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Sales Excellence and Major Account Selling, with Ben Cohen [Episode 779]

Meet Ben Cohen, Head of Sales Excellence and Marketing (North America and South America) for HELLA. If you’re not familiar, HELLA is a $10 billion German enterprise with nearly 40,000 employees serving the automotive industry worldwide.

In this episode, Ben joins me to talk about how to effectively transition major account sellers (who historically have nurtured critical strategic relationships with face-to-face selling) to virtual and remote sellers. We’ll then dig into how Ben and HELLA define sales excellence and how they measure success.


Episode Transcript

Andy Paul: Ben, welcome to the show.

Ben Cohen: Thanks for having me, Andy.

Andy Paul: It’s a pleasure. So tell us where you’re hunkered down for the duration.

Ben Cohen: Right now, I’m in my house in Chelsea, Michigan, which is just a little West of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Andy Paul: Yeah, very, very nice. Um, hopefully you’re not to like season ticket holders or university of Michigan football this fall.

Ben Cohen: We’re actually Michigan state fan. So, um, yeah, go green.

Andy Paul: Go Spartans. Yeah. My high school were Spartans. Uh, okay. So, um, tell us a little bit about Hela and, and interest a company. A very. So big, but one of these companies it’s so big, but you’ve never heard them before. At least I had never heard it before. Um, but we probably encounter your products all over the place.

Ben Cohen: Sure. So don’t feel bad. Um, before I worked at Hela, I didn’t know hella either, but hella is one of the leading suppliers in the automotive industry. And we make everything from all different sorts of lighting, which we’re most known for. So headlamps, rear lamps, tail lamps. Interior lights. If it lights up in your car, we’re probably involved in it in some way.

And then we also have our electronics division where we make all sorts of different sensors. Motor precision sensors. We have, uh, electrification products to be able to use, to go into more battery electric vehicles. We have actuators, we have all sorts of different products. So that’s the biggest part of the company.

And then we also have an aftermarket and special applications division.

Andy Paul: So aftermarket meaning like auto parts stores and so on.

Ben Cohen: Exactly. So we sell parts for the aftermarket.

Andy Paul: Got it. Got it. And are they labeled hella or are they under some other.

Ben Cohen: They’re labeled tell us. So most people in the U S know us for the rally lights, actually that cause they can say hella on them. Um, and then that’s when we make it for, you know, a GM of BMW with Daimler. Obviously they’re not going to let their headlamps say hello on it.

Andy Paul: Okay. I don’t have rally lamps on my car, so, um, yeah. Um, so pretty big company. It’s like 7 billion euros.

Ben Cohen: Correct.

Andy Paul: Wow. So how many employees?

Ben Cohen: It’s about 40,000 worldwide.

Andy Paul: 40,000 worldwide and publicly owned. Privately owned.

Ben Cohen: It is, um, mostly still owned by the original family. Um, but is traded on the German stock exchange.

Andy Paul: Got it. Okay. Yeah. I was trying to figure that out when I was looking at the website. So. How do you sell these products? So your job is your, if I remember correctly is in charge of sales excellence for the Americas. Um, so how do you sell your products?

Ben Cohen: Sure. So in my role as a head of sales, excellence marketing, uh, I basically help tell the story help with the processes, the tools and the support for the sales team. The sales team has the interesting job of trying to sell products. Into the OEM. So the GM Ford FCA, and either through established connections, um, and or the OEMs actually come to hella as a known supplier sometimes and say, we need X.

What do you have? Or what’s your proposal? And it’s, uh, it’s always a two way street. Um, it’s not. Your typical cold calling or things like that, but it is a lot of maneuvering around finding the right people the right way to talk to them, whether they be in sales or in engineering, and just always being able to find your way in to the right person, to excite them about your product.

Andy Paul: And potentially somebody that has a project coming up or something that you’re aware of, that you could be of service to.

Ben Cohen: Yeah, of course. So we’re always watching the market to know what vehicles are coming up within a pretty good accuracy, and then we’d be able to provide our services and our technologies based on what’s coming up, what consumers are asking for, how we can help reduce costs, you know, all the typical USBs that you want to have.

Andy Paul: And given that you’re selling to such large accounts, do you have like a account team sales accounting for Ford account team for GM account forward for Daimler? I mean, how do you, how do you organize that?

Ben Cohen: Exactly. So we, we are customer focused. We really try and be customer centric. So the selling teams are set up by the different customer groups, all around the world. And then within that, they break it down by different product groups.

Andy Paul: Okay. So in the U S roughly how many cells salespeople, or, but you have

Ben Cohen: In the U S roughly about 35.

Andy Paul: 35. And I imagine the, mostly in the field, I mean, so this has been sort of a transition for them in this whole work for home environment.

Ben Cohen: So it’s been a transition, I think not only for them, but for also for their managers and some of the other executives actually seeing that work from home is possible. And we are able, still to connect. We are able to still maintain those connections, those deals, even though. The plants have shut down and no one’s making anything right now.

They’re still planning for projects that are coming two years from now. So our sales team has been working even harder, I would say now than they were before. Um, but they are able to do this remotely and it’s been a really interesting time and a quick change that they had to make. And they’ve done a really amazing job at it.

Andy Paul: So walk us through that. So it was what were some of the transitions they had to make? Obviously it’s a big change and when you can’t go and meet face to face and go wander the hallways that your clients, and as which I’m sure they were doing right. Working in bigger accounts, I know the people I need to go see and touch bases with them.

So how are they doing that now?

Ben Cohen: So the way they’ve been able to change as you know, obviously using technology to connect with people, but it’s not only the connection with the customers because they’re used to doing phone calls when they had to, or whatever the, you know, teams meeting or whatever it might be. The biggest transition now is that.

They’re not sitting next to each other, learning from each other, hearing the story from each other, um, aligning with the engineer and, you know, within the company. So the internal collaboration I would say is probably become the most difficult transition, but also has. Really had the greatest benefit longterm benefits to the company because we’ve we’re, we have become an, are becoming better at internal collaboration, mainly through tool.

Uh, with we used Microsoft teams, uh, has, has really allowed people to stay in contact with each other, have quick alignment meetings and things like that.

Andy Paul: Okay. Yeah, to the point you made before is if they’re like my experience with most people, these days is they’ve actually more than filled their days with zoom meetings. You know, the small meetings used to find somebody that, uh, you know, run some in the hallway and suddenly it becomes, uh, an item on your calendar.

Ben Cohen: Right. And now they’re able to, you know, figure out their calendar a little bit better. You know, working from home, I think has also allowed people to be more organized in a way, because you don’t have as much interruptions. You can schedule your day a little easier. Of course, there’s always going to be the, you know, five alarm fire that happens.

But for the most part, you can be a little bit. More scheduled on what works best for you. So if you are that person who wakes up a little earlier, where you can just start working a little earlier, and if you’re that person that you’re always showing up to the office 10 minutes late, because you wake up late, well, now you don’t have to drive.

So it kind of evens out as well.

Andy Paul: But imagine somewhat in, in your business in trying to get design wins, that your, your team is searching for, is that there was a fair amount of presentation activity that went on and. Interesting how your team feels about sort of the effectiveness of their presentations in a remote setting. Uh, because there’s, there’s, uh, things being written out, you know, a couple months in about, well, you know, buyers are reacting differently and they buy differently remotely than perhaps they did when you’re meeting with them in person and the presentation being one, one key element to that.

Ben Cohen: Yeah. And I think now I’ll put on my marketing hat for a second, and this is something we look really closely at throughout the year. But especially in this Corona phase and post Corona is how do we do presentations better? How do we get to the point? A lot quicker. How do we hit the messaging that, that specific buyer wants to hear?

So not necessarily having a one presentation fits all, but making sure that we have the messages that the people want to hear. I think also in this time, the, the relationships that you’ve set up previously are really coming through, um, for you, if you had done it right. And a lot of times. People sometimes think that in B2B, okay.

It’s business to business, but you have to remember that human human elements when you’re in B2B, you’re still talking to people. People are the ones making those final decisions. We don’t yet have a AI doing the purchasing decisions for us. So the relationships are important.

Andy Paul: well, I think even in that environment, I would still contend the human relationships will become more important

Ben Cohen: Yeah, of course.

Andy Paul: I mean, I think the AI buying experiences going to be largely are you selling experience, which are, we want to look at it largely undifferentiated. And so people will still make the difference.

Ben Cohen: Yeah. Cause so someone still will have to evaluate it then, you know, maybe AI can get it, you know, 80% of the way there based on different criteria that you put in. But if you helped someone out before they remember that, and this is what counts.

Andy Paul: Well, to that point is. What’s our continuity. If you have in your sales team, I mean, selling into these large accounts. So I, dear people, you know, average tenure, five years, 10 years, I mean, they know those accounts inside out.

Ben Cohen: In the sales team, it ranges, but across hella, the tenure stays pretty long. Um, people at hella tend to stay at hella a really long time. Not only because of the, they’re excited about the industry, but we just do really. Cool things that you can’t get your hands on elsewhere. So then we get to know the technologies really well.

We know the industry really well. You may not stay on the GM team forever. You might move maybe to Ford or, you know, maybe you have an opportunity overseas. And there’s a lot of that’s what hella allows you to do. Being such a big company is to have the collaboration and the abilities to do things throughout the company in the world.

Andy Paul: Yeah, I wonder it’s a real change from sort of transactional selling. A lot of people know about even some complex products. Yeah, will appear somewhat transactional compared to though the length of relationships and the ongoing sort of renewal of relationships as you have with new products or new new projects that you can work on the customer with.

I think I, I think S I don’t know, like, so I get the impression that more and more sellers are sort of seeking that these days is that you can really get deep into an account and, uh, get to know them and build these connections. And these relationships you talked about in that. To me it’s I found a microarray cause I was selling a lot of, uh, opportunities like that as part of the job satisfaction.

Ben Cohen: I think that’s the fun of it too. I mean, yes. It’s fun to close that big deal. But ultimately when you’re selling something, you’re trying to help somebody out. And if you can help, not only the company you’re selling to, but also their customers, you know, that’s the fun part. And. When you work at a company such as hello, you know, you, you’re not only helping someone sell a car, but you’re helping the person who’s driving the car.

And then when you’re out with your friends, not thinking about work, you go, Oh yeah, that’s that car. I know exactly. What’s in that. I know how we helped. I know. Oh, did you know you could do this with that car and to really see it out there live and how it actually impacts people’s lives. This is fun versus just, you know, sending over a contract on a property or something like that.

Andy Paul: Yeah, or yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Well, so I mean, obviously covert must’ve the shutdown of the plants must have affected your, your pipeline in the near term. I imagine. Um, so what are your sellers doing to adjust to that?

Ben Cohen: So for right now, the automotive industry is actually, um, a unique selling thing. So when you close on business, that, that business actually, isn’t coming in for another two years, there’s a whole, you, you win the business, the car isn’t being made for another two years ish. So during those two years, there’s all this development and change management and a lot of things leading up to it.

So we have a lot of current projects that are still running. We have new programs. We know there’s new vehicles coming and years to come. Um, so the sales team is able to still be selling a lot and dealing with all the change management for those deals that are years out for the revenue that’s coming in today.

Uh, right now it’s a little wait and see of how the plants reopened and then how we can support our customers the best way as soon as possible.

Andy Paul: Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. Just think about that because a lot of times big deals is you, maybe you, uh, contracts on a milestone basis as opposed to purely just on unit delivery. Um, and do you have those types of contracts? We have some sort of. Built in front end engineering that, you know, started paying the bills to start shipping.

Ben Cohen: There’s a there’s different know there’s different milestones along the way. You know, a lot of tooling has to happen. Um, a lot of engineering change has to happen. So there’s some things that kind of just keep you going until you actually start delivering the parts. And that’s when you’re really making the money.

Andy Paul: So your job as head of sales excellence, which I think is greatly aspirational. I love it. Um, is so what’s your charter in that role?

Ben Cohen: My charter. Yeah. From the sales excellence side, it is to do everything possible to make a sales job. Better and that that’s not only to help them sell more it’s to make sure that the data that they input and collect for the company is better for the entire supply chain within the company. So we do everything to support with process tools and physical support of the sales team.

Andy Paul: So give us examples of some specifics.

Ben Cohen: Sure. So literally our department is in charge of the processes that govern how sales works to make sure that we have consistency throughout the entire globe of how the sales team works to make sure that data integrity is good. So when the sales person does close this deal and. It’s not really happening for another two years, that the people in the logistics and the operations side of things can do their planning properly.

Based on the input that we’ve put in two years prior on the tool side, our biggest one would be using Salesforce, which is what we use for our CRM. And we not only use it for our CRM. We use it as a planning tool. We, um, we are the team behind it, along with our it team who has incorporated into a. Older legacy systems, uh, that we can now, you know, use the benefits of the cloud and we can use automation to make people’s lives easier.

And then we also have teams around the world that then help our sales team input. Some of that data, um, maintaining some of those opportunities and making sure the data integrity, again, stays as clean as possible.

Andy Paul: Well, when you’re saying input the data, I mean, physically inputting a sales person that goes on a sales call or a sales team goes on a sales call and come back and. Your team, not them, but somebody else inputs it into Salesforce. What happened?

Ben Cohen: It’s a bit of a shared experience. So as the is rolling, the sales person is the one inputting into the CRM because they have all the information right at their fingertips. They’re writing their meeting minutes. They’re gathering the information of the deal. After something has actually been awarded our teams, help, you know, change the data and all the different systems that we have in hello to maintain the correct pricing as different milestones are hit different planning materials, um, when invoices should hit and things like that.

Andy Paul: So more like a sales operations team.

Ben Cohen: Exactly sales excellence is really is sales ops.

Andy Paul: Okay. So you’re not responsible for, in this role for Mt. Training or other enablement activities, or do you handle that as well?

Ben Cohen: We handle that as well. So, um, we, if we roll out something new, we do training, we do do initiatives, um, that we then bring to the sales team and we’re constantly working with the sales leaders on what’s needed. How can we improve? How do we make their lives easier? How do we make hell’s life better?

So it’s a lot of sales is my biggest customer.

Andy Paul: Right. Yeah. With that title. I’d hope so. so what sort of regular training and especially let’s, let’s put in the context of what’s happening right now is, is, you know, have you had to change your messaging, your go to market messaging at all? It doesn’t really sound like it’s, since you’re dealing with such long timeframes with the deals, but just wondering if you’ve had that tweak that some in terms of how you approach your customers.

Ben Cohen: The messaging behind, uh, how we’re going to everyone hasn’t changed dramatically because we’re still, uh, we’re still doing the same things that we were doing before. We’re just doing it in a slightly different way. The way the messaging will change is based on how the market changes and how we make sure that our products are fitting.

So whenever I’m. You know, sales is getting ready for, if it’s like a big meeting where they’re going to do a discovery or something like that, we always try and help either from the marketing or sales excellence side and see how we can help craft that message, help tell them, help them tell the story in the best way.

Uh, obviously they know the customer better and the engineers know the product better. And then we can kind of be the sparring partner in the middle.

Andy Paul: So how do you, how do you measure success in sales excellence? Yeah, of course dashboards. Right.

Ben Cohen: Yeah.

Andy Paul: specific things that, that you’re looking at and saying, you know, based that reflect, you know, training or coaching or, you know, some other aspect of enablement, um, to say, yeah, we’re, we’re on track, we’re, you know, we’re enabling the team to do what they need to do, or, you know, what are the specific KPIs, I guess you’re looking at.

Ben Cohen: So, um, beginning of every fiscal year, you know, obviously we set up what our main targets are for the year. And a lot of them do have to revolve around. Data and data integrity, because planning is such an important part in a supply chain. So if we’re not entering in the right data, um, it really hurts the company in the long run.

So we have KPIs based around a lot of different data inputs. We have KPIs based along how well are we actually following the processes that we set up? Cause not only does it tell us, okay, are we following the processes? Do we need to train people on it? But is there a problem in the process and do we need to go back and reflect and be agile about this and constantly be reviewing things to see how do we make the process better?


Andy Paul: by process, you’re talking about your sales process.

Ben Cohen: Correct.

Andy Paul: And so what are sort of the, the key elements and stages of your sales process here? Because you have this long, just that long lead time. Um, and how are you monitoring that?

Ben Cohen: So it’s mostly monitored actually through our Salesforce. So we’ve been able to use Salesforce to, um, to be able to implement our documented processes, to be able to have that in the system. So when a sales person is actually going through their opportunity, We don’t let them really deviate too much from the process because they’re prompted, they have to hit different checkpoints to get to the next stage and, you know, move, move along.

So this is really helping with the governance. Do things happen? Are there exceptions? Yes, of course. But the exceptions are what help us learn and see, um, Do we need to make changes. And then addition to that, we always have a group of what we call the key users. And basically every account has an assigned one key user that works with our team, that when we have something new to roll out or a new idea or new way to do something, they’re kind of our sparring partner within sales that tell us, yes, this is a, this is a good idea.

Or you guys are crazy. This is never gonna work. And here’s why, and then we can go back and retool.

Andy Paul: Well, one thing thought that sprung to mind is so when you have such a, uh, well-documented process and you said you have Gates in there, certain things have to happen before you can migrate from one stage to the next and so on. Is what’s our variability. Do you find in the individual performance of members of your team in that type of environment?

I mean, it’s the, Hey, we’ve got such a great process. We can throw anybody in there or, and they’ll do okay. Or no, we need to have a certain type of person that can succeed within this process.

Ben Cohen: I would say a little bit of both, um, the processes large and can be a little cumbersome if you’re coming from outside the industry or outside of such a robust process. But once you. I get it. And you follow it really. It’s not that anybody could follow it. Yes. Anybody can follow the steps, but you still need the right person to still do the sales.

Um, so, and that relies on the sales managers, finding the right Hunter gatherer type, finding, you know, and then coaching them along the stages. So that way they understand. Why the process is there, not just that it, Hey, you have to do X before. You can do Y it’s why you have to do X before you can do Y and how it sets things up later down the road.

So it doesn’t involve the training and the understanding of the why, and not just the, how.

Andy Paul: Well in that, and you raised an interesting point. So in this large account environment that you’re dealing in, where you’re sort of to some degree pigging back piggybacking off of existing relationships to find new opportunities within that account. Okay. Yes. Are interesting. The profile you talked about, you know, finding Hunter gatherers and so on is what is that profile a year you’re looking at?

Um, cause you know, a lot of cases now, Companies goes to account management or program management or, you know, people that are not necessarily their classic Hunter profiles. What do you guys sort of look for?

Ben Cohen: Well, you deemed a good mix of both, right? You need the people who are, you know, business dev experts who are good at getting the foot in the door, opening up the new doors that didn’t exist before and showing, you know, the new products, uh, continuing on programs. And you always need a fair amount of those guys and girls, because they’re the ones who keep the business growing on the other side, you also need the people who are good at just the account management and keeping things alive, especially in a.

Program that starts two years after you’ve won the deal then could run for another six years of the car being made. You’re talking about such a lifespan that someone really has to know what’s going on. So you really, we really do look for, uh, the mix of both the people who are going to go out and get it.

And the people who are going to keep things, uh, you know, running. So that way our customers stay happy because. For longer, the customer’s happy, you know, that makes the job easier as well.

Andy Paul: Yeah. And in those environments, when you’re selling into these large accounts or, you know, strategic BD person, or however you label them, That’s looking for the new, big opportunities within existing clients. How do you, how do you groom those people? You hella assuming you’re not hiring someone that’s fully formed, but you are continuing to develop them.

How do you train them with sort of the requisite business acumen? Curiosity to be that person to serve asked extra questions, to uncover those new opportunities, to have sort of the, you know, the situational awareness from a business perspective, say, Oh yeah, this is might be a good time to talk about this with this particular client.

Ben Cohen: Sure. So I think a lot of it is, um, and this would be true within almost any department really? Is that the people who are the most curious, who asked the most questions are the ones who naturally gravitate to those types of roles. So when you’re not training the people on. The particulars of this very complicated industry is just a standard procedure.

Part of the job. They need to learn a whole list of acronyms. They need to know how our part fits into the whole ecosystem and things like that. But it’s really noticing and keying in on the people who are curious, who are, you know, pushing the button who are going the little extra mile to be able to. To, um, to be able to open up these opportunities.

So it’s really incumbent on the sales managers and their teams to notice that, and then be open enough to be able to shift people into the right roles for the right accounts and to be open enough, to be able to stick with your decisions when you do things like that.

Andy Paul: But my point is, do you have part of your enablement or. Regimen that yeah, we do. We’re going to make these people just smarter about business in general. Right? Cause their clients are huge, huge corporations for the most part. I mean, yeah. One the problems I see with sellers these days and not necessarily in this environment that you’re talking about, but.

You know, they don’t know how to read a financial statement. Right? I mean, you want your sellers to be able to pay up to date on the latest sec filings and all that to understand what’s going on in your, your client. So I was just wondering your customer. So I was just wondering if you have training that that’s are focused on you.

How do we just make them smarter business in general and more aware, or again, you just assume they’re going to come in with those, that skillset.

Ben Cohen: I think most people come in with some sort of skill set. And so the type of people we’re hiring who have come out of whether they’ve come out of a other jobs or other. Programs that have given them that kind of acumen already. Um, a lot of people in the sales department, you know, either have engineering degrees or business degrees have, you know, few years experience in, you know, in the working world in a similar environment.

So the. Typical business acumen, the problem solving, knowing how to actually use Excel. You know, these are things that they come in knowing pretty well. It’s more our job to teach them the unbelievable, this, of how a car gets made and how our products fit into that.

Andy Paul: Yeah. Yeah. As you said, all the acronyms, which I’m sure they’re, it’s like selling to the defense industry. I mean, there’s, there’s tons, right?

Ben Cohen: I learned a new acronym practically every day.

Andy Paul: Yeah. I can imagine. Yeah. All right. Well, Ben we’ve unfortunately run out of time, but, um, enjoyed the conversation. Thanks for joining us. So if people want to connect with you, how would they do that?

Ben Cohen: Sure. So the easiest way is just to find me at hello. So you can email me at ben.cohen@hella.com

Andy Paul: Okay, well, Ben, well, thank you very much. And, um, stay safe.

Ben Cohen: Yeah, you too. Thank you so much for having me. It was a great talk.