Pretty Big Deal: Kevin Knieriem and the 72-Hour Negotiation

Kevin Knieriem started his career in sales selling ice cream to convenience stores. Now he’s the chief revenue officer of Clari. In this week’s episode, Kevin tells us how he ended up in a windowless meeting room negotiating for 40 hours straight, despite his own company’s global team trying to intervene.

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Kevin Knieriem: Sometimes when you go to battle, there are ramifications afterwards, you distrust us. And quite honestly, I distrust you.

Sam Balter: And you’re in one windowless room for over 40 hours?

Kevin Knieriem: Survive in the room, getting a little ripe. I show up at home, it’s 4: 00 or 4:45 in the morning. I don’t know what I’m going to see her again.

Sam Balter: That and more on this week’s episode of Pretty Big Deal. When did you get started in sales?

Kevin Knieriem: It’s interesting. In college, my internships were always sales. I had one that was actually selling hog and dos, door to door to convenience stores. And the other was selling soap to supermarket. But college actually led me to Accenture now Anderson consulting, where I ended up doing implementation work, but in my heart, I always knew I was a sales rep. And so I had to figure out how to go from that into selling. And my jumping off point was moving over to a company called Civil systems, which was really the first enterprise CRM as a a solution engineer. And after a year and a half I raised my hand, I actually emailed a person by the name of Dominic Derment, who was running sales at the time and said, I want to sell. And I got a chance to sell.

Sam Balter: So you started in ice cream and soap. What did you love about sales from the beginning?

Kevin Knieriem: What I learned is if you go above and beyond, even if you are not the leader in the category, you can achieve what you want. I found that if I offered to reset the entire aisle of soap and detergents, they would let me put my product in the prime position. So it was a lot of sweat equity on the weekends to get my soap in the right spot.

Sam Balter: So can you tell me about a particular deal that has shifted your perspective on sales?

Kevin Knieriem: So I have to go back in time to when I worked for SAP, where I spent about 11 years and as a rep, I had been chasing this Japanese automaker based in Southern California. I’ll never forget walking in with the rep. And by the way, the rep’s name is Jake Mars. So Jake and I walking, and it’s an interior conference room and it’s tight and it’s hot and there’s no windows and it’s a round desk. And on one side is the customer’s procurement finance business in IT, and you could just feel the tension in the room. They did not want us there. They did not want to run a process. They distrusted my team and my company, so I thought, how am I going to diffuse this situation? What am I going to be able to do to change the narrative? And so the first thing I said is, I’m just going to be honest with you guys. You distrust us. And quite honestly, I distrust you. And so why don’t we all let our force fields down and just reset. And I’ll tell you that comment, the force field, as if someone opened the doors behind me and all the tension came out of the room, everybody relaxed. And we said, look, we’re all advocates for our companies and we want the best outcomes for our companies. So let’s work together in what that means. And so obviously trust didn’t happen in that first meeting, but trust, starts to build up. And one of the things that we did is when we asked for something, please give us access to X, Y, and Z. And we’re going to be open and honest with you if we have fit, if we have gap and what the challenges might be. And every day we did that… We did the same pattern of building trust, listening to customer, recognizing their challenges and fears. And that allowed us to really get to the point where, okay, we’re going to run this real evaluation. And we might be able to expand scope because based on what you’re telling us and showing us, you could actually add a lot of impact to our company.

Sam Balter: And with a global deal like this. Did you feel there were any hurdles even with your own company that you had to deal with?

Kevin Knieriem: For sure. The interesting one on in dealing with my own company in their Japanese team was they weren’t used to doing big deals. Typically, when they were in a big deal, they would call in… SAP had a global deal team at the time that would come in and take over. So what they did is they called that global deal team to come in and take over. And we said, we don’t need that, we got this taken care of. We’re running this. This is ours. We’ve got years into this transformational project, but what it got interesting is the parent companies got wind of this. So SAP Japan found out that the US is about to do a really big deal with a Japanese automaker. And the Japanese automaker, Japan found out that the US business was about to go and transform and they weren’t happy. And so when you’ve got internal politics on both companies starting to play out at the point of negotiation. And so the negotiation starts again on site where we have a room, it’s another interior conference room, which just happens to be on a higher floor this time. So it’s not in the basement and it’s myself and Jake Mars, who I mentioned earlier. And there’s four folks from the customer all in the room together. And this is that same group, by the way, where we had our force fields up and we didn’t trust each other. And now we’re advocates for companies trying to figure out how to do business together. And so this room that distrusted each other at the beginning now became one team. So Japanese automaker, US, SAP America coming together to try and do a deal when their parent companies either wanted to take control or didn’t want to do it. And so the turning of this group of people was really cool for me to see. And we spent… It was almost 48 to 72 hours in this room together without leaving.

Sam Balter: And you’re in one windowless room for over 40 hours?

Kevin Knieriem: Yeah, you can imagine the amount of takeout that was piling up, the vibe in the room, right. It’s getting a little ripe and I did get one moment of 45 minutes to run home and take a shower. And this was, after, I don’t know, 30 hours of being there. And I show up at home, it’s 4: 00 or 4:45 in the morning. And my wife is, where have you been? Quick shower and ran out. I’m like, I don’t know when I’m going to see her again. And there’s all this drama playing out in our companies behind the scenes, on taking over control, what the deal should look like.

Sam Balter: You’re a CRO and looking back, it seemed sales rep, Kevin went a little bit rogue. So I’m wondering if somebody on your team today did what you did. How would you react?

Kevin Knieriem: Here’s how I viewed it. There was not going to be a deal. There was not going to be an opportunity if this team hadn’t created it. And so showing up with an opportunity, not just the initial software, but of relationship going forward and what the value that it meant for the partner ecosystem to actually implement it. So I’ve learned that lesson in a big way, is I think about our business. The first thing I do is anytime we have an opportunity that’s global in nature, and maybe the leader lives in one country and the company’s headquartered another is I’ll make sure we have alignment before we do it.

Sam Balter: And one of the things I’ve been wondering, especially with everybody moving to remote sales, changing so quickly, do you think there’s aspects of this deal that maybe wouldn’t happen today? The way you’re describing it. It’s very much you’re in this room. You’re in this particular spot. Has sales changed too much?

Kevin Knieriem: It’s a great question. We haven’t been onsite at Clary in with a customer in approaching two years. To me, the artist sellings has changed a lot, right? You cannot rely on that sales rep that has the sport code or the fancy outfit and the expensive purse and the expensive watch to do the wine and dine with the customer anymore. They actually have to know what they’re doing and they have to add value to that customer. At the end of the day, it’s all in service of doing what’s right for the company that’s selling the solution. So it’s asking the customer how they want to be supported. And two it’s making sure your teams are aligned to deliver what’s best for the customer. Not what’s best for us.

Sam Balter: This week’s episode of Pretty Big Deal featured Kevin Canarium of Clary, it was produced by me, Sam Balter and edited by Xavier Leon. If you have a pretty big deal to tell us about write in, at Otherwise we’ll see you on the next one.