Building a strategic accounts program at a rapidly growing technology company

How do you move your company from selling products to delivering enterprise solutions? It takes strong leadership, bespoke customer strategies and a knack for spotting visionaries inside your customer. Chris Pennington, vice president of global sales at Palo Alto Networks, explains.

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Harvey Dunham: It’s my great pleasure to introduce Chris Pennington from Palo Alto Networks. Chris is currently the vice president of global sales programs for Palo Alto Networks. It’s a relatively new assignment, and we’ll get into that later, but he’s had a long and distinguished career with several high-profile, high-tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and IBM. So Chris, I’m just delighted to be having a conversation with you.

Chris Pennington: It’s a pleasure, Harvey. Thank you.

HD: Chris, you’re in a really interesting spot with the growth that Palo Alto has gotten vis-a-vis acquisition and your role in taking Palo Alto Networks where they want to go. Can you share a little bit about what the situation is that you’re in right now and what you’re trying to accomplish?

CP: Absolutely. I think that Palo Alto Networks is on an amazing trajectory. It’s very, very exciting to be part of it. I think that the leadership team has done an amazing job on transforming from best-of breed, particularly in the firewall space, to expanding into the cloud environment, into artificial intelligence, into the SOC [Security Operations Center] world, IoT [internet of things]. I mean, it really is a fantastic transformation and amazing story. And I’m very, very excited to be part of it.

In my world in particular, we’re focusing on that very, very top of the pyramid of accounts, the Fortune 2000, whatever label you want to put on it, and really focusing on organizations that have worldwide distributed influence, distributed decision making. They need an approach which takes that into account, that looks at them as worldwide, global entities, not headquartered entities or national entities. So we’re trying to drive this complexity and these nuances in the thinking of the organization on the back of a company that is fundamentally transforming its very core DNA at the same time.

HD: So when you’re looking at the global 2000 companies, let’s say, or, you know, these large enterprises, is there a criteria that you use to narrow that down a little bit? And if so, is it something you can share with us?

CP: I mean, the way that we look at it is we think of this as a growth engine. And so I think that, historically, a global accounts program in inverted commas started off life as an account management structure for the very largest customers you have on a worldwide basis. I, tongue-in-cheek, call it being “Diamond on Delta.” You get treated nice, and you get access to a lounge. You get access to things that other people don’t get. And those programs are very useful. They do achieve a particular goal.

Our goal, though, is to focus on a growth opportunity. To focus on organizations that we don’t necessarily have a very strong relationship with, or maybe only have a relationship within a single product area. And so the way that we’re thinking about this is, “How do we grow in this space? How do we grow impact on business value propositions and, obviously, at the end of the day, our overall sales into this space?” So it’s very much a growth engine.

HD: So you’re really looking for companies where you feel like you’ve got the best opportunity to expand.

CP: Yeah, exactly. We do think of these things also in terms of industry. There are certain industries that lend themselves to globalization – financial services, pharma, oil and gas, automotive. So when you’re trying to figure out what your business value is going to be or its impact, you have to bring together not only key elements of technology but also sort of like what has to be done on a day-to-day basis – the sales cliché about, you know, helping them run their business more effectively.

So we’re aligning in the industry focus, we’re aligning in our own product-expansion focus, but overall, there’s an underpinning that if we deliver a better service to these customers, if we’re seen as being a partner on the worldwide stage, then ultimately that will improve customer satisfaction, it will improve our impact on them and, we hope, that will drive greater growth from a sales attainment point of view as well.

HD: You’ve mentioned that you’re grown a lot by acquisition recently and increased your capability and, presumably, you’ve gotten new people coming into the strategic account manager role. I was wondering: how are you selecting the SAMs and really getting them focused on the value proposition that you intend to deliver to the selected customers?

CP: You know, that’s a really interesting question because I don’t really see it as us helping them. It’s basically the other way around. For example, I’ll use the acquisition of CloudGenix. They have an awesome sales team, just a spectacular sales team that did an incredible job on building that business with a start-up mentality and practices that make them as successful as they are. So I see it more as adopting those people and then learning from them and adding them to the practices that we may have already started to build.

Many organizations have gone out and bought companies, and history is littered with disaster stories about that integration and the death of that company culture and all those sorts of things. I think what Palo Alto Networks is doing is it’s allowing the organizations we’ve acquired to help us evolve our culture, help us evolve our sales practices. And I think that’s a fantastic thing. I think that marrying the sheer strength and the expertise that Palo Alto Networks has built over its 15, 16 years in existence and then allowing its acquired companies to not be assimilated by it but to append it and grow it is an incredible part of the success that’s being driven by the organization.

HD: My gosh, it actually sounds like the “one plus one equals three” synergy actually exists!

CP: One of my favorite clichés in the world, Harvey. Absolutely. I mean if one plus one is less than two, which sometimes can be the case, then it’s a disaster. Anything above two starts to be a success. And the higher it is above two, then the better it is. That’s what you’ve got to be aiming for.

HD: Is there a particular sales process that you’re following or are you less formalized than that?

CP: We have not standardized on a single sales process across our organization. We have standardized in the way that we think about account management, which is an evolution of certain practices. On a natural basis, we employ a Challenger-type sales environment, and I think that’s just the norm of where we are in the marketplace and what we’re trying to do.

If you think about what Palo Alto is doing, it’s bringing in all of these organizations, it’s evolving its own culture. It’s evolving its people. Changing the culture of 8,000 people is no mean feat. We’re changing our brand associations. We’re no longer a firewall company. We are a cybersecurity platform organization able to have a massive impact on innovation and business within large organizations.

So we are by association challenging the norms of thinking, challenging even the norms of thinking of our own brand associations, challenging the way that cybersecurity is purchased by large organizations. So while we don’t necessarily run a lot of Challenger training courses, we have a lot of “challenger” experiences, and I think the role that we have to play in cybersecurity is to challenge.

HD: That’s right, it really defines where you are as a company and, more importantly, where you want to go. As the leader of this newly formed sales group from your own and acquired organizations, how are you keeping your fingers on the pulse, especially when working remotely, like almost everyone in the world is these days.

CP: I never thought I’d miss the 6 am flight and the airport Hilton Hotel as much as I do right now. And, you know, it’s an incredible challenge for not just us but for all organizations to grow a team. Sales is a contact sport, you know. It’s all about roaming the halls, having the water cooler conversations within your customer, getting the team together and strategizing. So, working remotely in sales is very difficult.

I mean, I love the fact that I was in Europe. I was due to go to a JPAC region before the travel restrictions came in. And I think being forced to not be able to do such things as travel has put a really difficult strain on sales people. Add to that being incorporated into a new team and then also selling to these large organizations, trying to build relationships. I mean, we’re at the point in the pyramid, as I said, where relationships are everything, where you have to build deep relationships with your customers. The cliché about trusted advisor is an incredibly important part. Customers are not stupid. They know we’re trying to sell them something, but they need to sort of like you in order to bring you into the fold and give you more openness in terms of their thinking, which is hard to do over a Zoom call.

And so I think that we, like most other organizations, are using video-based communications extensively. We are using the notion of virtual wine tasting. We’re trying everything and anything that we can to enable us to move forward in that space. And I think now we’re at that point where it may be safe and responsible to have an in-person meeting – a socially distanced, mask-wearing in-person meeting.
I have a leader in my organization who joined four weeks before we all got shut down. He’s had to build his team whom he’s hardly met and he’s having to do it [over Zoom]. I think now, in the Northeast, we are exploring ways that we can meet in person safely and responsibly without putting anybody in any kind of danger.

But it’s a huge challenge, and I don’t claim to have the silver bullet that solves it for everybody. I do believe that what we’ve done really well is we have experimented. We’ve experimented with little things like keeping Zoom calls with our customers to 15 minutes and challenging our sales teams to have more meetings, but only 15-minute meetings and to get their impact statement, their value proposition, the meaning of that meeting over and done with as fast as possible or just keep the customer meaningfully engaged for that length of time.

We’ve also explored other virtual means of communication. You know, what’s working? What resonates well? We found, interestingly enough, that the chat feature, whether it be Zoom or others, is working extremely well. People are actually engaging in an almost like a sidebar conversation within chat in a meaningful way. So we’re encouraging that. We’re exploring that. I think now is the time to sort of push the boundaries and try things and be even more open with the customer.

We’ve talked with our customers and asked them what virtual means of communication works best for them, how does it fit in with their day, because they’re suffering the same things we are. You know, at any time now my son could come home from school and come running into the background of my Zoom call. And that’s normal. That’s the new normal world that we have. So being appreciative and cognizant of that with our customers is also helping us build those relationships. You know, it’s empathy. This is sort of like Sales 101 to some degree, but being empathetic to the realities that we’re facing, which are identical to those our customers are facing, is vital in building those relationships. So it’s just as important now to be empathetic as it was when you could go in and have a pint with your customer, as well as a serious business meeting.

HD: What I’m hearing, Chris, is that you’re actually being able to engage with your customers as people.

CP: I think when we’re all working from home, we’re all a little bit more humble. I think we’re all a little bit more based when we are at home. My family certainly won’t let me have my airs and graces. I think everybody, regardless of their job title or seniority is struggling at least to some degree with everything that’s going on and worrying about, you know, their own team, their own business metrics, their own company. And I think that has democratized everything that we do, and it has made people more accessible.

We have found great success in virtual EBCs – executive briefings. Previously, there was massive value in people flying out from New York to California to our headquarters. It’s a very impressive facility. We could wheel in these brilliant people in the product team and our senior leaders, but now we get more people to stay longer and more engaged on a two-hour virtual EBC. We still get these brilliant people and senior leaders to attend. And we’re actually finding that we can get more impact because we have to hone our message and because they don’t have to travel, which if you’re going from the East Coast to the West Coast means a day there and a day back. And they don’t have to worry about budgets. They don’t have to worry about the expenses, and they’re happy to engage two hours in this forum, as long as we can keep those two hours engaging. So it’s forcing us to condense our message and be really impactful over a new format in a condensed amount of time. And it’s working really well. I think we will build upon this long after COVID is a horrible memory and 2020 is over. I think we will still build upon this, because we’ve discovered new things that drive impact, and we’ve got to embrace those.

HD: Wow. That’s a great story. And as I understand it, you’re a year or so into this?

CP: Year and a half.

HD: I think the first year, if I understand it, was very, very successful for your team and then for your, for your organization’s growth.

CP: Yes, in some respects. In terms of our performance. Our performance as a company was phenomenal. Our performance as a team was very, very strong. I would be my harshest critic. Again, another one of those clichés. Did we drive as much impact as I wanted from a programmatic point of view? No. Did we drive as big an impact as I wanted with our partner channel, with a true force-multiplication within these global entities? No.

I think we had some strong ideas, but for a million different reasons, we didn’t get the results that we wanted. So we’ve adjusted. You know, we’ve refocused. Don’t get me wrong. From when you foolishly decide that sales is going to be your life, then you are ultimately measured by this one metric each year, which is your attainment percentage. And on that basis, we had a phenomenal year. But, I think that what Palo Alto Networks is doing and what I’m trying to do in a small way within this team is to change a culture, to change thinking, to change engagement. But no, I did not achieve as much as I would like to have done in the first year.

I think that we still have room for improvement. I think we can still have a bigger impact, especially from a programmatic point of view and especially around leveraging our common ecosystem in a much more effective way.

HD: I really appreciate your humble assessment. I can empathize. So looking back over this last year and a half or so of this journey that you’ve been on, have you seen success in expanding into current customers with this vastly increased portfolio? And if so, is there anything in particular you can share about how the team was able to accomplish that?

CP: Yes . We mapped our accounts from left to right on a scale of A to E – A being a very strong customer with an already strong installed base, and E being a white space /dark account. As you look at that on a page, obviously what you’re trying to do is shift accounts to the left from E to D and D to C, et cetera. So we looked at these accounts and reported back to the president of the company on this whole shift left motion.

Again, the important thing is not just to manage that from a monetary point of view or a product point of view. It has a relationship aspect as well. If it’s a dark or white space account, shifting it left shows that they’re engaging with us. They’re open to a conversation. As it shifts further left, they’re exploring ideas. We have a relationship with them. So we would definitely be looking at it from that point of view.

And if you look at the evolution of Palo Alto Networks over the last 18 months – forgive the American sports analogy –we have so many more at bats now, right? So two, two-and-a-half years ago, we had a lot less products to go sell. We had the preeminent, next generation firewall in the marketplace. You know, we will stand by that. That’s a very important element of our business and we feel very strongly that it’s second to none in the marketplace.

But as I say, we now have all these other – mixing my analogies – strings to our bow. So we can now approach these customers and talk to them about their cloud journey. We can talk to them about the issues that they face within their SOC [Security Operations Center] environment. We can talk to them about their MPLS to SD WAN migration plan [Multi-Protocol Label Switching to Software Defined Wide Area Network migration plan]. We can have so many more conversations with that customer than we could two years ago.

And we’re empowering our sales team, not only by training the account teams individually but layering incredibly talented sales specialist organizations, product or subject matter experts, who in a coordinated and collaborative fashion can approach customers and have a meaningful conversation about their area of expertise. So we’re unlocking that shift left by initially training our teams to be comfortable in brand new areas. People that have grown up and been incredibly successful in the firewall space are now able to go and discuss a cloud strategy or a DevOps [development operations] strategy, a container strategy, a stock strategy and an IoT [internet of things] strategy.

So we are shifting left because we can have these meaningful conversations, but more importantly, we can bring these conversations together as a cohesive cybersecurity message. And so while the salesperson may lead the conversation with one particular area, what the product teams, what the leadership has done really, really well is not have that conversation presented as a disparate set of products.

We are moving to a solution space, a portfolio approach. Call it whatever you will, but it’s incredibly important in this complex cybersecurity world to be able to think about it more holistically, to have synergistic natures between these different products. And I think that is resonating very well with organizations who are faced with new threats day in and day out, who are looking for a partner to help them think about it. So we’re not just helping them in a product area. We’re helping them with the way they think about cybersecurity issues. And that builds this incredibly strong relationship that earns us the right to then go and talk to them about products.

HD: Amazing. You know, there’s a theme that I’ve started to pick up here and that is it sounds like you’ve done an amazing job at what is historically the most difficult thing to do in strategic account management. And that’s to get internal alignment.

CP: Yes.

HD: And the theme that really came out to me is that we always say it starts with C-level support. And what I’m hearing is you must have had phenomenal C-level support to acquire these companies, bring them together, get them aligned and get everybody excited and heading in a direction, get total strangers working with one another, I suppose.

CP: Harvey, I heard you once say that you’re closer to the end of your working career than you are to the beginning. I’ve also been at this a long time, so I’m right there with you. And what I’ve learned over all those years is to align yourself with great people. And without being horribly sycophantic to the people that pay my salary, I think that they have built astonishing leadership at a product level in the go-to-market space with theater leadership across the world. I think that that is a critical component: leading from the front in this collaborative approach to our customers is very, very important. I genuinely believe they’ve done an awesome job and I’m very proud to be part of it.

HD: You’re in a great place. Gee, we’ve talked about a lot of things. I’m curious about your customers. These are large global organizations with many, many people. When you’re approaching a customer holistically, is there a particular characteristic of the person that you’re looking for, that can serve as a place to start?

CP: Yeah. Whether it’s Palo Alto Networks or whichever company that you’re working for, I think you are looking for those people who are not content with just keeping the lights on. You’re looking for people who are either employed to do it or are passionate about driving change within their organization. It is so much easier to do the same thing day in, day out than it is to try and drive change within an organization. And so you are looking for those people passionate about that exact space, that sort of individual, that sort of team, that sort of approach. That has to be what you’re looking for and I think that that’s always a good starting point on any engagement when you want to build a relationship with people.

HD: So this is a person who must have a lot of courage and transformational aspiration themselves.

CP: There once was a saying “You were never fired for picking IBM.” I think it means there’s a lot of comfort with just keeping the status quo. And I think that it does take courage to drive change, and you are looking for that individual. And hopefully that individual was tasked with driving change, such as a CEO with the foresight to know that change has to come. If you find that person, then you’re off to the races. That individual is going to be key to any approach from any company.

HD: Fantastic. Are there any other lessons learned about approaching a company? I’m particularly interested in the ones where you’re lightly penetrated or you’ve taken a risk focusing resources on someone where you have no relationship at all, or very, very little?

CP: This may come across as ridiculously common sense, maybe too simplistic, but you have to have a strategy, and you have to have a bespoke strategy. I mean, if you look at our A to E mapping, in our A category there’s a small number, admittedly, but they’re some of our largest customers in the world. And what’s going to resonate with them, what’s going to be impactful to them, is very, very different from an organization that doesn’t talk to us or hasn’t spoken to us.

So building a strategy per account is again almost ridiculously obvious to say out loud, but it is very, very important. We are being successful because we are beginning to collaborate across multiple teams in multiple geographies. So not only have you got subject matter experts in the product areas, you’ve got account teams in New York, London and Singapore that you have to collaborate with. And so our success has been driven by, as I mentioned earlier on, one plus one is greater than two. So these teams are operating in a very, very strong way because they’re collaborating together. And they’re doing that because there’s a plan.

We have something called a global client lead. They own the relationship with the customer, and they own the development of the strategy for that customer. And it’s going to be bespoke – different regions, different challenges in getting everybody on board and understanding what it is that we’re trying to achieve. If you’ve made a decision that it’s a dark account, you are going to leverage our Prisma Cloud functionality as sort of an entry point; everybody needs to know that. Everybody needs to know that that’s the strategy; here’s who’s going to say what to whom and when, all those sorts of things.

So it is an obvious statement, but when you’ve got massive complexity with brand new product sets, brand new areas, brand new conversations that have multiplied by the need to coordinate across geographies, time zones, cultures, then having that plan becomes mandatory – having both a strategic vision for what it is you’re trying to achieve, as well as having the good old 30-, 60-, 90-day plan.

And by all means, you’ve got to do those two plans separately. You’ve got to do those plans separately, but you’ve got to have both because you’ve got to pay the mortgage, you’ve got to hit the numbers. You’re going to do that because you understand strategically what it is you’re trying to achieve with that customer at an aspirational level, being bold about future goals, allowing reality in the 30-, 60-, 90-day plan, but being bold about your strategic goals. So again, I apologize for being blindingly obvious, but have a plan – have the plan and then execute the plan.

HD: If I may, I’d add one more thing because I can feel it in this conversation: passion. You’re passionate. It’s so rich. It comes through. You know, I love working for people like you.

CP: Well, we’re always recruiting, so you never know, Harvey. One of the questions I ask when I’m interviewing for leaders – it doesn’t matter, again, which organization – is “What do you look for when you’re hiring?” I’m looking for impactful leaders. I really do hope that somewhere, some version of passion/energy is part of what hiring managers look for, because I think that passion, energy and attitude are very critical components of leadership. And if you’re going to do anything hard, you’re going to need all of those three in spades. Doing something hard and being successful is the best feeling in the world.

HD: I have no further questions, although I’d love if we could talk more another time, and I hope someday we will bridge this virtual gap and be able to do it in person.

CP: I very much look forward to that.

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