Fireside Friday with Kevin Knieriem
Sales Assembly: Give us your quick background in sales.
Kevin: I started my career at Andersen Consulting working with enterprise companies on business process design and systems integration. Later, I joined Siebel Systems as a solutions engineer and had the opportunity to demonstrate the very first CRM system. Shortly after, I transitioned to sales and eventually sales leadership roles at SAP, Oracle, and DataScience.com, where I grew the business from pre-revenue to acquisition by Oracle. Now I’m the CRO at Clari, leading a global revenue organization.
Sales Assembly: What's your biggest accomplishment in sales or sales leadership?
Kevin: Early on in my career at SAP, I got the patch that nobody wanted and, after a lot of hard work, I was able to turn the business around and win a deal that was considered unwinnable. This event enabled me to continue to grow my franchise to $44m in just a few short years. My first CRO role at DataScience.com was also a major growth experience. I moved from one of the biggest companies on earth to one of the smallest and built a repeatable selling motion from demand generation to customer success that ultimately led to the acquisition by Oracle.
Sales Assembly: What's the best piece of sales advice you ever got?
Kevin: The best advice I ever received was from my mentor, Chris Ball, General Manager, Americas at Adobe, who told me to always be curious. I was an individual contributor on Chris’s team when he sat me down and told me it was time to step up and run a line in his business. The first question I asked myself was, what did I have to offer those I would lead? What would I give back? Additionally, as part of this process of getting ready to lead, I realized I needed a growth plan. I needed to map out gaps, experiences, and stakeholders required in order to prepare myself for the next challenge. I give this advice to my team all the time — and it works. In fact, I repeated the process to find my own stars.
Sales Assembly: What's the biggest challenge facing a sales rep today, and how would you recommend they overcome it?
Kevin: One of the biggest challenges for sales reps today is CRM. Sales has always had a contentious relationship with CRM because the system is cumbersome and requires a significant amount of manual data entry before you can get any value out of it. Salespeople are already stretched thin as it is. The last thing they need is more admin work that takes them away from actual selling. And because CRM has very little data in it to assess risk, sales leaders are disconnected from the realities of what is actually happening in deals and across their pipelines -- forcing a brute force interrogation approach to management, that no sales rep (or sales leader) likes.
AI, machine learning and automation solutions, such as Clari, are changing the game for sellers and the teams supporting them. They free up time and point everyone on the revenue team in the right direction — sales, marketing, and customer success — by showing where there’s risk and upside in the pipeline. That level of visibility changes the conversations in 1:1s, QBRs, forecast calls from interrogations to having productive, data-driven coaching sessions, and that’s where the reps start getting a lot of value: in building scalable franchises to meet and exceed revenue goals.
Sales Assembly: Do you currently have a mentor when it comes to sales, or have you ever? If so, what did they teach you?
Kevin: Chris Ball has been my mentor since my SAP days. He taught me creative problem solving, how to think bigger and how to run a business — and for that, I’m grateful. I also have assembled a collection of career stakeholders that I turn to for mentoring, advice, networking and challenges.
Sales Assembly: What's the best sales book you've ever read? What are you reading now?
Kevin: I take bits and pieces from all of the sales books I read. The one book that helped me early on in my career was a very old-school selling book called, Selling To Vito (The Very Important Top Sales officer) — this book, in particular, helped me jump-start my business as a rep at SAP.
Currently, I’m reading a collection of HBR books. They are not sales books, they are what I call “people books.” As a sales leader, it’s important to take a moment to think about the journey and what everyone — employees, customers, shareholders — are collectively trying to get out of it.
Sales Assembly: Best sales or business related articles, podcasts or newsletters?
Kevin: I read US history books that focus on leadership during difficult times, particularly major US conflicts. The leaders that rise to the occasion when their battle plans are thrown into disarray fascinate me. It’s the ones that lead from the front, inspire those around them to do extraordinary things that I take a lot from. Those leadership moments that can’t be taught, but are instinctual. What in them caused them to act that way? How did they make those life or death decisions with the limited information they had? What did they have to invest in their people to get them to follow them and rise above their natural tendencies against all odds?
Sales Assembly: What's the best advice you'd give to someone just starting a career in sales?
Kevin: Nothing happens unless you make it happen.
Sales Assembly: Do you see any interesting future trends as it pertains to sales?
Kevin: The way people buy and make decisions has completely changed. Buyers are searching for information and getting informed through different internal and external outputs. By the time the salesperson actually gets on the phone with buyers, a lot of education has already taken place and the salesperson needs to understand how they’ve been informed already. The role of the seller isn’t just about deal execution — there’s an entire journey they need to navigate through to add value.
Sales Assembly: What‘s a single event that had the most impact on you as a sales rep?
Kevin: On the steps of a $40+ billion organization, Ingram Micro, Bill McDermott, the world’s best salesperson (and at the time the CEO of SAP Americas) told me as we were preparing to present to the board: “You got this.” And then, amazingly, in front of the board of this behemoth information technology company, he empowered me, a sales rep, as the spokesperson for SAP, saying “he will work harder for you than anybody.'' At that point, I went from being a sales rep to having all the power and this transformed my entire sales cycle with this company.