The Lost Art of Selling B2B – the $1B meeting

My father was a salesman. I grew up vowing I would (or could) never do what my father did. He was a “hail fellow well met” kind of guy and always had a bevy of jokes to get and keep a party rolling. I was a deep introvert and would prefer reading by myself to interacting with anybody else.

Yet, life has a way of throwing curve balls at you and here I am fifty years later realizing through the lens of Dan Pink‘s To Sell is Human, that I’ve spent my entire professional life selling. Not the used car salesman kind of selling but the manager and entrepreneur type of selling ideas, product, visions of what could be, and stock in the companies we created. As Pink shares the “non-sell sell” is any time we have to acquire resources to accomplish some goal:

“We’re persuading, convincing, and influencing others to give up something they’ve got in exchange for what we’ve got. As you’ll see in the findings of a first-of-its-kind analysis of people’s activities at work, we’re devoting upward of 40 percent of our time on the job to moving others. And we consider it critical to our professional success.”

Pink, Daniel H. (2012-12-31). To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (p. 3).

When I look at my activities, the “selling” activities account for over 80% of my time.

As I mentor entrepreneurs, teach graduate students about entrepreneuring and generating Demand, and observe start-ups in my research at accelerators, it is clear that most professionals don’t understand the first thing about selling. Most folks start (and unfortunately stay there) in one of two camps:

  • Build it and they will come
  • Let me tell you about the 3000 features of my product

Dan Pink does a wonderful job of walking through how selling occurs today with numerous great examples. His chapter on pitches is fabulous shedding light on how today’s selling happens.

However, for those of us in the B2B world, selling is much more of a process because you are trying to establish a long term relationship not just a one time transaction.

I first experienced large scale enterprise B2B selling when we brought our office automation opportunity to DuPont. The DuPont sales rep and I went to lunch with Ray Cairns, CIO for the Textile Division, and we talked about the history of our efforts and the capabilities of our ideas.  He was an active questioner and probed far and wide about where we’d been and where we expected to go.  He knew that we were developing this capability in conjunction with our customers and then would move it into DEC’s central engineering.

Our unique offer to Ray was they would have an unlimited use license for the first version of the software within DuPont.  Then, if they liked the tools, they would have to buy licenses for the next version of the product.  This offer allowed them to amortize the cost of the project over quite a few hardware systems which made the costs appealing to their financial analysts.  We appeared to be giving up quite a bit of future software revenue, but we were betting that we would have a new version of the product well before they were ready to deploy the software across a lot of systems.  This offer was win-win for both corporations.

I relaxed and felt quite good that the decision maker would decide in our favor.  Little did I know what I was in for in the formal meeting with Ray and his twelve direct reports.  We had professional 35mm slides to present our story and product ideas.  At the end of the 30 minute overview presentation, Ray asked several warm up questions and then hit me with the question that rocked my world: “how has this product helped impact Digital’s bottom line, either positively or negatively?”  He knew from our lunch conversation that the product didn’t even exist, so that it couldn’t have much of an impact.  I knew he wasn’t a stupid man. What was going on here?

In a flash of desperate panic brilliance, it came to me that he wasn’t really asking about DEC; he was using me as a convenient foil to get critical education across to his management team.  I mumbled a few things about our unique approach to developing application software in conjunction with a customer.  Then, I turned the question around (the springboard bringer of opportunity question) to the DuPont management team and asked them how they thought this product might affect DEC’s bottom line?  It is much easier to speculate about the cause and effect in someone else’s organization when you are at a level of optimal ignorance than to do speculation about your own organization.

What ensued was a great one hour conversation about the implications of such a product and technology on a large, complex organizational system like a Fortune 50 company.

After the meeting, we were awarded the order and we now had the funding to take the ideas of our specification and our demonstration into a full blown product (which became Allin1-titleALL-IN-1 – a $1 billion per year product for DEC).  The learning for me in this meeting was quite revealing.  Our way of approaching the selling of our ideas to individual contributors and middle managers was the more traditional features and benefits – what Simon Sinek refers to as the What and How.  Ray made clear that at a certain level of management, the rules change and the offer must move from features and benefits to higher order implications.  In this case, what effect would it have on both the revenue side of DuPont and the expense side of DuPont.  In order to answer that kind of question you have to move from the product under study to the system under study.  In particular you have to look at the interactions of an entity with its environment.

We were really rolling now. I’d evolved from presenting lots of facts and features to understanding how to bring opportunity through the springboard story and the springboard bringer of opportunity question.

Fast forwarding several years to the early years at Attenex, I was once again at the forefront of selling our product to large enterprises and their law firms. Our east coast sales manager, Kathryn Hardie, brought me to NYC to meet with two up and comers at FTI ConsultingDavid Remnitz and Joe Looby.

We arranged to meet at a small NYC bistro for lunch and I shared what we were up to at Attenex. David and Joe brought a whole lot of energy to the discussion as it turned out they were proposing a big push into the eDiscovery arena and needed another technology tool to complement Ringtail. Over the course of the next several years, Kathryn worked well with David and Joe and FTI Consulting to catapult FTI to our largest customer.

After I left Attenex, David called and asked if I would help consult with FTI about their future road map for eDiscovery software products. I said I’d love to under the constraint that I wouldn’t share anything that wasn’t public about Attenex and our products. They were clear that they did want to know anything proprietary, but rather were impressed with how I’d fashioned a vision for Attenex and had translated that vision into products.

About midway through our first day long planning meeting, I realized that FTI was about to spend a large amount of money on what Attenex already had and Attenex was about to spend a lot of money building what FTI already had. I wondered aloud with a springboard bringer of opportunity question “as Attenex’s largest customer, have you ever spent any time with the development team to understand what they have and where they are headed?” I strongly suggested that the FTI team go visit the Attenex crew and look at some form of joint venture or acquisition.

Six months later, FTI acquired Attenex for $91M.

Following the completion of the acquisition, there was a surprise announcement from FTI Consulting, that based on the $91M acquisition of Attenex, they were launching an IPO of the division that acquired us to raise >$1B by selling 40% of the division. The FTI founders designed a way to turn a $91M acquisition expense into raising $1B of new capital. I was stunned at the innovative creativeness. We did not see it coming. Yet, upon reflection, if I had truly understood my Valuation Capture framework, the prediction of such a strategic move was embedded in the framework.

In a few years, that first meeting with David, Joe and Kathyrn turned the relationship with FTI from a prospect to a customer to a growth partner to an acquirer to a potential IPO.

With both DuPont and FTI Consulting, a $60 lunch started what became a $1B relationship. No wonder Keith Ferrazzi asserts that you should Never Eat Alone.

Who are you eating lunch with today?

For a humorous look at the wonderful world of innovation and new ventures, checkout Fl!p and the gang at Fl!p Comics.

This entry was posted in Attenex, Content with Context, Entrepreneuring, Flipped Perspective, Relationship Capital. Bookmark the permalink.

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