The pitfalls, challenges and lessons learnt in 30 years of B2B. Interview with Walker Colston, Senior Vice President, Support at Ixia

Walker Colston is Senior Vice President, Support at Ixia and he is responsible for the quality of technical support and clients’ happiness. Part of IXIA’s team since 2003, Walker has over 30 years of experience in the IT&C industry and management. He has also worked for global companies ranked in Top Fortune 500, as well as for startups in the tech field.

As he will take the stage at this year’s How to Web Conference, speaking about teamwork, innovation, how to handle crisis and how to keep your company top of mind in such a competitive environment as the tech industry of today, we thought it might be useful to get to know him better and learn from his experience. And here’s what we asked him. If you’ve got a question for him, don’t miss the chance to meet him this November, at How To Web Conference. You can grab your ticket here.

Q: Over the years, you have managed many teams, and you have worked with hundreds of clients: what’s the key ingredient to keep the customers happy?

W.C.: Keeping customers happy really starts with your team — building a passionate and skilled team is crucial, but it is important that the team is aligned on the company’s mission and customer satisfaction.

Secondly, when I started my career at HP, we focused on the concept of Imaginative Understanding of User Needs. It was explained to me that this required going beyond what customers requested to figure out what innovative products and features would best meet their needs — even if they didn’t know they needed it before it existed.  A great customer response to a new product is „Wow, I didn’t expect that, but it’s really useful”.

Q: We all make mistakes: how do you regain a customer, if there is any way? (an example from your experience would be great)

W.C.: I have a tremendous amount of experience with this — way, way more than I planned. But these situations have also helped me to build some stronger relationships than if the mistake had never occurred.

First, of course, it is key that you acknowledge the mistake, but also helps to discuss how the mistake has impacted the person whose confidence you are trying to regain — don’t feel the need to rush through this step, if it is important to the customer.

After that it is important that you try to find a way to „make it right” for the customer and that you follow through on any commitments you make.  Customers almost always want you to succeed and to learn from the mistake in order to improve going forward.

Don’t over promise and be honest with the customer; it’s OK to push back on a customer who doesn’t have the right picture, but never, never, never get defensive.  It should be clear in every communication that you are there to try to make things better.  One „secret weapon” that usually works well to build a partnership to solve a problem is, at the right time, to express „I need your help…”

Q: As part of a company that has an entire history built by now, do you believe that branding is just the name and the logo? How important is the brand of a company in the B2B business?

W.C.: I’ve worked at several companies from 12 person startups to industry leading mega-companies, for as short at one and as great as 13 years, and I don’t think any of them ever finished building their history.

A simple, catchy name and recognizable logo can help to spread brand recognition and make it memorable, but these are not the same things as a company’s brand (especially for a B2B company). The brand needs to be backed up by what the company stands for and what it stands behind, whether that be innovation, solving a specific problem, expertise, quality, service, value, integrity, etc.  Of course, no matter what the brand, it must be a reflection of reality at some level or the brand is at risk of becoming „that company can’t actually deliver on what they say they promote.”

Q: The B2B industry has many challenges, many of them much more complicated than the B2C industry. As a startup, how do you deal with metrics, how do you learn to focus on what matters most?

W.C.: Early in the life of a startup the key goals and metrics can be simple, but incredibly important — e.g. form a strong initial team, build a great product, find initial customers, get referenceable accounts, market your company so you cast a bigger shadow, don’t run out of money etc.  It’s usually pretty straightforward to „keep everyone rowing generally in the same direction”

Over time, it becomes more and more important to be able to focus and prioritize as you have conflicting demands on your attention and resources. This is why in traditional „waterfall” product companies, the Rev 2 or 3 of a product can be harder and much riskier than Rev 1.0 — you may now have conflicting goals of supporting current customers, fixing bugs, implementing enhancements your customers are requesting vs accelerating toward completion of your vision.

The metrics depend on the industry and company goals, but it is important to agree on which metrics are key and measure them in a repeatable way, so team members focus on how to achieve them, not on what the facts are.

Q: We know that investors are so excited about B2B startups because they offer a quicker return on investment, but should someone aim to build a B2B rather than a B2C to impact an industry?

W.C.: It depends. Both B2B and B2C can make an impact. When starting and building a successful new company, it requires vision, skill, persistence, and passion.  You need to decide „How you want to change the world?” and to enjoy doing what it takes to achieve this goal.

Q: Could you give our readers some pieces of advice when selling to other enterprises?

W.C.: Create something innovative and valuable for your target enterprises. These days, it is much harder to sell a „nice to have” vs a „must have” product. Deliver what you promise — whether functionality, performance, quality, or service.  Understand the key processes and people involved in making the product decision and executing the purchasing process — sometimes a key procurement leader can ensure a purchase will go smoothly or not.  It is also important to get unvarnished feedback from both the users and the leaders who purchased your products — don’t fall into the mistake of only hearing „the good things” they say.

Q: What are the best ways for a B2B startup to acquire corporate clients?

W.C.: Ideally, create a product that is forward thinking and ready when the corporate clients need it, but not too early that you are constantly fighting an uphill battle to convince a skeptical customer of what they don’t believe. Understand if your competition is another company or a „do nothing” attitude within the customer. Find a champion who you can convince of the need and value of your product in solving it. Ensure you always support that champion.

Q: Do you believe we will see some significant changes as VR and AR technologies change the tech scene?

This is not my area of expertise, but my answer would be „I certainly hope so” and I expect it will. I think one of the most exciting things to look forward to is how VR and AR will end up being used in some completely unique, unexpected, and valuable ways that no one has yet conceived.

Walker Colston will be taking the stage at How to Web Conference 2016. Be there, among hundreds of tech professionals from 18 countries, and hear Walker’s war stories from the trenches.  

Add your comment