by Gary Burnett – CEO-NI – A platform for Northern Ireland’s senior technology executives

Gary: Noel, tell us a bit about your career to date.

Noel: I started with the NI Civil Service in 1975 as an unemployment benefits clerk in Corporation Street office, Belfast. I was 17 and I stayed in the Civil Service until ’91. In the DHSS I worked in a number of different jobs, but the main change came when I moved to DFP in 1980 (Department of Finance & Personnel). In those days what we would now call a Business Process Engineering Consultant was known as an Organization and Methods Study Officer! So I was trained as an O&M practitioner. We were trained to look at processes, procedures, forms, people, technology – everything to try and make the process faster and more efficient. So it was the early days of business transformation and all the buzz words we know, like BPO, BPR and so on. Often the solutions we began to find revolved around technology. The solution to a business problem might be electronic typing, top-end electronic calculators, golf-ball typewriters, early word-processors – which were innovative for their day. The leading names then were Wang, Brother, IBM, Olivetti– this sort of equipment was drastically changing the way people did their work.

A PC came on the market called the Rair Black Box, an 8-bit machine. And it came with a calculator, spreadsheet and a word-processor. We got hold of one of these in what was called the Small Systems Division of DFP. And this Rair machine made a big change in the Civil Service, because we were able to show people for the first time a computer that was small, that could do word-processing and spreadsheets and it made an amazing difference to people. The PC revolution was only starting round about then.

As time went on, I got involved in bigger and bigger solutions and I got involved in large IT procurements – large office automation projects. The first office automation system in the Civil Service was procured from Digital for DFP and I led that project.

The next big change for me was, in 1989, Margaret Thatcher introduced “market testing” where the whole civil service across the UK had to market test certain functions and if it was cheaper to do it in the private sector, then it had to be privatized. In Northern Ireland, one project was identified and it was the market testing of CISD, the central computing function. I don’t know whether they chose that because they thought it wouldn’t end up being privatized – but anyway as it turned out when it was advertised in the European Journal, we had a storm of companies interested. So CISD was privatized and the contract was won by CFM Group Limited, which then became ICL-CFM, which is known today as Fujitsu Services.

I had been project manager for the project and when the contract had been won, CFM approached me and asked me to be their Director of Business Development, selling back into the public sector. Now, that was a big change for me – up till then, I was a career civil servant, had been for 17 years.

Gary: What you’d been doing was very hands-on, very operational. That’s a very different role, and different skills set from what you were now being asked to do.

Noel: It was a big surprise! When I was asked to for the main sales job, I was very surprised indeed.

Gary: What would have happened if you had not been asked?

Noel: I’d have just stayed in the Civil Service and I had a career mapped out in front of me. I could look forward to, maybe a bit of promotion, another big project, maybe some more promotion. I’d have become a sort of efficiency/ICT/procurement specialist and that would have been my career in the civil service. The idea of leaving and taking up a sales job was a strange option.

When I joined CFM, I didn’t know what a salesman did, the basics like how do you sell things, how can you be successful at this? What do I do on day one? But, within 3 months, I just loved it. I took to it naturally and thought – why haven’t I been doing this before? Now, of course, I probably was doing it before – selling people new processes and so on – but I wasn’t actually charging them for it! But in this new situation, you were selling and people were buying and they liked it and you got a bonus as well – I got a buzz from selling, and the more you sold the more you made, there is an excitement in it …and personally I got a great kick out of having satisfied customers. It’s an old cliché, but it’s absolutely right – people buy from people. It’s all about relationship building.

Gary: And is that true with public tenders too? When you see the tender documents on your screen or advertised in a newspaper, that looks like a clinical process where someone ticks boxes as they evaluate your response. Is relationship still important here, too, Noel?

Noel: It’s still the case. Obviously there’s a process in tendering and you have got to answer the questions and fill in the forms. 70% of it is that. That has to be right. The public sector has to be very tight on this. But I often say to people, if you’re putting 50 to 100 pages in front of people and you want them to read what you’ve written, and to give you a high mark for the quality of your proposal, it almost needs to read like a book. It needs to be a good read. When people read the management summary, you want them to want to read on. So the management summary makes them think – they seem to understand our requirements, they seem to have some good proposals, cost seems about right – and that leads them on to the rest of the document. And if there’s a nice flow to the document.

I always say to people, when you’re writing the document, decide on a theme. Decide on some major messages that you want to keep to the fore. Say something about your company or your service or your people that you think gives you the edge, then make that a major theme of the document – keep repeating it. Decide on your main selling point, keep playing the same message over and over and that’s the way to make sure you get it across.

I have owned my own company since 2004, my company is NB1 – it stands for Noel Brady 1. When people do business with my company, they’re dealing with me. I will do the job, I won’t have someone coming in to do the NB1 service. It will be me personally. Now that obviously restricts the growth of my business, but that’s the way I want it – I want it to bring a personal service to my clients. So I try to build that sort of relationship with my clients very quickly. You can’t work with somebody if they don’t like you or if they don’t understand what you’re trying to do, or if you haven’t explained it properly. If you haven’t created some rapport and if you haven’t understood their business too and their problems.

I very quickly learned, when I took up the sales job, because I had worked in the public sector, the relationships I had built with people stood by me – and that taught me something. There was trust, there was relationship, there was respect. When people talk about bad sales people – those salespeople have stepped over the line of respect and friendship.

Gary: That’s a very interesting word to use about sales, isn’t it? Respect. It’s at every stage, isn’t it – from when you first talk to the customer and try to understand their needs – right through to delivery and making sure they get value.

Noel: The trouble with sales people who have bad reputations is that they don’t have respect for the people they are selling to. They just want the forms signed, they don’t care what type of product or service they are selling or how they will be supported in the future. They never go back to see how the customer feels.

Respect is very important. Mutual respect too, You expect your client to have respect for you as well. I wouldn’t work with people who would be disrespectful to the way that I want to work. So it’s important to understand the limits of a business relationship. It’s possible to go beyond those limits – where you try to over-sell, or try to force people to buy something. Sitting back and listening – the old 80/20 rule applies – when you only speak 20% of the time – you definitely sell more by listening to people. Sometimes they ask for additional products as well, and if you haven’t been listening, there may be opportunities going past you.

Gary: In talking about respect and your customer respecting you as a salesperson – what do you do to earn that respect?

Noel: I think you have to be honest with people. In my business, where people are asking me to help them sell their products and services, sometimes I need to be quite direct and say – guys, your whole approach is wrong, people in this market are not even aware of you! And this can be a great shock to people! Sometime you have to be straightforward and honest, but you do it in a way which gains their respect. You try and work with them and help them along the way. But always be honest and straight. Telling someone that everything’s great may not take them anywhere.

Sometimes people don’t take your advice – that’s up to them. In talking to some clients about their tendering process, their attitude has been – we’ve been doing this for years, we don’t need any help with that – but then six months later they tell you they’ve not got back on to a public sector framework which means they’ll not get any business for at least the next four years. That’s a very costly mistake. But they could have spent a few days looking at how they do things, a wee bit of investment…the payback is huge, but the downside is also huge.

Gary: So having moved into business development and sales, Noel, has that been the direction of your career ever since?

Noel: Yes. Whenever CFM became ICL-CFM, I became Client Services Director for the public sector in Ireland. Which helped me build up my network across the whole of the public sector here even more.

Gary: At that stage, Noel, you must have had guys working for you who had been in sales a lot longer than you?

Noel: Yes, quite a number of them. That was interesting! But my job was to find the big opportunities and pass those back to the sales guys. The more I could find, and the more they could convert, then we all won our bonuses. So, once the sales started coming in, everybody saw that the process was working. This was between 1991 and 1998 – ICL-CFM won some fantastic contracts. We grew from 145 people to 700 in seven years. Our first contract was the civil service which was worth £4m a year; by the time I left, we were turning over £77m a year. In Northern Ireland, that was huge growth.

Two good friends Robert Bailes, Norman Greg and I were head-hunted and we became the founder directors of SX3. This was a big start-up! 450 people overnight! I became Sales and Marketing Director for the Group. The plan was to grow the company through contracts but also through acquisition. In a period of 18 months after we started in SX3 we acquired 6 companies. This was a much bigger role for me, it was across the whole of the UK and the salespeople of any companies we acquired worked for me.

I then became MD of Ireland around 2002. I enjoyed some elements of that but not others – I wasn’t close enough to the customers. But it was good experience to have – running a company of 850 people, £72m turnover, part of a plc group.

When I left Sx3 in 2004 I had a number of choices going forward. I had offers to become CEO of this or that – because I had spent 14 years growing two companies into much bigger companies – I could have tried to do that again. And then there were other opportunities to take some equity in a company. But there was also the opportunity to do something on my own – but the question was, could I really build a business around it? It took me about 3 months – some people had asked me to come and help them with bids, with building a sales strategy and team – and after about 3 months I thought, there’s something here, but is it sustainable as a business?

The turning point was in July 2004 when I created NB1 as a limited company, mainly because I could not handle international clients who were Plc’s if I wasn’t a limited company, but also by that time I was convinced I could make a go of the business.

Gary: Everything about this direction, Noel, was different than anything you’d done before. You’d worked for sizable organizations, you’d been working in the context of a team – almost every aspect of what you are about to do is different. Now you’re working for yourself, on your own, it’s so different…

Noel: Totally. There’s not a day now in my company life that is the same as the day before. I don’t work 4 days a week for company X. Today I might be working for company X, tomorrow for company Y. And company X might be a public sector body and company Y a Renewable Energy company from Europe that would like to do business in Northern Ireland. One day I might be doing work with a company’s board, tomorrow helping another organization do a business strategy. I’ve other roles as well – I’m a Belfast Harbour Commissioner, I’m a non-exec with a company and I’ve retainers with different companies, in different industries. So every day is different. I work with small companies right through to large global players, but who have a very small footprint in Northern Ireland.

Gary: That really must keep you on your toes, Noel, from day to day? Did this sort of working come naturally, right from the start?

Noel: At the start, it was very, very different indeed. I’m a very process-driven person, that’s the ex-civil servant in me. So I like having things under control! And when you look 3 months ahead and see all these half days and days with different companies doing different things, it’s very daunting at the start. Your customers are paying for your advice and experiences, so they’re expecting you to say something profound! They expect you to tell them what needs sorting and how to do it. Sometimes I act as a mediator when problems occur within or between companies, or I might be hired to establish if there’s an appetite for a merger with a certain company, discretely. So I can be hired to do a lot of different things – but it’s all basic good experience and advice. I understand how the public sector works, I have worked in big corporates, I have worked in sales roles, I have been an MD, I’ve been a member of boards, so all these things come together. And if I don’t know the answer to somebody’s question, I know how to find it. Sometimes for particular situations specialist advice is required my job is to find someone who can do it at a reasonable price for my client.

Gary: A lot of what you do Noel, is around business development. How do you think we fare, here in Northern Ireland, with regards to our business development skills, and particularly in the IT industry here?

Noel: One good thing about working for ICL back in the early ’90s was that their training for sales and marketing was superb. Account management, management of pipeline, processes of engagement – all that was part of ICL training programmes. I wonder do today’s companies actually invest in that level of training for their sales people. I chair the Sales Institute and it’s a big issue with us – we’re trying to get the profession to be more professional. We have professional sales programmes from basic certificate right up to degree level and Masters level – mostly in ROI but available in NI if required, the difference being that in ROI the courses are heavily subsidized by government grants but this is not the case for our courses in NI.

We have a gap in sales and marketing skills in NI. I work with clients’ sales teams and there is an absence of real killer sales people. When you look at the IT industry over the past 20 years, you can probably name the 5 or 6 sales people who have sold the really big deals.

Some technology companies think that the person selling needs to understand the technology. I don’t necessarily agree with that. They need to understand the benefits of the technology – yes – need to understand what the technology can do for the client. Beyond that they can bring in a support person to explain more details.

Gary: Translating the features into benefits. Too often not done.

Noel: I think one of the key skills that I see that is lacking is being able to close, knowing when to close the sale. Sometimes you can close the sale in five minutes, sometimes it might be two hours, sometimes you might have to leave it until the next visit. The ability to close, the confidence to close, not being arrogant, reading the signals right. Watching the body language, the signals, you just know that the person wants to buy. You then just need to close it down professionally. Next time you are in your favourite shop observe someone closing a sale – I love watching food sales people at work – when they say “do you want me to leave this beside the till for you sir” – you’ve just been closed by a professional!

Gary: Noel, a last question – you’re dealing with a whole range of industries – as you look round Northern Ireland, what do you think we’re good at?

Noel: I think NI People are very good at building relationships. The difficulty can be getting to the people you need to talk to. And sometimes you need help with that. But Northern Ireland companies have a good work-ethic – people respect that – we tend to be proud of what we do, the service or product. The issue is back to the front-ending, the selling and marketing of it. We’re not good at that. A lot of the problem is to do with access. Once our companies get access, they tend to be very successful.

Gary: So we just need to add a bit more professionalism to the sales and marketing side of things?

Noel: I think so. And networking is very important. You don’t sell things sitting in the office, you sell things out meeting people. But it’s all about raising your profile – it’s no good if people don’t know what you sell and what you’ve got. Profile is so important. In times of austerity at the moment, some companies will be taking the view – batten down the hatches, don’t go to events, no marketing, no events, we’re cutting down our sales force. We’ll starve our way through the crisis. Absolutely the wrong way to go. There may be a crisis, but there is still business there to be got! You’ve got to get out and get it. The clients are out there, they’re not in here, you’re not going to build your business waiting for the phone to ring!

Reproduced with permission from:

About Gary Burnett

Fabrio’s Gary Burnett has many years experience in the ICT industry, working in Ireland, the UK, Europe, India and the US. He helps technology companies change and grow.

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