With coronavirus spreading across the globe at lightning speed, no one is immune — from the disease or its effects. SAMA’s Director of Customer Solutions, Chris Jensen, was a sector head at global logistics company DHL on the morning of Sept. 11. He spoke recently with SAMA’s editor-in-chief, Nicolas Zimmerman, to share what he learned from the experience about helping customers through crisis.
Nicolas Zimmerman: So Chris Jensen, we’re in a kind of crazy, unpredictable time right now. Things are changing seemingly by the hour. We should I think timestamp this. Today is, what is it, March 21st, I believe March 21st, 2020. And we’re talking because when most people think of a “Black Swan” event, that kind of changes everything overnight, most people think of 9/11. So if you could, can you put us in place and tell us sort of where you were on, say, September 10th, 2001, and give a little bit about your background too?
Chris Jensen: Absolutely. Thanks, Nicolas. So September 10th was a Monday, and I at the time was sector head for the engineering and manufacturing sector at DHL global forwarding at the time.
I was 41 years in my entire career with DHL. But at that time, I was the sector head there and I was also managing a couple of strategic accounts, Caterpillar and John Deere, namely. But also, had a team of individuals that were also working with their customers. I had been in that role for about three years at that time. And before that I was a SAM on a couple of customers starting in 1994. And before that I was at a variety of the sales, district, sales, field sales, and then before that, operations — almost every kind of level inside of one of the biggest logistics forwarding companies in the world.
So on the 10th was a normal day in the office. We always had our sales calls team meetings, you know, business as usual. If I remember at the time it was actually quite busy. Coming into September, the beginning, of the quarter there a little bit, and so kind of…totally business as usual.
The next morning, driving to the airport on the radio, and the tragic news was coming over the radio. And I recall being sort of on the North side of O’Hare Airport, which is where my office was located. I could see an aircraft coming in for landing, the only one. And I started to think, “Oh, this might be one of the last aircraft I see in the air today.”
As I pulled in, obviously with transitioning to the office, we had the TV on then. Those days, there was no real internet where you could look up any of this stuff at your desk. So we had had a TV in one of the main conference rooms and lots of the people and the wing that I was in, my office building, were gathered there and taking it in and tragic…
But right away I could see the impact of– because looking out the window from my office, I could see the southern runways, and you could already see the aircraft all bunching up at the terminals and all on the ground. And no noise. There was no more taking off and landing, which is always prevalent around O’Hare Airport every day, every minute of every day.
And that silence really made me think about, looking over at the phone, what’s going to happen next with our customers? So while it certainly isn’t that level of the situation today where everybody in the world is touched by this, it definitely was touching people that had supply chain, considerations and needs.
And the reason is that such a big component of business is done via air freight. And so as the news was coming in and through the day, of course, we were talking to the customers and letting them know that we’re making plans. We have everything working. The trucks were all working. But we would have to keep them advised day by day, because right away people are thinking, “Oh, I have to shift this to ocean freight and things like that.” Which, there’s no capacity to take all the air freight in the world and switch it to ocean freight at any given time.
So it was shocking. It was a sort of a feel of, I think, in a lot of SAMs there’s this feeling of having a service for your customer to provide the best service possible. And so you felt like you were actually doing something. You were helping in some way, some small way. You were helping get through this disaster.
Nicolas Zimmerman: So it was clear immediately, would you say, that this was going to be big?
Chris Jensen: Yeah. If I recall correctly, when they closed the global aviation, it was within that day by the end of that day. So right then. We knew that this was going to be a significant impact because, clearly, there wasn’t any sort of a view of how big was it? Is it only going to happen in New York City or is it happening somewhere else? So there was that. There was also the issue of all the stranded aircraft because the aircraft, they didn’t finish their flight to Chicago. They flew to Louisville and landed ,the closest landing place where their aircraft could be taken. So there was a significant amount of misplaced people, of course, but also materials, right? So they’re all over. And so as the wheels start to roll, you’re gonna sort of be in the position to try to help customers understand where their products are., what’s the impact, what can they do. So I would say quickly, within the first day or so, we were, we were talking.
And when I mentioned that I have that operational background at the beginning of my career. It really helped me a lot because I worked in the actual operations of moving cargo and making sure…working with the airlines and, and, and doing the things that had to be done to move international air cargo every day.
And I could clearly see and also talk to the individuals in the operations that this was going to be a huge impact. And the customers were starting to sink in, but then they were starting to ask a lot of questions about, “What could we do? How can we get around it? How do we find a way?”
Nicolas Zimmerman: So as someone who having worked in sales and as a strategic account manager for a long time, obviously you’re trained to deal with these operational “crises,” nothing of this magnitude, but what in your training would you say prepared you to sort of be there to step into the breach for the customers who are obviously probably panicking, not knowing how their supply chain is going to hold together. How did you handle that?
Chris Jensen: Yeah, like a lot of SAMS I’m a naturally curious person. And so I just dove into as much information as that was available. In those days, it’s a little old fashioned, right, with the television and newspapers and anything you could get your hands on. But also by going through and, and working. We had email, right? So we were emailing information as well. We created a daily sort of checklist of a current situation at the ports. Our primary concern at the moment had been Chicago O’Hare, which was busiest international cargo air freight port in the world with a huge impact.
And so those, along with staying in touch with my colleagues in operations, being out on the floor in the mega-warehouse that we had there on the south side of O’Hare Airport. Checking the flows of the cargo coming in, checking on the condition of where everything was getting staged because, as you can imagine, it all started to build up.
So it’s really to get into…SAMs, have that sort of operational side to them and they have the, the commercial side to them, the sales side to them. They have to tap into both at this time. Right. So it’s becomes a very tactical situation. You’re not really building long-range strategy out of it, but in the back of your head, yes, that has to be part of it. Like “What is this going to look like in 60 days? Not necessarily just in five days.” And so using those capabilities.
And I have to say, I was not a member of SAMA yet. Had, I had SAMA I would’ve loved it, but SAMA was still about six years in my future. But had I had SAMA to help me with tha, it would have been ideal. But I didn’t. So I just took my experience and my sort of relationship that I had built over the years with the customers. They saw me as a trusted advisor. They saw me as the person that knows more about their business than they do.
A lot of times, these were things they would say to me. I was able to use that, but not only for my customers, but also for the people that worked with me, with their customers. And then those, took the kind of format of a daily update, whether it was written or if it was on the phone or conference call. So it became sort of…the next steps were starting to come out. And some interesting steps came out, which I can probably share with you later in this conversation.
Nicolas Zimmerman: Perfect. So we talk a lot about the strategic account manager as, as the one who is kind of the CEO or the quarterback – we use a lot of different analogies. But so if I could summarize, basically you, you turned yourself into a subject matter expert on what was happening, what were the ramifications of what was happening. And then you it sounds like, reached back into your own organization and leveraged all of those relationships that had been instrumental to you to align around you for your customers. In this case, you called on all of those relationships to marshall information.
Chris Jensen: Absolutely. Not only that, but also not only marshal it, but sometimes you have to triage it a little bit, right? What’s important to to go to the customer versus everything? So there’s also the absolute triage of what’s an emergency in this situation, inside this situation? So we really had to kind of start to pretty quickly over the next couple of days transfer our view from, “Okay. These are tractor parts that are delayed, for a bulldozer in some mine somewhere” — which is an important situation for companies in that business. But medical emergencies. And we had that to consider as well. We had customers like Abbott and Baxter and several others that actually had to move blood and products overseas, right? Or it goes back.
So we kinda had to switch gears a little bit, and that became much more of a sort of looking at what’s the alternatives, which is what all the customers were asking about anyway. And it went into quite a detailed investigation and also procuring of space with allowed government aviation. So military aviation wasn’t taken down. So working with, uh, government, uh, people, officials, military officials, we were able to start to work with them to start to move needed goods, essential goods for human use. And that took up some of the time.
So it was constantly a bit of a triage of “What needs to be pushed up front? What needs to be, OK we can wait until things normalize?”
But what’s interesting about that difference in that supply chain situation to today is today there’s still an aircraft flying. So it’s not a lot, they’ve been really reduced, but you can still do it, right? Then you couldn’t, and you didn’t know when it would start. There wasn’t that, that took, it would be the next day, well, we won’t know for another week. And then it would be after five days. It might be another week after that. It actually went on more than two weeks .
And it was probably the most exhilarating period. So working through these things. I think for SAMs, it’s a natural kind of where they are in their career and what they do and, and engaging their customers, but also engaging their internal customers with their company and making sure that both are getting the best out of the situation as these things occur.
I can tell you that when I talked to my former colleagues and some of our customers are also in logistics at SAMA — big ones. And, it’s very, very busy in that world right now and trying to make sure that the essential, the essentials are moving versus just everything is business as usual.
Nicolas Zimmerman: Right. So you made me think of something. You talked about having to triage information and a, I assume that means that — and also separate the truly urgent needs from the merely semi-urgent. So I assume you were having, having to have difficult conversations with customers. Did you develop any pointers that you could share about how to have those kinds of difficult conversations with…They want answers and you don’t have, or they want answers and you don’t the answer they want.
Chris Jensen: Yeah, most important thing. And because it can be very emotional because they may think their material is essential to their customers, right? But it might not be in a, in a worldview essential to everybody else. And so, most of that comes to kind of making sure that you have as much information as you can gather before you have the conversation. Make sure you understand the information. But the most important thing, and I kind of learned this a little bit, and I don’t even know if it was exactly this particular situation, but it’s not speculating. What a customer, what people will often try to get you to do is give them some sort of information they sense you may have, but you may be holding back. Or, or what is your best educated guess as to when something’s going to start to change or whatever.
And that’s a dangerous because, again, you’re in a role where you’re there to help the customer. Or you’re there to help your internal customer. And if you start playing a bit of an estimation/guessing game, it can end not in a good way. Because all of a sudden somebody made a plan and now you’ve got all sorts of different trucks arriving at the airport or something and, and it’s just not a good thing to do. It’s always good to, yeah, they don’t like to hear it, but say, “Look, I just have to come back to you as soon as I have that information.”
Be be very Frank, be upfront. And I would say, I think that the number one thing is this: Try to stick with the, with the story that’s developing and, and stay to your talking points the best you can. And avoid speculating or using your own sort of idea or view of, of the situation to give an estimate of what you think might happen.
It’s okay to do it a little bit, especially if it’s kind of near term, like what’s going to happen by the end of the day. But even in a situation like that, that wasn’t even sometimes possible to do.
Nicolas Zimmerman: But you did talk earlier about having to also, in addition to the purely tactical operational stuff, like how are we going to move this stuff today, or how are we going to unstick this stuff that’s stuck somewhere right now? You also were looking out, you said, 60 days or whatever it was. How do you do that?
Chris Jensen: Yeah. So that, that actually did get…because the FAA obviously, because of the nature of it, our airports weren’t hardened. Right. So you needed, they needed security. And the early, early days on that became immediately known and that business as usual just couldn’t happen. Not only for passengers, but also cargo. And there had always been a bit of a security protocol before 9/11 that was, you check to make sure the materials, what the material it was. You checked over the documents, you had the cargo built up into a pallet of forms for the carrier, and you brought it over to the airport. They would check to make sure everything’s okay.
9/11 changed at all. There was then requirements of different, different things coming out, and you had to kind of work with the FAA, the government. Mmm. The new sort of forming Homeland Security at the time. All of these different things were coming to a head at the same time, which, for sure help the situation so that we wouldn’t have another one, but it didn’t help the situation of unsticking I’m sorry for that. Unsticking the materials that were already backlogging. Right.
So we had to start to work through what’s the new security protocols? But even more, which really created quite interesting discussions that were kind of loggerhead ones, was a new invention of what was called “the security fee.” And in the air transportation business or, or any of it, this had never existed before. And when that came into effect — nd it was kind of significant — it was a sort of a per kilo charge. And hey charge for the air freight, just charge per kilo by the weight. And this really threw everybody. And it took a lot of talking to get customers to understand that it’s not the same. The day is gone. It’s changed. The world has changed. This is, going forward, those fees still exist today, 20 years later. And they probably will never go away. And getting them to understand why, what was the cost to us? What was, what were we doing differently? This became the next thing.
So we were simultaneously unclearing backlogs. But through the end of that year, december/Christmas-time, we were still working through literally arm wrestling over the increases in charges that they were going to be paying. But they did, it happened. Just took some time.
Nicolas Zimmerman: It may make me think of something. Did you find that this situation kind of clarified which relationships were, were strong to begin with and which ones already had some like cracks and fissures and that and the this “Black Swan” event kind of…
Chris Jensen: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a great question. It did, right? Not in my view of the customers, and not to say that I was just some unbelievably great person at this, but those customers, I was fortunate to have a lot of time with them. They were also with us for a long time, so there was already strategic relationships there, trusted advisor-type, the top end of the totally the top end. It didn’t mean that they didn’t say, “Okay, we’re going to get and do some bidding on this and make sure your prices are right.” And through all of this they did.
But there were definitely cracks in some companies that are very…that I could…I won’t say who they are, but there’s some big conglomerates out there that have a very hard policy on price changes and things like that and in between contract bids and things like that.
And those companies did probably take some punitive actions against people in the logistics business that were saying the reality of that they were going to have to pay these charges one way or another because people had to buy x-ray machines. You had to see all that stuff you see at the airport now. That had to be, that had to be put in place and it had to be put in place fast. And it id for sure, right? I mean, it tested, I’m sure it tested every and can tell you a tested every relationship and the ones that were strong were the ones that had good logistics companies with good SAM programs in place. And SAMs with good relationships in place with their customers.
Nicolas Zimmerman: I mean, this really is, it is an argument…This isn’t a question, it’s more of a comment, but this is an argument, a very strong argument for, for the SAM approach, because without it, I think you have, facing a situation…
Chris Jensen: A disaster on top of a disaster. Because if you have somebody in field sales trying to say, now handle the, these types of discussions because they moved up to the top levels and every one of these organizations quickly, if…You know the CEO was asking about of these organizations, “What’s going on with our supply chain?” And if you have people unprepared, and a lot of times in some companies they have, instead of a SAM program, they say, “Okay, we’re going to have our C-level people talk to our largest customers on a regular basis.”
They’re probably even the least prepared to have these very tough conversations that require some negotiation and some hand holding and getting everybody through it versus what are often a C-level person will do is make some…they’re just usually not — unless they came from a SAM program, they’re usually not set up to be able to handle those kinds of conversations. Some do. Some CEOs are pretty good at it, others not.
Nicolas Zimmerman: So were there, were there times that you, that you did, how have the need to call in an executive-level person to level set or…I don’t know…
Chris Jensen: At the time, our CEO, amazing, amazing guy. He would do it himself, the call into their CEO, make sure that everything was going okay. Trust me. I wasn’t like, they just let me just do all that stuff myself. But I never, I don’t recall ever having to go down and have a, a sort of a come-to-Jesus kind of meeting, you know, to, you know, and, and bring the CEO for any of that.
I think by that time, the end of the year kind of meetings in December, were… There was a bit of that, there was a recap and what we did together and how we overcame some things and how we worked on different things, which was always appreciated. And that was more of a, at least with, with my, with my team at the time, that was very much what was happening.
Nicolas Zimmerman: Yeah. So we talked about, so far, if I can summarize your, you’re sort of a, your golden list of what to do is acquire as much information as you possibly can. Understand that information and understand which information is critical, which is less so which needs to be shared with the customer, which does not. Resist the urge to speculate. I’m going to ask you to speculate though, in what ways, and maybe you’re not in a position to take a crack at this and feel free to punt on it, but in what ways does this challenge feel similar and in what ways does it feel like a whole different ball of your yarn to you?
Chris Jensen: Yeah. Much, much different. This is much different. It touches everyone. Almost every human is, is probably in some form or another in the world been touched by this. It has some — and I was listening to the governor of Illinois and the president of the United States, actually, both yesterday talking about supply chain.
It came in slower, right? Because it wasn’t as that the impact wasn’t as hard. But it’ll come. If, if this situation around the airline industry, which is global, doesn’t sort of work its way through, which is going to be hard to do unless people start to fly again, because in the bellies of those aircraft is all the cargo.
So there’s much less of that. So it’s more of a gradual…Where I see this impact a whole lot more is just on everybody. And that’s why it’s so much bigger. And from the entertainment industry and restaurant business and all of that, but teachers and schools.
So it’s, it’s just much more far ranging. And then, in our role together at SAMA. Nicolas, you can see it now reverberating into…because we talk to the companies that have SAM programs, and we talk to companies without SAM programs Just interested in having a more strategic selling team.
How can we help the most? And I have to say that I’m so impressed with Libby [Ed: SAMA Director of Knowledge and Programming Libby Souder] getting together with the team to get to some really significant online opportunities for customers to do things in place while they’re in place at home or wherever they are. And so we’re rolling that out and I have to say it again, and I don’t mean it to make it a commercial, but as I’m just being as honest as I can be: If I had SAMA to help me back then with some of that, it would have been amazing, right? Any of the materials that we have on our website.
Maybe…definitely for me, but for sure for my team. I had a lot of newer people on the team at the time. Different levels of experience. So having been able to kind of train them up in some of the, some of the main, the basic skills of what a good SAM can do, that would have been outstanding to have
But we have that today. So hopefully our customers will be tapping into that as much as possible.
Nicolas Zimmerman: Right. So, so that’s, that’s, that’s perfect. That’s a good advertisement for SAMA. I mean, we do have a lot of…ust a massive amount of resources on every aspect of strategic account management.
Chris Jensen: I don’t believe it exists….What we have there doesn’t exist anywhere else for people to go online and get to.
Nicolas Zimmerman: So what I was going to say is that we can…we’re able to build good will, and be helpful and relevant and valuable during this crazy time. But every strategic account manager or salesperson or sales executive, no matter who they work for, also has the opportunity to make themselves essential, they’re at this — you know, everybody’s affected. That means everybody’s customer is affected and it’s, it’s an opportunity to, to prove your worth in the most high-profile, most needful time imaginable.
Chris Jensen: Yeah. There is a good, there’s a similarity as well. When I started to talk about the financial impact, that was hard. That was very hard conversations with customers. There is a huge financial impact to this. There isn’t a customer out there that has something in the pipeline that you’re working on that can probably pull the trigger on it until this is kind of made itself known as to what was the full impact of it.
So as we talk to customers and we have deals going on, or we’re ready to sign the contract. Okay, let me, let me tell you, Oh, take it up to the CEO to get him to sign or get her to sign it. I don’t know. It’s going to be very difficult. I was talking to a group of our customers yesterday morning, and I asked them, I said, “How easy would it be to you to get a even a small expense put through?” And they all said very difficult, very difficult. There’s, there’s like triple layers of cost control going on right now
So it’s going to be a challenge. Right? And it’s really going to mean that you have to use all your skills to prove the value of what you’re delivering and how that value is going to have immediate impact and needs to be moved forward.
On the other side of it, it might be also how do we, how do we bring this customer into this, this, this, this agreement, and somehow find some interesting financial arrangements to make it happen and then pay, pay in incremental incremental ways and things like that? So I see, I think I’m getting those will challenge Finance, SAMs, sales and CEOs in every one of the businesses out there today.
Nicolas Zimmerman: So you’re thinking that, that, that one way to keep business moving forward will be to be more creative on terms and conditions?
Chris Jensen: Absolutely. Yeah. We’ll have to look at everything because this is just never happened before. And all those. All those gates that are put up to make sure deals are properly put together. They have to be just looked at. You got to have the gates. There’s no question you have to have that gate. But it’s going to take a lot of sort of reassessing the levels of what can we start now as a partner? And that’s the key. We’re going to do this together, but we both have to come out of this okay. There’ll be a lot of assessing on that.
And again, another example of the SAMs are trained for that. They’re there, that their their skills of working with the gatekeepers and the in the customers and in the internal organizations. It’s one of their best things they do.
Nicolas Zimmerman: Yeah. So this is going to be a real stress test on, on companies that are practicing strategic account management or strategic sales, whatever you want to call it. How deeply have have the skills penetrated the organization, and not just the skills of the strategic account managers, but the processes that are in place for quantifying the value of a solution. I think anything that doesn’t have a very strong business case, obviously is going to be a nonstarter.
Chris Jensen: And also the C-levels, the C levels desire….the C-level probably approved the SAM program, but as these alternative suggestions to get deals done, or whatever it is that comes to their desk, because it’s at that level. It’s going to kind of challenge them too, to keep them thinking that this is exactly what I need to do to make sure my company and my customers come through this disaster.
Nicolas Zimmerman: Yeah. And so that’s a perfect way maybe to lob over a final question or comment. The reward of getting this right. I mean, obviously you can’t get it…Nobody’s going to handle this once-in-a-century event perfectly, but for the ones that handle it gracefully and, and, and call on all of their multitude of soft and hard skills, et cetera, et cetera. What’s the reward there? What did you find in your work for the relationships were, were you, were you, you pulled through this together. DId they stay the same? Did they get better, or what was your experience?
Chris Jensen: Yeah. It was good. Right? I mean, hmmm. Even some of the worst situations as we work through them and we work through every one of them. g was….became sort of a little bit of a badge of honor and you kind of talk about it over, over at the QBR or you put up a slide about it and everybody kind of kind of talks about how the thing unrolled and how things got done and, and a, almost like a, a little bit of a sort of battle stories.
And it definitely, for the customers that were in that portfolio, they were, they’re still with them. And I would say things may have changed. But I would also say that if things did change over time, and there wasn’t… like we had the Iceland volcano…That was very difficult in logistics. It shut down European airspace. That was a big thing. So was the tsunami in Japan earthquake/tsunami. These are very big events. In fact, I think one of the really cool things that DHL did, over time and in around those, those volcano and the tsunami events was they developed a system, which they call Resilience 360, which is an amazing system that’s a sort of a risk assessment program for supply chain.
So it helped companies grow to and to plan. So at least on the DHL side, I don’t know if other logistics companies have, something like that, but it’s a fascinating system. Customers are really interested in it to protect and sort of harden their, theirrisks that they have to, to avoid risk.
I don’t know if all of them did. I think a lot of companies probably went into also over time to go to do more of a procurement relationship with, with their bigger suppliers and supply chain, which I wonder how they feel about that now, if that in fact lowered the relationship level from a strategic supplier to a, a vendor situation.
Because if you’re in a vendor situation and the wheels start falling off like they are you now find yourself kind of trying maybe a little bit behind because you don’t have that relationship, that larger strategic relationship with a vendor that might be helping in a time like this with a good SAM program to back it up.
Nicolas Zimmerman: Right. You don’t have that advocate inside the supplier.
Chris Jensen: Correct. And that advocate is C-level contacts, right?
Nicolas Zimmerman: This is great. Anything that we didn’t cover? Any final thoughts?
Chris Jensen: No, I think it’s just the, it again, don’t speculate when you’re talking to customers, it’s a much different role now on the SAMA side. So I think of my colleagues in supply chain. I hope they’re doing well. Two of my three sons that are working in supply chain and I’m, I can see it ramping up for them. And the best thing is stay as close as you can see your customers to stay on top of the situation. Try to get balanced information. Get the also internal information. Know how your company is operating. It sounds like a lot, but you’re probably not traveling. You’ve got… if you’re not doing some SAMA online training, which you will be, maybe, hopefully, take the time to do your research and make sure you’re on top of the situation so you can help your customer with whatever needs they may have during it.
Nicolas Zimmerman: Brilliant. Thank you so much, Chris.
Chris Jensen: Hey, good talking to you, Nicolas. I hope everything in New York is okay. Here in Chicago, we’re doing the best we can. I know you have a, a serious situation there, so if there’s anything you need from me, let me know. Okay?