The Kula Ring

Episode 195 Don’t Talk to My Customers

The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.

Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.

The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.

Almost everyone agrees that talking to customers is a good idea, but sometimes manufacturers find that one particular department seems to stand in the way: sales. Salespeople functioning as customer gatekeepers can be a real problem. In this episode of The Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman explore how manufacturers can move past a culture of gatekeeper salespeople towards a future where serving customers is a team sport.

Don’t Talk to My Customers Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. How’s it going, sir?

Carman Pirie: Going well, and you? 

Jeff White: Doing great. The part I neglected to leave out there is that you’re the only one joining me today. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. Listenership just dropped off considerably in the last five seconds. 

Jeff White: Come back, mom. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. No. Look, we’ve done this in the past a little bit where we’ve either just the two of us chatted on the podcast and dove into a topic, or we’ve interviewed other people at Kula Partners. Usually, we’ve done that because it allows us to maybe go into a more technical topic or something of the sort, but I think today the reason is that there’s no client-side manufacturing marketer in their right mind who wants to go on record talking about this stuff. 

Jeff White: Seems like a career limiting move. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. So, I guess cutting to the chase, what we’re looking to talk about today is kind of a challenge that we’ve seen crop up an awful lot in manufacturers in the relationship, if you will, between the sales organization and the rest of the company, where the salespeople maybe kind of begin to act as a bit of gatekeeper, or they’re the barrier between the customer and the company. It’s a real challenge and we know by talking to a lot of manufacturing marketers that it’s a challenge that they experience acutely. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s not just something that we’ve seen in discussions with the podcast. We’ve experienced it in our own work, as well, to varying degrees that have given us some insight into this idea of salesperson as gatekeeper, and I think it’s especially important here because in so many of the relationships within manufacturing that are held in the kinds of sales organizations that they have, the salespeople are often more farmer than hunter, and as a result, they are the most connected to their customers, and that’s where a lot of the potential growth lies, which is where the problems come in. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I mean, I would even go so far as to say in some ways it seems that almost the more niche the market is that any given manufacturer serves, the more likely they are to go to market via a direct sales organization and in some ways almost the more likely they are to have a direct sales organization that has deep, often preexisting relationships with prospects. Often they may be hiring the salesperson because they come with those relationships. 

Jeff White: They’re bringing those relationships. Yeah. And we’re not gonna get into this today, but it’s interesting too, because this notion of the salesperson as owner of the customer relationship, it exists somewhat too in the distributor type relationships, too, where the distributors don’t necessarily want you talking to their customers if you are the provider or the manufacturer of a certain product. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. That’s an incredibly fair point and it’s a problem essentially for the same reasons, isn’t it? It’s because talking to customers is kind of important, right? We’ve had a number of guests on this show take us through their voice of customer work that they’ve done, work that they’ve done to try to better understand the customer from the marketing department point of view, work that’s been done in product development to get closer to customers and to better understand the problems being solved, et cetera. So, we speak to marketers, customer service people, product dev people, on and on and on, who beat the drum about how important it is to talk to customers and how dramatically you can alter the outcome of certain initiatives if it’s informed by that, so if we’re going to recognize that there’s a big there there in terms of talking to customers is important, then I think it’s important for us to talk about the things that stand in the way of that.

Jeff White: Yeah. I think you’re right. And I think first and foremost, let’s dive in and start to look at the idea of who owns the relationship. Because as you said, in a lot of cases these sales guys, and they’re often guys. I don’t mean to exclude women, as well. But oftentimes the sales teams are, like you say, bringing previous relationships, perhaps from either competing organizations, or organizations within a similar vertical where their talents might be required somewhere else, so they’re coming along with that and feel some ownership over it. But you know, you argue that it’s not really theirs. The customer doesn’t belong to them. 

Carman Pirie: Well, I think if a manufacturer is experiencing this problem, if they’re noticing that their direct sales organization is kind of keeping them from talking to customers in a more broad way, then in some ways I guess the salesperson has established in that moment that they own the customer. You know, what’s the old saying, possession is nine tenths of the law or what have you? Kind of the similar type of thing here, maybe. If they can successfully keep everybody else from talking to the customer, well then, I guess they effectively own the customer. 

I guess what I’m kind of saying is that’s a big problem, and so one of the first steps to solving it is that notion of the company owning the customer. And I think that what we’re talking about is trying to make the change from a salesperson feeling that they own the relationship to the company owning the relationship, and I feel like there’s no marketing organization that’s going to be able to convince sales to make that shift. That’s going to have to be set from the executive level. That has to be a tone from the executive team that says, “This is what we expect. We expect those customer relationships to be opened up and we see serving customers as a team sport, and that means that that relationship cannot be owned by one person,” and it is an organizational-wide mandate to get there. I feel like that’s kind of like the only way you can do it. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Well, yes. Absolutely. I think it should be proclaimed from on high that… It would be awfully difficult, I think, for a salesperson to claim that they own the relationship when you come at it from that perspective, that that relationship is a team sport, that we’re all serving the same needs, that we might have service, we might have marketing that’s going into those channels, to those accounts, what have you, and that the salespeople need to be open to having their customer’s spoken with. But I do think that there’s potentially a slower path to kind of reeling in that customer ownership somewhat. Because in a lot of cases what we’ve seen, as you’ll recall, is that especially in organizations that rely on a legacy sales force, they probably don’t have a CRM. So, all of that information, all of that relationship data, all of the visits, and other back and forth that’s occurred is happening outside of anywhere that it can ever be inspected by anybody else. So, it may be that kind of introducing a CRM would begin to bring a level of accountability to that that could then be used to step to a more… I don’t want to say severe, but more specific policy-oriented statement about the relationship with customers, would you say? 

Carman Pirie: Well, I don’t know. Part of me thinks you’re just delaying the conversation by a millisecond, because basically you implement the CRM, which… It’s amazing. I mean, there are manufacturers, marketing organizations inside of manufacturers listening to this podcast right now, and that manufacturer is a $500 million manufacturer or greater and they don’t have a CRM. For the many that do, they must find that very head scratchy, but it’s true. So, let’s say okay, part of this is we’re going to get the direct sales organization opening up their relationship with customers because they now need to document it in the CRM. Well, just because you implement the CRM doesn’t mean it gets used. 

I mean, getting more into the stuff that nobody wants to talk about at parties. I would say that a CRM being underutilized by the sales team is almost as common as CRM implementations themselves. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Certainly, as common as CRM implementations going wrong. 

Carman Pirie: Well, and then you go through the… Very often, the narrative is, “Oh, well, the sales team kind of uses the CRM. Some people will put their deals in there. Not everybody. You know Joe, he’s retiring in the next three years and it’s hard to get him to change to do anything, really. So, we don’t force Joe to do it, but Billy, he’s 35 and a real go-getter, and technology is just second nature to him.” And I don’t know, Jeff, is it just me or does it seem to you that an awful lot of manufacturers let their salespeople get away with it? 

Jeff White: It does. I think it’s because Joe has a really good TikTok account too, and therefore knows what the kids are into. But you know, you highlight a really interesting problem there that’s probably a great segue to another point, is that in a lot of organizations that do go to market via direct sales, a lot of that talent is probably heading out the door soon. And therefore, you gotta get a tourniquet on this and you have to pull in that information, because once they’re gone all of that knowledge is gone with them. 

Carman Pirie: But that’s just it, then, that kind of that tolerance, that coddling of the older salespeople is running exactly counter to that objective you just articulated about basically knowledge transfer and the generational change that’s happening in sales teams. So, I guess that’s why I say maybe we’re just delaying the conversation by a second or two, because I think the direction needs to be set at the top that the company owns the customer, and part of that is every interaction with the customer is captured in the CRM. And that’s really not optional. 

It’s optional in the way that paychecks are optional. 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: And I don’t know, maybe people listening will think I’m being too harsh there, but I think we just need to really be honest with ourselves about that. You’ve got a guy heading out the door in three years’ time on early retirement who hasn’t documented any of the relationships, isn’t opening the door to even customer service building a deeper relationship with your customers, et cetera. That’s a serious problem and when that talent heads out the door, I can tell you then it’s too late to do anything about it. 

Jeff White: Yeah. And that one person could be responsible for tens of millions of dollars. Awfully hard to serve into those organizations if you don’t know what the shot is, you know?

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. And what’s interesting to think about, too, is that sometimes when we think of that transition, we think of, “Okay, well, so-and-so’s retiring, so we need to transition those relationships to the new person.” And I think that that’s probably the wrong way to think about it too, because transitioning the relationships to the new person just kicks the problem down the road. And while the person that’s retiring probably stayed with the company 20 or 30 years, chances of that new person that just came on staying with the company for five years is pretty slim. 

So, I think it makes it all the much more kind of important, more imperative, that shift to thinking about selling as a team sport, serving customers as a team sport, that needs to happen. We can’t have all of our redundancy in one person, like a one-to-one. Okay, we have one salesperson and we’ve got one person that can be backup for that person. That doesn’t really work. 

Jeff White: No. No. Especially when it’s so close to the money. You know, you can’t have that. I think, though, that there… We’re being somewhat harsh on salespeople right now and sometimes deservedly so, but not always, and I do think that marketing has a responsibility here, as well, that when the sales team is opening up to those discussions and providing that information that marketing can give some value back. And I think this is really where if you think back to our recent conversation with Cynthia Kellam at TE Connectivity, they… almost talk to their customers too much. That may not be possible, you know? We talked to her a little bit about potential survey fatigue and things like that, but the building of the profile of the opportunity within your customer body, that’s something that marketing can do and that others within the organization can do that is going to provide real value to the sales team down the road. 

Really starting to get to understand that customer on a level that is not just handshakes, golf rounds, and steak dinners, you know? 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think the way I would encourage salespeople to open up to the idea, the way I’d encourage them to think about it is to say these people have permission to ask questions that you don’t have permission to ask. And even if they ask the same questions that you ask as a salesperson, they may get different answers because the person perceives that their answer is going to be received in a different way, or they may be just more open and honest with somebody who they don’t feel has a direct commission-based relationship at play, right? 

That could be the case even in those times when the salesperson and the person they’re selling to have really become friends over the years. Like so often we’re talking about relationships, we’re talking about friendships, like they may have attended each other’s children’s weddings kind of thing. But with that familiarity also comes more things that I may guard against in my conversation. I may not be as willing, for instance if I’m a customer and I’m that close to my salesperson, I may not be as open with the salesperson when things have gone a little sideways. I might not want to be as harsh or as direct. 

So, yeah, I think it is a bit of a gift to the salesperson if they can open up to that and say, “I may get new information here that I just otherwise wouldn’t be able to get, and that may help me upsell more. I may be able to cross-sell into this organization better. Et cetera.” But this brings up a good point, Jeff. The person being gatekept from those customer relationships sometimes are other salespeople. You know, we see it so often, a manufacturer goes, and they buy… The mergers and acquisition play is happening and so they’re incorporating a new product or service offering into their core, and they’re going to sell it into their existing customer base, and all of the salespeople responsible for all those existing relationships are like, “Yeah. We’re not talking to my customer about that. I don’t want you to talk to them about X when I’ve been busy making bank selling them Y for the last 10 years. Don’t mess up a good thing.” 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: How often is that… We think about, “Oh, these gatekeepers are keeping marketers away. They’re keeping customer service people away or C-suite people away.” But often it’s other salespeople they’re keeping away.

Jeff White: Man. That is a really interesting point. I remember an episode we recorded a couple years ago, John Eklund, ProMach, who is the VP of Marketing, I think. If that’s the wrong title, I apologize, John, but he basically had written the playbook about how they integrate new brands that they buy. Very aggressive M&A organization. And part of that, if you recall, was also ensuring that the sales teams were immediately plugged into each other’s information so that the cross-sell could happen from the get go, so that they’re really starting to see value very quickly from their mergers and acquisitions and they’re not spending a whole whack of time trying to figure out who owns what and why Jimmy from the U.S. can’t talk to Jean in Berlin or something like that, you know? 

It’s pretty interesting. I also think too, you talked a bit about how some salespeople may not be comfortable with certain lines of questioning. I think that can also play into potentially using a third party, like an outside agency, or a survey firm, or somebody like that to kind of go in and begin to ask those questions that the sales team can’t, because sometimes the relationships at that exact moment may not be on the best of footing for whatever reason. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I mean, I think you can open up these relationships and get additional information in a lot of different ways, be that third party or just other different departments or what have you, but the only way you’re gonna get there is if the person that’s gatekeeping is no longer acting in that role, right? 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: That’s really the nut that we’re trying to crack. And you know, we talked about that notion of setting the tone from the top around company owning the relationship, and kind of that notion of CRM compliance is a must these days. I mean, guys, it’s 2022. You gotta put your stuff in the CRM. Everybody like, “Oh, well, they don’t really like technology,” meanwhile buddy is on the can in the washroom placing his sports bets on his app, right? We’re just lying to ourselves thinking that the CRM is too difficult to use. We’re just letting people get away with crap and we need to I think get over ourselves about that. 

Jeff White: To be fair, some CRMs are very difficult to use. 

Carman Pirie: Sure. But-

Jeff White: There may be better options than what people might have. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, so get a better one, or just buckle up, princess, and learn to use the one you got. It’s probably not impossible, right? 

So, there we are beating up on the salespeople maybe a little bit, so let’s flip it a bit and the last bit of advice I would have is that I think in trying to make this shift, in trying to say the company owns these relationships, and guys, we need you to be putting this stuff in the CRM, that you need to honor the sales function when making this change. So often I’ve seen organizations change the compensation structure, as an example, at the same time as they’re trying to say the company owns the accounts. 

Jeff White: A sure fire way to lose people before you ever captured their data. 

Carman Pirie: Well, yeah. Or they may say something like we’ll continue to pick on our soon-to-retire Joe here, fictitious Joe. He’s 43. He’s gonna take an early retirement package in a few years. 

Jeff White: Wait, he got to retire at 43? 

Carman Pirie: Did I say 43? 53. 53. 

Jeff White: I was gonna say I’m a little late. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. Now you distracted me. I don’t even know… Okay, so yeah, so we’ve got our 50-some-odd year old salesperson and we’re making this change, and they’ll say, “Okay, we’re gonna team you up with more of a sales admin person,” or what have you, and they’re gonna take over a lot of the day-to-day on this account, or that account, and now by the way the commission structures are gonna be kind of shared amongst a team, too. So, they start mucking about with that and it’s like… No. No, no, no, no, no. Everything you do here cannot decode to the salesperson like you’re disrespecting what it is they bring to the table. In fact, you need to almost double down on respecting it. You need to find probably a way, as much as it kills you as a manager, maybe. I don’t know, but you need to say, “Look, when our team upsells an existing customer and that salesperson had nothing to do with it,” you may even need to give that salesperson the same commission they would have gotten otherwise. 

You still may need to comp them at that account level and honor that function more than is maybe what your instinct would be. Does that make sense? 

Jeff White: It does. Do you think it continues indefinitely? 

Carman Pirie: Well, no, because Joe’s retiring in a few years. 

Jeff White: The planned obsolescence model of commission-based selling. 

Carman Pirie: But you know what I mean, like other people will join the organization under a different rulebook and under a different set of expectations, and that evolution can happen. But I just think it’s a recipe for failure to make too much change too fast in this, and the change that will piss off a salesperson more than any other is the comp change. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Probably very limited appetite for that sort of discussion. 

Carman Pirie: I remember an old organization I used to work in, and the VP of sales once told me, he’s like, “I’ll tell you one thing right now that every sales guy in this organization understands. They know every time the CFO starts talking about a comp plan change that they’re losing, and the company is winning.” That’s-

Jeff White: Like the house in Vegas. 

Carman Pirie: They’re immediately suspicious. There’s just no way this is for my good. This is for somebody else’s. And I think the thing that people that aren’t in sales benefit from and appreciate about people who are in sales is they’ll have that tough money conversation when nobody else will. 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: So, these people are people who are more likely to be more motivated by money than a lot of other positions, and they understand the money more than other positions, so avoid making the… In fact, even find ways to be more generous with the comp as you move to a team-based approach versus the other. 

Jeff White: That’s definitely more carrot than stick in that model, especially if you’re implementing things that are otherwise going to be painful. You can’t be beating everybody from both ends. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. That’s a good way to put it, maybe. I don’t know really… It brings about quite a visual. 

Jeff White: This is the other thing we can get into when we don’t have a guest. 

Carman Pirie: Exactly right. Exactly right. 

Jeff White: Entirely different topics. And you know, I think it’s also worthwhile, we could probably link up some other episodes in the show notes just about organizations that have had tremendous benefit from spending more time talking to customers. And not just from a sales perspective, but from… You know, I’m thinking of Chris Witt from Tektronix that we recently had on the how. Their entire product development process is now voice of the customer driven. When you begin to embed that kind of thinking in the DNA of the company overall, it’s probably an easier pill to swallow than if you’re just kind of switching how the sales team needs to work. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. But if you’re an organization with this gatekeeper problem that we’re talking about and you just listened to that Chris Witt episode of the podcast, part of you is probably thinking, “We can’t get there from here.” Right? Like yeah, sure, we could have a much more innovative and reliable product development program that was better serving customers by talking to customers throughout it, but there’s something that’s standing in the way of that. So, I guess that’s why I’m hoping today’s show gives people a lens to think about, to look through as they think about that problem to say, “Okay, how do we begin to make that change? How do we shift away from the salespeople as gatekeepers and get to a more team-based approach that allows this other innovation to come about?” 

Jeff White: Yeah. And I think that’s really where I think we should leave it is just this is an essential thing. All organizations are going to have to face this at some point in the next decade, I would say, and if you’re looking at your sales organization right now and going, “Huh. I really don’t know who to even talk to at customer XYZ,” then you may have… We can do a one question diagnostic for you. 

Carman Pirie: Exactly right. Yeah. I think that people that have that problem kind of in some… They very much know it. It’s a daily frustration for them in some way. They may not see it as something that stands in the way of a corporate-wide innovation initiative or something, but they certainly experience the problem, and for those folks I think, again, the three tips are you gotta find that executive champion to really make sure that we can set that tone from the top that the company owns the relationship, not the person. And with that, I think you can drive some of that CRM compliance that we know is vital. And if you make those changes and get that team-based approach working inside of a structure that honors the salesperson’s contribution and does not seek to compensate them less or even differently, then I think you are well on your way to being able to make those changes. 

Jeff White: Great points. Thanks a lot, Carman. 

Carman Pirie: Likewise, sir. Pleasure. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-Apartners.com/thekularing.

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