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A High-Level Sales Call Gone Bad – Really Bad

Years ago I was based in Europe, opening up operations there for Datalogix International, an ERP software company.  Datalogix “wound up” in Europe after selling a large deal to a Boston-based adhesives company, Bostik.  Bostik came to us with a problem: the were being sold by their parent company, Black & Decker, and Bostik had to get off B&D’s mainframe within five months.  Bostik had a number of locations, including several in the U.K.  They were being acquired by Total Chemie (pronounced toe-TAL Shem-EE), the chemical division of the very large French multinational petrochemical company.  Talk about a compelling event!  Bostik had no choice but to invest in their own system.  There was a need, a budget, a timeframe and we were talking to the key decision makers in the company.

Greg Taylor was the salesrep.  He, along with VP of sales Steve Andersen, did a fabulous job.  The deal came in at $1.9 million, which was the largest deal for Datalogix up until that time.  We took a customer-focused, proactive approach.  I was VP of Operations at the time, and I drew up a plan to commence support operations by moving several people to the U.K., and opening up an office there.    Bostik felt very comfortable with it and that was a key reason they decided to go with Datalogix.  Since I had a diversified background in sales, operations, professional services, software development, marketing, etc., the board asked my to spend the next 18 months in Europe.  (By the way, Greg and Steve completely outsold Marcam, who was our competitor.  I wound up working for them several years later.)

My new role as VP of International Operations was to drive the launch of the company in Europe.  I was to bring the VP of Europe, Jim Cluchey, up to speed.  Another of my roles was to drive the strategic relationships we had established with IBM, DEC, and HP, and to contribute to the sales effort wherever I could.  Jim was a really smart guy and a experienced software executive.  We had recruited him away from Cognos, where he ran their European operation.

Datalogix was making significant progress implementing additional Bostik sites in other countries in Europe.  During that time, Jim Cluchey and I were devising a strategy on how to expand our reach within Total.  We had the right software, but the wrong platform.  Total ran on IBM’s AS/400 platform, and our Unix-based software ran on just about everything else.  There was a possibility that we could rehost our software onto the AS/400 and we decided we would approach Total’s VP of IS  with that plan.

Jim Cluchey went to great lengths to secure a meeting with Leo Mercier, Total’s VP of IS to discuss the progress of Datalogix’s Bostik implementations to date (flawless, and Leo knew it) and our future ability to support other Total chemical companies.  Leo was receptive.  Jim and I were encouraged.

Jim and I met in Paris the morning of the meeting.  He had flown in from London, and I from Rotterdam, where I was then living, coaching the new central Europe general manager.  Total was headquartered at La Défense, in Paris.  We were scheduled to meet with Mercier from 1:00 to 2:00 in the afternoon.  As we made our way to the office we took yet another opportunity to validate our plan for the meeting.  We knew we had to overcome the IBM challenge, but we felt confident we could do that.

At one o’clock Jim and I arrived in Leo’s office.  His assistant told us Leo was at lunch and would return shortly.  Jim and I sat there until 1:55.  That’s right, 1:55.  When Leo arrived, he invited us into his office.  No apology.  No smile.  Not even a hint of one.  He uttered one sentence.  “I want a 40 percent discount.”

As GM of Europe, Jim owned that account.  He did the right thing by telling Leo that we needed to understand their situation: what plants needed our software, what hardware platforms were required, timelines, resources, etc., before we could discuss any discount.  Leo huffed and said he had another meeting.  We left the meeting angry, frustrated and determined to go under, over, around or through Leo Mercier.

What went wrong?  Was it the centuries-old Franco-American problem? Ineffective qualification?  The NIH (not-invented-here) syndrome?  Some effective blocking by IBM, who was threatened by our Unix-based solution and had Leo’s ear?  An unwillingness to acknowledge a success in a new, unproven division of Total? Leo just being a tough negotiator? His ego?  Just one of those bad meetings that happens to everyone?

Jim continued to make great progress in Europe.  We made a number of good sales—some strategic and some tactical.  I moved back to the States early having overachieved on my objectives.   Later on I left the company.  I had heard that additional systems were sold into Total, but only after Mercier’s departure from the company.  With all that I had done before that day and considerably more after, I’ll never forget that meeting.

What did Jim and I do wrong?  What would you have done differently?

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6 Responses

  1. I am going to think about this one. At first pass, this illustrates to me that no amount of experience and planning can overcome the “human factor” in some cases. Sometimes there is a built in bias. It’s nice to try to figure that out in advance and, even then, it may run too deep to tackly in a one hour meeting. I’ll be thinking about this one today. Thanks for sharing!

  2. That is a tough one. Undoubtedly, one could have done a better job of knowing the psyche of the person with whom you are going to meet. However, part of sales is dealing with difficult people like this. For instance, maybe a personalized, hand written “thank you” note might have made a difference. But then, maybe not.

  3. Dave –

    I haven’t worked with Europeans much in my career, and when I have, it’s been on US turf. However, I wonder if you didn’t miss an opportunity to build the relationship with Leo a little more by not taking him to lunch just prior to your meeting. A simple thing, but sometimes guys like Leo just want to feel important, and a lunch at your company’s expense might have been just what he was expecting.

    • Hi Von,

      Nice to hear from you…

      Jim didn’t select the time, Leo did. We would have been delighted to take him out to lunch. That wasn’t an option.

      For those readers who would like to see some additional comments on this post, you should go to The Customer Collective, where this post was republished.

  4. Dave,

    Definitely a tough one, don’t know that you guys did anything wrong.

    One thing that I always attempt to do in a situation like this is to do as much “research” inside the company as possible before a meeting with a new executive.

    It’s tough in a situation like you had with no relationship with Leo. But here are a few thoughts:

    Perhaps seek out all of your strongest supporters within Bostik to see who knew or had any relationship with Leo and what background you could gather on his personality, how he approaches vendors, his current disposition towards Datalogix and IBM, etc.

    Also possibly see if someone within Bostik might have developed a relationship with one of Leo’s direct reports and could sponsor you to that person. They might have been able to coach you on how to approach the meeting with Leo.

    No magic answers, but just thoughts on what could help in this kind of situation.

    David

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