The BBC’s classic comic character Edmund Blackadder would have made a terrible salesperson. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert relates a series of aggravating encounters with one tech company’s people that all seemed to be channeling Blackadder’s surly waspishness.
According to the numbers, my column’s readership is split pretty much 3:2 between Europeans and Americans (with a few die-hard readers in Japan). The metrics suggest that only about a third of my readers appear to work in the cyber security sector.  Because of that, I figure that I might need to frame this column for the two fifths non-European readers and two thirds non-security sector readers so that the title and references aren’t completely confusing.
For reference, then: Blackadder was an immensely popular television comedy project that ran on the BBC for four related short series and a handful of one-off specials between 1983 and 1989. If you haven’t seen it, treat yourself. Try one episode and see whether or not you agree with critics that it was one of the best British television comedies of all time. Separate from that, Carbon Black Inc. is an American cyber security company that specializes in ‘endpoint security’ devices and services. They’ve got a strong reputation within the IT industry for innovative products and solutions.
Right! Now that those are defined, here’s the premise that I’m arguing: that both of those two brands feature some self-defeating characters that undermine their long-term objectives through short-sighted decisions and poor interpersonal skills. Keep in mind that your personal experience with both brands may vary; I’m only going to relate what I’ve experienced.
Several years ago, I read an article about a really neat sounding security company called Bit9. A while later, I learned that Bit9 had merged with a company called Carbon Black. I didn’t have a chance to buy their products, but I did read up on them out of curiosity. After I retired from the USAF, I investigated companies in the security sector looking for neat ideas. I came across Carbon Black again. Although I never talked to their people, I began to have a favourable association with their brand.
Not long after that, I joined a cloud computing company. One of the projects that came across my desk had the name ‘Carbon Black’ on it. I was interested in application of CB’s tech, so I downloaded some of their publicly-available whitepapers. That got me invited to several of their promotional webcasts, which, in turn, got me more invitations to download their content.
This is a pretty common marketing technique and it works well. A company offers something of value to the community for free – like a whitepaper or a lecture – in order to reinforce its credibility. Such acts demonstrate that the company is genuinely interested in the wellbeing of its clients. The clients, in turn, come to trust the content provider.  Customers are okay giving up their name, company name, email address and phone number in exchange for some timely information that can help them to solve a problem. The prospective client is pleased with the brand, and the sales weasels get a new contact. There’s nothing at all wrong with this technique.
When I finished integrating the Carbon Black project, I received a call from a cheerful and helpful CB marketeer. ‘Hey!’ he said, ‘I saw that you downloaded our whitepaper. We’re having a live webinar presentation next week where an expert will talk in detail about the stuff from that paper. Would you like to attend?’ I said that I’d be delighted. The actual webinar was just okay, mostly because I didn’t come to it with the right engineering background to understand some of the product’s capabilities. Still, I felt it was a good exchange: I gave up my lunch, and I got to learn something interesting. Fair trade.
A few weeks later, another cheerful and helpful marketer phoned. ‘Hey!’ she said. ‘I saw that you downloaded this other whitepaper. We’re having a live webinar presentation later on this week where an expert will talk in detail about the stuff from that paper. Would you like to attend?’ I mentioned that I’d just attended their webinar, but the salesperson was undeterred. ‘It’ll be a slightly different topic,’ she said. I agreed to participate. Once again, I learned something new and interesting. Worth my time.
If you’re thinking, I get how this works, but I don’t see where the comedy of errors element comes in, you’re right on track. We’re almost there. Up until this point everything was fine.
A week after I attended their second webinar, I got a call from a CB sales weasel.  He was a nice enough fellow, but he kept pressuring me to talk about how many ‘seats’ I needed to protect. I told him that I wasn’t personally responsible for running security devices; I was running program management. I triaged, prioritized and advised on resource allocation for projects, one of which involved integrating Carbon Black tech. The sales weasel seemed crestfallen and lost interest in speaking with me. He called back later and asked me who he could pester that had real purchasing authority. I gave him a name, and off the weasel went. I never heard from that guy again. That struck me as rude, but then sales weasels are only charming when you have cash.
Over the next year, I kept getting automated invitations to download new CB papers and to attend their webinars. Towards the end of my time with the cloud company, I changed my registration e-mail from @cloud-company.com to @my-company.com so that I wouldn’t miss out on any good presos once I changed clients. The marketeers weren’t the least bit phased by this. Their automated invitations reached me at my company’s email. I accepted them and attended a few public events.
One day, while I was between major clients, I received a call from a new Carbon Black sales weasel. Just as before, the fellow asked me how many ‘seats’ I needed to protect and just as before I said ‘none’. I wasn’t evaluating their kit for my own firm. The sales weasel grew disheartened, then told me that I wasn’t a valid customer in CB’s eyes. You had to have a minimum of 50 endpoints before Carbon Black would sell you anything, he said. He told me that my consultancy was too small to be worth their time. I said I understood and wished the weasel well. Unsurprisingly, I never heard from him again.
A few months later, I took a contract with a new client and started a project evaluating new technologies. One of the products that came across my desk was – you guessed it – Carbon Freaking Black. It was a good project, very well designed, and the CB product looked like a good fit for the business requirements. I was comfortable endorsing the CB solution based on what I already knew about it, but I did my duty and went to CB’s site to pull down the documents that I needed to support my recommendations.
Once again, I got targeted by Carbon Black’s hunter/killer team of marketeers and sales weasels. Plural, this time. Multiple teams. And this time, the experience went from mildly irritating to infuriating.
First, I got the predictable-as-the-tides call from a cheerful and helpful marketeer. ‘Hey!’ she said. ‘I saw that you downloaded our whitepaper. We’re having a live webinar presentation later on this week where an expert will talk in detail about the stuff from that paper. Would you like to attend?’ I admitted that I’d already seen all of the webinar topics that they were offering. ‘No problem!’ she said. ‘Would you like to attend a live product demo with a company expert?’ I said ‘sure’, and the marketeer cheerfully made the arrangements.
On the day of the demo, I discovered that the ‘demo’ wasn’t a public event – it was a one-on-one pitch from an engineer. Before I could introduce myself or ask a single question, the presenter demanded to know how many endpoints I was looking to protect. When I said ‘none’, she cut me off and refused to carry on the discussion. ‘You don’t qualify as a customer,’ she said. ‘We don’t deal with clients who have fewer than 50 devices. This call should not have happened.’ I told her that I understood her position, and pointed out that while I wasn’t the person who would be deploying the product; I was the consultant who evaluated the product to approve it for purchase. She asked me if I was an employee or a consultant. When I admitted to being a consultant, the engineer’s tone from grumpy to icy cold. ‘We don’t do demos for consultants,’ she said, and ended the call.
I was pretty steamed over having had my time wasted, but I wasn’t going to take that out on the engineer. It was clear that there was a process disconnect somewhere between the marketing, sales and engineering groups. I should never have been offered or promised a demonstration because I didn’t meet their minimum requirements for what constituted a ‘real’ customer. I figured that I was finally done with the lot of them.
A week later, I received an email from yet another Carbon Black sales weasel. ‘Are you available the week of (month, day) for a technical demonstration?’ he asked. I didn’t reply. It seemed that this new bloke either hadn’t read my customer record or else word hadn’t made it down to him that I was a ‘non-customer’. I figured he’d eventually read my CRM entry, would realize that I was Not Their Type, and that would be the end of it. Nope! The same bloke emailed me with a new version of the same demo invite 48 hours later.
This aggravated me. Not much, to be fair; it was a minor irritation. I deleted the email and moved on. One week later, though, the same sales weasel pinged me again. ‘I know you must be busy,’ he wrote, ‘so I am unsure if you have had a chance to read my previous outreaches.’ I typed a draft reply starting with, ‘I know you must be busy, so I am unsure if you have had a chance to read my bloody customer record,’ then trashed the draft. There was no profit in lashing out at the young man.
Two weeks later, the same sales weasel came back for tilt number four at the Khubert windmill with another request to attend a live demo. That set me off. I zapped him back and asked (as politely as I could manage) ‘Could y’all please get together and decide once and for all whether or not you’re going to talk to me? I’m really annoyed with the way that I’ve been treated by Carbon Black…’
I expected to get at least a perfunctory apology. A little contrition. HA! No, that didn’t happen. The sales weasel simple disappeared without saying a word. I assume that he moved on to his next target, endlessly ravenous for that sweet, sweet commission check like a shark with a mortgage.
I strive to maintain my professional composure when dealing with low-level reps. They’re usually young, inexperienced and well-meaning, but are often ignorant of their company’s culture and history. I figured that all of these young folks I’d been interacting with were just doing what they’d been told to do, and didn’t appreciate how poorly they were making their company look. Someone had taught them that Consultants = Scum, and they’d internalized the concept without questioning it.
To be clear, I don’t think any less of Carbon Black as a company. I still like what I’ve read about their products. I also like what they’re doing for the industry. I didn’t – and I’m not going to – let my anger with some of their people taint my assessment of their brand’s potential business value.
On the other hand, I really want to wring some Carbon Black employees’ necks. Not for being unwilling to deal with me; I get that. It’s a daft decision, but company policies aren’t always rational. Maybe some rule in the sales playbook demanded that the live demo engineer refuse to deal with me. That’s not how it came across, though. Her tone suggested that I was somehow insulting her by wasting her time, even though I never once asked CB for a demo. Her marketing and sales force kept pestering me to be there. If she wanted to be angry, it should have been with her own staff.
Then there was the oblivious disconnect between personnel. That got earned my ire. Not just for ignoring my customer relationship management entry, where there should have been a dozen or more contacts entries that clearly explained what I do, where I work and what my role is. These guys didn’t even conduct a token online search about me. 15 seconds of checking Google or my LinkedIn profile could have warned any of these employees that I was a Non-Person by their company’s standards. The fact that not one of them bothered performing any due diligence suggests insulting indifference rather than overwork.
No, what I’m really steamed about are these people’s discourtesy. They hit me up four times in a month and when I finally respond– telling them quite clearly that I was a disgruntled potential customer – they all blew me off. They don’t make any attempt to repair the business relationship… didn’t even offer a token apology for having wasted my time. I find that callous arrogance to be infuriating. It insults me as an industry professional, and it threatens to colour my perception of their organisation as a whole. Worse, since I’m a consultant in the sector where they sell their products, their repeated discourtesy has the potential to negatively influence every other client that I advise, forever after, amen.
That being said, I’m asking you to not think ill of Carbon Black (the company) because of the antics of a few of their low-level employees. There’s obviously a disconnect between their marketing staff, their engineering staff and their sales weasels that management needs to fix. I can’t be the only person that’s experienced this treatment. Someone in a position of authority needs to take these junior employees aside and mentor them on how to better interact with potential customers.
I’m not trying to ding Carbon Black specifically for this sort of preventable nonsense. They’re by no means the only tech company that experiences these sorts of blunders. Rather, the two ideas that I want to emphasize from this story are: (1) that an interpersonal gaffe is more likely to alienate a customer than a technological failure, and (2) that every employee who is selected to interact with customers needs to be trained, supervised and audited to ensure that they’re not accidentally or intentionally alienating the customers. This is a trained skill, not a natural talent.
The premise of the BBC’s Blackadder shows was that the titular character – Edmund Blackadder – was ‘…a cynical, cowardly opportunist, maintaining and increasing his own status and fortunes, regardless of his surroundings’. That definition tracks well with my real world experiences with Carbon Black’s sales force, where a few misguided company reps seemed hell-bent on souring me for life on their company. In business, as it sometimes is in television, a character’s bad decisions and poor social encounters can have disastrous (and farcical) consequences. Unlike television comedies, however, bad impressions produced in the real world don’t vanish at the end of an encounter. People remember how they were mistreated. It takes a great deal of effort to avoid condemning the entire organization for the unfortunate antics of a few clumsy public representatives.
 That’s based on the domains that new page requests come from, since you don’t have to be registered on Business Reporter to read the online articles. We have to guess.
 This is why I can keep my consulting business humming along ghost-write articles and white papers for various cyber security firms.
 This isn’t a dig on Carbon Black’s sales staff; I think that all sales people everywhere are weasels. I assume that the whiskers and the insatiable appreciate for commissions checks gets issued like membership cards as soon as a normal human enters the sales community.
Title Allusion: Rowan Atkinson (et al), The Black Adder (1983 television series); Blackadder II (1986 television series); Black Adder the Third (1987 television series); and Blackadder Goes Forth (1989 television series)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.