As a long-time cyber professional who began my career on the engineering side of the house, I often thought about the rapport I needed to build with my customers. As an engineer (sales engineer to be precise), my value was in connecting to our customers and leveraging the conversation from layman’s terms to technical terms and vice-versa. The ability to build that confidence and credibility with our customers was so important to our success.

As I moved my career in the direction of direct sales, it became even more important to ensure that I built this credibility with my customers. Yet, sales opened my eyes to a much bigger realization—there is something more important than the credibility and confidence in oneself and a product.

The concept of trust became crystal clear to me as I began to build a long-lasting relationship with my customers. Cyber security is personal; an attack or breach on your customer could mean the end to a long and successful career. Building that trust with your customer is not a methodology or a process, it’s a genuine respect for what they are dealing with and empathy for the pain they feel. From a cyber security perspective, we are more than technology sales professionals. If our solutions fail, there are jobs at risk and sometimes companies as a whole.

There was a specific customer engagement that I was involved with where this became crystal clear. This was also a sales cycle that forever changed the way I interact and work with my customers.

It was my first year in sales (after a 12-year career as an SE and SE leader), and I was challenged to sell to a large local company that kept eluding us.  I was able to secure a meeting with the CISO and his staff to provide an overview of my solution. During that meeting, the CISO made it very clear that he felt my solution was a commodity, and we were much more expensive than our nearest competitor. I tried everything I learned in my sales training—knowing the pain, selling value, understanding the landscape, etc.—and nothing seemed to be working. I honestly felt like I was out of options and failure was looming. In that moment, I remembered that during my research of the CISO, I found out that he was new and had just moved his family from the Midwest to the East Coast for this opportunity. I instantly felt empathy for him as he was working to establish himself with his team and the vendor community.

As if it were a natural response, I said, “You can trust me!” He stopped, looked directly at me and said, “What does that mean?” I proceeded to let him know that if anything happened at his company, I would be there for him. I was local, and I knew the business. If there were to ever be a problem, he could trust that I would be a phone call away with resources to help. It was very interesting—the entire mood of the meeting changed, and the CISO politely said, “Thanks for the time, we will be in touch.” Within two days, I received a call from the CISO letting me know that he would go with our solution and how appreciative he was for our help.

This is not where the story ends; it’s where it begins. Two months after that initial sale, I was sitting at my son’s basketball game when my phone started going crazy with texts and emails letting me know that this company just had one of the largest breaches (at the time) ever. I immediately stepped out, called the CISO and left him a message that said, “Hey, I just heard, and I am so very sorry this happened. I told you I would be there for you; please let me know what I can do to help.” Truthfully I never actually thought I would get a response due to the notoriety and press of this particular breach. However, within about an hour, I received a voicemail back from the CISO—one that I will never forget. It said, “Hey Rick, I just want to thank you for reaching out. Please call me at home because my cell and office-phone VMs are full of vendors calling me to let me know that if I had their product, this would not have happened. You are the only one who called and asked, what can I do to help.” This forever changed the way I approached my customers. It wasn’t a sales strategy or some methodology I learned; it was genuine care and empathy for my customer, his company and his well-being. I genuinely cared!

We ended up having a great relationship, and over the next 12 months, we were able to do much more business with them. I asked the CISO to attend one of my sales meetings so that other reps could ask him about his experiences. During that session, one of the reps asked this question: “Why did you initially buy our product?” He stood up, pointed directly at me and said, “Because of him.” He went on to talk about the importance of building credibility with your personal knowledge of the industry, instilling confidence in your solution or product to solve the problems within the organization, and, most of all, defining and building trust in the individual from whom you are about to make a purchase.

I am forever grateful for that experience, and it’s one that I reflect on each time I attend any type of customer meeting or engagement. I always ask myself these three questions when I leave:

  1. Did I build personal credibility with my knowledge of the customer and our industry?
  2. Did I create and instill confidence in my company and our solution?
  3. Do they trust me?

Our industry is different. Cyber security is so much more than just technology—it’s personal. We are selling to people, not just companies; people whose jobs rely on our solutions being successful.  We sell assurance and trust every day, ultimately providing value and solving problems. It is imperative to understand our customers—their needs, their challenges, their lives—and be empathetic with them. Not only will you find that building that authentic connection will lead to success, but you might also find a much more satisfying human experience.