EPISODE 009: NVIDIA’s Anthony Robbins Gives Insights into Digital Transformation and the Sales Profession
When we recorded this podcast, Anthony Robbins was the vice president of the AT&T Global Public Sector Defense Team, a team of 1,000 employees, headquartered in the DC Metro area. He started his new role at NVIDIA on October 30. He has spent his 30-year career serving the federal marketplace supporting civilian, national security, public safety, and defense agencies. In 2016 Anthony was recruited by AT&T to lead its defense business. Prior to this, Anthony held numerous leadership positions including senior vice president of North America public sector at Oracle, vice president, federal at Sun Microsystems, and senior vice president of worldwide sales and president of SGI Federal at Silicon Graphics, Inc. Anthony has been recognized by the Executive Mosaic Wash 100 for his network modernization vision. He is a FedScoop 50 Industry Leadership Award Winner and a Federal 100 Award Winner. Currently he sits on three boards: the AFCEA-DC, USO Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore, and PSC Board of Directors.
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Here’s a transcript to the podcast:
Fred Diamond: Anthony, you and I have known each other for a long time. It’s great to talk to you about your career. I’m very, very excited to hear some of your stories. Why don’t you tell us a little more information about yourself?
Anthony Robbins: Well, I really enjoy fishing. I’ve gotten into that with my two boys over time, and it seems like each year more and more we’re fishing for all kinds of different fish. This year it was trout in a stream in California, and it was a great experience. Of course, I don’t ride my Harley enough, but I do enjoy college football.
FD: Very good. Who’s your team, by the way?
AR: Florida State University.
FD: Tell us what you sell today and what excites you about that.
AR: What I’m selling today at AT&T is actually the reason I came to this company. AT&T is one of the greatest communications company on the planet, and we’re spending more than $20 billion a year building out one of the great networks in the world today. I found in AT&T a company that could serve network modernization needs not just for the federal government but for the Department of Defense, which I am responsible for. The networks in DOD haven’t been modernized in a long time, and we have capacity to serve this marketplace at a time of need.
FD: Tell us a little more about what you are an expert in and about your particular area of brilliance.
AR: It would probably be in the area of leading change and transformation and service to federal government customers. For my entire career, or at least the past 20 years of it since I’ve been a vice president leading sales organizations, I feel I have developed skills in working with California-based or technology companies and helping them come into the federal marketplace and, in some cases, driving change within the government and/or within commercial companies that are trying to face the government. Leading change in transformation is what I think I do well.
FD: Very good and, obviously, as we mentioned before, some blue-chip companies: Oracle, Sun, SGI, some of the companies that have helped craft federal government I.T. We look forward to hearing some of those stories. But let’s go back. We mentioned in the beginning you’ve had an illustrious 30-year career. How did you get into sales as a career?
AR: I may have one of the most unique stories as it relates to that. I played basketball in college, at small Jacksonville State University in Alabama. I came out of college with a degree in marketing and business management. At that time in the early ’80s, a lot of athletes who were also in business got into the sales and marketing roles with sporting-good companies, and I followed suit. I spent my first four years working at Converse and New Balance Athletic Shoes, and I spent time in sales and marketing roles for those two companies. I met a guy playing basketball who brought me onboard to a company called Falcon Microsystems, which is where I started my career in sales and I.T. covering the federal government, in 1986.
FD: And just to disclose to the audience. I worked at Apple Computer at that time, and you were definitely one of the leading salespeople way back in 1986, bringing Apple computers to the federal government. So we had a lot of good experiences back then. Take us back to some of the key lessons you learned from your first few sales jobs.
AR: In my first few sales jobs, I think I had spent time really trying to understand the profession of sales, and if you remember back then we were all fixated on being trained around “what’s the feature of the product that you’re selling” and then “how does it work,” and we were beginning to transfer to the benefit to the customer. If you remember, that was kind of what was going on in the ’80s, and that’s how the Xerox professional sales skills or the DEC training was organized: around “feature, function, benefit.” I tried to really understand the product and then understand how the product served the customer. I always wanted to be one of those professional sales reps that customers admired, somebody who did it well and somebody who brought the profession to a new level. So I spent time trying to understand the product, trying to apply it to the customer’s job, role, responsibilities, and then trying to be really good at my craft.
FD: Tell us about an impactful sales-career mentor that you had and how they impacted your career?
AR: My first was Rick Simmons, and he was actually the guy that I met on the basketball court in Laurel, Maryland, who had encouraged me at that time to come over and work for him at DEC. He then went over to Falcon Microsystems, a company that was bringing Apple computer to the federal marketplace in the early ’80s. It was very different because DEC had this big training program that they offered, and Falcon Microsystems wasn’t really offering that. There was a little bit more risk associated with it. But what I found in Rick Simmons early in my career was just a very creative sales professional. He built very good relationships with the customers, and he understood their business. Bob Henry, for me, was kind of a leadership mentor, and Dendy Young, who actually started the company Falcon Microsystems.
FD: We talked about a couple of things you’ve already mentioned that are very impactful. One is “understand your customer’s business.” A lot of times people ask me, “How do I get better at the art and science of selling?” You have to know your customer. You’ve been involved with interesting things over your career to help the government customer make best use of their technology. It’s pretty powerful stuff. Take us back to one specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of. You worked for some of the bluest-chip companies in the industry. Take us back to that one moment, that one sale you’re most proud of.
AR: There has been a few that have come as a result of working with some world-class teams for some great companies that always acted in service to their customers. I would say that the one that jumps to the top here for me was as we began to rise at Silicon Graphics, we began thinking about how to modernize ground-station business. If you were in a weather business or if any business where you were collecting data, they always had to do the same thing. They had to collect it, process it, analyze, and distribute. It was full of custom computers and custom networking solutions and very expensive supercomputers and the like. My team worked through building a solution to bring the company that we worked for at that time, Silicon Graphics, into this marketplace for the very first time. We bought a supercomputer. We built a networking interface. We built out a solution. We tested it. We vetted it and built software, it was real-time operating systems. It’s a very complex solution, and as we got the solution stable, we sold hundreds of millions of dollars of this solution to companies around the globe including the U.S. intelligence community, the Department of Defense, and civilian agencies as well as commercial companies. It was an amazing team of people who crafted a terrific solution that was applied around the world. That was one of the first examples that showed me you can scale if you do things well. It was very motivating to see that occur.
FD: I’m sure there are dozens more similar stories where the technology you’ve brought in has had huge impact on the American citizen.
AR: I’ve been fortunate to work for some really good companies and, more important, to work with some terrific people. The federal government is full of a lot of people who care deeply about the roles and responsibility of their mission. If you want to be in sales, selling technology to the federal government is a place where you have to really exhibit high integrity and a huge sense of responsibility as you serve this customer community.
FD: That’s a great way to describe the government customer. Anthony, you’ve had some great successes. You’ve worked with some great teams. Today, what are one or two of the biggest challenges you face as a sales leader?
AR: The customer’s buying journey has forever changed. Sales has changed more in the past 5 or 10 years than it has changed in the past 100 years, and it’s driven largely by the fact that our customers no longer have to call us to decide on what they like, for their opinions to be shaped, their thoughts to be shaped, and buying decisions to be shaped. Customers don’t have to call salespeople. Early in our career, our customers were actually trained to call the representatives of companies, and today that’s not the case. Almost all the information that we used to provide that we thought was value-added early in our selling careers, customers get routinely online. So one of the challenges that occurs is sales professionals have to move up the stack, and they have to create compelling value for why customers might want an association with them. Compelling value, that only occurs at the intersecting point of the rep understanding what he or she is representing and, most importantly, how it adds value to the customer they’re serving. That’s fundamentally a really big change that’s occurring, and it’s combined with the fact that the customer’s online more often. There are more people involved in the buying decisions. We call it this digital transformation that has affected the customer’s buying journey. So what we are trying to do is get our selling teams, our business developers and marketers and engineers, to digitally transform themselves to meet the customers where they are, which is increasingly online.
FD: You’ve given us some great examples here of how you’ve worked with the customer, some great lessons you’ve learned over your career. You’ve talked about some great experiences with your mentor. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment when you said, “This is just too hard. It’s just not for me.”
AR: There was not, and when I think about it, I got into this business almost by chance. And then, over the past 30 years, I have been inspired by the work that our customers do and our prospects. For us, as representatives of the companies that we work for, to add value to what they do, I think that inspiration has always trumped a tough day at the office or a lost sale or challenging business climates or whatever it has been. And so I have never thought, “Did I make the right decision? Am I in the right field?” What I had spent my time doing is just trying to improve my craft.
FD: Inspired by the work that customer does and how we can help them achieve their goals by providing more value. Well said. What’s the most important thing you want to get across to selling professionals to help them improve their careers?
AR: There are two, and they are not easy. Number one, and it was true when I started, it’s more true than ever before: The customers do not care about the company that you work for or the products that you sell. The customers care most about your understanding of the work that they do and how you might add value to the problems that they have or the business challenges they’re trying to solve too. So the best sales reps today have intimate knowledge of their customers and bring them compelling value where they educate or inspire them to do things differently or to do things better. That’s the number-one thing. The second thing that has to occur is we have to digitally transform the profession of sales, largely driven as I said earlier by the fact that the customer’s buying journey has forever and profoundly changed. We’ve got to get our sales teams creating great content of value and creating virtual presence through social channels to meet their customers where they are and making sure that we add value to the business that they’re in.
FD: What are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
AR: I have an insatiable appetite with respect to the technology that I’m representing or the company that I’m representing, the business of our customers, and the profession of sales. I think we have all worked for a combination of people we admired and people we questioned, and I never wanted to be one of those people who was questioned. I always wanted to be somebody who was admired for having really brought the profession to a new level, and when I think about that with our customers, I would say that’s the thing that still excites me today.
FD: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success as a sales leader?
AR: There are two things that I’m working on that relate to some of the learning I’ve put myself through over the past five years. I spent a lot of time trying to understand one of the broadest sets of studies done in sales, which was done by the Corporate Executive Board, CEB, and that resulted in The Challenger Sale book and The Challenger Customer. I tried to understand that, just because of the vastness of the number of people they interviewed and the number of hours from the interviews, and there was some great data that showed up that was insightful relative to how we as sales professionals might interpret that and in turn change how we face the market. I spent a lot of time trying to do that. And then, this whole digital transformation is a big deal for me, and I think that the combination of refreshing our approach to customers, bringing them compelling value and the channels in which you do that, are where there’s great opportunities.
FD: You’ve succeeded, but sales is hard. People don’t return your phone calls or your emails. You just talked before about the changing nature of the customer, where the customer now can self-serve to get the information that they want online, of course, and via their social networks. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
AR: It’s kind of funny when you think about the phone calls—do they answer their phones anymore? And then, what’s the open rate on emails? No, they don’t answer their phones, and no, the open rates are low. It’s just changed, and I think that’s really what’s going on here: “What is the art and science of sales?” relative to “How do you have to change to adapt to the changes that the customer has gone through?” That’s the piece that we’re constantly trying to think through: “How do you change to serve your customers?”
FD: What’s one final thought you can share to inspire our listeners today?
AR: Be great at the craft of selling, and that takes a lot of work. The fundamental thing to build on is to be very intimate with your customers’ responsibility. Know what their business challenge is, and know how you can serve them. I get calls all the time from salespeople wanting to sell me what they have without knowing the business challenge that I’m dealing with. It’s the hard work, and what I have found is a lot of salespeople today aren’t doing that. They’re stopping just a little bit short. What I can promise is that the salespeople who spend time intimately understanding their customers and then understanding how they can add value to the business that their customers are in will be the ones who win in the long run. One study in particular says that the customer buys typically from the first one to add value to them. That’s interesting for a couple of reasons, one of which is not enough salespeople are adding value to the business of our customers. The second thing is that so many of our customers get so much information online, so to stand out in the field of sales tomorrow you have to be digitally transformed, and you have to be intimate with customers on how you add compelling value.