Some assembly required

Some assembly required

How ABB’s US operation seized the moment and built a better Utilities sales team

On July 1, 2020, things got real for ABB’s Electrification business. That day marked the official end of the company’s presence in the high-voltage transmission segment of the utilities market and the first day of full independence for the newly created ABB Hitachi Power Grids joint venture.

ABB still had a significant stake in the utilities sector (e.g., switchgear, relays, circuit breakers, and a host of digital offerings) but most of its dedicated industry salesforce was now part of another company. How, then, did ABB prepare itself for the divestment of the Power Grids business and the impact it would have on customers?

Setting priorities

ABB tapped Mike Plaster, a veteran of the Electrification business, to run US sales and marketing for the division. Mike, in turn, appointed two Regional Vice Presidents, Nedra Hurley and John Hayter, to build out the new sales team.

“John and I both knew Mike well,” recalls Hurley, “so we knew his management style.”

One of the key elements of Plaster’s approach was a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and his marching orders to his new lieutenants were to hire the most diverse group available, and set a new benchmark for diversity and inclusion at ABB.

Hurley and Hayter took an expansive interpretation of “diversity,” stretching beyond gender and race to include experience and personality. They drew people from internal and external sales roles, from within and outside the company, and from within and outside the industry. They also formed a completely new internal sales team to support the external one.John Hayter

Nedra Hurley (L) and John Hayter (R) with colleagues at an off-site event.
Nedra Hurley (L) and John Hayter (R) with colleagues at an off-site event.

Moving fast

The pandemic took hold just as the talent search began, but it didn’t keep the team from meeting their June 1, 2020 target date. All positions were filled by that time and work began on training everyone on products, solutions, and sales tools.

“We had to move fast,” says Hayter. “We had six months to fill all the roles, in the middle of the pandemic. I think I had one single face-to-face interview through the entire process.”

The next step was to address channel partners. ABB’s reps were essential for product sales, especially with smaller utilities that don’t have a dedicated account manager, but with more than 40 different channel partners, it was a large and unwieldy group. The sales ranks had been thinned to 19 reps, most offering products from both ABB’s Distribution Solutions and Installation Products divisions.

“The sales force didn’t have a great understanding of reps,” recalls Hayter. “Working with them was often seen as ‘losing control’ rather than working with a partner.” That changed under the new organization.

“We built trust, and business increased,” says Hayter.

ABB faced a number of challenges in its utility sales operations. Some salespeople accustomed to selling big-ticket assets had a hard time adjusting to commodity products. There was also a dearth of cross-selling and in some cases a low level of customer contact. Training addressed those issues.

Communication is key

ABB also had a monumental task to bring customers up to speed on all the changes that were precipitated by the Power Grids divestment. There was customer confusion around name changes to some products. There were new contacts to meet—both on the internal and external teams—and there was still more detail to convey about the working relationship between the new joint venture and ABB teams going forward.Nedra (L) and John (far R) with team members.

“We had strong collaboration between the leadership and account managers on both sides,” says Hurley. “We had dozens of calls with customer leadership teams, we did LinkedIn broadcasts, had joint calls with the incoming and outgoing account managers….”

“We probably sent more than a thousand emails,” adds Hayter.

By the time ABB Hitachi Power Grids became a freestanding company , all key information had been disseminated to customers. ABB’s efforts started bearing fruit almost immediately. One top-20 investor-owned utility reported a pleasant uptick in the level of contact with his account manager. Another lauded their new inside sales rep. The payoff was also measured in dollars, for example with a $50m blanket order negotiated by one of the new team members without a single in-person meeting.

Diversity is strength

Nedra Hurley attributes much of her team’s success with the broad range of talent that the group comprises, and she has a novel piece of data to illustrate it.

“We did personality assessments, like the ones most of us have taken at some point,” she explains, “and it was incredible. Almost everyone had a unique ‘top skill.’ There were 30 different ones across the group.”

Hurley says she uses the assessments to match people to tasks that they are well equipped to do and are likely to enjoy. Those with a future orientation and a knack for ideation might land on a product development team, for example.

“We are not hierarchical,” says Hayter. “We’re pragmatic.”

That’s good because the team is serving an industry undergoing tremendous change. Utilities in 2021 are focused on resiliency, especially to withstand storms, wildfires, and other extreme weather resulting from climate change. They are also contending with the increased adoption of electric vehicle charging, the development of microgrids, and the growing role of energy storage and other distributed resources. And they are doing all of this against a backdrop of ongoing grid modernization. ABB’s Utilities Sales Team celebrated its one-year anniversary on July 1, and if these early results are any indication, the group is well positioned to serve this dynamic market for many more years to come.


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