Leadership Q&A – Bruce Laird

Bruce Laird is the President and CEO of Shantallow Partners, based in Melbourne. He leverages over 30 years in sales, leadership, and customer service to help his clients navigate the market and achieve their potential.

  1. What was your first sales role and in which industry?

My first role in the aviation industry was in Field Service Engineering for (now) Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Field Service Engineers work directly with and often alongside customers to keep their technical operations running efficiently. This role gave me a unique window into the challenges my customers faced to succeed in their relentlessly competitive business.

I couldn’t have asked for a better “boot camp” for a career in Sales. After 8 years in Field Service, I was offered an opportunity to move into Sales. It was a scary career move at the time since my peers in the global sales team were predominantly seasoned veterans and icons in the industry.  I definitely thought I’d been thrown in the deep end, but it turned out to be a pivotal opportunity. My sales region (Oceania) included Qantas, Ansett, and Air New Zealand, all prominent airline accounts. I enjoyed the role for 7 years, built deeper customer relationships, achieved all my sales targets, and realized I wanted a career in Aviation Sales.

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2. What was the first lesson you learnt on the job?

The first lesson in Sales was the same as in Field Service – to fully capture and understand the customer’s needs, priorities, and requirements. In my Sales role, this translated into shaping the commercial proposal to address their needs in a way that rose above their other options, along with delivering on what was promised.

3. How or why did you become a sales professional?

In those 7 years, I realized that I loved being in Sales and that it was a great fit for me. I’ve always been interested in commercial aviation, I’m passionate about working directly with customers, and I am quite honestly driven to win.  I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to build technical expertise and customer-facing experience before getting into Sales. I believe that a strong working product knowledge and professional social skills are fundamental for engaging customers with confidence.

Bruce Laird at airport

I was fortunate that Collins Aerospace offered excellent ongoing Sales and Leadership training. When I was promoted to lead commercial sales for the Asia-Pacific region, that role included leading a regional sales team with airline customer accounts in China, India, ASEAN, and Japan.   This International Sales lead role taught me the importance of understanding and accounting for our customers’ unique cultures and business drivers in building strong and trusted relationships.  In addition to gaining expertise in cultivating enduring cross-culture customer relationships, success in this role meant getting a handle on the global workings of the aviation industry, whilst honing and deploying the collective strengths of my sales team.

4. How would you describe your approach to sales, and what are the values that you live by?

  • Listen to and understand the customer – their needs, values, priorities, and challenges.
  • Understand your product thoroughly and how your product fits with your customer’s needs, values, etc.
  • Do your homework before engaging the customer. Time with the customer is precious and not to be wasted with questions you can answer through your own research.
  • Be the first to say you don’t have an answer and take an action item instead of a guess.  Trust, honesty, and follow-through are all very important if you expect to have a long term relationship with your customer.  Give your customer credit for being able to spot transactional behavior, and don’t be that person.
  • Know and have a healthy respect for your competitors. Assess your campaign from both the customer’s and competitors’ perspectives, and be prepared to adapt your approach if needed.

5. In your view, what are the three most important factors that determine sales success?

  1. Persistence
  2. A positive attitude
  3. Respect for your competitor

6. What did/do you love about sales?

The win. Success breeds more success, and the final decision means that you have read the customer correctly and had the right strategy.  A profitable win and a satisfied customer provides the ultimate confirmation that you are good at what you do.

7. What did/do you dislike about sales?

The misconception that anyone in an organization can do it.  Skilled professionals make Sales look easy, which is misleading.  Consistent success in selling demands informed vetting and cultivation of opportunities, and preparation, strategy and disciplined execution throughout the selling cycle. Ironically, the impact on a company that undervalues sales skills and experience may result not only in lost campaigns but also in lost opportunities where they never get the chance to compete.

8. Tell us about your most memorable sale and why.

I will leave out the airline name for confidentiality reasons.  After 9/11 Asia-Pac experienced a boom in Low-Cost Carriers (LCC). This phenomenon was already well established in both the USA and Europe.  I looked across regions in our Sales team for insight into the differences between selling to an LCC vs. a full-service carrier and quickly found that we did not yet have a strong selling strategy for the LCC market.

Meanwhile, our team had a major and high management-visibility opportunity for 100 new aircraft.   I was very lucky at the time to have an excellent salesman to work with, and together, we came up with the winning strategy and successfully secured the business.  Our strategy became the template that our larger team successfully replicated in other LCC competitions. A significant win in a new market was memorable enough, but we also helped our other sales regions enter the LCC market space.

9. What is the best piece of advice a sales manager passed on to you when you were in sales?

This is a hard one because there were many. Perhaps the best was “trust your gut.” Luckily, my gut has gotten smarter with experience. 😊

10. What do you wish you had known when you first started out in sales that you know now?

  1. People’s emotions are a key driver in buying decisions, even in a B-B environment
  2. Be open to new information and other viewpoints, and be prepared to adapt your selling strategy accordingly.
  3. Locate your decision-maker as early as possible.
Bruce Laird Family

 11. What is the secret for sales leaders to get the best out of their teams?

Lead by example and foster a safe environment where Salespeople can grow and know that they have your support through good and bad times. Mentor, celebrate, and reward success.  Hire the right people, then trust and delegate, empowering people, and letting them take ownership of the outcome.  It’s in our nature to want to win. I have had many wins over the years, but it’s the odd losses I remember the best.

12. How has your industry evolved in the last 10 years or so and what changes do you see coming in the next 10 years?

A big change for airline customers and avionics manufacturers was the shift from Buyer Furnished Equipment (BFE) selected by the airlines to more Seller Furnished Equipment (SFE), which was selected by the airframers and rolled into the aircraft purchase.  This shift started with Airbus and was later adopted at Boeing.

Going forward at the moment, the aviation industry is in a battle for survival with COVID-19.  We are seeing the end of life for large aircraft such as the A380 and B747 that supported large international hub and spoke operations.  The rise of point-to-point 2 engine aircraft such as the B787 and A350 and smaller Business Jets are expected to dominate the next 10 years or more.   

13. How do you balance life and work?

Coming from International Sales, which called for frequent travel, I was fortunate to be able to work out of my home office when I wasn’t on the road. I do the same today, working when I’m the most productive (i.e., mornings), or aligning my work time with customers or clients.

14. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Building websites (www.flyingtin.com being the latest) and renovating houses has been a constant theme for my wife and me over the last 20 years.  I also have a 1969 classic E-Type OTC Jaguar I have been restoring since 2012 and I would like to find some time to complete it.

About Shantallow Partners:

With more than 30 years of sales and marketing experience globally, our primary focus is on creating and expanding new markets for small and medium Australian companies looking to export goods or services into competitive, fast-growing Asian economies. We are exceptionally skilled at developing innovative, successful strategies that incorporate the needs of the market and the commercial objectives of our clients. We maintain an extensive network of close business connections across Asia-Pacific. Our key competencies include expertise in developing cross-cultural business relationships, market positioning strategies, and customer empathy.

For more information visit www.shantallow.com or connect with Bruce on LinkedIn.

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Joseph Sing
Joseph Sing is the Publisher of Head of Sales. Joseph’s marketing and media sales experience spans more than 15 years across vertical markets such as financial services, medical, legal, information technology, business and HR & recruitment. His clients have included notable organisation such as Google, Facebook, Westpac, CBA, Oracle, SAP, ServiceNow, Deloitte, Pfizer, Novartis, J.P. Morgan, Vanguard, Randstad, Hays and a long list of best of breed vendors. Joseph holds a degree in commerce from Macquarie University with major studies in economics and marketing. He has completed management courses at the Australian Graduate School or Management (AGSM) and communications at the Australian Institute of Management (AIM). Joseph worked across many areas of corporate events, publishing and digital media at a senior management level. He has experience in advertising, digital media, industry awards, exhibitions and conferences.