How to Improve Account Engagement with Networking

This is part of a series of interviews with B2B revenue leaders. This interview is with S teve Woods, CTO at Benevity.
Note: at the time of the interview, Steve was working at Nudge Software as CTO.

Who are you and what do you do?

I'm Steve Woods and right now I'm CTO with Nudge Software working on business relationships. Prior to that I was in the marketing automation space as CTO of Eloqua.

Part of something Eloqua ushered along is a big change in the way we interact with people. There's been everything from automation to social networking. How’s that changing the way business relationships work?

I think you've got to start way back before the internet to really understand some of the dynamics there. If you look at that era and the relationships that salespeople developed, a lot o

f those relationships were predicated on information access. If you wanted to learn something about a particular product, company, or space, you needed to call the salesperson and they would bring you the information. By giving you that information they were able to start a business relationship. 

Obviously the internet changed that fundamentally. What we did with Eloqua was we said “given that change in dynamics, marketing needs to evolve in order to understand where people are at and what the next piece of information they’re most likely to want is”. We looked at what we called "digital body language" and used marketing automation to deliver that message which worked very well and that’s been the evolution of B2B marketing since. 

What ends up happening though as marketing begins to own the information flow is the relationships really are pushed out of the forefront and it's very difficult for salespeople to build those relationships, and that trust needed in order to encourage institutional change. So with Nudge we’re now looking at that second phase and saying “Okay, how can you as a business professional think about relationships when you don't have this asset of information at your disposal?” - “When that information is freely available, how do you think about relationships, how do you measure them, and how do you go about building them in order to develop the trust that allows you to push for institutional change?”.

So when do those relationships come into play during the deal cycle?

That's the interesting transition if you look at the prephase that we talked about. The relationships could start when the business transaction was under consideration. If you look now, that's the most difficult thing that you can possibly do is pick up the phone, cold call someone, and try and build the relationship while trying to sell them something. It doesn't work - we've all been on one end of that phone call or another - it doesn't work. 

The best professionals of today treat every interaction as an opportunity to start building a relationship. With today’s digital tools they can scale the relationship building over a larger number of people; over a significant number of jobs that they’ll have over their career, and over a significant amount of time. They’ll develop both depth by growing those relationships over time; and breadth of access to different people, in different industries, with different skills, and different perspective. They do all of this in a non-transactional way. 

Don't build relationships with the intent of selling the widget that you’re selling right now to a certain individual. Build relationships with the intent of building a broad and diverse set of allies - where you can help them and they can help you - and it's unclear what that assistance is going to be in advanced. You'll need to come back to that network later but you've got to take the opportunity to build a network relationship when that opportunity presents itself rather than try and do that at the moment that you have something to go and sell. 

How do you find the balance between keeping that breadth and many weak ties, and keeping those really strong connections you can leverage to introduce you to someone else?

I think you've got to be genuine. If you're relationship building in a purely machiavellian sense in saying "Is this person going to deliver a return on investment for my efforts?", it's going to tire you out, it's going to be inauthentic, and people will see right through it. You'll spend all your time trying to answer how valuable this person is to me - which is often unanswerable in advance - whereas if you really look at it from the perspective of knowing that a network is valuable and finding a way with each interaction to help that person build value; connect them with someone that will give insights, or someone that will give them an opportunity, that's going to be interesting. Learning about them truly out of interest What are they into? What do they care about? What do they do in their spare time? Then keeping track of that so when you see something later that ties you back to that person, you have an opportunity to come back and say "Hey! We spoke about this six months ago. I just saw this and thought of you. How have you been? How did this project go for you?". If you care and if you're authentic about it then you will build a natural depth and because you're not applying the ROI question on the first moment, you build a natural breadth. 

Instead of thinking "This person is a little different than my target prospect, I'm not going to put any effort in." but rather "This person is interesting, I have a way that I can help them. I'm going to come back to this relationship later." and then over time you realize oh wait a minute, I need somebody who understands the tax code for charitable investments in a foreign country - oh no - who do I know who knows that? And suddenly out of the broad network that you have, you realize the person you were talking to about hang gliding is also a tax consultant. So the breadth comes back to you in ways you wouldn't necessarily expect if you go into it with authenticity. 

In the past there were a lot of things with etiquette and how you should interact with people (specifically in a business context), especially with using tech to facilitate some of the depth of knowledge you have about these people. How is that changing?

It’s interesting in the sense that one of the lines that is starting to blur and disappear is this idea that there is a business context and there is a personal context, and that they are black and white. The best relationships are ones that span multiple jobs. Somebody that you knew from one or two jobs ago are generally better relationships than somebody you just met recently. Then you look at how you keep in touch with that person. If they're someone you kept in touch with over several jobs then chances are the interaction is no longer business - maybe you've started out on some projects together but now you're talking about sports, hobbies, travel, family, etc. - is that a personal relationship? Is it a business relationship? The line is irrelevant. 

I think you've got to use a lot of intuition, common sense, and good judgement in understanding the world from the other person's perspective. What do they want out of a relationship? When are you pushing to hard? When are you going into territories that they are not comfortable going into? If you're thoughtful about it, and you're aware of the world from their perspective then I think drawing that rather arbitrary line is no longer necessary. 

So it's just remembering everyone as a person...

Absolutely. Everyone enjoys business based on the people they interact with. That's a very common thread and a lot of the enjoyment of the people you're interacting with is not necessarily just because you have a gift with project management. Its because you’re an interesting person, the conversation’s go in interesting ways, and sparks of interests come out of those conversations that you wouldn't of otherwise expected. That is what makes the person interesting, it's what makes the business interaction interesting, and it's what forms the foundation for the relationship. So deliberately trying to stay all business all the time is not the best path to building a long term relations, it's the best path to being imminently forgettable. 

What happens when a relationship goes in a different direction - say personally you might have a disagreement but you need to keep the business relationship going forward - how do you handle that?

I think it depends on what the disagreement is. If you look at a lot of areas, it's very acceptable to have differences of opinions. If you differ on your opinion on how a project could proceed, you can have very honest, frank, and yet still comfortable conversations. Discuss the project - don't attack the person. I think the same is true for any other areas. If discussion veers into the topics that generally get people riled up - politics, religion, money, etc. - if you’re aware of the interpersonal dynamic and push to hard those areas that are clearly getting uncomfortable, and keep the debate tame rather than ad hominem then you can have great relationships with people you don't necessarily agree with. I think you just have to use that very solid judgement on when things are getting too personal and not about the topic. 

Is there a point where you would end a business relationship?

Everything has its lifetime. The business relationships that you have if you map it out over your career, there are thousands of relationships that you start and work with those people for awhile and let things drift. It happens day-in and day-out. Obviously there is no harm in that... you can't keep track of the 60,000 people that you've interacted with. I think the difference between people that have very robust, active, and powerful networks versus the people that have met 60,000 people but can't call up more than 20 of them on the phone is actually very slight. It's sort of a 1% difference in effort applied everyday for year upon year upon year that gives you the difference between the incredibly powerful networker and the person that feels they only have 20 people they can call. So I don't think you need to stay in touch with everyone, but being judicious about it and picking a select few to stay in touch with and put the effort in, and doing that day after day will begin to reap exponential rewards quickly. 

You're one of those people with an amazing network you've built over your career. When you're just getting started what's your advice?

You know the interesting truth is I'm probably low on the spectrum of being good at networking. I think that's probably half the genesis of Nudge. It's an area that I know I need to a lot more at, therefore its an area that I think about a lot and being a technologist I tend to think in terms of software products. I've come to realize the value of the network. I wouldn't say I'm a natural networker by any stretch of the imagination but I definitely try everyday to do a little bit more, but I would not put myself high on that spectrum at all. It's something that I still need to work on even more. 

Bring it back to the sales side. As you're developing an account, and say you just have that one relationship in the company, how do you go about broadening that so you have additional contacts?

I think that the first thing to think about is whether you truly are the army of one that you are implying. Chances are it's not true. Chances are there are other people at your company or people that you know that are on your team. So understanding who they have relationships with is critical. The connections that we have usually are not strong enough to make an introduction but if you can get a sense of where the strong relationships are, then there's an introduction you can ask for. If you are introduced into a conversations it's always better than cold calling. Cold calling has such a low effectiveness rate. So I'd look there first and say how do I become not an army of one, but a team, and how do I use that team so I can help them and they can help me. 

What about organizationally - so as your team to another company - is there a relationship there or does it solely live with the people that make up that company?

I don't think it's useful to think of a company as an entity at all. It's a bunch of people, that's it (if you look outside of the legal domain). So if you're going to try and strike up a conversation with a company that’s what you’re doing, you’re striking up a conversation with a person. A company may have people in roles that are fairly standard but they're still people and they still have their own unique set of preferences, relationships, motivations, etc. so I think you always have to think of the people that you're interacting with and that's a much clearer way of analyzing how you're going to start a conversation than thinking of a company as actually having an entity to itself.