(30 minute podcast)
In the first episode of the Hug the Curve podcast, I sit down with Bryan Gray, President and CEO of the Revenue Path Group, to discuss the ever-changing speed of acceleration and technology, and the consequences of failing to hug the technology curve.
Read the transcript below or listen to the podcast.
(Steve Niesman) Hello, my name is Steve Niesman, and you’re listening to our ‘Hug the Curve’ podcast.
The rate of change for business and technology today is unbelievable. It’s never moved this fast before and it’ll never move this slowly again. It’s forcing businesses to work smarter, not necessarily harder, than ever to remain relevant. In this podcast, we sit down with industry leaders to discuss what they are doing to keep pace with digital transformation and ultimately hug the curve of technology.
Today, my guest is Bryan Gray, president and CEO of the Revenue Path Group. Bryan, thank you so much for being our guest today.
(Bryan Gray) Hey, Steve, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
(Steve Niesman) So tell our audience a little bit about Revenue Path Group and what your organization does for companies.
(Bryan Gray) You bet. The Revenue Path Group, we’re really revenue accelerators that we really look for and work with CEOs whose number-one priority is to stay relevant and vital. And knowing that, as you mentioned in the introduction, the rate of change is accelerating so quickly — when we talk about remaining relevant and vital, that’s a legitimate question. That’s a legitimate concern.
And we believe that the biggest challenge organizations face today is becoming a commodity in their prospects’ eyes. And what’s making it worse for them is that decision-making teams keep getting bigger and their sales people are being ignored until the very end of the buying journey. And not only is this happening today — we call it that race to the bottom — it’s only accelerating. And we’ve actually seen one of the biggest disruptions in sales over the last six months and we’ll never go back. And what we believe, Steve, is that sales teams are unprepared and ill equipped to compete in today’s world. And I think that’s the real challenge. So we all see accelerations happening, to your point, we have to work much smarter and much differently, because we’re not going to go back. And I think that’s the real challenge and threat that our folks are seeing.
(Steve Niesman) That’s interesting. Bryan, tell us more about what you mean by “race to the bottom” and this commoditization. What’s happening to companies, their sales force, and what’s the threat that you see to their revenue?
(Bryan Gray) Yeah, we’ll invite margin into the equation, as well. I think that not only is the revenue problem to be a margin problem, the idea of commoditization, when you really think about it, it’s a complete absence of value. There’s nothing unique to you compared to what can be procured from a myriad of other firms. And when organizations have reached that point where they’re perceived to be a commodity, they really lose any kind of margin growth opportunities.
And I don’t say it’s unavoidable, but it’s been accelerating for some time based on the Internet bringing more and more information to the table. I mean, you know, Steve, I think you and I are old enough to remember the days when we worked before the Internet, right? When sales teams existed because they were information distributors, and they would spend their time traipsing around, wherever, trying to educate prospects on what’s going on in the marketplace and why they should be chosen. It’s funny to think about, but this was just 20, 30 years ago. So we’re having a lot of sales people out there communicating what’s important. And what happened was that you earned favor because there weren’t that many buyers on the committee. It was just one or two people. When you put the effort in — you worked hard, you showed up on time, you had all those great habits — they really didn’t look around.
Now, 70 percent of the buyer’s journey is done before they even invite you in; they framed up what they want. And now it’s just a matter of who can do it for the lowest price. So that’s just another roundabout way of getting back to commoditization. So when you lose any kind of pricing pressure or margin opportunities, commoditization is that first step in that slippery slope to irrelevance, for that matter.
(Steve Niesman) Right. So, again, thank you for, first of all, reminding me of my age. Thank you for the ride. And then, you know, when we talk about this ‘commodity Hell,’ so to speak, that’s part of the challenge that businesses have today. But are there other things besides this commoditization (I call it ‘commodity Hell,’ forgive my words…)? What other pressures and challenges are customers facing?
(Bryan Gray) Yeah, I think the trends we’re seeing are organizations are really having to understand their higher ground. I call it finding higher ground. And because one of the things about commoditization, while I say it doesn’t have to be an inevitability, I do believe that this race to the bottom is going to continue. It’s very hard to stop this.
But what you can do is position yourself to a higher level within that organization. So we’re seeing organizations struggling to find their real impact. How can I become more of a priority to my prospect and not be frozen or we’re holding on expenses, we’re not going to do anything right now. Because we have fewer resources now to spend and it’s only going to go to those that can really connect to the highest priority.
So I think that one issue is, how do you connect your real impact to your prospects’ top priorities from the CEO all the way through the organization? And I think that the next struggle is, how do you move faster in a friction-free world where your sales people tend to, believe or not, slow things down and they end up confusing the prospects.
So we’ve got three things. We’ve got the fact that you need to find that higher ground. How do we start reframing our value in a way that brings our margin back? How do we really focus on our prospects’ real, true priorities? Because we all know that priorities always get acted on and priorities are rooted in the threats I’m facing as an individual. And how do we move faster in a world that can keep me — not just keep me moving, but get me to the curve in the first place, and keep me there?
(Steve Niesman) Bryan, you bring up a really interesting point to me. You talked a little bit about, I’ll call it the psychology of your buyer, if you will. Can you inform our audience about some of the research that’s out there about how you address the business problem of a customer and how do you not “just sell it,” but how do you really understand it and acknowledge or educate that buyer about what their problem is? What’s the psychology behind that today?
(Bryan Gray) Yeah, that’s a great question, Steve, especially when most people are doing it wrong. We should probably look at how to actually do it right. And when you think about without getting too deep into the whole brain science of all this, we know there are certain parts of the brain that really drive decision making.
And to keep this properly simple, we’re going to break the brain into two categories, or two areas. One is the primitive brain and one is the rational brain. And the primitive brain is actually where 90 percent of all decisions start and happen. But yet the primitive brain doesn’t know how to read. It responds to stimuli in one way or the other, it either moves toward the stimuli or away from the stimuli, and it sometimes makes illogical decisions. But what the primitive brain is insanely focused on is eliminating any type of pain, threat or fear, with an emphasis on threats.
There’s a big difference between a pain and a threat. We all live with pain, right? Chronic pain, physical pain or emotional pain, and we find ways to deal with it. We all have fears that we’ve had for years and years, and we’re not just going to overcome all those. But what we do know is that threats always get acted on. So knowing that the primitive brain is really focused on making my threats go away, that’s really the origin of where my priorities are.
And where we get confused is when sales people in most cases try to sell to the rational brain, yet don’t make that deep connection, as you mentioned, at a psychological level. So what is happening is you can propose something that makes sense logically. And I had a great meeting and they learned a lot, but they don’t take action because you are not able to connect your real impact to your prospects’ top priority.
And I know that sounds overly simple, but when you actually make that shift to understanding the real threats your prospects deal with every single day and then frame your value against that, you then have what we call a priority position that actually gets you meetings with people — not just early on in the process, but has you meeting with the higher level decision makers and helping them fit their priorities. That’s really the only way organizations will be successful and avoid commoditization is to do just that.
(Steve Niesman) That’s really interesting, Bryan, how you’re linking this brain science and trying to teach companies today in their salesforce, and just in general, growing their revenue to get out of this commoditization. So I’ll call that one of the problems in a company today. One of the, in your words, in your research, which I’ve seen a little bit, one of your three deadly sins. Can you help our audience understand what are some of those other “Cs’ that they need to be aware of?
(Bryan Gray) Yeah, absolutely. So commoditization is probably the net result of the other two, for that matter. But the other two “Cs” are compressed selling time and consensus decision making. Even as leaders, it’s almost important to take a step outside the sales world to see the impact of this.
The idea of compressed selling time is the fact that 70 percent of the buying journey is done before they invite someone in. And so as a sales organization, you’ve missed that prioritization in that planning phase. They’re only bringing you in at what we call procurement. So when you think of dealing with procurement, you know what’s going to happen next. It’s all about driving down the price, because when they invite you in, they’re inviting two or three other firms in to talk to them, because they think they know what they want. And then their next step is, how do I drive these folks down to doing what I want them to do? So this idea of compressed selling time, you’ve lost that opportunity to have access during prioritization and planning.
The other deadly C is consensus decision making, and I think this is something, Steve, that came out of the last recession of ‘08, ‘09, where decision-making teams really grew. And I don’t know if it was because of budgets in making sure they were spending properly, or the integration and interdependency of solutions, but we’ve seen decision-making teams move from one or two people to nearly seven now. And as a leader, Steve, I’m sure you’ve gone through the challenges of trying to get seven people to agree on anything. So the whole idea of consensus decision making is not about fitting the priorities of one or two or three people. How do you make something a priority for the entire organization where all the entire decision-making team falls into line saying, yes, this is a priority of ours at the expense of others, we’re going to move forward with you. And I think those are two things from a decision making and/or sales perspective that should be considered.
(Steve Niesman) It’s really interesting, Bryan. I mean, just consensus and anything, if you try to get seven members of a family to agree on what’s for dinner or where do you want to go see a movie, it’s really hard. So coming back to the angle of the psychology and the technology today, do you have any advice for companies out there? How do you when you try to get a new prospect, you try to grow your company’s revenue, how do you get around or what are best practices to get a company and the people within to more of a consensus instead of just an individual decision making?
(Bryan Gray) Yeah, that’s really well done, Steve, and a great question, for that matter. The thing to do is to really, first of all, understand the real impact of what you’re doing, the real problem.
There’s two problems; not just that your sales people tend to talk about intellectual and rational things, which is not where the brain buys. The second part, which is just as problematic, is that people don’t understand the real impact of what they’re doing, and they end up talking about what they do versus why they’re really doing it. So the steps we walk through, whether it’s just me offering some advice or part of our organization work together, is helping flesh out the real impact of what an organization does.
It’s actually very eye-opening, because people never really take their impact to the right level and the right depth. But when they do, they start realizing that what they do for people actually appeals to higher levels in the organization, which is going to be key to driving consensus decision making. But once you understand the real impact of what you’re doing, then you start connecting it to what the organizational priorities are.
So while it may not be something as an individual priority of yours, Steve, in this case, when you look at where the board is wanting to take the organization or where the strategic direction of the organization lies in the next 1-3 years, those tend to become their priorities. Because if they don’t hit that, that becomes a threat to everyone involved in the organization. So let’s connect your real impact and we’re going to tie that to not just where your organization is going in the future, let’s attach your real impact to what happens if they don’t get there in the future, because that ends up becoming their priority.
(Steve Niesman) That’s really good Bryan. You hit on something really interesting to me. You talked about organizational priorities. I have a question for you, but let me frame it. I’m sort of a voracious reader, I read a lot of what the trends are happening in business. And Alan Murray from Fortune magazine writes a daily blog, and one of the ones I read recently as he talks about sort of the effects of what’s happened in COVID-19 and the rapid change — and I’ll use your word earlier, the speed of the change in business. His hypothesis, is this: every company today, every brick-and-mortar business has essentially become a freight-forwarding warehouse — meaning their business model has changed or they’re an online store or an online restaurant and food service. So how are organizational priorities changing in this age of acceleration? That’s really been in my thoughts, anyway. That’s been really sped up, if you will, by COVID-19. What do you see out there related to this?
(Bryan Gray) Yeah, absolutely. And I think in a way, I mentioned earlier about finding that higher ground, I think that’s finding a way to survive. You know, one thing about shocks to our system is that it can be disruptive, or as Friedman in his book, Thank You for Being Late, talks about being dislocated. And what dislocated means, is that change is so disruptive you can’t keep up and you fall behind faster.
So I think if you talk to most leaders, they would like to transition their business and transform it on a pretty nice timeline, where it’s easy to budget, easy to forecast and easy to plan for. Unfortunately, that’s not how life rolls, in life or in business, and we tend to be shocked and disrupted. And the real issue with today is, when you look at the COVID impact, I firmly believe we’ve advanced our world five years. I think you’ve taken the year 2025 and slapped it right on top of this year, and we’re not going to go back from that. So I believe what he was saying is that these business models have been disrupted so quickly that they have to rethink that higher value in a way to even survive.
So when you think about what’s the real impact of what you do, that’s really what matters. For example, what we do doesn’t matter to someone. What really matters is that we only work with CEOs whose number-one priority is to stay relevant and vital. That kind of flexibility allows us to help our clients through these shocks to the system because we have many come to us and say, I can’t avoid this commoditization because there are too many good firms chasing too few opportunities now. I need to find a way to frame our value that keeps me relevant and keeps me viable moving forward. And I think that Alan Murray was referring to just that very thing, that all of a sudden everything we were doing does not work anymore. Now, what am I going to do about it? And if you get in front of this, if you really understand your real impact on the world, you can then give yourself the flexibility to adjust your model before your world gets disrupted.
(Steve Niesman) And you hit a really interesting point for me. You talked about sort of COVID-19 and technology’s been disrupted. In other words, five years of technology is being forced upon people in the last six months of this pandemic. And then going back to your reference to Thomas Friedman’s book, Thank You for Being Late, there’s an interesting interview in there with Astro Teller, the former head of Google X. And in that paradigm, Astro Teller talks about the Age of Acceleration, that the technology is accelerating so fast — if you imagine, to our listeners — an upward sloping line that’s going off the charts. And to your point, in the last six months, it’s done five years’ worth of technology changes very rapidly. Yet the human brain — back to your earlier postulate, Bryan — the human brain can only absorb so much. So there seems to be this gap out there. What do you see in your clients? What can customers do to address this gap where technology goes so fast, yet humans can only adapt so fast? Any advice for our listeners?
(Bryan Gray) Yeah, we have to find some shortcuts. (laugh)
But I found that book to be so fundamental because it’s one thing to tell people, hey, the world’s changing and going faster — yeah, yeah, yeah; we’ve heard that before. But I felt that I’ve always been a fan of Friedman’s books all the way back to The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which is the first one I read. And he just does a great job making complex things so simple for simple brains like myself.
But one of the things that I felt is fundamental is if you really understand the nature of acceleration in the nature of the age we live in — so it’s not just what Astro Teller’s graph showed — it’s not just the rate of change, but it’s the speed of the rate of change that’s accelerating at the same time. And that becomes a real challenge for people. In fact, the story here, knowing that the primitive brain responds to threats more so than gain, is it’s not about hugging the curve, Steve, it’s really about the pain that’s going to come upon you when you fall off this curve, because it’s not forgiving. It moves too fast. You can’t catch up later. So what was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, we do need to find ways to create shortcuts so we can either get to the curve, but more importantly, how we ride that curve of change moving forward. And I think CEOs really, really, really need to think differently and move beyond that old phrase, that fortune favors the bold, and make it more so, but yet at twice the speed. And that’s probably something I think most leaders aren’t ready for, is to operate an organization at twice the velocity or twice the speed than what they were doing in the past.
(Steve Niesman) Bryan, it’s really cool, and I like what you said there; I want to state it again. You talked about it’s not necessarily the rate of change, but the speed of change. In other words, technology’s moving so fast today. Let me put an elephant in the room that might be out there for many of our listeners today. And that is, look, I’m not a Fortune 500; I’m not Amazon; I don’t have unlimited money out there. But yet smaller midsize companies need to keep up with this speed of change. Any advice to them? What should they think about? What should they begin in terms of planning? How do they keep up in their own paradigm, their own world, with the speed of change?
(Bryan Gray) Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things, Steve. I think that understanding this acceleration of the rate of change is probably the hardest thing to wrap your mind around, because it starts questioning things you’ve done in the past, and beyond the fact we need to get past this sunk-cost fallacy. We put so much money into this thing, we can’t abandon it; we’ve got to keep on going. Which in a world of accelerations, that’s probably the worst advice you could adhere to.
I think it’s going to force us all to look at how we bring partners along. And if we get a chance today, I’d like to talk about some of the decisions I think leaders need to make moving forward in an accelerating age. But one of the things I think they have to do is to look at something like IT, for example, and not look at it as an expense. One thing I’ve heard many people say, well, we’re going to freeze expenses or freeze this. But, you know, Steve, when someone says they are going to freeze something, what does that really say to the rest of the organization on how they feel about that? If they’re going to put a freeze on something, what are they saying about its importance?
(Steve Niesman) They are probably not interested or they’re very short sighted. They’re not seeing the big picture and the threat to their business, in my opinion.
(Bryan Gray) Absolutely. If I’m going to freeze something, it’s just not that important to me. But what’s interesting to me, in a world of accelerations, when you have things accelerating at twice the speed now, IT might be that way to get to the curve and keep on the curve.
So I just think it’s kind of ironic that we’re talking about freezing things, because we freeze what’s not important, but yet we prioritize something else. And I think that CEOs really need to put the proper priority and emphasis toward those things that give them faster intelligence, better data, and allow them to move more flexibly.
In a way, I have to change my business models. One of my favorite Hemingway quotes is from The Sun Also Rises, and it was said, “How did you go bankrupt?” “Well, two ways. First it was gradually, then suddenly.” And I think that’s the impact on business now, where things weren’t great until about six months ago. And now I’m seeing this, this, this and this. And then also then I start falling behind faster. And then all of a sudden you’re in a point where you can’t keep up anymore. And I think that’s a real unfortunate situation that these small and medium sized firms might find themselves in. But yet there are people around them that can help them, but they have to rethink how they buy IT; they’ve got to rethink how they’re going to staff their sales team. They just have to rethink things, because if they don’t, I think they’re in a world of hurt.
(Steve Niesman) I think there’s a lot of fear in the ecosystem. If you were an “I’m not an Amazon, I can’t afford this,” what you’re advising people is, you can’t afford not to. You won’t necessarily have the IT budget or the CapEx of Amazon, but there’s really affordable ways and there’s technology that’s very digestible at a price-point that makes sense for their business problems.
(Bryan Gray) Really, in our world just eliminating the travel expense since March would pay for virtually everything we could do to transform an organization. I laugh, because it’s almost silly that people talk about a scarcity of resources, but it’s really nothing more than prioritization.
I mean, another way to look at this, we believe that acceleration is so much the case, and sales teams are so unprepared and ill equipped, and the world’s changed so much around them, that we believe that sales teams are overstaffed by around 40 percent. And I know that’s a cold, hard truth of today’s world. It’s not something I wanted to happen or saw happening, but that’s just a current reality. So if people think, “I don’t have money to invest in blank,” what if we just looked at what’s really happening to you and where money and resources are being freed up to put towards things that matter most to you. That might be the way to frame this.
(Steve Niesman) That’s really good, Bryan. You’ve given a lot to the audience today, just in terms of what’s happening in the world today. And I’d summarize it and oversimplify it, at least in my words, about how a CEO, how a company, stays relevant and vital in today’s world. My brain is limited in the fact that I can think in threes. If you are going to summarize to our audience what are one, or two, or three takeaways that a CEO or a company needs to do coming out of this little podcast today, if you could give them three pieces of advice, what would it be?
(Bryan Gray) Man, how about a three plus three? Because, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a couple of ways to address this.
I think CEOs have to be — beyond the fact, as long as we can all agree — that we need to operate at twice the speed we did in the past. And while none of us really want to do that, it’s just our current reality. So if someone believes that I need to move faster than before, I think we have to get rid of the sunk-cost fallacy. I think we have to learn to be much more flexible in how we think about implementing change in the organization. And I think we have to really, really understand what our priority position is. And this is back to the Infinite Game — what is it, what’s the real impact of what we’re trying to do? I think those are some decent guide marks.
One thing I do challenge CEOs all the time is about simple decisions, because, as you mentioned a couple times, our brains don’t like complicated things. In fact, complexity tends to shut us down. So I always appreciate it, and I’ve always tried to become a pretty simple communicator. And one thing when it comes to this type of change we’re all going through, no one is immune. I really want to help them think in three simple decisions they have to make.
Number one, they have to decide that they want to compete, and I know that sounds a bit obvious, but it’s really important, because if you’re choosing to compete in this world, there’s no one in their right mind would say, well, I’m not going to change much and I’m going to continue to do things the way I’ve done. That seems silly, but yet we tend to do it that way. And I don’t know where someone is at in their career; I’d like to tell my kids, who are now at college, saying your dad is yet to peak. So I’m still on the upswing; I’d like to think. So, I still want to compete. But I think every CEO has to really, really ask him or herself, do they really want to compete?
And if the answer to that question is yes, the second decision they have to make is are they going to accept mediocrity any longer? And I look at mediocrity not just in the talent you have, which is important, but the way you go about procuring things. I mean, to hear people putting freezes on things that are probably the most important and vital things to accelerate their business, but yet we’re seeing a freeze on IT; I know you just use that as an example. But I think that’s a symptom of accepting mediocrity.
And if you’re not going to accept mediocrity anymore, I think you’re going to look for the guidance of those who can help you create the right kind of decision path moving forward, because we don’t have all the information we need inside your organization to move you through acceleration.
So those are the first two decisions. You’ve got decide you want to compete; you’ve got to decide you’re no longer going to accept mediocrity. A third decision you have to come to, is you’ve got to determine how much of a head start you’re going to spot your competitor. And I really want you to think about that, because if you believe all these things to be true and we know that delay is the deadliest form of denial, the question you have to ask is how much time are you going to spot your competition? Because others are going to take advantage of what’s out there, what’s readily available, and they’re not all easy decisions; I’m not saying that. I will tell you they’re not complicated, but your competition may just choose to make those hard decisions and do what they need to do. That’s going to give them much more power. I used one simple example of how sales teams are going to improve every single day by getting better by watching game film. Because no pro athlete would never say, I’d never watch that. So that’s just one small, silly example. So the question is, you’ve got to determine how much of a head start you’re going to spot your competition.
I think if you can walk through those three simple decisions, I think it allows you to build that confidence and belief that, yes, you can be relevant; yes, you can be vital. But we have to go making the right kind of changes moving forward.
(Steve Niesman) It’s really good, Bryan, and I’ll play back a little bit in my words, and maybe one final comment from you, but we’ve heard so much today about the three deadly Cs. And the worst thing that any company, any CEO can do today is to deny, to delay, and to freeze technology spending, saying that the COVID-19 the last six months, this age of acceleration, is not affecting their business. It absolutely is. And you’ve given us a couple of pragmatic examples about how IT, artificial intelligence and very affordable technology spend can make a real difference. It’s very insightful to me. So thank you for that. And any final comments on my summation there?
(Bryan Gray) No, I think your summation is great. I think it’s not about how amazing those solutions are for you; it’s what price will you pay, Steve, when you don’t use what’s available to you, when someone else uses that against you? And I think that’s from a defensive posturing. I also think that freezing is the worst thing you do because — let’s go back to the primitive brain — the fight or flight, there’s nothing in the middle. And that’s, I think, one of my questions of do you want to compete? I think that’s the fight spirit. So I think you’re right. I think standing and freezing is the worst thing you can do. I don’t think there’s any acceleration deniers out there that don’t see this happening. I do feel that many leaders struggle to find the right guidance and the right solutions to help them get there. And I think from a leadership perspective, that’s something we all can take away and we all can help our clients with, because every leader has these challenges and these threats and concerns and how each of us are positioning our real impact to those threats, I think, is a real indicator of our viability and relevance moving forward.
(Steve Niesman) Bryan, this is awesome. I want to thank you again for being on our Hug the Curve podcast. You’ve given our audience tremendous insights, a lot of things to think about, and, in my opinion, and a very pragmatic approach to staying current, staying relevant and, as you said, deciding if they want to compete, getting a roadmap how they compete, and not allowing their competition to have a head start. So thank you very much, Bryan.
(Bryan Gray) Oh, thanks, Steve. This has been great and I hope to do it again sometime.