James Henderson

Adding software science to the art of sales

There’s an old adage that’s often acknowledged in the corridors of power – a commonly held executive viewpoint irrespective of circumstance – people don’t resist change, they resist being changed.

The words of Peter Senge – a renowned author and lecturer – strike at the heart of the perennial problem facing organisations of considerable size and notable heritage. Turning the tanker is treacherous.

“Everyone always buys in at the headline level,” accepted Ken Boal, Vice President of Software and Service Sales across Asia Pacific, Japan and China (APJC) at Cisco. “But don’t underestimate how difficult change is.

“The minute you add another 15 minutes to a day by using more tools, people’s enthusiasm tempers pretty quickly. Honestly, we’re tracking that but we have to be persistent.”

Ken Boal (Cisco)

In the case of Cisco, there’s been many headline moments continuing the theme of embracing software and recurring revenue, signalling a shift away from hardware. Rhetoric has accelerated since the appointment of Chuck Robbins as CEO in mid-2015, culminating in a declaration that 50% of company revenue will originate from software sales by 2025.

The why is obvious. But what about the how?

“That’s the beauty of this role,” Boal explained. “It’s probably 30% market facing but 70% of it is driving our internal mindset, culture and process change.”

Since assuming the regional reins in February 2021, Boal has embarked on a change management program focused on ensuring Cisco has the right people, structure, tools and capabilities to meet aggressive software targets.

“There’s a lot of work internally,” he said. “Self-optimising my direct team is one element but it’s more around convincing, guiding and coaching the rest of the sales organisation – and the rest of Cisco – that this is how to do it.”

There is a new theory on how to deliver outcomes to customers within Cisco and therefore, a change process transition the company must go through in order to realise that ambition.

“We then put that into practice on specific accounts and we have a very targeted focus on the top 120 accounts across APJC,” Boal said. “We want to bring the best of Cisco and bring the best of our software platforms and services to life, using those top accounts as exemplars.

“I wouldn’t call it theory as such but we’re certainly putting it into practice.”

Art vs. science?

Depending on the subject matter expert, organisational change can happen as slow as one person at a time.

According to John Kotter – a well-respected professor at Harvard Business School – the conventional model for change management involves four steps:

  1. Select few + diverse many: A core group of leaders make the decisions but the impact is felt across everyone within an organisation
  2. Have to + want to: Balancing when to encourage and when to instruct requires skill
  3. Head + heart: Appeal to logic, data and reason but don’t forget how people feel and what they desire
  4. Management + leadership: Combine the strengths of both and leverage each as appropriate

At first glance, Kotter’s framework could be described as a walking playbook of contradictions and perhaps that’s the point – change management isn’t cookie-cutter.

Of the four principles however, ‘have to + want to’ stands out as key for Boal. At what point does good cop become bad cop?

“That’s a damn good question,” he said. “We probably started with more encouragement of what this new type of good looks like but we’re now moving towards a more mandated position. So it’s a bit of both.”

Leaning in to explain his response – illustrating the significance that Cisco has placed on getting this approach right – Boal expanded further. This is a delicate matter, every move carries consequence.

“I’ll give you one example,” he said. “We’ve never had a standardised sales methodology at Cisco, it’s always been up to each sales team to operate in the way that they want to in each respective market.

“The team in Melbourne would approach it differently to the team in Sydney, who would be different to the team in Singapore, then the US and so on.”

Naturally, similarities exist in terms of portfolio but specific to how account teams documented and followed sales processes, the approach was “quite random”.

“In some cases, non-existent,” Boal added. “Very much an art and not a science.”

Speaking as a former Vice President of Australia and New Zealand (A/NZ) – a role he held for almost eight years – Boal speaks with authority and balance on this subject.

In one sense, it’s refreshing to have such granular levels of approach tailored to specific segments – reflective of local trends, industry demand and buying patterns. Hard to argue with mirroring the market.

Alternatively, that framework is reflective of a previous world dominated by hardware and not aligned to software investment cycles.

“You can’t get away with that approach in the software space, that’s what we’ve identified,” Boal confirmed. “The truth is that you need both, art and science. But there probably wasn’t enough science from our side.”

In acknowledging the pros and cons of both commercial principles, Boal – breaking a smile to qualify further – then questioned… What is art? What is science?

“Relationships are more on the art side,” he shared. “How you actually drive customers to think differently is a creative skill that can very much be considered as the art of influencing. The science is more rigour and process around planning and opportunity management.”

This is supported by Cisco’s strengthened mindset around lifecycle.

“How can we support customers getting to value quickly?” Boal asked. “How can we then keep them there? How can we keep them adopting more capabilities to deliver outcomes?

“Customers can then go back to their stakeholders and share, ‘I spent X amount with Cisco and these were the benefits that we enjoyed’.”

This type of approach is designed to place Cisco front and centre during the eventual platform renewal process. While the logic is clear, Boal was quick to accept that this new approach can show up to an account team as glorified admin.

Art is fun. Science is boring.

“You can certainly argue that,” Boal accepted. “But it’s not truckloads or mountains of paperwork, there’s just more stakeholders involved in the process.”

Chuck Robbins (Cisco)

As an organisation, Cisco is using a sales qualification methodology called MEDDPICC. This is a well-used industry standard for many software companies and can be segmented as:

  • Metrics
  • Economic Buyer
  • Decision Criteria
  • Decision Process
  • Paper Process
  • Identify Pain
  • Champions
  • Competition

Enhancing this framework is a new end-to-end commercial approach rolled out internally which embraces the theory that to be successful in selling software and software platforms, more work must be done at the client side to bring such vision to life.

“The market, our partners and our customers know how to deploy hardware-based networks,” Boal said. “With software, there’s a lot more work to be done at the beginning, middle and end of that journey. This new methodology is provoking and guiding the team on how to do that correctly.”

Following the tried and trusted approach of every hardware vendor in market, Cisco would historically ship a product and wash their hands. Deal done, back in 3-5 years. Today, a software order requires expert on-boarding and ongoing customer success support.

For Boal, that external shift comes with an internal shift in expectation – “we don’t want to contact a customer and say, ‘we think you bought this, we’re not sure why you bought it, remind us why you bought it again? Oh and by the way, we’re here to help you’.”

To survive in software, Cisco has to be better than that. Especially in answering the fundamental questions:

  • Who in the customer owns this platform?
  • What are their objectives?
  • What are the use cases of the software that we’re selling?
  • Who’s doing what?
  • What’s the customer committed to?
  • What’s the partner committed to?
  • What is Cisco committed to in that three-way agreement?

All very basic but critical. Yes, it’s more paperwork on the surface but it’s all digitised and embedded in Salesforce.

“That’s our change program and I don’t mind sharing, it’s not always easy,” Boal acknowledged.

No question, change is hard

As part of his remit, Boal is continually right-sizing and right-phasing the planning, opportunity management and lifecycle discussions.

This isn’t a case of asking account teams to complete such changes by next month, rather a commitment to training sellers on the new expectations and crucially – there’s that ‘have to + want to’ again – obligations.

“Some of them love it, embrace it and are already doing it,” Boal shared. “Some of them get it and just need help, guidance and coaching on how to do it. Some people don’t like it, may not see the value and don’t want to change.

“For that third category, that’s more of a management discussion about whether this is the place for you going forward because this is how we’re going to work.”

While such candour is rare for a vendor, this level of transparency alone signifies the importance of the shift. The stakes are high at Cisco.

“I came in with a bias of belief around the need for us to change but I’ve had to learn,” Boal said.

One profound lesson in change management has been to avoid assuming the role of sole spokesperson on the issue.

Aligned to the ‘select few + diverse many’ principle, Boal has built an allyship among senior leaders and frontline teams across the region in the pursuit of best practice. One notable alliance came in the form of the regional CFO, Thomas Sypre.

“Initially, I was a bit miffed because I was going in with these big speeches about why we needed to change, how we needed to change and what we needed to change,” Boal explained. “Then Thomas came in with a financial lens on the issue and everyone started leaning in and saying, ‘this is fantastic, we ought to be doing what he said’.”

That was a lesson for Boal in the importance of building a coalition of spokespeople to drum up advocacy. Change management is never delivered by lone wolfs.

“Plus, you don’t want to be known as the software guy running around saying, you’ve got to do this and that,” Boal said. “This message has been strongly reinforced from the top so it’s not like I’m Robinson Crusoe, this is a company-wide effort.”

At times, Boal’s early messaging could have been described as cajoling on steroids. Cisco had made huge investments in building a Customer Experience (CX) function, supported by sizeable transformation in Engineering, Product and Finance divisions.

“Every department was changing but what was sales going to do differently?” Boal recalled. “That was part of my early messaging but if you’re not linking it back to the overarching company narrative then it’s not going to work.

“If I had more time, I would have got Thomas on-board earlier so we could have better articulated the prize. If we do this well, we’ll have happier customers and we’re going to overachieve our company metrics.”

Another key factor in the decision to task Boal with leading internal transformation efforts was credibility – this is a leader who ran the vendor’s trans-Tasman business for almost eight years.

“Perhaps I came in with an ounce of credibility,” he accepted. “At least I’d run a theatre so I could empathise with a day in the life of an in-market Vice President or someone covering a large territory.”

Coming from a position of respect is fundamental but even that has a runway. The support of Thomas and Dave West – President of APJC – from an executive leadership standpoint has been mission-critical in Boal achieving progress.

“But you can’t walk around saying, ‘just do it because Dave said so’,” Boal clarified. “Dave has backed this plan and provided great air cover but the work extends to getting every sales leader in the organisation – hundreds in leadership and many more frontline sellers – to turn to this way of thinking.”

Having been at Cisco for more than 20 years, Boal has also relished the opportunity to engage with fresh blood joining the company. At global, regional and local levels, new leaders have been recruited from Microsoft, Salesforce, Oracle and co. – vendors well-versed in the world of software.

“This is business as usual, very normal,” Boal said. “That’s given us the confidence that we’re on the right track.”

The split between hardware and software varies depending on the deal, sometimes hardware can represent as much as 80% of a project or as little as 20%.

“The more software we sell, the more hardware we sell, and vice versa,” Boal said.

“We determine the most effective way for the customer to consume and procure that software. It’s an enterprise agreement looking at the financing model, the services required from Cisco and our partners, the upfront design and build services and the implementation.”

The best analogy to articulate the change brought about by a rise in software networks is to reference the hybrid car, which can run on either electric or petrol. According to Boal, Cisco can ill afford to sell a new software network but have the customer run operations in petrol mode.

Some businesses have bought into the new but struggle to extract true value from the purchase. Then the work of operations, network and infrastructure teams kick into gear as a customer success function to reinforce the modernised approach.

“Electric mode or petrol mode, we have to reinforce our position,” Boal confirmed.


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