podcast | March 16, 2015
Case Study: How Sales Can Work Smarter with the CFO
Tim Huffmyer, the CFO of BlackBox Network Services (symbol:BBOX), recently appeared on the SBI podcast. The topic of our conversation was reallocating the sales and market budget as the year unfolds.
You can listen to the podcast here.
If you are not familiar with Blackbox Network Services, they are a public company with 4,000 employees and just under $1 billion in annual sales. The company is a leading technology service provider helping their customers build, manage, optimize, and secure their IT infrastructure.
By listening to this 30 minute interview, you will learn:
If you are a sales leader wanting to work better with the CFO, listen to this podcast. If you are a CFO wanting to partner better with sales, listen to this podcast. I think you both will learn from it.
Speaker: Welcome to the SBI podcast, offering CEOs, sales and marketing leaders, ideas to make the number.
Greg Alexander: Welcome, everybody. This is Greg Alexander, the CEO and co-founder of Sales Benchmark Index, and this is the weekly SBI podcast series. I’ve got a fascinating guest on the show today. His name is Tim Huffmyer, and he is the Chief Financial Officer of Black Box Network Services. Tim’s going to share with us his perspective on sales and marketing effectiveness from the CFO’s Office, which is an interesting perspective.
Just a little bit about Tim to establish the fact that he knows what he’s talking about. He has nineteen years of business experience, all primarily in the finance function, and he’s a CFO of a publicly traded company and everything that comes with that. Tim holds a degree in accounting from Michigan State University. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Black Box Network Services, they’ve got about four thousand employees. Do just under a billion dollars in sales, and the company is a leading technology service provider, helping their customers build, manage, optimize and secure their IT infrastructure. Tim, welcome to the show.
Tim Huffmyer: Thanks, Greg. Appreciate the chance to talk with you today.
Greg Alexander: Great. Today’s topic is budget reallocation as the year unfolds. Let me paint a picture for Tim and for the audience. Let’s assume for a moment that you exit your first quarter in your fiscal year and you’re heading into the second quarter. The first quarter, and the year for that matter, the budgets were assigned based on some assumptions in a strategic plan. Now you’re ninety days in and the assumptions have either proven to hold up, or have fallen apart based on charges in the marketplace, and this requires the reallocation of the budget so that we can stay agile, and make sure that we meet the financial objectives of the firm and match revenue to expenses appropriately.
That’s really what we want to talk about here, so I guess, Tim, my first question to you would be an opening question, which is how do you go about adjusting budgets, exiting the first quarter, coming off of the annual planning cycle if things didn’t go exactly according to plan.
Tim Huffmyer: Sure. That’s a great question. Over the years, over the last several years, with the volatility that we’ve seen in the marketplace, I think a lot of listeners will be able to relate to this topic, because very often, as you set out your plans, those plans change. Business environments change, and it does cause you to go to this topic of reallocation.
In the beginning of the year, you’re typically laying out expectations for your stakeholders that you need to ultimately be aware of your entire way through your fiscal period. With that as your guide, if you will, very often internally you’ll have to reprioritize projects, and that’s really where the allocation activities come. As you’re existing one quarter and forecasting the next several quarters, it’s really a capital allocation game on what type of activities. If you talk to any of the owners of those activities, they all have to be done. They are a priority for someone within the organization, so they’re important.
You need to balance out that importance, and try to help guide the executive team, and the executive decision makers, if you will, through what actually is important, and what you’re going to focus on in the near term, quarter or six months, whatever period you’re talking about.
Greg Alexander: This becomes particularly difficult when you’re engaged in multi-year projects, and that very difficult balance around meeting the objectives, the short term objectives of the different stakeholder groups, but, also, managing the business for the long haul, and this is why running a public company is particularly difficult.
Sometimes that rises and falls based on the accuracy of the sales forecast. How do you, as the finance leader of Black Box, scrub the sales forecast and determine how much safety you need, how reliable it’s going to be? What’s your process there?
Tim Huffmyer: Sure. We are primarily, and you gave a great introduction to Black Box, but Black Box still is a culmination of several businesses that we’ve acquired over the years. We’ve done roughly a hundred and twenty acquisitions over the last fifteen years, so in doing that, although we’ve done a lot of integration and a lot of consolidation over the years, we are very reliant upon processes and procedures that are within our business units. There’s typically interaction with our business unit leadership team on the operational and sales front, and, also, our financial leadership team, in order to help make that number as predictable as possible. There are certain known revenue streams, if you will, that the finance and accounting teams may help guide the operational and sales teams on. Run rates, if you will, and different maintenance contracts, backlog converting to revenue. Those things are somewhat known, so you have a certain percentage of that activity that you can put a circle around or a check next to.
The rest is really where you get into the subjectivity of the forecast, where you’re trying to deliver certain projects based on your resources internally, and maybe externally if you’re relying on external resources. It does come down to operational reviews, and questions to that leadership team on how they’ve come up with their forecast. We don’t have one forecast, if you will, although at the end of the day Mike and I do have one forecast. We’re actually having multiple conversations with the business unit leadership team and the segment leadership team, and talking about what’s in, what’s out, and how confident they are on reaching those sales forecasts.
Greg Alexander: Forecasting is so hard. By definition you’re trying to predict the future, which if you can figure that one out, something tells me you wouldn’t be working for Black Box. You’d be playing the stock market rather aggressively.
Tim Huffmyer: That’s right. That’s right, and that public company limitation, trying to hit those marks and stay within your forecast, again, as your listeners probably know and your experience, it’s a delicate balancing act.
Greg Alexander: Let’s talk about this issue of what I call organizational patience. Due to my association with your company, I’m familiar with some of the projects that you guys are working on. They span more than one fiscal year, and some of these are things that need to get done, but the results are going to be lagging the investment, in some cases by a number of months. Along the way, that requires faith of the leadership team. How do you measure those types of projects, and what types of leading indicators do you look at so that you know that your investment is still a wise one, and you continue to have faith in the project over time?
Tim Huffmyer: Sure. That’s a great question, and a real relevant one for us right now. The nature of a lot of the transformation that we’ve publicly been talking about in our sales and operational teams by definition will take multiple quarters and span multiple years. When we’re setting up those projects, when we’re looking at the activities within those projects, we are looking for key indicators within the projects. Not necessarily the financial, because the financial is going to be the leading indicators, but we’re actually developing in the project plan what indicators can we monitor, so that we are confident that we’re making appropriate progress on the project, and that’s the name of the game there. Finding those KPIs, those key performance indicators on those projects, to hold ourselves accountable as we’re going through that process.
In theory, if you’re waiting for that financial result, your stakeholders, possibly your board or your shareholders, your banks, they’ll only listen to you so many times as far as, “Hey, trust me. We got this.” You need to be confident that you’re going to deliver at the end of the day, and deliver that return that you calculated initially before you started the project, that you’re going to deliver that. These key performance indicators along the way are the ticket, if you will, to providing confidence through this, what I’d call a gut wrenching process of spending money, if you will, or investing, and not necessarily seeing the financial return immediately.
Greg Alexander: Yeah. It does require faith, and the leading indicator and behavioral based KPIs are the key to that.
We’re going to take a quick break here, but when we come back, I’m going to talk to Tim about how to calculate a return on some of these things, and some ways that our listeners can do the math on that and make sure that they’re earning acceptable return on their investments. We’ll be right back.
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Greg Alexander: Welcome back, everybody. I’m here with Tim Huffmyer, who is the Chief Financial Officer for Black Box Network Services, and we’re having a conversation today around sales and marketing effectiveness from the perspective of the CFO, which is a valuable perspective, an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, not one that’s talked about in our circle here of sales and marketing effectiveness enough.
Just before the break, we were talking about how at times when you make investments in improving different aspects of your business, the benefits of those take some time to materialize, and it requires monitoring of leading indicators, KPIs, to have faith. Prior to that happening, and after project launch, before you decide to invest, you have to calculate some type of return, and estimate what the benefit is versus the cost. In the context of investments in sales and marketing, Tim, which is hard, because some of this is somewhat unpredictable, qualitative in nature. It’s different than making an acquisition, or buying a building, or something along those lines. How do you look at that from a return perspective?
Tim Huffmyer: You hit it right on the head there. Buying a business, something that is tangible per se, or has a set of financial data associated with it is one thing. Deciding to invest, whether it’s capital expenses or operating expenses, into a sales and marketing effort, for instance, is going to be largely qualitative and quantitative in nature. The model around that, working with the business leadership team, working with those that are skilled in those areas, coming up with the models in order to predict the financial impact is very critical there.
I’d say creating the financial model, if you will, on that front end is very important to that process. Again, when you’re looking at an acquisition, those financials and forecasting processes are already in place. Here, you need to build that, and in order to do that you need to do your diligence with folks that are skilled in those areas in order to help you build those models, determine what those key inputs are, and what a reasonable range of outputs may be, or ultimately driving some type of financial metric there.
Largely that’s how we approach analyzing those investments in that front end diligence phase, is working with those that are skilled in those areas, and that can help us to lay that financial model out ultimately, so you’re translating your business, sales and marketing activities into financial data ultimately through diligence.
Greg Alexander: Very often we’re involved in the creation of those models, and models by definition have assumptions in them. Sometimes I see sales leaders, in particular, go to the CFO with an idea, and they say, “Hey, I will like to fund X, Y, Z initiative, and I think over the next one, two, or three years it’s going to generate the following benefits and the following return.” Sales leaders who grew up in sales might not be classically trained in finance, so sometimes their models are incomplete, and the CFO has a field day at times.
What advice would you give a sales leader when approaching their CFO with an idea to invest in sales? How should they present that to them in a way that is factual and gives them the best chance of securing the funding?
Tim Huffmyer: Yeah. Great question, and a real one here probably for you and your listeners. I would think about it from the receiving end, from the CFO’s end. Think about it as a business as much as you can. There’s a lot of hidden costs inside of the business, of any business, whether it’s overhead, whether it’s burden rates, whether it’s infrastructure, and I would take extra caution in making sure you’ve been conservative in laying out all those extra costs that basically you may not think of in your first analysis, if you will, of the project or of the proposal.
Very often there will be financial analysts that might be on the CFO’s staff that could actually help you to build those models, or to help give input into what some of those costs may be. Typically when there’s proposals as you described, Greg, the revenue forecasting is what everybody may spend a lot of time on as far as sophistication of that model, but I’d say what we underestimate more often than not maybe is the cost of all this, which obviously is going to weigh in on the profitability of anything. Having the right tools, having the right inputs from the CFO’s team possibly. If the CFO has a model or his team has a model, it would be a good idea to get ahold of that, so that you’re all talking from the same perspective as you’re making that proposal.
There’s a couple ideas that I would focus on with a proposal like that.
Greg Alexander: Those are great ideas. One follow up question to that. When a sales leader is submitting a business case to a CFO seeking funding for an initiative, you mentioned the heavy focus on revenue and maybe an incomplete analysis on cost. Do you believe that a sales leader should be measured both on revenue and profit, one or the other?
Tim Huffmyer: That’s good. At the end of the day, there’s a balance there. Based on the strategic launch of the company, the strategic range of where the company is operating in at the time, I think you can find that balance. At the end of the day, revenue growth has a certain value to it. Revenue itself has a value. Revenue growth has a different value, and profit has a value. Ultimately our shareholders are valuing any company based on the profits, but there is those revenue multipliers that need to be taken into consideration.
I’d say, Greg, it largely needs to be aligned with the strategy of the company. They are both important, but depending on the strategy of the company at the time, one may get a heavier weighting than the other. You may not completely eliminate one or the other, but I definitely think it’s a balance, and it would be specific to whatever the strategy is at the time.
Greg Alexander: Yeah. That’s a good answer. I see it in all different ways. I see a sales leader sometimes measure just on revenue, and that puts them in conflict with the CFO, because the CFO has the expense budget.
Tim Huffmyer: Right.
Greg Alexander: And they’re arguing with each other. Then I see sometimes where a sales leader is given maybe like a contribution margin target to hit, and that’s better, but it’s still somewhat incomplete. I’m always curious there as to what the right alignment should be. That was helpful advice.
We’re going to take a quick break here, and when we come back, we’re going to walk through a case study, if you will, with Tim, a hypothetical case study around head count planning, and matching that up with a P&L statement, and get his perspective on what’s the best way to plan for sales head counts, since that’s the biggest item in a sales expense budget. We’ll be right back.
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Greg Alexander: Welcome back, everybody. Today we’re talking to Tim Huffmyer, the CFO of Black Box Network Services, and we’ve been talking about sales and marketing effectiveness, and how sales and marketing departments contribute to value creation for a firm from the perspective of the CFO. Right before the break, I suggested that on the back side of the break we talk about head count planning.
Back to our original hypothetical case. You come out of the first quarter. You’re heading into the second quarter. The strategic plan has now hit the streets, so to speak, and some of the assumptions have proven to be correct or incorrect. A lot of times in sales planning, those assumptions are head count based, so hypothetically I went into the year and I said I was going to go from eight hundred sales reps to a thousand sales reps. Through the first quarter, maybe I’ve hired a quarter of those, and maybe the productivity of those sales reps has been under what I estimated they would be.
Now what’s in question is do we continue with the hiring plan for the rest of the year, Q two, three and four, or do we slow it down. There’s some philosophical debate on this. The staffing plan in sales usually falls into one of three categories. There’s the rapid build, which says throw caution to the wind. Put as many feet on the street as possible. Activity leads to results, and I got to go beat some bushes, so staff up quickly. That’s one approach.
The other approach is a safety build, that says I understand what the market is. Yes, I agree I need to go from eight hundred to a thousand, but let’s do this in incremental chunks and see how it goes. That’s the safety build.
The third one, which is probably the most conservative, which says let’s fund this through operating cash flow, and let’s pay as you go. As we add each individual sales head, we understand what the break even point is, and how much profit they need to generate to fund another sales person, and we have tight financial controls, and we can monitor it that way. Each of those three approaches has its pros and cons.
Back to our case. You come out of Q one. You had a hiring plan to go from eight hundred to a thousand people. You hired a quarter of those folks, but the productivity numbers are off. From your perspective and your twenty years of experience here, Tim, do you stay the course, or do you slow down the hiring and let revenue catch up with labor expense?
Tim Huffmyer: Yeah. I’ve experienced this, and, as gut wrenching as it is, I think the strategic direction of the company really gives you your answer there. If you had a plan, and you’ve built the expectations of the rapid build, and you’ve laid out expectations accordingly, and you have confidence around your onboarding process, your training processes, and you have the right indicators in place as far as the right executive team to make the decisions, I think you stay that course, as gut wrenching as it may be. If you’ve built a lesser of an expectation out there with your stakeholders, I think that strategy can really answer a lot of those questions for you.
Coming from the finance function, corporate, if you will, background, I think planning goes a long way, so having the right plan for that staff ramp up, and making sure your processes are sound around that give you that confidence, if you will, to stick it out through maybe some rough times. I mean you’re not going to get the returns that you’d like every single measurement period that you may be looking at, but looking at some of those indicators, having confidence in your core processes, your executive team, leadership team, on who is making those decisions and hires, that can go a long way I think in providing a little bit of satisfaction through a process that, again, you may not see those financial results, and you may be seeing negative financial results as a result of that.
There’s a couple perspectives from my standpoint, Greg.
Greg Alexander: In several of the questions that I’ve asked you, your answer has been it comes back to the corporate strategy, which I agree, and very often sometimes we have misalignment between what the corporate strategy is and the functional strategies are, which begs a question. What I’ve witnessed with you is that you’re a confidant of your CEO, a trusted business partner of your CEO, which is great. That puts you in a tough spot, because sometimes you have to support the sales leader, and be an advocate for his strategy, but, also, be a good shepherd of their company, if you will, and make sure that we’re not just running around carelessly and making decisions.
How do you balance that? How do you balance being a peer with the sales and marketing leader, but, also, playing the role of the right hand man of the CEO?
Tim Huffmyer: Yeah. Mike and I have been together for eleven years now, and I’ve worked beside him. Helped him build a team. Got him through Sarbane-Oxley when he was the CFO, so we have a great deal of trust between us, and we’re different personalities, too. We balance each other out in a number of ways, and it’s interesting.
But having that corporate finance and accounting background, trying to keep the emotion out of it, which can be difficult when you’re not hitting your numbers per se, or the financial forecasts aren’t going exactly as planned. It’s really staying the course with methodology, with strategy, and the accountants and the finance folks get a hard rap when it comes to dryness, or not having a lot of emotion, but that’s why in my mind. We play a role there to bring everybody back to the reality of the financial information that we have in front of us, having confidence in that planning process that we’ve done, and just trying to give everyone confidence that as long as those processes are in place, and we haven’t had any major breakdown, and we’re still predicting the same outcomes, we have to stay that course, and keep moving forward there.
It is definitely a delicate balance. Stepping into the CFO role with Mike was yet another transition that he and I had to work through, and the intensity of those transitions has increased over the years, but I think in general there, it’s not a spreadsheet exercise when you’re talking about planning. You need to look at the guts of your process, and the guts of the inputs and outputs, and make sure you’re going to produce what you intended to produce in the beginning. At the end of day, it’s all about revenue growth and profit growth usually. It’s just a matter of how you’re going to get there.
It can be a challenge, but, like I said, I try to keep the emotion out of it, and clinically dissect situations in order to provide input. Sometimes we’re aligned. Sometimes we’re not, but, at the end of the day, I think there’s the confidence back and forth that he knows what he’s going to get from me, and he’s going to rely on that to help him make decisions.
Greg Alexander: Yeah. I love the term clinically dissect. You’re right, you guys do get a bad rap, but somebody has to remain logical and calm. When you have emotional sales and marketing leaders running around, there needs to be the counter balance.
We’re going to take one more break, and we’re going to come back with our last segment. Our last segment is going to be focused on the CFO’s perspective on marketing spend, and how to generate some returns for marketing. Up to this point, our conversations has been about sales, and I want to dedicate a segment to marketing. We’ll be right back. Hang in there with us.
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Greg Alexander: We’re back. We’re talking with Tim Huffmyer, CFO of Black Box Network Services, and we’ve been discussing sales and marketing effectiveness from the perspective of the CFO’s office. Now we’re going to turn our attention to measuring the returns from all the money that we’re spending in marketing.
Marketing is different from sales in the fact that sales is expense, which is a big expense in the B to B world, typically four to five times the cost of marketing, but the expense is largely labor expense. Somewhere around eighty percent of that budget is labor. That’s all about head count planning and resource allocation.
In marketing, it’s just the opposite. In marketing you usually have a small staff, but you spend a lot of money on programs, campaigns, and spend money with vendors, and on things, so to speak, to drive them in. Tim, what’s your perspective on measuring marketing, and trying to figure out are you getting a return for the dollars that you’re spending on marketing?
Tim Huffmyer: Yeah. This one is a little harder, because the return is going to be more difficult to measure, because it’s going to be longer term. You could hire a salesman and you could see a ramp up. Possibly within a couple quarters you could start to see some return there. Whereas the marketing spend, the programming is going to be over a longer period of time.
It is difficult. I go back to some of my basics on understanding the purpose of the spend. How it aligns with the strategy of the company, and you kind of have to lock on, assuming your financials are staying somewhat sound and predictable, you really want to stay vested in that. I use the analogy, it’s a finance analogy that hopefully some of your listeners can relate to, but it’s the wellness program initiatives that are out there, and wellness programs, which is largely related to health spending or health care spending, if you prevent one major claim that would have cost you five hundred thousand dollars of expenses, that can pay for a big wellness program over time.
I’m going to flip back to your question. I see marketing in a really similar light. If you can create culture and ultimately drive activity that’s going to elevate the quality of your company from a perception standpoint, or drive X number of leads in there, you need to be able to balance that out, and know that it’s part of the formula. That allocation is very important. As you know, as we’ve worked together here, we’re going through a reallocation of that, making sure that we have longer term visibility on the marketing spend.
There’s a few thoughts from my perspective on marketing and how that spend is important, but the measurement angles have to be aligned. That’s a given. You just got to get creative on what kind of value you’re going to assign to that, and some of it’s hypothetical, especially in the early years of the investments. It’s sort of like my wellness example, where I’m going to save X of major claims over the first two years. Flip that to marketing. We’re going to accomplish X, Y or Z. You need to assign a value to that, and be fairly comfortable with that investment.
Greg Alexander: These models can get very complex. There’s a debate around attribution. For every marketing dollar I spend, how many leads did I generate, and how many of those leads turned into revenue. In a B to B sales cycle, which could go for a number of months, in some cases a number of years.
Tim Huffmyer: Years.
Greg Alexander: Yeah. Is it first touch attribution, last touch attribution, multi-touch attribution? Do you have any magic sauce there on how you measure marketing’s contribution to revenue?
Tim Huffmyer: Well, I’d say we’re largely developing that as we speak. As we’ve publicly disclosed and as we’ve focused really initially on our sales initiative, we are largely developing the marketing spend that we would like to commit to in the next one to three years, and what we believe that contribution back to the business is going to be.
I will tell you from my perspective, at least sitting here today, that it is a long term place, so I would say that it’s based on a multiple attribute touch, and it’s measured definitely over months and months of activity, rather than the short term. We’re just not in the business where you’re going to see that short term return from a marketing spend, but I think the case is made and is going to be made that that longer term, in the business that we’re in, that multi-year attribute is going to be important for us to succeed as a player in our market space.
We’re largely developing that now, and it does have that multiple year, multiple touch feel to it, Greg.
Greg Alexander: Yeah. I hadn’t spoken to you personally in a while, and I know our teams are working together. I just didn’t know if you had developed anything there, but you’re right, it’s early, and it is multi-year, and it takes some patience, and it’s still under development, so to speak.
We’re at our time allotment here, and just to do a quick recap. This series, or this episode of our podcast here is with Tim Huffmyer, who is the CFO of Black Box Network Services, and its focus was sales and marketing effectiveness from the CFO’s office. I asked Tim a lot of finance related questions, and asked him to give us some guidance on how sales and marketing can increase their contribution to wealth creation for the firm, and how they can move the share price and serve all the stakeholders better.
Tim, it was really fascinating to talk to you about this. You added a lot to this series, and I think our listeners are going to benefit greatly from listening to this. On behalf of everybody, thank you for being generous with your time, and making a contribution to our field.
Tim Huffmyer: Thank you, Greg. I appreciate your support, and appreciate the offer to help out here.
Greg Alexander: Great. Take care.
Tim Huffmyer: Take care.
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