Recently, Nico Smit, former Global Marketing and Business Development Director at Cisco Systems spoke at our GAMPRO seminar about his experiences as a sales leader for the business with Shell. We asked him to share some of the secrets which helped to build this role-model relationship. In the following interview, we summarize his insights and draw conclusions for companies who want to achieve Level 5 relationships too.

Question: What was the turning point that made Cisco realize that the relationship with Shell needed to change?

Answer: In the time after 2001, Cisco saw the competition was changing on a global scale. The world of technology was changing; budgets were shifting from IT to lines of business, and customer expectations were increasing to new heights. Cisco realized it needed to find a new way of doing business globally to stay ahead of the competition. We also realized that we needed to change the way we build and maintain client relations to be able to change the conversation. As a solution, we developed the so-called Cisco 3.0 program to create more relevance for the business of the clients, define and deliver the next generation client relationships and to build a model for the next generation company. Shell was one of 30 global companies invited to be part of the Cisco 3.0 program. Shell was selected based on the strategic importance of the energy industry and the revenue potential for Cisco. We also chose them because Shell planned the outsourcing of their IT infrastructure and services, which presented a significant risk to Cisco’s existing installed base and revenue.

Q: What exactly did Cisco do differently? And what were the results over time?

A: The relationship with Shell was at an all-time low when we started our efforts. Cisco was considered arrogant, expensive, just moving boxes and hiding behind channel partners. There was no loyalty from Shell to Cisco, and this relationship was becoming ‘high risk’ for Cisco. The Cisco 3.0 program was changing everything we were doing, intending to become and act truly global for our global accounts. We also had to make it easier to do business with Cisco and deliver innovative solutions for the business of our clients. For their participation in the program, Cisco offered its clients dedicated client director and expert resources, new consumption models, and Cisco priming complex solutions instead of a channel partner. A Cisco Senior Executive would sponsor the relationship, and the client became a member of an exclusive Customer Advisory Board. For the Shell account, this meant that Cisco hired an experienced Client Director from one of its competitors. This Client Director knew the business of Shell and brought the right skills and experience for the role. By focusing on joint value creation, he could change the conversation from ‘selling’ to ‘sharing’. This change made Shell interested in what Cisco had to offer from a knowledge and strategy perspective. The new client director also exposed Shell to everything Cisco had to provide, including consulting experts and technology development experts, research, best practices, case studies, thought leadership, points-of-view, and the capabilities to conduct bespoke innovation projects. As a result, Shell recognized the strategic importance of Cisco as a driver of change in technologies and markets. Shell was willing to invest in the relationship with Cisco and accepted the invitation to join Cisco 3.0 and in turn offered Cisco the opportunity to become a member of the Shell IT Top 10 Eco-System Partners. Membership of the Top 10 partners would give Cisco access to Shell strategic information, participation in multi-year scenario planning, and joint innovation. All in all, an exciting proposition for Cisco.

 Q: Analyzing the journey from a Triple Fit Canvas perspective, which were the hurdles you were facing, and how did you overcome them?

A: We started at a sub-zero relation. As previously mentioned, Cisco was considered an arrogant, expensive box-mover company with no understanding of the oil and gas industry. In terms of the Triple Fit Canvas, we were rated with a level 1 in all fields. We had very few relationships, and most of our interaction was transactional through a channel partner. Our communication was very much Cisco in-side-out based on product features and functions. Our solutions were technology point solutions and hardly business solutions. Our salespeople had excellent knowledge of IT but very little understanding of the Oil & Gas business and the culture of Shell. The presentations were full of Cisco sales and marketing jargon. In hindsight, we can identify three phases to the relationship development. 1: Cisco 3.0, 2: Prove-Perform-Partner, and 3: Value-for-Both.

  1. Cisco 3.0: This program was all about changing to a customer-centric and business value sales organization. The new Client Director for Shell changed the communication, the sales culture, and the Cisco offerings to meet the expectations and needs of the customer.
  2. Prove-Perform-Partner: In the second step, we were building up trust and experience between the two companies. Proving the real business value was paramount to become a Top Tier Partner of Shell. The executive sponsor of the Cisco COO, together with the Shell CIO, was critical for the success, and Shell’s Partner Management Organization guided us inside the firm, which helped us to learn the Shell culture and processes.
  3. Value-for-Both: In the third and final step, we were extending the partnership with joint strategy, roadmaps, projects, and innovation. For Cisco, this was the phase to extend relations outside IT into the lines-of-business, helping Shell to increase revenue, reduce costs, and reduce risks.

Q: Building a high-value relationship takes a lot of effort over a long time. How did you ensure that everyone stayed the course?

A: First of all, it’s about implementing the right sales team with the required skills, diversity, experience, and attitude. It is a journey that requires a culture of customer-centricity and a drive to meet both short-term and long-term goals. It requires both a capable leader and a cross-functional team of people with a lot of self-motivation and desire to create value for the customer, the company, and themselves. Second, the availability of a support structure to keep the sales team focused on the customer. Examples are training programs and tools that drive the improvement of internal processes and remove internal obstacles. Third, you need support from the executives in the company to enable change, to keep the focus, and hold people accountable. Executive sponsor programs and customer advisory boards are essential for success here. Fourth and last, you should not forget celebrating and rewarding success. We put great emphasis on recognition of the customer in Cisco, recognition of Cisco by the customer, internal recognition of the sales team, presentation of Shell case at global (sales) events, and of course, the financial recognition that comes with meeting or exceeding goals.

Q: What would be your advice to other companies, who would also like to build Level 5 relationships?

A: The journey starts with making sure you have a deep understanding of the business of the customer (vision, strategy, organization, operations, finance) and the drivers for each key stakeholder in the customer organization. Understand the culture and communication style of the customer. Stop selling and start listening. Focus on what the customer needs, not so much what they ask for. Furthermore, you have to be present to win. Be with the customer as much as you can and move from ad-hoc to pro-active engagement. Promise the delivery and deliver the promise. The next step is to move from proactive behavior to aligned joint planning and project management, supported by executive sponsors in both organizations. Use a structured approach like the Triple Fit Canvas to make sure you cover all the bases for the development of a high-value relationship, from planning to execution and resource fit. Finally, ask yourself the question of how you would operate if you were one company with joint innovation, risks, and rewards. Use this vision as a starting point to develop a shared view of the future together with the customer. And never stop sharing the learnings and results and replicate your approach for other accounts.

Thank you very much for your insights, Nico!