This is from the True Stories archives – I posted this on LinkedIn originally but it belongs here, as well. This is a quick story about managing the account: data and insight. These things are built on professionalism and entail communicating a more compelling vision of the future than the next guy in the next meeting (instead of taking the buyer to the Palomino Club). It also features extraordinary hubris as our antagonist. The last part about hubris was not my role to fill here, thankfully.
Let me tell you a quick story. It has to do with the power of data, of insight and information. And it has to do with hubris, ego, and the unglamorous side of our work lives. It will only take a minute or so, so hang on.
Once upon a time, I ran the marketing function for a small piece of one of the world’s most powerful brands. We were in Las Vegas at the CES Show, back behind the private poker tables in a private room off the floor of the hotel. We were about to present to one of the largest retailers in the United States – and we were presenting to the Executive Vice President of Merchandising, along with his VP, together with the buyer. I had my sales team with me, along with my boss, the president of the business unit.
The wrinkle to all this was that we were asked to present together with another division, one that did ten times the revenue we did. Maybe they did a hundred times our revenue, I can’t remember. We didn’t know why, but like good soldiers, we were happy to show up and do the presentation that we had so carefully put together.
When everyone assembled, the other division’s VP started talking. Glad handing. He seemed a little to comfortable, a little to glib, even to us. Maybe that was the brief disturbance in The Force, that few seconds before the day’s first Inciting Incident, that laid out the path of the morning.
The EVP didn’t even look up. He just motioned with his finger and the guy sat down. Understand this senior retail executive wasn’t a rude person, not by reputation. He was known to be a big figure in the industry who got there through judgment and good decisions. He wasn’t a yeller and he wasn’t yelling now, so him telling the guy to shut up was notable in itself.
“I want the other guys to start.”
That was us. My boss nodded to me, I plugged in my laptop, and I started in. I didn’t feel like a long introduction was called for at this point, lest I get told to sit down, too, so I started on page one and started running.
A quick digression. We did really good business reviews back in those days. We were excellent at them. We started with national consumer sentiment data, talking about the mood of the country, the key trends affecting behavior, and how these things mattered to anyone who cared about shopping at their stores. From there, we went down the funnel, discussing national sell-through data – for the industry and for them, specifically. We discussed SKU’s and price points, competitors and promotions, spending and merchandising. The whole thing. We analyzed what was working – for us and for our competitors – and what wasn’t. We ended up with our recommendations, right down to the physical planograms of their stores, discussing which SKU’s should stay, which should go, and which should be added at the expense of our competitors. We even suggested once to add a SKU from a competitor in place of another competitor’s product. We used every piece of data we could find.
This whole presentation lasted about 30 minutes, start to finish, at the end of which he thanked us. Then he turned to the other division head.
“This is what you guys need to do from now on. I wanted you to see this for yourself.”
He spent the better part of the next two or three minutes disassembling this massive division’s incompetence, arrogance, hubris, and business practices, from how they present themselves to what they bring to the table. And while I felt a certain sense of pride in what we were known for, I felt bad for the guy getting murdered before our eyes.
When we was done and before that awkward silence had set in, he turned to his VP of Merchandising and said, “You see anything here you have an issue with?”
“No, this all looks good to me.”
A raised eyebrow to the buyer, who was suddenly fully healed of his Vegas hangover. “No, I’m good,” he said, somewhat unconvincingly.
We took a break, shook hands with the customer, and took our leave, abandoning our sister division to its fate for the rest of the meeting.
“Should we get some time with these guys and walk them through how we do what we do?” I somewhat naively asked my boss.
“Oh, I think they learned enough,” he said. “They’ll never ask for help. They’re too embarrassed.”
He was right. We never heard from them. Who knows where those guys ended up.
The moral of the story doesn’t need to be overly explained here, but for the sake of closure, here’s what I learned.
1. Big, sweeping, macro trends matter. They matter a lot, actually, more than many give them credit for. Understanding sentiment on a culture level is setting the scene against which everything else is set. Change the sentiment, the sense of optimism or pessimism, the sense of communal or personal, what we stand to gain versus what we stand to lose, aspiration versus preservation, and every recommendation that follows is reduced to a potential zero-sum game.
2. Set their strategy against macro trends. Show them how their plans fit into the overall ecosystem of the country’s prevailing sentiment.
3. Your plans have to do more than just fit in their plans. You need to show your customers how your ideas dovetail in with the bigger macro picture – and then how they reinforce the customer’s strategy. You need to be connecting all the dots for them.
4. This applies to B2B as much as it does B2C. I could just as easily tell you a story about a similar top to top meeting with a major B2B player that began with the senior executive reminding us upon entering the room that he had thrown us out a few short years before, almost getting into a fist fight with a previous member of our management team. But that was before my time.
Does this make sense to you? It’s a true story. And it shows how you can use big macro sentiment data to open up business conversations and give your brand the sharp-edged point of view you need to avoid the speeds-and-feeds trap so many brands fall into. Managing the account is about using data and insight and is built on professionalism and vision.
You don’t need to take the buyer to the strip club, after all. That’s really not how trust is built. You need to show them the future. Whoever can show the customer the most compelling vision of the future typically wins a disproportionate amount of whatever business is up for grabs. This is a good starting point. Good luck!