Accelerating Growth With Relationships, Expertise, Speed, And Talent
Our team of experts from the Revenue Enablement Institute profiles growth leaders – CXOs – who are at the forefront of defining, enabling, and leading the execution of the 21st Century Commercial Model.
Jill Billhorn is the Senior Vice President of Corporate Sales at CDW Corporation (Nasdaq: CDW) a leading multi-brand provider of information technology solutions to business, government, education and healthcare customers.
Founded 38 years ago, CDW – along with GEICO and Schwab – revolutionized the science of growth with its direct model in the 1990s. Since then it has evolved into a fast growing $20B channel for over 100,000 leading technology products and services.
CDW has built a “selling machine” according to Billhorn. Her team of over 1,800 sellers and specialists have grown sales to businesses large and small in the mid double digits on a base of over $20B. Sales to small businesses with under 150 employees have grown at a hyper growth pace – 45% – in the past quarter. Large enterprise business revenues have grown 25% at the same time. And growth has been profitable, with profit margins growing by over 10%. “Revenue growth creates value,” says Billhorn. “Our ability to grow profitably has become a bigger priority for us over the last several years.”
We asked Jill to share how she has been able to lead and sustain profitable growth in a rapidly changing market where selling time, talent, customer attention, loyalty, and sometimes product are in short supply.
“We’ve built a high performing selling engine for our technology and service partners,” says Billhorn. “We don’t manufacture anything. We are a channel for the world’s best technology and services. To win in a channel world you need to excel at several things: relationships, expertise, speed, and talent.”
Relationships are paramount to CDW’s success. “We sell relationships, not products,” says Billhorn. “Eighty percent of our customers have been with us for more than 10 years.” One of the secrets to such strong customer loyalty is that CDW understands that in a digital world, clients still prefer a personal relationship over everything else. “We still believe the customer wants a single point of contact,” says Billhorn. “Ultimately, they want ‘one throat to choke’ and a quarterback for the relationship who can bring resources and the best expertise from across CDW and our technology partners. It’s our job to enable our account managers to be able to manage all those resources and understand enough about the customer journey to know when and where to bring in the right help and expertise.”
Speed has become an increasingly important factor as selling becomes digital and buyers become more demanding. “Selling keeps evolving, and we have to keep up with that,” warns Billhorn. “The way we engage customers changes from calling to text. And the velocity of selling is increasing.”
That means CDW needs to become faster. That involves eliminating friction and latency in the customer journey and enabling front line sellers with better tools. “Like all engines there are governors on how fast they can go,” says Billhorn. “For us those governors are the amount of time our sellers have in front of customers and the ability of our systems to make them faster and more productive at every stage of the customer lifecycle. That includes finding, targeting and educating customers, understanding their propensity to buy, connecting them with expertise, and transacting on the back end.”
One way CDW is improving its systems to make sellers faster and more productive is to decouple the front-end CRM system from their back-end fulfillment processes to eliminate latency and complexity that was slowing things down. “Our order management system was bolted on CRM and was the same system,” says Billhorn. “This created lateral latency, where the back-end system wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do very effectively and was slow. Removing the CRM portion of that system and replacing it with Salesforce allows that back-end system to do what it’s supposed to do faster and better.”
Another benefit of moving to an enterprise CRM is it simplifies the seller workflow by giving reps a single source of customer information and a single interface for all customer engagement activities. “Our investment into Salesforce enterprise CRM is critical to our future,” says Billhorn. “It will give us a single view of our customer, a single platform for collaboration so we don’t have to recreate that conversation for every technical resource against an opportunity.”
Billhorn wants to build upon this foundation to help sellers to keep up with the velocity of selling and the digital customer. “It seems that sellers still spend two thirds of their time not selling despite all the advances in technology and AI,” she continues. “I believe a big reason is that the more sophisticated our selling model gets, the more things our sellers need to find or pull to prepare for or follow up on a call. You’ve got to pull a million things– plays, references, case studies, industry expertise, customer intelligence, facts – and it’s just exhausting. We spend too much time not engaging the customer or adding value.”
Something has to change. Billhorn wants to fundamentally change the way sellers operate. “We are moving from an environment where account managers must “pull” resources, intelligence, information and content to prepare for and execute calls, to one where those things are “pushed to them.” She views this as a game changer.
“Our revenue teams would be far more effective if we just pushed it to the rep,” she continues. “We know everything about our customers and the solutions we are selling. It’s a matter of using that information intelligence to ship to a seller so they can let them do what they do. So we spend a lot of time thinking about this as push instead of a pull. If it can be real time, while they’re on a call, it would help them respond faster, and access the right intelligence. It would be a game changer.”
Talent is another big way CDW is sustaining profitable growth. CDW invests in having the highest skilled and longest tenured account managers in the industry. Research has shown that if you invest in training and developing employees they will be more loyal, and CDW has taken that to an extreme. The company spends two years developing account managers through a highly scientific residency program that includes on the job training, coaching, practice, and development. As a result, they have the most tenured reps in the industry (an average of 12 years) and are consistently named one of the best companies to work for by Forbes, Glassdoor and others.
“As you might guess, to sustain the scale, quality and growth of our channel, we’ve had to become a hiring machine,” says Billhorn. “We’ve made a commitment to become very good at recruiting, ramping and retaining employees across functions. We bring people in. We have a two year residency program. We put new hires in an academy for three months. Then they move to what we call residency, which is really a process of building sales skills, technical skills, and systems skills. We give them a book of business to practice on. We ramp up at risk compensation and upside over time as they grow. We are able to get them to be what we call a full-fledged account manager in 24 months with a very low level of attrition.”
Over the decades, this experience has allowed CDW to become very scientific and specific about the way they measure and incentivize their sellers in terms of how far and fast they are developing and what activities are creating value. “We measure everything,” says Billhorn. “We’ve hired and fired so many sellers over time that we have a really good idea of where they should be by X amount of time in terms of progress and performance. So we have very specific goals at every stage of the development process. Not only in terms of revenue and gross profit, but what types of solutions should you be selling? How many of these types of engagements should you have been part of ? Are you on the phone? How many conference calls and business reviews are you conducting?”
The most impressive part of the process is CDW has created an environment where the most talented sellers want to stick around. “We have the most highly tenured account managers in the industry. The average tenure of an account manager is about 12 years,” says Billhorn. The keys to this unparalleled rep retention is to provide ongoing development, upside and most importantly control and flexibility to the best sellers, according to Billhorn. “We give mature reps flexibility to pick the point on the compass that suits their needs,” says Billhorn. “We let our more experience AE’s run their own team – balancing cost with leverage and the level of control they have over accounts and the customer experience with the freedom to pursue upside by expanding coverage.”
Billhorn regards providing clients expertise about how and where to use technology as one of the most important ways CDW creates value. “We are a high quality sales channel for technology and services. But really our secret sauce is that we are an intelligence resource to our clients with little time or resources for studying where and how to deploy technology. It’s our superpower,” says Billhorn. CDW has been lauded by industry analysts for the way it helps customers navigate their digital transformation journey.
“Our clients rely on us to be the benchmark on how to use technology, why to use it, where and when,” she continues. “The pace of change and innovation in technology is only accelerating. No individual or organization has the time to research all the different technology and keep up with all the developments across the technology stack– particularly small and middle sized businesses.”
“We provide over 100,000 different technology products and services across several dozen main categories to over 250,000 customers,” she continues. “One of our biggest assets is we are partners with all of these technology brands, in many cases we are their biggest distributor. So CDW gets a disproportionate level of information and intelligence on trends and technologies we can share with our customers.”
But making sure her team is able to organize and share that information quickly and efficiently is an ongoing challenge. Particularly as the lines blur between technology sectors, cloud based services emerge, and technology becomes more consumerized. “Over the years, the lines between technology silos and the specialties we support – data center, security, collaboration, networking, data analytics, and the digital workspace- are becoming intertwined as technology evolves,” says Billhorn. “So it’s becoming increasingly cumbersome and sometimes redundant to have category specialists in all these areas.”
“To adapt, we’re evolving the way we organize our information and expertise to make it easier for account managers to deliver the advice and expertise their clients need,” she continues. “For example, we’ve housed all of our experts in two broad categories focused on digital velocity and hybrid infrastructure to reduce the silos. We still have category specialists with deep product and use case experience in more narrow areas, but our account managers can be more fluid and contextual in drawing upon those resources, so the clients get the expertise they need.”
Jill Billhorn is the Senior Vice President, Corporate Sales at CDW
You can learn more about the next generation of growth leaders and the state-of-the-art management tools, skills, capabilities, and practices they are using to accelerate revenue growth and adapt to the new buying reality at the Revenue Enablement Institute Web Site. You can nominate growth leaders for our CXO 100 list on our website.