Being accessible, being human and being thought leaders: How a 150-year-old insurance company “shows up” for its customers during a crisis

In our quest to help the SAMA community navigate these strange, unpredictable times, we are reaching out to the wisest, most experienced SAM practitioners we know. And when it comes to predicting and mitigating against risk, we thought, “Who better than the Executive Vice President and Head of Customer Management for Zurich Commercial Insurance, Ron Davis?” In addition to those lofty titles, Ron is also a long-time member of the SAMA community and of the SAMA Board of Directors. He spoke spoke recently with SAMA’s General Manager of Strategy and Marketing, Harvey Dunham, to outline how Zurich is responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Harvey Dunham:  My name is Harvey Dunham, and I’m the General Manager of Strategy and Marketing at SAMA. And one of the things we’ve been worried about at this time is:  what do SAMs do when they’re facing customers that are at risk? And so as we thought about who could really help us unpack this issue and give us a view into how do you help customers cope through this, we thought of one of our  long-term Board  members, Ron Davis, who’s the global head of customer management at Zurich insurance. 

Ron Davis: Well, look, Harvey, thanks very much for the intro.  I’ve been involved with SAMA for many, many years, and I’ve been on the Board for many years, and I’m really committed to what SAMA stands for and does.  So I’m really pleased to be speaking with you today and being able to share some views on some of the things that we’re contending with and what I see other businesses contending with, and what does it mean for strategic account managers in their roles? 

HD: So let me jump right in. There’s a lot of things going on within Zurich, and you’re literally in the risk business. So how is Zurich showing up for your customers at this moment in time, given all the changes that have happened in the last…Two weeks, let’s say? 

RD: Well, it has impacted all of us at Zurich. All of our 50,000-plus employees, or almost everybody, is working from home all around the world.  Fortunately, our company  is very  stable, strong, forward looking. And as you mentioned, we’re in the risk business and anticipate a lot of different things and try to apply it to ourselves. So we have invested in the technology that allows us to have our employees be accessible, be functional, wherever they are. And we’ve demonstrated, from the top down, that we are committed to customers and that that’s the center of what we do. And so at this time, we need to make sure that we’re reaching out and that we’re not waiting to hear from customers and our intermediaries who we do business with. We’re reaching out to them , and our SAMs, and lots of other players within our business, not just our SAMs, are reaching out to customers at multiple levels to find out how are they doing? How are their families doing? How are their colleagues doing? What’s happening in their life and how are they impacted? 

So first we can demonstrate the care, because it is sincere and we get to know our customers. We get to develop relationships with them and other key partners, and obviously we’re all in the same boat together. We’re all trying to deal with the COVID situation and what does it mean for our business practices and the continuity of our businesses?

Now, part of that proactive communication, aside from seeing how people are and just being in touch and letting them know we care, is to make sure that we can continue managing projects that we have going, different things that we have going and also really understand what’s the new situation that each of our customers are dealing with. What are their challenges? What are they dealing with? What do they need? And how can we help them? 

And so by being able to understand those things and engage with them, and reinforce the fact that we’re here, we’re open for business, we’re able to make things happen on existing contracts and look at new challenges and new situations that come up so that we’re not in a situation that everything has to be suspended. We can actually keep going. 

So I think that, at a time of crisis, is crucial, is to be there and to be find-able, and to make sure that you’re trying to be relevant and not bringing up things that are not important. And being able to put aside certain subjects and certain projects that may not be top priority so we can focus on things that are the most important to our customers at this particular time. 

And so I think you’ve got to rise to the occasion in crisis. This is a crisis moment, and I’m happy to say that we’re, you know, we’re doing the best we can and the feedback we’re getting is quite positive. So, I think being there is the key. 

HD: Wow, that’s amazing. I mean, you know, and I love to hear what you’re saying and, and you’ve even put a special spin on it for me, is that you’re starting with the  customer themselves as an individual, as a human being. How are they feeling? How are they doing?  And then take it to their business,  console them about things that were already in play and that you were already working on with them.  “Yeah, don’t worry about that. We’ve got this under control. We’re moving forward, but what else can we do to help you?” I think that kind of summarizes what I hear, and that’s that proactive outreach. This sounds like a best practice that you’ve learned over…Is it hundreds of years that Zurich has been in business?

RD: 1872 

HD: Wow. 

RD: We’re coming up to 150.  We have some customers that we’ve had for over a hundred consecutive years.  And it’s not only the current teams and the current employees, but obviously many generations of employees who have done what they needed to do to be there for the customers. And they’ve established the trust. And through that trust, you can develop the relationship and deepen it and you can maintain it.

And so when we talk about lifetime customer value, you know, the proof is in the pudding. Can you deliver over time, over different phases of the business cycle and different situations that happen? 

HD: Right. So when I’m thinking about the large number of people that you have in your company and all, is there a training that you give to your SAMs and to I suppose the rest of your associates that help them deal with a situation like this? And also, was there anything peculiar about this situation that causes them to nuance their approach?

RD:  Well, I think it’s tough. Look, I think that, for people that have never gone through a real crisis, and there’s been some crises over the past let’s say 20 or 30 years, that many of the current generation have gone through. But the newer employees haven’t gone through it.

And so I think from a training viewpoint, it’s very important to understand some fundamental principles of what do you believe in as a business, as a company? What do you stand for? And how do you train people to be comfortable in ambiguous or uncertain situations? Because when you’re going to pick up the phone and speak to a customer,  you don’t know for sure what situation they’re in and what tough questions you may get. And some people, just in general, would tend to not like to be stuck in a situation where they don’t know what the question will be and they may be stumped, right? Or they may get a tough situation where they’re asked to do something that may be uncomfortable or very difficult to do.

That’s the nature, from my perspective, of a SAM role, as a strategic account manager or any other representatives of a company, needs to be able to be there in good and bad times and not hide. And so I think the preparation is making sure that people understand what level of authority do they have. Where can they give a direct answer, and where do they need to look into it and refer to colleagues or management or other experts to make sure that the right answer is given? And that we’re not misleading somebody, so that we could be clear: can you count on us to do this, or do we need to look into it? 

Or if we know already that it’s a  “No, we just can’t do it. It’s outside of the bounds of what we would do”. We can tell somebody so at least they understand, can they count on us? How can we assist? And how far can we go? So I think part of the training is just being comfortable dealing with unexpected and  unusual situations, and for people to know, how do you navigate within our company? Part of the core competency of our people that represent  Zurich to our largest customers is their ability and their skill to understand where within our company do you go to access the needed expertise and the insights needed to help our customers or to help our intermediaries when they have  an unusual thing or, or a particular question that requires somebody who knows what they’re talking about to handle it?

And so we want to make sure that we train our people to understand that… We do not expect our, market-facing employees to have the answer to every possible question. That’s not possible. They have to be the orchestrator. They have to be the person that can be the face of our company. They can represent our expertise and our capabilities, and they can help our customer access the people that can give them the best answer we can deliver without feeling either that it’s some mistake or it’s wrong or anything else.

And I think customers appreciate that because they want to know that they’re dealing with somebody that can actually look out for their interests, and if they can’t answer something, they can get somebody else to help as quickly as possible. So I think you have to technically be sound.  So that our engineers need to know how to engineer. Our  claims people need to know how to settle claims. Our underwriters need to know how to underwrite.

But with all of that technical expertise, we also need some commercial savvy, and we need to know : What is the best way to manage the situation in a straightforward, reliable, credible manner and maintain, you know, our credibility and help the customer achieve what they want without feeling that we have to cave in and say yes to something that we may not be ready to say yes to ?

HD: We’ve never talked about this before, but it sounds like you’ve gone a long way to solving one of the more difficult problems that most of our members tell us they face, which is their most difficult customer is their internal customer — getting support, getting alignment, getting people to help. 

RD: Well, look, I don’t want to make it sound simple because everything we’ve just talked about is hard to do.  It takes a lot of skilled people. So first of all, we have to get the right people that have the right skills, the right attitude, and the right will to do the right thing. But then, you know, it takes training and it’s a team sport. No one individual can solve very much in our company. It takes the expertise and the team approach. 

And like you’re saying, I think the internal part, we have to spend quite a bit of time with each other as colleagues within our company to understand how far do we want to go? What are the rules of the road? What are some of the technical issues we have to think about so that we’re not purely trying to sell things, but we’re trying to represent the best capabilities and the value proposition we bring to the table in a reliable manner.  

And the other thing is we reinforce the role of our SAMs within our company so that people understand that we’re assigning our relationship leaders to our top customers and that there is a will between the customer and ourselves to work in this strategic manner. So we’ve framed it in a way that it doesn’t mean that we’re guaranteed anything. We have to earn our keep, and we have to earn our place and earn renewals and earn new business. But,  there’s a predisposition on the part of us and the customer and the intermediaries generally to try and find a way to be solution oriented and, and our role is to try and give them reasons to say yes.

HD: Wow. Amazing. It’s really, it’s good to hear and good advice for all of us. You know, I’m thinking back to the pandemic and the issues that it’s causing out there. One of the things that we see, there must be a tremendous number of implications about this globally in the supply chain. Is that something that you have to worry about and help your customers worry about these disruptions?

Tremendous demand on one hand in the supply chain and tremendous absence of demand in other parts of the supply chain? 

RD: Oh, it’s a huge factor, especially for multinational companies but even national companies often rely on supply chain that can come from other parts of the world. And there’s interruptions everywhere around the world.

And so… One company doesn’t need to necessarily feel that they have to build all the solutions and deliver them all themselves. And I know that SAMA is a big believer in co-creating value. And so what we’ve done in recent years in particular is identified certain partners, certain other businesses, that bring a unique expertise that complements what we bring to the table. And together we can be more powerful. 

And one of those areas happens to be in the supply chain arena, where we’ve used our risk engineering and underwriting expertise. For many years we’ve dealt with supply chain, business interruption, business impact analysis, interdependency risk, where you can have a bottleneck location but can have upstream or downstream impact on a company and their profitability. 

So this is something we’re very familiar with, it’s part of our expertise. But what we did is we researched and found a company called risk methods based in Germany. It’s a global company that has unique skills in using artificial intelligence and other technology to be able to track supply chain in a way that was much better than we’ve ever seen before. And so together between our Zurich risk engineering team, our underwriting team, and risk methods, we’re able to help customers have access to information about their own supply chains that would be hard to get otherwise. And so that’s one way. 

Again, at the time of the pandemic, what’s happening now is many companies invest in these types of processes and procedures proactively because they realize this is a need. Other companies may have felt that they are in very good shape, that they have a good idea of their supply chains and their backup plans and they’re discovering that, you know, they may be stuck and they may be facing some difficulties. So they’re interested in insight, etc., even if it doesn’t solve everything immediately, what it does is it opens the door to needing more help, more access, more expertise. And so we’re partnering to try and provide — not just because of now, in general, we’re doing it — but now what it’s doing is heightening the attention so that companies are much more open-minded if they do have a weakness or a flaw somewhere to talk to companies like us and our partner, Risk Methods, to talk about how can we help them have greater awareness and greater information as proactively as possible by what’s happening to the supply chain and where are there not supply chain problems so they can find alternative suppliers to help whatever it is that they’re doing.

Now at a time like this, none of this is easy, again, cause it’s chaos in lots of countries and lots of parts of the world. So again, the supply chain implications are huge. The work we do through our risk engineering — and part of our value proposition, again, our SAMs go through this and try and — when we’re talking to customers, these are the kinds of things we’re trying to understand early as part of our relationship building. How do they manage their supply chain? What is their philosophy? How confident are they about their plans and their backup plans? And we have to review them and say, “Would you let us talk to your procurement people? Would you let us talk to your supply chain people?” So we can have the experts from our side talk to their experts and share points of view to see: are there ways for us to collaborate to help them be more confident about whatever they have and also minimize vulnerabilities?

But this brings out the worst situation for many, and we’re certainly conscious of it and doing what we can to support, both in terms of services and as some people will have certain insurance coverages for certain situations and other ones won’t. And it’s, it’s a case by case situation, really. 

HD: Wow. That’s a great foresight on your part.  We know by reputation and the pleasure of having you be a member of our community so long that thought leadership is really important. I mean, that’s a great example of thought leadership and I would say anticipating something and finding a solution for a customer. So this is amazing. Are these the moments in time where the value of Zurich in their eyes goes up? Do you see it that way?

RD: Look,  Zurich’s core competency is risk. It’s understanding risk and helping customers understand risk and be more comfortable with, what is their true risk appetite? What are they willing to assume and not assume? And what are they willing to transfer to an insurance company? Or many times, they just want to protect themselves and improve their own capabilities to withstand shocks that may happen, whether it’s a fire or flood or an earthquake – or like what we’re looking at now. And pandemic is often used as a risk scenario. But now you have it happening.

I mean, the Risk Methods idea in the supply chain is, you know, that approach is one part of it. But if you look at today, what our customers are looking for is they’re not looking for us to show up and call them today and say, “Hey, can I sell you this or can I sell you that.” This is not the right time for that. That’s not what they’re looking for. They’re interested in insights and “What can you do to help my current situation?” 

Either it’s because many of them have business interruption challenges, and they need to be thinking about that. Other ones are fully in business, but they’re changing how they work. You have other cases where you have world known companies that are changing their manufacturing processes. You have car companies that are going to manufacture ventilators. Or you have textile companies that are all of a sudden  manufacturing all types of products for the hospital workers in terms of masks or gowns or bed linens or curtains for the hospitals. Or, you have  alcoholic product companies or distilleries that are manufacturing hand sanitizer. 

Many of our customers are involved in this, and this presents lots of other challenges and it’s a change in risk profile for them. But we’re working with them, and they’re asking us questions and then we give them feedback about what does this mean in terms of how does this affect your insurance? How does it affect what we’re doing? How can we help service you? What advice can we give you in terms of risk management, et cetera? 

And another example in terms of thought leadership is a lot of construction projects around the world have been stopped  mid-construction project. So  our experts in construction, risk engineers and underwriters, we’ve created a white paper on it and provided advice about what are the best practices to manage your risk for a construction project that is mid-project and you’re stopping it or you’re suspending it?

So that’s another area.  Marine shipments is another area where you have marine shipments from all over the world that are kind of stuck, either because they are in a ship somewhere at sea and they can’t land, because the ports won’t accept certain  vessels from certain parts of the world, or that they can’t stock the ship or they can’t load the ship and it’s stuck in a port or… So there’s a lot of implications in that, that we’ve, again, got a point of view and we’ve been able to help companies with. 

And even something different would be in the macroeconomic arena. Everybody’s trying to understand what’s happening to finance and to cash flows and to banking and to the economy in general? So one of our senior people who’s the chief economist is doing regular podcasts to give a point of view of how does Zurich see it? And given that we have a very, very large asset base and an enormous investment portfolio, we pay attention to what’s happening for our own purposes, and we share some of those insights with our customers and with the marketplace. So those are some of the examples. 

HD: Wow.  Those are great examples. Great examples of thought leadership, of value add, of really being there for your customer and  really helping them…I mean, I often say the difference between a SAM and a standard sales– for standard sales, companies have needs. They need products and services to run their business, and that’s what the standard sales approach deals with. But what you’re talking about is really helping above and beyond that, helping your customers become better businesses. 

RD: Well, and you asked how are they going to look at us? And the point is that if we can be present and deal with each customer on their own merits and their own situation, and do the best we can of conveying whatever — either services and expertise we have so they can access who they need to, and points of view or insights that can help them manage a difficult situation, and also explain it to their colleagues within their company. Because there’ll be lots of different points of view within a company. And if we can help them come to a conclusion and a decision as to what’s the best course of action, then we’re adding value. And that’s helpful, and people will remember that. So I think these are the ways you try and step up and be counted. 

HD: Amazing.  Cometh  the hour, cometh the man, so to speak. So you know, another risk I was thinking about as you were talking about all these different risks, unconsidered risks, in some respects . Suddenly you’ve got millions of people that were sent home and are working from home, as I am right now. And I’m not sure about you, but I’m guessing you probably are as well. What effect does that have on your customers and, and I guess the, you know, the data that could potentially be a risk? 

 RD:  That’s another area of thought leadership where we’re very actively involved in the cyber insurance arena, and it’s not only the cyber arena in terms of providing insurance as a product or as a risk-transfer vehicle. But we also have many engineers that are experts ,they’re cyber-risk experts.  They understand it perfectly well, and they do a lot of assessment work with customers to try and help them understand what do they need to protect themselves? And in this situation, where you have such a dramatic increase in people working from home, what it does is it creates a lot of interesting situations. 

I mean, first of all, we’ve seen  that  cyber criminals have been exploiting the situation that’s been created by the pandemic. And we’ve seen a substantial increase in cases. Very often you’ll see lots of companies that are being hacked or having ransomware situations. These problems are augmented because you have so many people working from home. It heightens the probability or the possibility that an employee may click on some type of malicious attachment or they use an insecure or an unsecured network to retrieve sensitive information and somebody can capture it or get access to it. And the question is, are they maintaining proper controls with all these people that normally wouldn’t be working from home? 

So what we’ve seen is there’s lots more phishing campaigns where people will send all types of emails. And they may say something like, you know, it may look like the email came from your company, and it may say the name of a senior executive, and say,  “This person has just caught the coronavirus, and all of a sudden you see the name of the person, you see it’s your colleague, and you’re going to click on it. And   Or it may look like it’s from the World Health Organization. And they may say that this is an announcement for your company, specifically, and you click on it.

So there’s a lot of things that can happen, that can exacerbate the situation of risk controls,  and how do you manage that as a company? So we’re very involved in that. We just issued a paper on that. Our global head of cyber risk issued the paper in March, just a few weeks ago, on the cyber dimension of the coronavirus.  Just explaining with some of these things, “What are some of the best practices to keep in mind? What do you, what do you need to look out for? How do you guide and inform your employees so they’re more risk aware?” 

And again, as I mentioned earlier about partnering with others, we’ve also partnered, not that long ago, with a company called CYE based out of Israel that is again, an expert  in looking at risk protection and being able to look at a company and detect how easy is it to penetrate their protections, and is there advice we can provide them in terms of what is their current state of readiness to withstand an attack or a hack? And what are some of the best practices and advice we have for them? So all of these things are, again, ways of trying to deliver value, create greater awareness and, at a time of uncertainty and changing risk situation, how can we as a company, and how can our SAMs, our strategic account managers, make our key contacts aware of some of this without being spam? 

So it has to be business relevant. It has to be informative, educational, helpful — to make them  a better company, right? So that they’re more aware and they can see value from what we’re doing. And if they want to talk about some type of, how can we help them in terms of the business solution or whatever? We’re happy to do that. But the aim is not trying to leverage the situation in that manner. It’s trying to make sure that we’re there and giving them insight. And, and all of the opportunities that can happen for us at any cycle of the business, including this one, are things that will happen if it’s the right time and the right situation. But we’re not trying to capitalize on it and take a customer on a path that they’re not ready for.

HD: Amazing. I guess maybe it’s your business  to anticipate unprecedented events or things that haven’t happened yet. It sounds like you’re prepared in a way that almost no one else is. 

RD: Well this is our business. I mean, we should be, we’re one of the world leaders in this arena. And  so part of the issue is to make sure that part of our value proposition is understanding risk and trying to help people manage risk to the best they can and understand what total cost of risk can they afford?  What’s their appetite for risk, and what are the consequences of something going wrong? 

Now again, this is tough. It’s a tough environment because lots of people will learn lots of lessons, including ourselves, so that, you know, how can we do things better? And maybe we could do things differently. But I think all the points I made earlier about trying to be accessible and reachable and helpful are, I think, the keys to part of the keys to success.

HD: I understand. So, I mean, that sounds like you are, you are in this new world that we live in, you must be getting some unprecedented asks, some things that you haven’t anticipated, but you have ways your people know how to deal with that. Your SAMs, in particular, know how to manage that kind of situation and find the help they need. Do you have processes and things for that? 

RD: Yeah. There’s always going to be things that they, again, stump you — that you didn’t fully expect or you didn’t know.  Or you call somebody in their business that’s going through something that you couldn’t have known because, many times a situation that’s going on for a business, it may not be on the front page news. And they may not be telling the world, but if you’re a key partner, they may tell you something and say, “Look, this is what we’re really dealing with.” And  it can be shocking, right? It can be disturbing because it’s a real crisis for the company. 

And so in those kinds of situations, I think, again, you know, people need help. People need to work in teams, and so what we want people to do is not to be afraid to escalate, not to be afraid to say that they don’t know what the answer is. They don’t have to have the answer themselves. They have to help get the best answer we can deliver. And so I think that the key is  really good communication, not misleading anybody and not creating ambiguity. And if you say you’re going to get back to somebody within a certain period of time, do it. Right? We want to make sure that if you’re responsive and you’re reliable, you’ve got to deliver. You have to be there and you have to make sure that you live up to whatever you said. And if it’s a crisis, then you have to act with a sense of urgency. But by the same token, you can’t give an answer that you’re not authorized to give.

So I think that the issue of discipline and not caving under the pressure — because you could be under tremendous pressure from somebody who needs your help and wants you to say that you’ll do a certain thing or that your company can respond in a certain way. And there are certain cases where you can give a straight answer immediately, and other times you can’t. And I think maintaining that discipline and not buckling under pressure, but being able to —  in a composed, reliable, credible way, but with a sense of urgency —  be able to come back to the person as quickly as possible so that they know: Where do you stand, and when will they hear from you if you can’t give an immediate answer? And in those cases where you’re seeking an exception or maybe you think something should be done,  as a SAM, the expectation is you’re going to create the business case. 

And I don’t mean a, you know, a hundred-page report. I just mean that if there’s something that somebody is asking for that may be a bit unusual, you as the SAM need to help frame the situation so that whoever you’re going to within your company can have some context and understand, “Who is this customer? What do we do with them? What’s our history with them?  What are some of the financial metrics associated with them? What do they need from us? What would be involved for us to say ‘yes’ to that? Or if we can’t say yes, what’s the closest we can get to? How far can we go? What can we do to help them?” All of that requires very good communication skills, very good strategic thinking, and also that sense of urgency to act quickly and don’t wait and do what you need to do to get the best possible answer you can.

HD:  Right, right. You know,  just one more  question, Ron, is on my mind  and that is, you know, could you say just a few words about your SAM` approach. I mean, obviously your SAMs are for your largest and most important customers, most strategic customers. At a time like this, how do you see them in terms of their value to the organization? 

RD: What we have learned and how we work with our most strategic and our most important customers from a relationship viewpoint is that they generally have lots of different parts of their business with us.   We usually have quite a lot of product density, so we do a lot of different things with them. They’re usually pretty significant in terms of the monetary value to us and the role that we have for them. And so they are very high profile and they generally get a lot of attention from our company, and the key  from the SAM approach viewpoint is the strategy. Right now, we’re in this crisis moment, but in general, for any of our customers, what we want our SAMs to do is, together with their teammates, with all of the different functions and the team members all around the world that work on that particular customer to develop a strategy, to know: “Who are they? Where have they been in the past with us? Where are we today? What are they looking for? What are the key tactics,  projects and strategies that we’ve agreed to that we will do together? And what are  the due dates, and who needs to do what? And what are the things that may not be on the table today that we have ambitions towards?”

How do we position ourselves over time and earn the opportunities? And a lot of that is by applying a lot of the things I’ve talked about — the insights, the innovation, the access to expertise, that if we’re demonstrating that we’re there for them, often new doors will open up, new opportunities will be created, and they’ll come up in an organic, natural manner. Sometimes we may push them, other times the customer will ask. But the point is that there is a mutual interest because there’s respect for what we’re bringing to the table. So there may be a new opportunity where they say, “Look, we’d love to see, what can you tell us about this area that you currently don’t do with us and somebody else does?”

But for us, the other key thing is we very much value what we already have. So we want to live up to supporting the existing business and all of that it entails in terms of all of the servicing we need to do to deliver on our promises, so that we’re not purely looking to grow, grow, grow, but we want to make sure that we maintain and nurture and support the existing business and create opportunities where they make good sense.

So a lot of this comes back also to the concept that many people have talked about and one of our SAMA friends, fellow board member Steve Anderson from PMI often talks about: past proven value. I’m a big believer in this. And that is what have you done in the past — over years or over the past year or over the past six months — to deliver value? All of which helps you distinguish yourself that if you’re continually remembering all of the things you did together and how did you help the company at a time where there’s either new opportunities or where you need to defend yourself and you’re under competition, that you can use this to help the company, your customer, look back and recognize that you’ve actually achieved lots of great things together. And that that is worth a lot because anybody new can promise a lot of things, but whether they can deliver remains to be seen. Whereas if you’ve actually delivered on your promises and you can track it and prove it and have financial metrics that support it, that’s extremely powerful. 

So these are the kinds of ways we train our SAMs and the way we try and look at our business to be really customer-oriented and very innovative and responsive. And look, none of this is easy. Like I said, you know, there’s lots of tough situations that can come up, but I think if you’re steady and you stand for a good company, a good brand, and you have support from your management and you’re well aligned, you can actually deliver great things and it’s a lot of fun. 

HD: Wonderful. Well, Ron, you’ve been so generous with your time and your thoughts, and I think, at least for me just listening, and I know I’m speaking for the people that will hear and read this, how a company grows, survives and thrives over 150-year history. Because not many companies make it that far. You almost sound like a startup when I hear your enthusiasm, your excitement and, you know, that’s just incredible culture that’s been built. And your SAMs are lucky, that’s all I can say. So thank you very much for your time and everything that you do for SAMA.

RD: Thanks so much Harvey, and it’s been good talking to you and, again,  I wish everybody listening all the very best for this time, and we can look to better days ahead and we look forward to that.

The perception of value and power of storytelling: Selling in uncertain times

Whetstone Inc.’s President & CEO, Adrian Davis, is one of the finest sales coaches and consultants working today, and he’s also an exceptional storyteller and communicator. He co-facilitates SAMA’s “SAM Playbook” training course (now available 100% virtually) and had been scheduled to keynote at SAMA’s Pan-European Conference before it was postponed due to the coronavirus. We spoke to Adrian recently to get his thoughts on what has (and hasn’t) changed for strategic salespeople in the time of coronavirus.

Harvey Dunham: Adrian, maybe the way to start this is that I’d love to give you a little perspective of why your article so captured our attention right away. You have a real gift for this, which is that ” perception of value is always in a state of flux.”  I think normally the timespan of flux, you know, you may be working with a customer for years, and things are kind of steady state and everything’s going well for them, and the economy’s not going crazy or whatever, and it’s just sort of business as usual. And it’s easy to get into that mindset. 

But now all of a sudden, here we are, all of us, every person on the planet, is confronted with this crisis and this…We are in flux. By definition, everyone is in flux. So given that, and given that the folks that we care about, which is our strategic account managers and people in sales, how do you advise all of us to take advantage of your observation that the value has changed, in all probability for all of their customers?

Adrian Davis: And I like how you’ve worded it there, that, you know, this is a shock that affects everybody on the planet. Like no industry is exempt, and business will no longer be the same, going through this shock and coming out of it. But I guess the key advice, Harvey, would be exactly where you started: the perception of value.

I think a lot of us, when we talk about our value proposition or our unique selling proposition, our differentiated value, we tend to think inside out. And that is to say, we think of the product, we think of the service, we think of our solution. And then we assign value to it. And then we think we can take our sales folks, our account managers to go out and articulate for us and educate the customer on our behalf of how this can help them.

But the underlying assumption in all of that is that we define the value, and that has actually never been true. What has always been true is that the customer defines the value. And I guess for me, Harvey, I learned this very early because my career in sales was in software, and I learned very early that software is an application. It’s something that you apply to solve problems. And the people that were successful selling enterprise software were the ones that understood very thoroughly what it could do, but never led with that. They always led with, or we always led with, “What does the customer need, what will the customer value?”

And we hear from them first their perception of value. Then we basically bend the application of the software creatively to solve that problem. So through selling software, and the malleability of software, it was always clear to me that the value was in the perception of the  buyer. 

So the advice that I would give to all of us right now is to look not at the value that we think we create, but at the value, at the point of use,  at the point of utilization. What does the customer do to create value for their customer? And how do they use our products, our services, our solutions to create that value? That’s what we need to look at. And as their customer’s perception of value changes, the applications that we provide to help them create value, we have to be able to pivot as well.

Harvey Dunham: Wow. That’s interesting. Great response. Great reminder to all of us. that it doesn’t matter what we think. It matters what they think [unitelligbile]. And the customer’s customer, and I was just thinking if I can follow on for a moment, about your software example, because your customer, they’re in…in a software sale, very often, as an inter—, the customer’s customer, let’s say you’re selling it to the CIO or somebody on the CIO staff, their customer is probably an internal customer.

Adrian Davis: That’s right. 

Harvey Dunham: But a different customer. So what you’re saying is that the value that they see is really going to be dependent on what’s their customer— 

Adrian Davis: Exactly. And I sold back in the day on-premise software, so we were selling multimillion dollar systems that were on premise. And then the whole cloud computing started to emerge. And I remember we were selling CRM, multimillion dollar CRM systems, and this small little company came on the radar with a tagline of “No software.” And it was And we actually laughed. We laughed. We thought, “This is ridiculous. Nobody is going to put their customer information on the internet.”

And then people started to put their customer information on the internet. So we said, okay, “Well, small companies might do it, but the big companies that we sell to, they’ll never put such sensitive information on the internet.” Well, nobody’s ever heard of the companies that I worked for, a company called Vantive software. We were number two in the space. Siebel systems was number one. Most people I talk to today have never heard of them. And I myself am now a customer. So that’s an example of value migrating. And what the on-cloud software applications did is they shifted the focus from what’s called exchange value to value-in-use.

So exchange value is, we said this software is worth $5 million, and here is why. And people would pay us. And then a lot of times, Harvey, the software would sit on the shelf through the implementation process, and then sometimes it never came off the shelf. 

When Salesforce and the others like that came along, they basically said, “You don’t have to pay us for any software you don’t use. You only use…you only pay for the software that you use, and we’re were obligated to make you successful. Otherwise, you’ll end your subscription. And as you’re successful, you’ll buy more licenses.” So the whole notion of value shifted from an exchange for value to actually the use of value and  proof that there was value being delivered.

And I think that has cascaded out or magnified itself in other industries as well, where everybody’s now asking themselves,  “Am I actually getting value from the utilization of whatever the solution is? 

Harvey Dunham: Wow, that is a great example. 

Adrian Davis: And just to close that thought….And that’s really the focus now: if we’re going to be successful, we have to understand, especially in such a capidly changing marketplace or economy, and we really haven’t seen the extent of this yet. We have no idea what the fallout will be, but as things are changing rapidly, our success will be determined by value in use.

And we have to understand what is my customer actually doing with my solution to create value for their customers and to monitor that and to make sure that there’s an uptick. And if there is a downtick that, we’re pivoting quickly to make sure we’re helping our customer be successful in any industry and in every industry. 

Harvey Dunham: Right. And now, given the situation that we’re all in, and as I said before, all of us, everyone in the world, everyone of us situation. So it’s what you’re really, I think what I hear you saying is is that you advise every company and every SAM to rethink their business model. If I could capture it in a phrase. Is that the right way to articulate it? 

Adrian Davis: 100%. And don’t take anything for granted. And what’s really critical now, and part of the business model is to rethink which accounts really are strategic to us. Sometimes we use this term kind of loosely — “This is a strategic account” — and almost opportunistically. Now in part of this business design, if we choose the wrong customers, and invest in the wrong customers that really cannot optimize the value that we can bring, it could be catastrophic, not just for them, but for us as well. 

So we have to be very clear. While we might have many customers and they’re going to continue to buy from us hopefully, there are certain customers that will really benefit from what we can bring and will really value what we can bring.  And are working in an environment and in such a way that they can be very successful in this period of flux. We need to identify those customers, build very deep relationships, or continue to build deep relationships with them, and work creatively and innovatively with those customers. 

The worst thing I think that can happen to us right now is we get kind of desperate, we spread ourselves thin with customers that really don’t value us. As a result, we’re not able to really help the customers that could really value us, and our true value gets compromised.

Harvey Dunham: Great advice. Maybe just to expand just a little bit more in this area, picking the right customers, which is…You’re singing to the choir here. You know that we know this, but when you’re working with actual clients, what prevents them from having the courage to do this? Because it seems, it almost seems to me, maybe “courage” is not the right word, but it seems like they get caught up in a lot of…paralysis, I guess, analysis paralysis. I’m not sure what it is, and they keep people around that, honestly, I call them zombie strategic accounts.

They’re a “walking dead” customer in a way that that doesn’t really want to collaborate with you. They’re just big and important. Everybody gets that. But who are the…People kid themselves, don’t they, so what are you seeing? 

Adrian Davis: I think I would say it this way, you know. In a way, money is a drug, and as long as money’s coming in, then you get addicted to that cashflow, and it might not be particularly profitable. The relationship might not be healthy, but it’s money. And I think that’s where…and “courage” might be the right word in some circumstances, but I think that’s what it is. That’s what I’ve seen, where big account, either there’s a good amount of money flowing, or there’s the promise of a good amount of money to flow, and then all is forgiven, you know? As long as there’s a check coming with you, I’ll forgive everything else.

What I’m seeing now is this industry dynamic that’s forcing people to say,  “Is this a healthy customer? Will this customer even be around in a year? Um, and so are we going to be overinvesting and overextending ourselves with a customer that might not even be here?” So  the current situation of uncertainty, I think, has forced the conversation to say, all right, “Which customers are we going to get serious about? And which customers maybed o we need to begin distancing ourselves from or even maybe retiring the relationship?”

Harvey Dunham: So I think, Adrian, what you’re pointing to is something that I  know this from my experience, but I’ve never seen it really studied too much. But my observation is, is that when  there’s a market downturn, like we’re seeing right now. I mean, it’s not a market downturn, but the market’s turned off basically. 

Adrian Davis: Right. And  I’ve never seen this. I’ve never seen a market turn off. We’ve all seen downturns. But a shutdown is something else. 

Harvey Dunham: Yeah. But normally, coming out of a downturn, what I’ve observed is that companies that survive, that’s when market share is gained. Big chunks of market. And it’s  because those…So I think what you’re saying, if I’m hearing you right, you need to really think about who’s going to survive, and pick those. And not only will they survive, but they want to collaborate and co-create with you. And those are the customers you want to move all your chips on to their squares, so to speak. 

Adrian Davis: And I think it’s gonna be a combination of, are they able to pivot and adapt in their value delivery —  their value proposition and their value delivery? So as things change, are they able to pivot and create something and deliver something that is highly valued? So that’s one thing I’d be looking for. 

The other thing I’d be looking for is: are they well managed? Because it’s that ability to preserve cash. It’s that ability to have good cash flow that enables them to retain good talent and confidence and enables them to pivot. Whereas if a company is not well managed, and they’re feeling the pinch, when it’s time to pivot, they just can’t. Even though they’ve got great ideas, the best people have left them and they just don’t have the cashflow to pivot. So I’m looking for organizations that are very clear on their value proposition but are also agile and able to pivot based on how the customer’s perception of value changes. And then are they well run so that they have the ability to pivot? 

And the other thing we shouldn’t kid ourselves as well, especially now, and you actually used the term “market shutdown.” Like we’re closed for business, period. And then at some point, hopefully we’re open for business again. So this isn’t just a market downturn, it’s a market shutdown. In either case, whether it’s a significant downturn or a shutdown, when the lights come back on, there’s going to be this question, not just around organizations, but around whole industries. Whole industries can become irrelevant when the perception of value shifts significantly, a whole industry can become irrelevant.

So it’s not just the companies we’re looking at to say, which companies are going to survive this? We also have to be thinking, which industries will survive? Maybe whole new industries will be created or industries that were kind of on the periphery, they will become center stage.

Harvey Dunham: So it could even be, it’s likely, or it’s certainly very possible, that  a medium-size company or even a small company might come out of… my horse racing analogy…come from the back of the pack. 

Adrian Davis: Exactly. Exactly right. 

Harvey Dunham: And in a hurry. 

Adrian Davis: And so it’s that ability to sort of anticipate the future and say, “You know what?  I see where this organization is going. Let me work with them, let me help them.” 

The other side of it as well is there are companies that are at risk. And there are strategic accounts for us, but they’re at risk. There’s a view that we need to abandon them as quickly as possible because they’re not going to make it, and let’s find somebody else. But there’s also a view that this is a strategic account for us. We chose them for this reason. Let us really get in intimately with them and collaborate with them and help them figure out what is the strategic pivot that they have to make. That even though everybody else in their industry may fail, they have the resources, capabilities combined with the capabilities that we bring that they could make a pivot that makes them the star.

So just because the immediate news looks bleak…that’s the whole point of strategic account management — that we can get in collaboratively, creatively, work with them, innovate with them, and help them come out the other end.

Harvey Dunham: Wow. That’s great. That’s great. I really like that advice. It’s incredible. Well, I want to move onto the next point that you made in this, which is the power of the story. And you know, as you– I read the first paragraph, the first point, and you know,  basically advising us all to take this moment to look at the future. In fact, you should be looking at it all the time, but particularly now with this event that’s got all of our attention.

But then you know the power of the story. How do you link the power of the story to this first point that you make about the perception of value is always in a state of flufx? 


Adrian Davis: A great question, Harvey. What a great question. So here’s how I link it. So value is always in a state of flux. And value is a perception, and it’s in the eye of the beholder. But the perception is in the story that we are always telling ourselves a story. And everything that we interpret around us, we interpret with story. Everything needs a narrative to be understood. 

I like to say we don’t see with our eyes, we see with our stories. So two people can look at the same thing, but see two totally different things because it’s interpreted differently. So we always need a story to interpret, and what we’re going through now with a global shutdown of business, it puts us in a quasi state of shock because there’s no story for this. We’ve never seen this before. How do we interpret this? When the whole world shuts down for business, where do we go next? If there is a global depression the likes of which we’ve never seen before, it’s unprecedented. How do we anticipate what happens after that? We have no idea. 

So we need our stories to perceive. Therefore, we need our stories to perceive value. And that’s how I link the two.

Harvey Dunham: So we really have to help the customer see their new story.

Adrian Davis:  Right on. 100%. We need to understand what is the story they are currently telling themselves? So if I’m in the restaurant business, which is like the first hit and the hardest hit, or the hotel or airline. But the smaller restaurants that time is of the essence. If they don’t get help, like next week, they’re closing their doors forever. So if I’m in the restaurant business, what is the story I’m telling myself? And if you’re a supplier to the restaurant business, you need to know that. 

Because if I’m telling myself all is lost, and I’m interpreting everything around me, including you, through the story that all is lost, I’m not going to spend a penny with anybody. I’m basically ready to close up. On the other hand, in the same industry, someone else is thinking, “How can I pivot? Maybe instead of selling to this type of customer, I could be selling to this type of customer. Maybe I need to focus more on delivery at home because in this particular situation, people are going to value home delivery more than going out to eat. So I’m going to take my capabilities. I’m going to pivot along.” 

You come along now as my account manager, and because of the story, I’m telling myself that there’s opportunity here. I can pivot. No, I’m open to him to speaking with you and exploring what might we do together?

So everything that we say, everything that we do, is going to be interpreted through the lens of the story that the customer is telling themselves. We need to know what that story is, and we need to help them tell themselves a strong story, a heroic story, where they’re then pulling us in as resources to help them achieve the possible.

Harvey Dunham: So  I’m thinking about this and you know what, what would I, sitting at home…I’d like to be out doing what I normally do, but I can’t. My compan’s prohibiting on the travel ban. The governor is telling us to stay at home, don’t go out, et cetera, et cetera.

Would it be good advice to all of those  salespeople to call their customer and ask them, how are they seeing things? 

Adrian Davis: Yeah. I think it’s. 

“What can,  

Harvey Dunham: can I do about it?” Ask the customer! 

Adrian Davis: I think the number one thing that we need to be doing is making sure the customer is okay. When you look at the contagion rate of this virus, the death rate is not as bad as we thought it was. But the contagion rate is crazy. It’s exponential. So it’s highly unlikely that any of our customers will be untouched by this. And and when they get touched by it, it’s going to be detrimental. It could be catastrophic.

So I think it’s off color to basically call customers with a motivation to say, “I’ve got to sell you something. You know, my business is in trouble. I gotta sell.” When they might be facing tragedy. So, so number one, we’ve got to be sensitive that these are tragic times. Everybody is at risk. And we really do care about our customers. 

So let’s connect with them in a way that demonstrates caring. Maybe they won’t take a phone call, but they’ll take a text or they’ll take an email that just demonstrates caring. “Are you okay? Is your family okay? Is the business okay?” And let’s just reinforce the fact that we have a friendship here. It’s a business friendship, but it’s a friendship and we care about each other. And let’s share with them what’s going on in our lives. I think it’s a great opportunity to just reinforce that human connection. That would be number one. 

And then number two would be seeking understanding. I don’t need to sell you anything right now. What I need to do is just understand your world. How are you coping? What are you seeing? What  are your top priorities? What are your top challenges right now? What are your top priorities right now? What are you saying to your people right now? And the more I can gather this type of understanding and insight, especially if I can do this over multiple accounts or multiple business units within an account. After a while and I start aggregating these insights, I’m going to get a better sense of what I can do to help.

They need to know that I’m here and if you need anything, you know, let me know. But also they need to know and they need to know that I care. And then also they need to know that I’m thinking about them. And it might be a week later, it might be two weeks later. But I’d like to sit down with you, share with you what I’ve heard from you, maybe what I’ve heard from some other players in the industry and some thoughts around what you might be able to do to improve your situation.

I think that kind of conversation will always be welcomed. Versus, ‘I know what my value is, orI think I know what my value is, and I just want to sell you stuff. Can you buy some stuff fomr me?” 

Harvey Dunham: Right. Wow. Tremendous advice. That’s tremendous advice. Well, this, this leads me to the last point in your article: putting things in perspective, right? And here you turn to the salesperson themselves and say, “You need to do some things differently. You’ve got an opportunity to do things differently.” And there was something in me that feels that there must be something that inspired you to think about the salesperson as an individual themselves. And I just wonder if you could expand upon that and share what you were thinking about when you wrote this. 

Adrian Davis: Yeah. I think what struck me there, Harvey, as I’ve seen through my years… So my particular background and story is I came from a dysfunctional family, and very early on I set a goal for myself that that wasn’t going to happen to me. That I was going to have a family, and it was going to be a healthy, functional, happy family. And so that’s a goal that I set for my life at a very early age. I was actually six years old when I set that goal, and it never left me. And this April, I’ll be 29 years happily married, raised two successful children, have just a very strong marriage that gets stronger. 

But through my career, I’ve seen so many sales guys that have also claimed that they’re all about family. And then I’ve just seen in the busy-ness of it all, and the traveling here and there, and being everywhere exotic and living the high life, they’ve gotten distracted and ended up in affairs and you know…Or they’ve just grown apart from their spouse.

And while they are on the one hand are saying, “I’m doing this for my family,” their behavior actually betrayed that. And the results actually betrayed that. So, to me, it just struck me that when everybody’s kind of forced to stay home, it’s a great opportunity just to really get grounded. And like, if we say we’re doing this for our families, are we really? And again, it goes back to like, what’s the story we’re telling ourselves and are we really living that story?

So that’s what struck me just through the kind of reflection on what I’ve seen through the years selling alongside salespeople, coaching salespeople and sales leaders, and just seeing more often than not the breakdown of family in the pursuit of “success.”  And what is success if you’re not bringing your family along?

Harvey Dunham: Wow. Well, I was wondering what the red thread was that tied these three points together because, when I first read it, I thought everything you wrote was struck me personally.  But I was trying to link the three, and I’m beginning to see the connection. When you wrote this, did you see a theme that you wanted to follow where you’re kind of sum this all up?

Adrian Davis: That’s a really interesting question, Harvey, and it really, I think, speaks to the way your mind works, which is really phenomenal. And, kind of, I feel a little bit embarrassed because when I wrote it, the article, it was more just top of mind, like: There’s so much going on, let me just sit down and put down my thoughts on paper, and I didn’t really think of it in terms of, you know, what is the connective tissue that brings all of this together?

But now that you’ve asked the question, I would say the connective…or the red thread is the power of story that…It all revolves  around that all of us have a story that we’re telling ourselves, all of us perceive the world around us through that story. And so we perceive value through that story.  As we engage other customers, or customers and prospects, we need to engage them through their perception of value through their story. And then ultimately, what is the story we’re telling ourselves? Why do we do what we do? What is the ultimate definition of success? That again, depends on story.

So I do a lot of training around storytelling and story making, and one of  the things when people first come, there are hoping for a kind of a sales technique, the story telling – because I guess so there’s other people out there doing storytelling, and it’s kind of this cool sales technique.

By the time they’ve done the training, they’re kind of taken aback. And they realize storytelling and story making is in no way superficial. It is extremely profound because it gets to the very root and heart of who we are as human beings and why we’re here and what we do. So that would be sort of the underlying thread, Harv that I would say is really the power of story. That’s, that’s the second point, but it really is what connects all three points.

Harvey Dunham: Amazing. Now it makes total sense to me. You know, I’m sitting here wondering, trying to quickly pull down what my story is and am I living  it? And am I being true to it and thinking about customers and conversations that I’ve had all day. Yeah, it is. You’re so right. 

Adrian Davis: And just as you said that, it just triggered the thought. There’s an authentic power that comes when you’re connected with your story and you’re not just sort of running around living other people’s story. But when you’re connecting me with your story and you’re living your story, you show up with this…gravitas. There’s an authenticity about you. There’s an energy about you. There’s a drive about you that people will connect with. They’re like, “I want that.” People yearn to connect with one another. And I think that yearning will be highlighted now in this time.

I was thinking about the term social distancing. And it’s kind of an oxymoron because we’re either being social or we’re being distant. But being socially distant is this kind of a strange term. And I think, you know, when you’re walking down the street and somebody crosses the road, it’s a form of rejection. There’s these sort of micro rejections; if, hey, there’s two people in the elevator, I’m not going to be the third. I’m going to back away. I’m not getting in. It’s a form of rejection.

Whereas before, when we were social and everybody gets in the elevator and talks to one another, it’s a form of acceptance. And I think human beings, we need to connect with one another. And when you’re connected with your story, it enables me to connect better with you authentically. And so I think this is a great time for reflection and for us to ask ourselves, “What is my story? Why am I here? What is the impact that I want to have? What is my legacy?” And then to be true to that purpose, so that when we do connect with others, there’s a real sense of true connection. I think that’s going to be powerful, and a lot of people will do business with you and with each other simply because of the fulfillment that comes from that true connection — when we’re connected to our true story.

Harvey Dunham: Wow. Well, I, that is amazing advice. For me personally, and I know it’s going to be for the SAMA community when we share this with them. So Adrian, I really thank you so much for your time and your generosity, your inspiration. And if I can steal your term, your authenticity. Because I felt it from the moment we met and…you’re just an  amazing member of our community and it’s a real honor for us to be able to speak with you today. So thank you for your time. 

Adrian Davis: Harvey, the honor is mine to talk with you and also to be a part of the SAMA community. It’s wonderful.