about confronting external market facts, and customers ultimately determine what are relevant selling behaviors today, not yesterday. It’s not the responsibility of the market to be kind to your strategy or current sales model. It’s your responsibility to understand the evolving market and its sales tasks. And you can’t do that from headquarters, the branch office, or solely through data analytics. A character in a John le Carre novel says something that every sales leader and C-suite executive should engrave on their desk or tattoo on some prominent body part: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world,” especially the sales world.

CG: Frank, this has been great. I’m still kind of amazed that there is such an enormous opportunity that’s been relatively overlooked; but there it is, and you’ve laid it out very clearly.

FC: Charlie, it’s truly been my pleasure. You’ve made TrustMatters a wonderful, straight-shooting medium for people to engage about sales. I thank you for the chance to add to that dialogue.

Best B2B Sale of the Month: Selling by Doing, Not Selling by Telling

I spoke recently with Craig Leach, CEO of Graham-Pelton Consuting. Graham-Pelton is a leader in the field of non-profit fund-raising consulting.

CHG: So Craig, tell me this story.

CL: It was a large potential client for us. We had discussions with several key leaders, but as is often the case in non-profits, the board wanted to be involved before significant commitments were made. That meant a presentation to the full board—about 30 people in this case.

I knew we were in the last time-slot of a four-firm dog and pony show afternoon for this group. It had to have been a long day for that many people.

I and my team had prepared well, but as I we headed down the hall to await being summoned at 4:30, just as the door opened and we were ushered in, I got a little inspiration. I channelled you Charlie and your approach to trust-based selling.

“I’m calling an audible,” I whispered to my team. “Follow my lead.”

We walked in to this long, vertical room with 30 stressed, tired faces jammed into the seats. You could hear pencils tapping, and could smell the low-grade tension.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “We’ve got another long presentation for you to sit through today, but I’m wondering—maybe we should do something else. All those in favor of junking the slides and just getting down to business, say Aye!”

Well some of them literally jumped out of their seats, thrusting their hands up and shouting Aye!

We had a great meeting. We talked about what they wanted, what their concerns were, and we listened—actively and attentively. They asked us for some opinions, and we gave them. Everybody felt great having that conversation.

Of course we got the job, and several people told me later that our approach was, while not the only reason we got it, certainly a differentiator and a real plus.

CHG: Congratulations, Craig, that’s a great story. What do you think it means? Is this a case of the last time slot wins?

CL: No, not at all. Partly we read the room right, and got credit for adjusting to it. But more deeply, it was what you had written about: selling by doing, not by
. There was nothing canned about what we did. It was a conversation in real time and therefore it became a consulting session rather than a sales pitch. Nothing up our sleeves. We brought game, not gamebooks. We just did what we do, and they could immediately see whatever they wanted to see—not just what we wanted them to see. That’s what really did it, I think.

CHG: I think you’re right. Congratulations again.