EPISODE 094: Find Out How VMWare Federal Sales Leader Bill Rowan Answers the Question ‘What Would Bill Ask’ to Take Your Sales Skills Up a Notch
BILL’S CLOSING TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Continue to ask, continue to talk to your clients, learn more and more about them, not just about what they do. Start to get to know them personally. Develop that personal relationship and as you do that I can assure you that you will find you will fail a lot less often and you will find that your opportunities continue to get bigger and bigger and your career is going to grow as a result of that.”
Bill Rowan is the Vice President of Federal Sales for VMware.
Prior to coming to VMware, he was at EMC Corporation.
He’s also held leadership positions at Storage Technology (now Sun) and IBM.
Find Bill on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: You focus primarily on the federal marketplace. Has that been most of your career, focusing on federal?
Bill Rowan: It has been, with the exception of StorageTech I ran North American Channels for a little while so I got a good flavor of enterprise and mid-tier type clients and that was interesting, exciting, but I had a manager who told me years ago, “If you’re going to live in Detroit, you better know something about cars.” Well, if you’re going to live in DC, you better know something about the federal government and I find it’s a phenomenal market, it’s a ton of fun.
Fred Diamond: A lot of our listeners are around the globe, we’ve interviewed some great people who lead federal sales teams, Anthony Robbins when he was leading AT&T, Gary Newgaard over at Pure Storage, Joe Markwordt over at Salesforce, a previous guest. What is it about the federal marketplace, for the people who are listening to today’s podcast, who aren’t based in DC? Why have you devoted a good portion of your career to serving the customer?
Bill Rowan: I think it really comes down to a couple different reasons: #1, it’s that backbone which supports us as tax payers and as citizens of this country, I want to see us do as well as we possibly can. The second piece that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that while government has all the vertical markets inside of it. We’ve got transportation logistics, we’ve got finance, we’ve got healthcare, we’ve got every single marketplace that anybody could want and it all sits inside the federal government.
Beyond that, it’s a really worldwide type business whether we’re talking about supporting state department operations outside of the United States or the United States military or whether you’re talking about United States force service as they tried to ensure they’re doing a protection of our trees and our country. It’s something that you can get your head around and it doesn’t just keep you local, you get to travel worldwide if you want to for the business. It’s a great industry.
Fred Diamond: I love hearing the beginnings of the guests on the Sales Game Changers podcast. Take us back to the very beginning of your career, how did you first get into sales as a career?
Bill Rowan: It’s funny, I never anticipated being in this market. In fact, when I was an intern in college I worked on the futures exchange up in New York, did the arbitrage of the dollar between Chicago and New York and that’s really where I thought I was going to go. Interesting, probably got my first sales lesson in that with a regional firm called Johnson Lemon, no longer in business, and the guy offered me a job but he said to me at the end, “Where are you living?” and I told him I was living at home and he said, “That’s great, because you’re going to starve for the first couple years in this business and it’s good that you’re going to have a roof over your head” and it really surprised me, it shocked me and frankly, scared me of, “Hey, I just got out of college. I’ve kind of been poor, I was looking to make some money.”
But his point was really, “How hard do you want to work?” And I failed that first one and so I also had an opportunity to go to IBM out of school so I took that in their financing planning side of the house and eventually worked over to sales because I found it to be the most interesting. I was scared of sales initially because I thought you had to be very technical. What I’ve come to realize over time is the sales aspect is much more the business or mission relationship that you’re going to have with the client, not so much the ones and zeros. We have technical folks that can do that.
Once I got beyond that piece I found was a pretty natural fit, it’s the part of the business I enjoy, it’s the building of the relationships and the networks that are out there and so it was illogical but I never anticipated being in this field, ever.
Fred Diamond: Well, it’s not bad starting your career in sales at IBM.
Bill Rowan: It was a great opportunity. At that time IBM was growing, the personal computer was coming to the market – and not to make myself sound too old – but the PC was coming to the market so the change that we were starting to see moved from mainframe to client server was literally happening in front of us and as a result they had hired a lot of young people. I got some spectacular training and I probably didn’t realize at the time but IBM was very process oriented – do this, do that.
I thought it was somewhat controlling or restricting, what I realized it was creating a phenomenal foundation for me business wise into how to approach things going forth. It’s years of experience that I love, still stay in contact with a lot of the folks I used to work with, we actually have a reunion happy hour from that group that we get together with on a regular basis, it’s a ton of fun.
Fred Diamond: It’s interesting, at this point I usually ask what are some of the key lessons you learned from your first few sales jobs but you mentioned something that was quite interesting: you learned early on that sales was really about the business mission relationship with the customer. Take us back to that, how did you first become aware of that? To have reached the level that you had, that must be something that has stuck with you through these years.
Bill Rowan: It has. I think when you look inside of any industry, government included, there are people there who are experts in their particular sector or vector. What they’re relying upon us to do is come with the solutions that can help them solve that but you can’t get that solved in one meeting or doing a PowerPoint presentation, you really have to develop a relationship with those folks where they feel comfortable opening up to you, talking to you and sharing their frustrations maybe not just with what their business problem is in front of them but also some of the other politics that they’re dealing with in terms of getting things approved.
The more you can understand that, the more we can help navigate that process through to have success at the end of the day. I had some good mentors along the way who helped reinforce those pieces and still do to this point and to this day in my career and so I’m lucky I found that earlier in the process versus later in the process.
Fred Diamond: Very good. Let’s talk about you for a second, tell us what you are specifically an expert in. Bill, tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Bill Rowan: Brilliance might be a stretch but I think expert is I tend to try to look at the opportunities in the areas that we’re involved with is what are we doing differently than our competition, how are we understanding what they’re trying to accomplish. The more we can do planning on that, I’m a big believer and you don’t just sit down and do a quarterly business review, you build out a business plan of how you anticipate to go after that client. Here at VMware we have a pretty matrix organization with specialists that assist us in some of the more complex technical issues. How are you integrating those specialists into that planning process and then how are you executing against your plan?
We don’t anticipate that every plan that’s going to be drawn up is going to be 100% accurate out of the gate but are we taking the time to go back and reflect on what we’ve learned, how the plan has to change, and if you go back and look over the course of period of time you’ll find our most successful folks have had their plans continue to evolve with that client over a period of time.
They create a longevity with the client from a sales leadership perspective, that gets me predictability from that sales rep and that sales leader and that predictability continues to carry forth. If they say something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. If they say they think they’ve got a problem in the account, I understand they truly do have a problem in the account.
Fred Diamond: You talked about planning and process. Just curiously, what do you find are the characteristics of a successful sales professional in a VMware, for example? What type of skills do they need to have, what are some of the characteristics that make them up?
Bill Rowan: It’s interesting, when I look at this from a recruiting standpoint I typically will work with our resourcing folks and say, “Listen, I can do one of two things. I can teach you the technology portion of this business or I can teach you the client’s side of this business. I cannot teach you both.” You got to come with one skill or the other. I would much prefer to hire folks who have a good understanding of the client’s side because the technology will continue to evolve and change. I think that people, the simplest skill that they can bring to a customer is not trying to show the customer how smart they are, it’s really become how good a listener they can become.
I typically tell all my new reps that have come on board, “If the issue was as simplistic as the client is typically laying it out to begin with, they could have Googled it and found the answer.” It’s usually typically a lot deeper than that, so ask questions regardless of whether you think you know what we can do to help solve that problem, continue to probe, continue to ask questions, continue to triangulate with those partnerships you developed inside the account to make sure we really have a complete view.
We’re going to do one of two things: #1 we’re going to find that the issue is actually something else, it’s just manifesting itself in one particular way and or #2, we’re going to find that we’re going to be able to grow the opportunity significantly over what we thought originally the solution set was going to be. Neither one is going to be a losing proposition and I think that ultimately we gain the client’s trust a lot more by taking that approach.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned when you were at IBM you had a couple of mentors that were impactful to your career. Why don’t you tell us about some of those impactful sales career mentors you had and how they impacted your career?
Bill Rowan: The first one that I can put my handle on is a gentleman by the name Bob Silk who is actually at StorageTech and again, IBM, very process oriented, very driven and in many respects that was the foundation of how you had to run [Inaudible 11:28] company. Storage Tech was much smaller at the time so when I came in and Bob said, “What do you want to do? What do you think we should charge in a specific deal? What should our strategy be?” I was expecting there be this entire change of command that you run that up the line and get that approval.
Bob said, “No, if that’s what you think we’re going to do, that’s what we’re going to do.” It took some coaching to get me out of what I had come from but that foundation approach was key because I was used to looking things in very small particular areas and that helped me get to a much bigger picture.
The other two people are people that are still in the business today, Aileen Black when I first came to VMware was running the federal organization. She’s over at Google today. She was an unbelievable help to me in terms of really letting me run the business the way I thought I wanted to run the business.
Lynn Martin who is my boss today, she runs government education and healthcare for the corporation and Lynn is great because she pushes constantly. “This has been good, what can we do better? How do we examine what we did well? How do we get better at it for the next go-round?” I think those are fantastic for me. The last two are really fantastic for a secondary reason: As I mentioned, I have two daughters and I want to see them be successful in their careers whether it’s consulting or whether that’s in the healthcare profession and so having two strong women leaders who I’ve learned from, I’m hoping that’s going to abode well for them in their careers so I’m very thankful for that aspect.
Fred Diamond: You’re actually the second person who has mentioned Aileen Black as someone who’s had an impactful career. Nathan Jones who runs federal sales over at Red Hat also mentioned her so we need to figure out a way to get her on this podcast, maybe you can help with that.
Bill Rowan: [Laughs] absolutely. More than willing.
Fred Diamond: Bill, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Bill Rowan: I think the single biggest challenge is probably the same challenge that most everybody has and that is how do you recruit and retain good people. This is an interesting marketplace across government. Again, you don’t have to necessarily live in DC to do this job, the federal government is spread throughout the entire country here as I mentioned earlier – actually, the globe. You can have folks all over the place but how do you get and retain those best people?
Many reps will consider themselves much like free agents in sports, they can go wherever the next hottest lick is with a great compensation package so I’m very proud that we have from a voluntary perspective a pretty low attrition rate here at VMware. I’m very proud of that but that takes hard work. I think the other part that continually is a challenge is how do we help our sales folks take the time out of their busy days to continue to become educated about the marketplace and about the technologies and how that applies to marketplace.
Knowing about what our solution set can do for a client is table stakes to play but if you’re going to go into a client and not understand how your competitor is going to be working in that account, not picking up buzzwords the client might use that is describing a competitor’s solution, you’re going to find yourself in trouble very quickly. That all takes time and effort and if you’re not willing to dedicate that time and effort, you’re just not going to be successful long term.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great point. One of our past guests describes selling in the federal government as the NFL, the big leagues. It’s highly competitive, every technology company, any technology company who has any degree of science obviously has a big presence. You’re competing against great companies, you’re striving for partnerships. People don’t realize it but the government is in flux, it’s also in change frequently. They’re trying to stay leading edge with providing valuable service to the customer who of course is our citizens so you really need to be on the top of your game.
Bill Rowan: Interestingly enough, that change – and it’s an evolving or constant change in some level – those things are all very positive and present sales opportunities on a regular basis, too. People used to be very scared of change, I embrace change. I think it’s what leads us to new opportunities on a regular basis and I’m thankful the government’s big enough that whether it’s a big agency or organization like the army or the air force or it’s someone small like SBA or FCC, they’re all going through the change and the question becomes, “How can we help them more and more?” so I think it’s fascinating. I’m very thankful we have that kind of change going on.
Fred Diamond: I liked your answer in the very beginning when we asked you what’s unique about the federal marketplace and a lot of people think it’s the government, well, you’re right. There’s so many verticals within the customer and there’s healthcare, of course, so many different ways you could go and a multitude, a plethora of solutions you could bring to this customer.
Bill Rowan: Absolutely.
Fred Diamond: Bill, you’ve worked for some great companies, again IBM, EMC, StorageTech and now you run federal for VMware. Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of. Take us back to that moment.
Bill Rowan: There’s really two and I think that everybody who’s been in a sales leadership strives. Everyone strives for the big deal, that’s a simple one. I can recall a situation with a department of defense customer who wanted a specific price or deal on something and said, “If I don’t get it, I’m going elsewhere” and I said, “I appreciate your business and I wish you the best of luck and thank you very much” and we parted ways.
About 12 months later, the customer came back. We couldn’t do the deal he wanted, it wasn’t worth it for us from a business perspective and so as the adage goes, you have to fire your clients sometimes if you think you’re in the right and you’ve made the best business decision, you have to walk away and you have to be willing to lose the business completely, and we were but the customer came back and said, “Listen, what we were trying to do didn’t work and we need to talk about how we get back on track” and so I welcomed that opportunity. No hard feelings, still keep in touch with the client today and they’re a great customer today.
Fred Diamond: Quick question. You went to the customer, you couldn’t solve their problem at the price etcetera so you said, “Thank you so much” and you let them go. A year later, they came back to you and said, “It didn’t work out, we do need to bring you guys in if you will.” Tell us some of the things that you did over the course of the year, how did you stay in touch? How did you continue to keep the relationship going?
Bill Rowan: I think that what we tried to do in that particular situation was the customer, the executive in charge was frustrated. I completely understand the situation he was in. Trying to go head on with him from time to time probably would have only raised that frustration so we took a strategy of making sure we were staying in touch with his top lieutenants and what they were trying to accomplish, feeding them information on industry, if they had a question about who else, could we put them in touch with someone else they could talk to who’s experiencing a similar type situation and what we found is that by staying in touch with those people directly below the boss, if you will, that they were able to continually feed.
They didn’t have the emotional issues and sometimes that gets a difficult thing for sales folks to understand is that as much as we want to say, “This is all business”, eventually we all get emotionally connected to it and so in that particular situation you had to give everybody a chance to go cool off and let’s not bring up that emotional piece. How do you bring up that emotional piece? You don’t interact on that particular issue, you come back to the people that are surrounding the client who they’re going to go ask. He’s going to go ask for assistance and guidance and at the end of the day, he gets more comfortable with, “Listen, I’ve got the support of my staff to go back to this direction”, they’re clearly frustrated because what we decided to do is not working and you have to be very big.
I’ve never brought the issue up with the client again since we had our little fall out. I treat it like it never happened, he doesn’t bring it back up. Maybe that’s a little bit immature, maybe there needs to be a vetting at some point but they’re being successful, we’re being successful and at the end of the day that’s all that really should count.
Fred Diamond: Right. You mentioned there was a second one.
Bill Rowan: The second one, an opportunity a number of years ago here at VMware. We ended up doing one of the largest deals the company had ever done and I think it was one of those like any significant deal I’ve had in my career, “It’s going great, now it’s going terrible”, “It’s been approved, no, the funding’s been yanked.” You go through that roller coaster of emotions, everybody’s been there. I think that’s what makes it that much more satisfying when the deal gets done and I started a little habit or process years ago that every time there’s a big order that comes in, a sales rep’s first big order, we frame the order and we give it to them. In many cases, we have a very disperse work force.
Not everybody works out of our offices here, our federal headquarters here in Reston, Virginia. They’re dispersed throughout the country so a lot of times their families don’t get to see some of the fruits of that labor. Maybe see the compensation aspect but we send the framed order over to the family and they put it in their home office so it gives them something to talk to their, whether it’s their spouse or their children, “This is the big deal that dad or mom was working on for X number of months” and it becomes that little memento that they always get to look at. I find it not only as a way of saying thank you but it’s also a motivating factor of how do I go get the next big framed order.
Something you can do now with a dispersed work force to help continue to keep that motivation going.
Fred Diamond: Bill, you’ve given us some great stories, you’ve had a great career in sales. Did you ever question being in sales? Again, you didn’t start off in sales after college but then you went over there with IBM. Was there ever a moment you thought to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Bill Rowan: I don’t think I’ve ever had that moment. I’ve had the moment where I thought, “Do I want to do something different? Do I want to move out of this and take on a bigger role?” and I’ll be candid with you, the challenge I find in that is the further and further you move up the line, the more and more you’re away from the client, the more and more you’re doing more of the administrative work, the forecast and the budgeting, the planning pieces and those are all good and fine.
Every organization needs that, you can’t run efficiently without it but quite candidly, the time I spend with customers is the most fun I get to spend out of any given day. Whether I spend a day with a client or not, the hundreds of emails are still going to be there, the requests for information on what’s going on in the business this quarter, next quarter is always going to be there but when you get a chance to talk to the customers, that to me is the fun part of the day. I don’t know if I could ever necessarily leave sales completely, we may find it becomes how much of the time I spend it during the course of the week or a month but it’s a phenomenal career and one I really wish I understood more about coming out of school, I didn’t and I couldn’t be more excited to be in the career that I’m in today.
Fred Diamond: Bill, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Bill Rowan: I eluded to it earlier, really it comes probably around 2 or 3 different parameters. One, it’s about building a network not only within your company and every company’s going to be different. You have to understand who are the operations people, who are the contracts folks, who are the marketing folks, do you develop a relationship with them so that you’re not the person who’s always coming up at the last minute with some emergency that you need something for some deal? The better those relationships and communications are, the smoother you will find their help and support in working on things.
The second piece is building that network within the industry itself whether those are channel partners that you might be working with, other OEM’s that you may be engaged with at the client and then the third piece of that obviously is about the aspect of the customer. How well do you educate yourself on the customer? Do you go to conferences and listen to customers speak or you just go to conferences to hang out on the trade show floor and mix and mingle with your friends?
That’s all good and fine but if you’re not listening to what the client is saying in a lot of those opportunities you’re missing a huge chance to really understand what they’re focused on. Those folks are taking out valuable time out of their schedules to come and present what are the issues they’re facing as an agency. It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking about the department of the treasury, the department of the army or whether I’m talking about the small business administration, FAA, whomever the case might be. They’re willing and open about talking about what their challenges are, how good a listener are you? How well do you take notes? How well do you help them formulate what those challenges are into what you can help solve some of those problems?
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Bill Rowan: I’d love to say I’m a fervent reader of information and I love keeping up to date with different trade rags, Gartner and some of that stuff to understand more of a view of the industry piece. Quite candidly, I find one of the things that is staying fresh, I’m not great at it but I continually try to improve is every so often you have got to take a break. We have turned this business into a 24 by 7, 365. Everyone will point to mobility and say, “Isn’t it great?” but I actually do remember the time where I didn’t have a cellphone, I didn’t have a pager, if there was an office question it was in the office and it was there when I left in the evening and it was there when I came back in the morning and things worked pretty smoothly then.
We create almost an atmosphere where if you don’t respond at 10 o’clock at night to an email, people are wondering what’s wrong. You’re going to burn yourself out with that eventually and so I think that the one piece of advice that I give a lot of the folks is you really do need to take a break and step back every so often and if you don’t, you’re going to burn yourself out.
Fred Diamond: Very good. What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Bill Rowan: VMware has made some very interesting announcements in the market place. We have a very good footprint inside of all of the enterprise clients around North America but federal governments specifically, very high percentage penetration rate in all the cabinet level agencies. With our most recent announcements that we’ve made with IBM and Amazon about how you move those workloads to a commercial cloud or a public cloud environment is a huge game changer in terms of what that’s going to offer, in terms of flexibility and agility and some cost savings to the federal government. In addition to that, I don’t think there’s a single customer out there who’s not trying to understand how they can tackle the mobility solutions of their work force I alluded to earlier.
We joke around in this area about how bad traffic is or a small snow storm can shut down the federal government here locally. We’ve got to have the ability for those federal employees and those that surround that federal marketplace to be able to work efficiently even regardless of whether they’re in the office or they’re telecommuting. Those mobile solutions help go a long way. I think when you combine mobility, the cloud and obviously the networking connectivity between the two, those are areas that VMware is very heavily focused on. It’s what we’re setting our strategies all around and thus for I’m very pleased to say the success has been wonderful.
Fred Diamond: Very good. Bill, we’ve talked about some of the challenges that people face in sales and I liked a lot of what you talked about, about how they need to make it a point to stay fresh on the customer and their business and what’s going on in your industry and to truly succeed you really do need to understand your technology and how it’s going to make an impact on your customer. But sales is hard, we talked about the playing field that you’re playing on, government customers it’s harder to get into some of the buildings now. You used to be able to walk around, now you need to top security get in. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Bill Rowan: I think there’s again, along a couple different areas. #1 I have found that it continues to evolve and change whether we’re talking about the different types of technology that are being consumed and how in my case the federal government is using those technologies. I think it keeps you fresh, I’m not a huge fan of travel but travel’s a part of it so you get out to see other parts of the country, get to meet with customers who are just as frustrated with the issues that may be out, they may be living out in Denver versus here in DC, they may be down in Florida, Texas, or over in Germany or for that matter the peninsula of South Korea. You get a chance to meet with folks, understand what their business issues are.
Another thing too, I think, is that what I have found in sales probably again my misnomer while growing up is sales is about – in our case – helping customers with business problems. It’s not about the prototypical if you go back to the old movie Tin Men or trying to sell aluminum siding. That’s not what this business profession is all about. I think that once you get into it and you start to understand the impact that you can have by your knowledge of the industry and the relationships you hold, you start to find that that customer starts to treat you as a trusted adviser and once you’ve done that, that trusted adviser is no different than a relationship you might have with a physician, with a lawyer, with other some sort of marketing professional for your corporation, a banker, and at that point in time you realize that you’re in one of the more complex and most satisfying business careers there is out there.
I think that for anybody who is coming up in the world and trying to figure out what they want to do, don’t overlook this part of the market place. It’s a phenomenal place to be, it can be very rewarding not just financially but also when you look at the fruits of your labor and you understand you’re making a difference to the citizens of this country, that’s a really motivating factor.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you bring it on home? Give us a final thought to inspire our listeners today.
Bill Rowan: Listen, this is going to be like any other business, this is going to be like any other career. There are going to be stumbles along the way. The issue is not whether you stumble or whether you fail, you absolutely, positively will, we all have. The issue becomes how do you pick yourself back up afterwards and go after it even harder the next time. I used to have an employee here, used to wear a bracelet around the office and it said WWBA – what would Bill ask?
And the question becomes, I was trying to ask them questions about things they might not have asked their customers and that’s the way you learn. Continue to ask, continue to talk to your clients, learn more and more about them, not just about what they do, start to get to know them personally. Develop that personal relationship, as you do that I can assure you that you will find you will fail a lot less often and you will find that your opportunities continue to get bigger and bigger and your career is going to grow as a result of that.