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Things I wish I knew with Bill Morrison

Sales in the Scotch whisky business was a relatively robust experience. Contracts were all renegotiated annually and competition was fierce since the packaging we sold was nearly always sourced from several suppliers. It kept suppliers like us hungry and it kept life interesting.


Fortunately for me something just clicked with the biggest of my new clients when I joined the business: I got on really well with their product development team, their operations people were open to new ideas and always willing to share what their agendas were in terms of business improvement, their marketing people seemed more than keen to find out what proactive suppliers like us were able to do. It was sales guy heaven and I was one of the gang on the inside.


There were times when my buddy buddy relationship with my customer was viewed quite critically by my own company. Sometimes I appeared to be a bit too much of the “customer’s champion” during internal discussions about pricing and cost sharing: “whose side are you on?” was an accusing question thrown at me more than once. To be fair it was a reasonable question and having mulled it over for a while I worked out a smarty pants response  “I’m on the side of the business relationship.” I would say smugly and use this as my basis for spending ever more time hanging out with all my pals inside the customer.


The relationship deepened. We even shared a common enemy – their purchasing department. In almost every meeting we had there would be a great flow of energy between us and the customer with new ideas coming out all the time then somebody would throw a wet blanket over the whole thing by mentioning that we would need to get the Purchasing Zombie involved. Every joint project seemed to grind to a halt over such fun and productive subjects as cost base analysis, strategic purchasing policies, vendor approval ratings and the ever popular business case presentation. Every question we answered created two more questions straight back, more paperwork more justification and more delay.


We would sit long into the evening with our counterparts from the customer side dreaming up ways to try and circumvent the evil grasp of Purchasing which earned the name the Progress Prevention Department. More than once we would go to the customer’s senior management together with their own team to get their blessing for one of our clever workarounds in order to thwart the procurement enemy and often we won.


Then came the annual contract negotiations.


With so much of our business with this customer being sourced from multiple suppliers we always knew that we had to fight our corner so we put together a great negotiation pack we worked out our opening stance, what we actually expected to get and what our true “walk away” pricing was. I personally spent a long, long time creating a truly marvellous 45 slide PowerPoint modestly boasting about our tremendous contribution to the client’s business with our agile and innovative product development process. Our management were pleased and I was just a little bit of a star internally with my snappy pitch. Other members of the sales team were told to “copy Bill’s approach” so I was popular with my colleagues too.


The client team sat patiently through our contract proposal and slept quietly through my PowerPoint presentation and told us they would respond to all suppliers in due course.


When they eventually made their responses to our proposal our share of their business had been reduced by nearly 30% which was a seven figure sum in cash terms. It was one of those moments you see in the movies when the room spins round and the dummy is in the middle of the screen staring at a sheet of paper. My world came to an end.



My bosses were not too happy and I was less of a star all of a sudden.


I set up a meeting between my CEO and their CEO to find out what had gone so horribly wrong. The meeting went a bit like this:


My CEO: Our people worked really hard with your people all year and I thought we had done some really good things so we were a bit surprised when you took 30% of our business away and gave it to our competitors.

Their CEO: Yes, I can well imagine that was an unpleasant piece of news.

My CEO:  It was indeed very unpleasant and we are a bit confused, perhaps you could tell us what caused you to make such a big decision, if you dont mind.

Their CEO: Well you see it turns out that some members of our leadership team actually think that your company cant really be trusted.

My CEO: Cant be trusted? What do you mean by that if you dont mind me asking?

Their CEO: From the feedback we had during our internal contract review it seems that your team spends a lot of time finding creative ways to try and circumvent our strategic purchasing policies and our vendor approval rating system as well as our way of reviewing business cases. We hear that some of your people almost gang up with some of our people to create clever workarounds to avoid working with our Purchasing Department. We dont like suppliers running clever games with our internal processes. Thats why we reduced your business with us.


I wasn’t fired but sacking me would have been a reasonable course of action. Worse came when I went and told my pals within the customer about how shocking the evil Purchasing leader had been with us. Their response? “Well he was just doing his job I suppose.”


No matter how close the personal bonds seem to be with your strongest allies in a customer it is the whole relationship that matters, and that means having a solid and cold perspective on who really drives the buying decisions. Customers may ask you along to their social events but there is no point in being invited to the barbecue if you are not invited to the board room too.
By: Bill Morrison

This article is an entrie for our Sales Story Contest


The Best Advice I Ever Got with Kate Tunison

It took me a while to learn this lesson but when I did it stuck! It’s really about being brave and having respect for yourself as a salesperson. When that happens your client does too.

In my first sales job I was an eager achiever very motivated to making sales. In my territory there was a large telecommunications company in which I had been making calls through the proper channels as they requested. I badly wanted to break into this company in a big way – all my instincts told me there was something big there and I just needed to find a way to uncover it. Every now and again my contact in the purchasing department threw me a bone which I hungrily gobbled up and asked for more.

One year she asked me to bid on the services they needed that my company could provide – the prize was their business for that year. I worked on the proposal, dotted all my i’s and crossed my t’s and had it in ahead of time. Disappointingly, I didnt get it however my contact continued to throw me some scraps which I continued to work on as eagerly as if she had given me a huge chunk of business that my life depended on. Time rolls on and again for the second year in a row she asks me to bid on their yearly contract. I put the proposal together carefully with my hopes once again very high – after all, I had done good work for them, hadn’t I? Well, once again they gave it to someone else leaving me frustrated and bewildered.

By the time the 3rd yearly request came around I had still done good work for them when given the chance but my enthusiasm was starting to wane  (about time, huh?) so I went to my Center Manager asking for assistance on what we could do differently and where could we cut our costs. His response was, “I don’t want you working on that proposal again this year. You have done good by them, it takes a lot of time to complete and they are just using you so they can say they have 3 proposals. They have had no intentions of switching their business to you. Remind them what you have done for them and say that if they are just needing you for a 3rd quote that you are not interested.”  Whoa….that was a different approach for the eager achiever and one I needed to give some thought to.

I did think about it and I outlined the departments I had done work for, the customer service they had received and that I had followed their procedures and done everything else asked.  I felt very justified in what I was getting ready to do and a little nervous too. I called my client back and began a discussion about our past history and the good work we had done and how I had bid the previous two years. Near the end of the discussion, I said, “with all due respect, it takes me a very long time to put all of the information together requested in your proposal and if you are needing it just to have 3 proposals I respectively decline this year.” Silence on the other end. We hung up, I felt deflated and wondered if I had just shot myself in the foot!

A week or so goes by and I received a call from my client congratulating me.  She informed me she was planning on opening a very large PO for my company and I was free to call on all other departments – she really gave me free reign to drum up as much business as possible. I did, and the POs kept getting renewed and climbing in terms of dollar amount. That account eventually became one of the largest we had locally as well as nationally.

My lesson was sort of like “know when to hold them and know when to fold them.” I took a chance, gulped and said what I needed to say. Based on a good history with this client we deserved to play in the big leagues with them. It worked out but it would not have had I not had a good history to stand on and the courage I needed at that moment. The confidence that gave me really helped my career take off and I never looked back except to say thanks for a great lesson learned.

About Kate Tunison

Owner: PresentingPlus! - a sales training, presentation skills company. I help people be themselves, only better! Trainer, Coach, Presentation Skills, Salesperson, Dog Lover, Gardener, Cook, Traveler