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Ask Me Anything: A world of change

One of the functions at Berkeley Lights that changed the most in 2020 was that of Sales and Account Managers. Not only have our teams met the challenges of a pandemic, but they’ve discovered new skills and strategies along the way.

We asked Veronica Mankinen, Head of North America Sales, Mio Muelthaler, Account Executive in Europe, and Yue Geng, Vice President of Asia Pacific Sales to tell us a bit about how the pandemic has changed things for them.


What do you remember about the beginning of restrictions?

Veronica: At the end of February, I was in Japan with Yue to meet with our distributor there. Everyone was already wearing masks and they actually had a quarantine cruise ship in Yokohama. Then, I traveled to HQ in Emeryville for a meeting. By that time, we couldn’t shake hands and there were sanitizers everywhere. I had travel scheduled for the following week, the second week in March. And all of a sudden, it was like a door just shut. As somebody who has traveled for work for the last 20 years, at least 50% of the time, it’s been very strange to be home since March.

Mio: The last show I attended was in London, in February. Everybody knew about COVID-19 back then, but restrictions weren’t yet in place. It wasn’t expected that everyone would be wearing masks and washing their hands. Shortly after, we were in lockdown, which made it very difficult to travel. I have been able to go between Switzerland and Germany, because of my passport, but that’s it.

Yue: Chinese New Year is in late January and it’s an important holiday when families travel to reunite with each other. In the middle of the New Year, we were all at home, and that’s when travel restrictions started. The first thing I did was check with the team to make sure everyone was alright. I had actually scheduled a trip to Singapore for the end of January and a trip in February to Japan with Veronica. I was able to go, but I will always remember the day I got back. Now that I can travel within China, I have to show a proof stamp of the last time I entered the country. I’ve been here since March 3rd. It’s the longest I’ve been in China since I was in elementary school.

Since then, what has changed the most about taking care of customers?

Veronica: What’s changed the most has been figuring out how to ensure the success of customers when they all have different regulations. If I have a customer who needs to have an Application Scientist or Engineer on-site, we need to be clear on their guidelines so they can get the right resources on time. That can be quite challenging.

How do you get in front of new customers?

Veronica: We’ve gotten a lot more creative in our approach. LinkedIn has been a great tool to find the people we should be talking to. Twitter can work, as well, if you follow scientific journals and conversations. It’s a lot more one-on-one types of reach outs, which is always the most effective approach and it shows we’re paying attention. It’s more time intensive, but it’s been the best way to get a response from someone new.

Yue: I am really, really proud of the team. Because of the SARS-CoV-2 work we did with GenScript, there has been a lot of interest in the Beacon® system. February alone, we had over fifty Zoom calls with potential new customers in China. There was confusion early on, because people weren’t working, and no one had really equilibrated. A few months later, things got better. We’ve been engaging customers nonstop since then.

Along those lines, Yue, your team placed a high number of instruments this year. Tell us about the process.

Yue: It really depends on when the installation happened. In February, we were supporting an install at a designated hospital for COVID-19. The team was provided with biosafety level 3 protective gear, just because of how serious the risk was. Every effort was made from BLI and the customer to make sure the install would be safe and that the team felt comfortable. I know the research center appreciated us moving forward with placing the system, but I appreciated the level of care. Today, it’s much easier. There are still challenges, but not quite like it was in the beginning.

What’s changed in how you work with your team?

Mio: Usually, we would try to utilize every opportunity when we are visiting customers to meet in person and spend time together. We kicked off the annual European Sales Team meeting in Paris last year but we couldn’t meet together this year. We’re doing more phone calls and Zoom meetings, but that in-person interaction is something I’m really missing.

Veronica, you significantly expanded your team in 2020. What was that like, during a pandemic?

Veronica: I just had this conversation with one of our new Account Managers, because he and I have never met in person. I’m used to being remote, but I’m also used to seeing my team at conferences or a global sales meeting. Coordinating my new team members and their training from afar has been strange. But, on top of that, there are members of the team who’ve never met each other, never met another BLI employee in person.

Despite that, I’ve encouraged them to stay in touch with each other, coach each other and strategize together. And they’ve done such a wonderful job. Everyone’s still present, trusted, and valued.

Yue and Mio, you’ve actually been able to visit customers and have in-person meetings. What was new?

Mio: That’s right, there was a conference in Switzerland in October before restrictions went into place again. I remember that there were the things that you would expect. Dividers, sanitizers, masks, et cetera. People weren’t shaking hands and they were keeping distance for the most part. I believe that might be the case for the next shows, too. Some people will be very cautious and keep business virtual for a time. But, there were valuable connections there that I could still engage. I was grateful for that.

Yue: I think in late May, we had an offline in-person conference in Shanghai. It was almost a bit awkward, realizing that we could interact with people. Like, wait, you’re right in front of me? We’ve had a few in-person meetings with the team since then and it was really clear that so many of us appreciated that in-person contact. Even more than before. Being able to shake hands became more meaningful. Being able to be in the same room together, we cherish that. I feel we enjoy each other’s company a little bit more.

What do you look forward to once you can visit customer sites again?

Veronica: I miss being physically present to talk about the science and what they’re trying to achieve. You know, being able to draw out a project on a piece of paper and then dive into how we can help them achieve that. I miss sitting with someone in their lab, seeing everything, and catching the nuance. I’m looking forward to that, again.


This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020/21 edition of BLI News. To read more, check out the latest edition.