One CEO tells how he sells

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Few CEOs are more involved in the sales process than BroadVision Inc.’s Pehong Chen, who founded the Redwood City, Calif.-based enterprise software developer in 1993.

Over the past 12 months, Chen has traveled more than 250,000 miles on United Airlines and met with an estimated 750 CEOs and CIOs. That global tub-thumping has generated countless leads for BroadVision’s more than 150 field sales representatives.

A native of Taiwan, Chen has a technologist’s background and entrepreneur’s heart. After getting his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in computer sciences, the married father of three plunked down $4,000 in start-up funds to create Gain Technologies, which he sold a few years later to Sybase for $100 million. He was in charge of multimedia database development at Sybase before becoming involved in the launch of Siebel Systems Inc.

In an interview with BtoB, Chen said 60% of his current duties are sales-related, including helping to close deals and retain customers. With an average transaction around $500,000, BroadVision concentrates on quality deals rather than volume sales, he said, and relies on all of its top executives to keep customer relationships tight.

BtoB: Have you ever gone to meet with someone on a yacht to close a deal or anything unusual like that?

Chen: A yacht I have not done. This winter there was a storm in Toronto. The CEO of a prospect company could not reach his office because it was blocked. We had to send our sales team to a Starbucks to collect the contract.

Also, earlier in my career, I parked outside of the driveway of a CIO of a very large customer, waiting for him to come home to give me a signed contract.

BtoB: Does the current economy make CEO involvement in sales more important?

Chen: Yes, I think so. We’re mounting all our efforts to stay closer to the customer than ever because their businesses are in a state of uncertainty. We’re spending a lot of time reassuring our customers that we’ve been around eight years and will continue to be there to help them through this very tough time. More so than ever, our sales efforts are to reassure our customers, and I consider it part of the CEO’s job.

BtoB: What do you tell customers or prospects about your sales role?

Chen: I want them to know if they have any requirement or need, they can call on me. I have an open door to my office. As a result, I’ve developed some good personal relationships. For example, the CIOs of Home Depot, Sears and Bank of America have become friends. If I invite them over for dinner, they’ll come, and vice versa. Those types of relationships are a big benefit to what I do.

BtoB: When you generate a sales lead, do you personally follow up or assign a field salesperson?

Chen: If I generate a lead because I know, or have met, someone, I tend to be involved throughout. I’m not involved in terms of negotiating dollars or cents—I never am—but in terms of keeping the high-level relationship tight.

BtoB: Why don’t you negotiate dollars and cents?

Chen: You have to leave some jobs for sales representatives. (Laughs.) Typically, that’s just not what a CEO should do. People working for you should be most involved in the actual procurement process.

BtoB: Are you equally involved in marketing?

Chen: Not really. Marketing has a lot of facets to it. I tend to be involved in setting direction and positioning, but not the bolts-and-nuts execution. I do spend a lot of time delivering the marketing message at keynote speeches and customer seminars. So in that sense, I am part of the execution. But I don’t get involved in the logistics.

BtoB: Does your sales experience help you shape the marketing message?

Chen: Absolutely, because at the end of the day, in sales, you are doing something for the customer. To do it, you need to understand their needs, issues and questions. You learn to craft your answers and solutions based on what you hear.

BtoB: What can a CEO bring to the closing of a transaction that a field salesperson can’t?

Chen: A level of commitment. The higher you are in a company, the more resources you control. The meaning of the commitment sticks with the customer. That’s not to say that a salesperson should not be able to represent a company’s commitment, but people often are looking for the C-level executive on the sales side to show they’ll deliver on any commitment being made.

BtoB: How do you respond to management consultants who say a CEO’s time is better spent on matters other than sales calls?

Chen: There are sales calls that are just hard-core selling and sales calls focused on building deep relationships. I do agree that there’s no need for the CEO to be involved in generic sales activities. But the CEO is required to do all he can to lift customer relationships to strategic levels.

BtoB: What happens if a salesperson doesn’t want you to meet with their client?

Chen: Each sales representative has 10 customers and 10 prospects that they maintain, which we call the ‘10-by-10.’ In turn, each of our senior executives—our CFO, EVP of sales, EVP of products, CIO, EVP of marketing, VP of human resources, general counsel and myself—are also assigned to those 10 accounts and 10 prospects as executive sponsors. The senior team tries to visit with each of these people every quarter. Part of our culture is to have our senior executives build these relationships, and the field salespeople want that to happen because it keeps the relationship warm.

BtoB: How has your salesmanship changed as BroadVision has grown from a start-up with a handful of customers to more than 1,000?

Chen: In the early days, I was involved in the nitty-gritty. Nowadays, I am really on the higher level, ensuring we are there as a partner to the customer and to bring them down a path rather than throw them a product and leave. It is the higher-level relationship building that’s the hallmark of what I do now, rather than saying they should buy two licenses instead of one.

BtoB: What’s the best sales tip you’ve developed over the years?

Chen: Listen more than talk. Once you understand what people’s pains are, you’ll be able to enter into value-added consultative selling, rather than seeming to be shoving something down their throat. The biggest trick is to open your ears more than your mouth.

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