From embracing change in one’s career to the impact of COVID on buyer-seller relationships, the B2B sales landscape is facing a new set of challenges and opportunities. George Koehnke President of Ascend Commercial Solutions joins host Victoria Meyer to explore the evolving dynamics of business relationships, including the shift towards customer-centricity and the value of coaching in sales leadership.
As the chemical industry continuously adapts to market dynamics, Victoria and George discuss the importance of customer centricity in B2B relationships as well as the need to align company scorecards with customer scorecards and build joint business plans for mutual success.
Killer Quote: “Success in sales and leadership development lies in coaching mentality, motivation, and bringing customer-centricity to the forefront.” – George Koehnke
Join us to learn more about the following this week:
- The importance of systems and measurement in effective selling
- Why companies need to rethink sales in a post-pandemic world
- Bridging the gap between transactional sales to business development
- Developing deep relationships, engaging customers, and understanding their business strategies to create true customer centricity
- Critical focus areas for success in 2024
Whether you’re navigating B2B chemical sales, seeking career advice, or looking for strategies to thrive in evolving markets, this episode provides essential insights from a seasoned industry expert. Tune in to The Chemical Show with George Koehnke for valuable lessons on driving success through customer-centric strategies and adaptable leadership in today’s ever-changing business landscape.
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Navigating Sales, Leadership, & B2B Relationships in a Post-Covid World With George Koehnke
Hi, this is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. As 2023 is drawing to a close, I want to extend a word of thanks to all of our loyal listeners and remind you to number one, go back and listen to the entire podcast catalog. We’ve got 140 episodes and more coming, so if you are wondering about a leader or an approach or a topic, it’s in our back catalog. Secondly, share it with a friend, share it with a colleague, and continue getting the word out about The Chemical Show. Today, I am speaking with George Koehnke, who is the founder and president of Ascend Commercial Solutions.
George spent the first 35 years of his career with Procter & Gamble, first in a variety of operations and supply chain roles and then in the broader consumer business. Then later in P&G chemicals, where he honed his sales and leadership expertise. We’re going to be talking about customer centricity, sales solutions and setting yourself up for success in 2024. George, welcome to The Chemical Show.
Thank you very much.
So you started your career as an engineer and operations specialist first in consumer products, and then you moved into chemicals. You obviously have spent a significant part of your career in sales and marketing. First of all, what got you started in that space, and what was significant about your evolution in your career?
I’ve listened to several of your podcasts and you’ve got people that made this logical transition into sales and marketing, or into the chemical industry. I think I’ve probably stumbled my way to where I am today. In the process, one of the key learnings I got is to always be learning. Embrace learning and embrace change. It’s a career of irony. Before I was with P&G, I was with Kimberly Clark for 2 years in one of their plants, my career desire was to go into the headquarter organization and lead from headquarters. That’s why I ended up moving to P&G. Believe it or not, 3 years later, I was in a P&G plant. I put in a new bar soap operation and we started out and I was having the time of my life in P&G.
Shortly after that, I moved into the chemical operation. The irony, I ran the chemical operation and I hated chemistry in high school. That’s why I became a mechanical engineer. I hated chemistry. Yet I loved running a chemical plant. And then, fast forward I ended up running a concentrate juice plant before I was asked to come into chemical sales.
Now in the plant I’m looking at salespeople, for those that are old enough to remember WKRP Cincinnati, Herb Tarlick. That was my vision of what a salesperson was. Yeah, I didn’t need that. It took six months before the head of North America sales, invited me to dinner on the New Jersey shore. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse as a plant person, having dinner on the Jersey shore. He invited me to come and joint call and learn more about sales. I’ll tell you, I loved it. I loved what I saw and I’ve never looked back. For me one of the key learnings of that is as you look at your career and your career progressions, never say never is one of the key lessons I learned.
Never say never, and never say always, except when it comes to trust. But always be open to new opportunities and embrace change. As I sit here today, I am so happy I had the opportunity to do the things I did. I’m excited and embracing the new change in my life being with Ascend Commercial Solutions.
That’s excellent. In fact, I like that. I think you do have to be ready to embrace change. My career saying and personal saying is when opportunity knocks, open the door.
You don’t even know what’s on the other side of that door. You just need to open the door and see what’s there.
That’s a great saying. I don’t know if they still do this today, but when we were interviewing for jobs, the standard question is, where will you be in five years? That is such an obsolete question nowadays, because you’ll never know where you’ll be in five years.
Yeah. That’s right.
Enjoy the journey.
Absolutely. What was the biggest challenge for you? You had to be sold to take that sales job, which is a little bit ironic, but what was the biggest challenge when you shifted from supply chain and operations into commercial roles?
Yeah, when I think about the challenges, I think it’s more of what you’re able to leverage. So fast forward 10 years after I came to chemical sales, I was actually elected to what’s called the William Proctor Sales Master Program. P&G back then had 25,000 salespeople globally, and there was 20 of us every two years that got elected to this, let’s call it the Society of Expert Sellers. The challenge was to learn the technology. So P&G makes everything into a technology. P&G is not a producer of consumer products, it’s a generator of technology. It issues over 3,000 patents a year.
You’d never think about that when you look at Tide and Downey and Dawn on the shelf. But P&G finds a way to drive technology and systems into everything it does. So being able to take the understanding of manufacturing systems and structure and apply it to sales is important. Take the systems for people management of a manufacturing plant, and selling is managing expectations with your buyer, with your sales team, with your cross functional resources. So by taking what I learned in supply chain manufacturing operations I believe it made me a better salesperson. It made me a better leader. It made me a better sales manager.
The other thing I’ll tell you is in P&G operations, you measure everything. I think that’s true for all manufacturing operations, you measure everything. By taking that same approach to selling, measuring how I’m doing, how my organization is doing, how well we are meeting the customer needs, and being able to track performance has enabled me to be able to build those countermeasures when things happen.
I like the way that you’ve articulated P&G as this process and technical organization because I really think of P&G as a brand powerhouse. Now on the other hand I’ve sold, when I was at Shell I sat across the table negotiating some pretty hefty and heavy agreements with P&G and so I see the business discipline that’s there. But I think most of us or many of us think about P&G as really a powerhouse brand, with a real deep focus and discipline on customer understanding and particularly consumer markets. Because I’m not sure that any household in the U.S. and maybe globally does not have at least one P&G product, probably more, somewhere in their house.
How did that translate to B2B customers? So I think of P&G as just being very consumer centric. You’ve now identified that they’re very technical and technology centric. How does that actually translate to B2B sales and customers?
So when you think about P&G, all those systems and structures, they are very focused on the retail selling. They are very focused on the consumer. That’s true. If you take an approach of selling is selling and basic structure of selling is the same. Do you align, close and execute with your customer? Then you start under reapplying those tools that enable you to be successful in the B2B selling. So we do have small business units, P&G chemicals and P&G professional.
We actually have some small bolt on acquisitions, which allow a very entrepreneurial mindset. You don’t have the organization size that allows you to be very functional. You end up being more cross functional. So in P&G Chemicals, it is a very entrepreneurial group. We do wear many hats, which is very consistent with many of the customers in the chemical space. In the chemical space, you have Bob and his company up to the very large, multi billion dollar multinational companies. So we fit in the middle of that as P&G chemicals.
The beauty is we have the resources and the capability and the knowledge-building of P&G subsidiary, but we do have to reapply those in a more B2B context.
So obviously you’ve learned a lot in your 35 years at P&G in the industry. How does it translate to what you’re doing now at Ascend? Tell us a little bit about Ascend and what you’re doing with that group.
When I look at what happened during COVID, so I even looked at my team and in my last role with P&G, I had teams in Geneva, Singapore and the U.S. and I watched the dynamics between the customer and the seller. What I found is over the covid period, we had multi generations of buyer-seller relationships that transition to the point that in many cases, the buyer and the seller stood across a zoom call, but they never sat across the table. They never shook hands. That was an area where relationship building eroded over the covid period. The other thing that happened in selling was if you had inventory, you had sales. If you didn’t have inventory, you didn’t have sales.
By the way, if you had inventory, you had a lot of sales. The buyer wasn’t developing as many products. Their labs were closed, and so the sale was a transaction as opposed to a business development. As we’ve exited now, you take a look at where we are today, we’ve got business development for new energy technologies. We have environmental business development, either through the bio friendly surfactants or less impact or recycling of plastics. So there’s a lot of business development happening today.
But over the last three years, our salespeople weren’t building business. They were transacting sales.
So as I looked at what I wanted to do next, I saw an opportunity to take those skills, structures, capabilities in selling and building business and in growing and developing your sales teams. Instead of working that with P&G, which would have been great, I can now broaden it to a greater industrial base. Two key programs now, the same challenges on selling, we’re addressing with the intuitive selling process, which is a workshop. It’s a multi-day workshop through selling skills, building relationships, customer centricity, and key account management and account leadership. The other is the coaching to win program, which is, how do you develop your sales leadership to develop, grow, and empower your sales teams to be successful. Those are the two that are taking most of my time right now.
That’s great. You talk about the multiple generations in the workforce, particularly when we think about COVID, which was this, we can almost call it a business experiment. I know it had a lot of other things going on worldwide and health wise and all that stuff. But you think about just a little interesting Petri dish in terms of how business relationships and selling changed. Maybe it went back a few decades. Maybe it was its own spontaneous thing. But more importantly, do you see different requirements coming out of it for selling? Do you see different needs for different generations when we think about who’s in the workforce today and who we’re doing business with? What do you see in that space?
I first got a compliment you on the petri dish pun. That was a good one for COVID. But again, I’m not the only person that left a multinational company coming out of COVID.
So I see there has been an experience of what selling was like before COVID that may not exist at that same level within our selling organizations. You’ve got a younger sales team on the front line and the question I asked my clients is how well have we developed their capabilities to build intimate relationship and engagement with the customers? How well do they understand the business development process and that they are able to motivate and influence their customers to engage on your products as they go forward in business development?
Then on the flip side, the same is true in the buying space. Whether it be procurement, whether it be anyone across the value chain that you’re really trying to sell to beause it’s gotta be beyond procurement, but there are a lot of new people with new processes and new experiences.
Absolutely. When you think about customer centricity, I hear a lot of people talking about understanding the customer and empathy. That’s true, but that’s true across the board in any interpersonal relationship. So when you think about customer centricity in a B2B, I like to think about what are the structures and systems that you are bringing in and putting in place to ensure that you’re able to, using those tools, build that intimacy, build that engagement. And not only on the seller-buyer level, You mentioned those other non buyer influences within the commercial process. So you got technical development going on.
How well do we understand the technical development process as a seller so that you’re able to bring your team to that table? How well do you understand the business strategies of that customer so you’re able to bring your team appropriately to engage on customer strategy? Customer centricity is not just the empathy, niceness, and ability to get along. It’s also building results for that customer that enables them to be able to be successful in their business. I like to tell my clients, if my customer is not successful in their markets, by definition, my competitor’s customer is successful.
Which one do I want?
Someone’s going to be successful, and I want it to be my customer. As I talk to the buying influences, I say the same thing. If your supplier is not successful in this commercial enterprise called doing business together, your competitor supplier is going to be more successful. Is that really what we want here? Or how do we build that joint business plan that we succeed and deliver our objectives and our competitors do not?
I like that. Customer centricity, as you’ve cited, it goes beyond the empathy. It’s also just understanding what do they really value? What’s on their scorecard, both personal and corporate. How do you sell for success? Because I think often the chemical industry is really good at selling to specifications. We think people are buying product and the reality is product is really easy to replicate. People know that great scientists and product developers have figured out how to replicate the product. What you can’t replicate is the rest of it. The value, the solutions that are offered, the winning together that comes with it.
That scorecard you mentioned, when you understand your customer’s scorecard and you align your scorecard with that customer scorecard so that you’re actually recording together. I’ve got experience where we’ve built joint business plans with our customers where we were working off of one sheet of paper, which was measuring our mutual success. It had our success factors, it had their success factors, and we measured together and quarterly reviewed how we were doing against those objectives. I don’t think that happened a lot during COVID.
Coming out of COVID, as we look at being successful in 2023, 2024 and beyond, we need to get back to bridging those scorecards and building those robust joint business plans so that our business relationship is successful.
So George we were chatting a little bit before we hit the record button about some of the challenges and differences that you’re seeing and that I’m seeing in companies that we talk to. Those that are a little bit stuck waiting for the clock to turn on 2024 before they make change, and others that are recognizing they need to start making change now, so they hit the ground running. Can you elaborate on just what you’re seeing in the market and how companies are responding?
Yeah, it’s very typical though in the markets, isn’t it? We’re all facing the same challenges. Very few companies out here are sitting back and saying, this is wonderful, life is great, we’re moving forward in happiness. Everyone’s looking at what 2024 is going to be. I think you made the comment earlier, which was people looked at measuring 2023 versus a very successful 2022. I’ve always called it the five year high watermark.
One year is important, I understand. But I’d like to look at, especially now, five years back because I want to see where were we before that asterisk called COVID. Where are we today? And where are we going in the future? Companies that did really good in COVID, it may be luck. It may be they had the inventory, they had the domestic production, they had everything going for them so that they were able to transact those orders from the buyer. Those that didn’t do good may have been unlucky because they’re on the wrong side of the supply chain constraints. Now, let’s learn from what we’ve done there and build our business plans, knowing that, recognizing what our true capabilities are with 2018 and 2019, and how do we build forward for 2024 and beyond.
There’s companies that are looking at that and saying, I’m building for 2024. There’s other companies, in my experience, and I think you had mentioned your experience as well, they’re saying, I gotta close down, build walls, and make sure I get through 2023. They’re not making that investment, they’re hoping to make it in 2024. I think, that may be a challenge in 2024 as well.
Absolutely. If you lose even one month out of 12, that’s 8 percent of your business. We could all use 8 percent more business, in this current environment.
The other thing is, if are you confident 2024 is going to be better, or are you hoping 2024 is going to be better, hope is not a strategy. So let’s build the structure and the strategies that are going to make success regardless of what hits us.
One of the things at The Chemical Summit, which was held here in October of 2023, we talked a lot about the coming economics, current and future and actually had a very high powered economist from ITR Economics come in and speak. He really talked about, let’s make sure we’re looking at rolling averages. To your point, don’t compare yourself to the high watermark of 2022 because so many people are like, this year is terrible. Compared to a year that was unimaginably good. Not for everyone, there were winners and losers. But I think that’s really important to think about what that is. I’m also going to use this actually as a chance to plug the fact that we are actually mark selling access to the recordings from that Chemical Summit. So we’ll have it linked here into the podcast and elsewhere that if people want to hear from both economists, as well as business leaders across the industry of how they’re looking at trends and opportunities for the chemical industry, head over to The Chemical Summit and you’ll be able to get access to this year’s event.
All right. Now back to you.
I reflect back early when I was selling, I had a customer and he was an entrepreneur. He started his own company. We were at a trade event in Florida on his yacht, having a glass of wine and celebrating our last year of doing business together. And I asked him, “How did you start this? You must have had help.” And his comment to me was, “I started this company in 1973 in my garage.” Now, for those of you that remember 1973, it was not a strong economic year. And his comment was, “Even in a recession, I made the investment to build my business in my garage to where we are today.” That’s something that keeps resonating with me, that if you wait for the good years, you lose the opportunity to be successful in the less good years.
Yeah, it’s the hard work that you put in during down times that allows you to be more successful during the good times. There are winners in every economic environment. If there weren’t, I don’t know what we would be doing. We’d be caveman still or something.
We wouldn’t be doing this podcast, that’s for sure.
Yeah, that’s right. So I think your points are well taken. One, that you can start businesses in downturn, you can have growth and success in down economic markets. We don’t really know what 2024 is going to be, although many are predicting it to be a flat year. I hate to call it a down year, so let’s call it a flat year.
There’s great opportunity there. The second piece and the fact that you were having dinner on somebody’s yacht tells me one of the many reasons that you really like staying in sales leadership is this aspect of there’s more yachts in sales than there are in manufacturing.
Yes, I will say that I’ve enjoyed the opportunities to meet very diverse people. I’ve met some small business people that are struggling and I’ve been able to tailor my plans to help them succeed as best I could. I’ve met some that have been very lucky. And what’s it saying? The harder I work, the luckier I get. I have found some people that have done very well. Frankly, I think I’ve done okay too. You have started your own business as well. And there’s many of us entrepreneurs that are trying to one day be successful in our ventures as well.
Yeah, that’s right. So what do you see is really critical? We’ve talked a little bit about 2024, what is going to be critical to commercial success today and tomorrow and next year?
When I started this venture, I thought I was going to be working more on the front line selling and working and building that sales confidence within the selling teams. I’ve spent as much, if not more time working on sales and leadership. As I look at what happens in 2024, I think we’ve got a lot of very willing, desiring salespeople, and hungry salespeople that want to succeed in what they’re doing. I believe we’ve got leaders that want to do the same. It’s going to take good coaching, developing and leading your sales teams. That includes getting them the skill development and the investment in their capabilities that will engage them. Part of coaching to win is not only being a leader, and we talk a lot about the leadership versus management dilemma, we also talk about how do you bring motivation? Those same motivations you bring to a customer and to the buyer. How do you influence and motivate your sales team to go beyond execution to go into excellence? When I think about what we need to do in 2024 and on, I think we need to start at the top, build that leadership capability, that coaching mentality, that desire.
When we talk about sales leadership, in the context of selling is not selling, transacting, it’s also as a sales leader, you’re bringing all the resources behind you to your customer to engage that customer in a cross functional methodology. And so how do you work internally with your organization to bring that customer in? How do you work with your sales team to understand how they bring that customer in? And then how do you bring your organization to the customer and when you think about customer centricity, that’s what it is.
So George, one of the things I hear from people, and I’m sure you do as well, is that they’re so busy in the day to day that they don’t have time to coach, to lead, to mentor, to develop. It’s true in companies of all sizes, but certainly the small to midsize companies that are running a little bit leaner, that are maybe fighting a little bit harder. For the business that they have, that has greater expectations on the individual leaders, because the scope of their business responsibilities is much greater. How do you respond to that? How would you know? What do you tell people?
Priority setting is key. So if you think about which customers and at what level do you bring your customer, your entire organization to that customer engagement. It’s probably not at your most transactional customer. It probably should be at your most strategic customer. So my last article was about customer segmentation, you can go to SendCommercialSolutions.com. I’ll do my own plug there.
It is absolutely critical that you understand which are your most strategic customers, those are the ones that you’re going to bring your organization to joint success. Which are your most transactional customers and recognize that if you treat your most strategic customers at the same level, by definition, your most strategic customer is a transactional customer. So there’s a baseline. I like to talk about, you can’t not service your customers. So there’s a baseline of expectation that you’ve got to meet and that is what you’re promising to your customers. Whatever it is you’re promising to the marketplace, you need to deliver. It needs to deliver a baseline of results and success to all customers. When you’re wanting to drive those most strategic customers, that’s where you put your priority.
That’s where you put your organization. Until you segment your customers, you’re not able to do that. The same is with your organization. So you’re going to have some people in your organization that have been selling for 20 years, and they understand the selling process, and they probably don’t need somebody sitting in their car driving with them to a customer call. You’re going to have others that surely either through energy level, they’re new to the business, they’re new to selling, that’s where you need to put that priority and that’s where you need to develop. Again, there’s a base expectation of what you do for your entire sales team, but you need to identify where you prioritize that effort to drive that biggest differential in result.
It’s prioritization and discipline. I just had this conversation yesterday with a leader who talked about segmentation a little bit. Where companies and leaders fail in effectively managing and segmenting their business, is executing across their customer centric processes is discipline. You got to do what you say you’re going to do. So it’s that baseline, but it’s also the aspects of segmentation and prioritization and being disciplined with it.
Well, George, this has been really good. I am glad we’ve got a chance to get connected to share some of your insights and more with the fans of The Chemical Show. So thank you for joining us today.
Thank you for inviting me. I really enjoyed the Victoria
Yeah, absolutely. and thanks everyone for listening. Keep listening, keep following, keep sharing, and we will talk with you again soon.
And happy holidays to everyone!
About George Koehnke:
Mr. Koehnke has worked in multiple industries, functional roles and countries over his 30+ year professional career. Before forming Ascend Commercial Solutions, he lead Sales and External Communications for Procter & Gamble’s global chemical business with sales teams in N. America, Europe and Asia. He was elected to P&G’s prestigious “William Procter Sales Master” society in recognition of his leadership of the sales function, developing sales capability, and delivering hard number business results. Prior to his work in sales, Mr. Koehnke led manufacturing operations and supply chains in Personal Care, Food & Beverage, and Industrial Chemicals