EPISODE 104: Red River Federal Sales Head Kush Kumar Says Enjoying the Game and Trusting the Process are Keys to Long-Term Sales Success
KUSH’S CLOSING TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Finding the right company is something that’ll change the span of your career. Understanding who the company is, how you fit into that company, who’s going to be your mentor, your coach and does the leadership team embody and emulate what you want are critical.”
Kush Kumar is the Vice President of Federal Sales at Red River.
Prior to coming to Red River he was at Oracle, GTSI and Lucent Technologies.
Find Kush on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Tell us how you first got into sales as a career.
Kush Kumar: Sometimes I wonder, is it a good thing? Because now once you’re in it, you can’t get away from in it. Sales to me, I have a very strong affinity and it’s almost like a drug for me. It’s my life and I wouldn’t know what to do without it. Growing up, very different than a sales driven mentality growing up not only from my childhood but from in the industry, I grew up in an engineering environment. My entire family was born and bred in the high end engineering, high end mathematical environment and I pretty much only had one choice as my family led me down the path, “Because you’re going to be an engineer and then you’re going to go out and do engineering things and solve problems.”
I listened to that for a while, I did graduate with an electrical engineering degree from a very proud alma mater in University of Virginia, one of the craziest Wahoo’s you’ll ever meet and proud of it. As I embarked on my career, I did start off as an engineer working at Lusin for the first 7 years of my career. Really loved that deployment work, the independence, building out networks, got the opportunity to spend a lot of time with amazing customers but I also realized at that point what can I do differently. I was fortunate enough to get a call from my dear childhood friend, his name is Jeff Shen, he’s one of the owners and runs Red Team Consulting and big partner of Red River as well. He gave me a call one day and he was like, “Hey, Kush. I know you’re this engineer but I think I’ve got a role for you.”
I’m like, “Ugh, alright.” He described the role, I was a little stressed out, it had a little bit of salesy kind of motion to it so I was a little uncomfortable. I talked to my wife and we said, “Let’s give it a shot.” That led me into the sales engineering world. It was more a consulting type job so I got my first foire into sales and one thing led to the other, I took a more individual sales role, then a sales leadership role and I’m super thankful to GTSI where I started my career. In our industry, GTSI was a place a lot of people cut their teeth, and at that time when I joined it was a power house.
Everyone in the industry started their work there, got some time under Dendy Young’s leadership and how fortunate we were. It’s really interesting now, Fred, because as GTSI is spawn into Unicom and spread around all the leadership, all the people you grew up in the industry, we’re all spread out in the business. It makes it nice that we have relationships with every single person, we can get things done, so that connection is still really critical to GTSI but I parlayed that sales job into a sales leadership job where I took over the army business at GTSI and that was one of the largest businesses for GTSI. I feel very fortunate to have that opportunity to cut my teeth there. From there I got addicted to that drug of sales and sales leadership and I was fortunate enough to one day get a call by Red River to join this company.
Fred Diamond: Very good. We’ll talk about some things Red River offers, but why don’t you tell us some of the key lessons you took away from some of your first few sales jobs?
Kush Kumar: I always say that great salespeople do more listening and doing the right kind of consulting, the right kind of questioning, that consultative reproach. Customers want to know that you care and you’re going to listen and you want to really understand what their pain points are, and how do we recommend things so you truly understand what the problems are. I also feel some salespeople just want to solve problems, they want to get in their pitch, their product and think that’s the end all be all, but as a technology transformation company it’s our job to make sure first and foremost we know what our customer wants, what’s their problems, what’s their needs, what their requirements are, who their customers are. I can’t build things till I know what that looks like. Just do a great job at active listening.
Fred Diamond: I want to ask you a question. Listening comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast. We heard some of our guests who’ve said the 66% solution – you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that order. Give us some of your thoughts, what do you tell your younger sales professionals to do to be a more effective listener? Not just be an effective listener and an active listener. Tell us some of your specific techniques or things that you’ve learned along the way that have made you a better listener.
Kush Kumar: That’s a great question. I think it comes from confidence and also planning. The more planning you do, you’re not just asking, you’re not just talking. If you have a well thought out sales plan going into the meeting, you’re going to be much more organized. I always tell sales people it’s OK to have a pause. You should be so actively engaged in the conversation, don’t think about the next two or three things you want to ask, it’s OK to be so immersed in the conversation that you’re actually lost in it, and to really make solid eye connection with your customer or your partners. Don’t ever be afraid to do amazing planning. That’s the one advice I not only give to young people.
One thing I’ve learned here at Red River is my younger part of my career will fly by the seat of the pants is go get into sales calls, let’s figure out a game plan but we do unreal strategic business financial planning here at Red River. It’s something I’ve really embodied and cascaded down to my team. Plan, plan, plan. You plan a sales call, you don’t have to worry about what you’re saying next. You’ll know, you’ll have a game plan charted out and you can actually sit down and figure out what your expected outcomes are so don’t leave that sales call without some action, without some recognition of what you wanted to accomplish. Don’t get off that table or out of that meeting until you feel like you’ve got some of your outcomes. It’s as important for us to get our point across but don’t rush to the point.
Take time to understand and hopefully we’re all smart enough to be able to ad lib a little bit, so that’s some of the advice and some of the things that I coach my teams on. When you have a bunch of senior guys, Fred, I often by myself am learning as much from them as they do from me.
Fred Diamond: Kush, what are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Kush Kumar: Probably a lot of people give you varied answers of that question, some I might want to hear but I take a lot of pride in my ability to get the most out of sales teams and build sales. I remember the day, Fred, that I came to Red River. An interesting point at this company today is we’ve changed so much and we’ve grown so much together as a company, on the sale side there’s only one sales individual who’s here at the company today when I started. We’ve really transformed and I feel like my ability to make sure we’re bringing the right kind of people, the kind of folks that can really connect not only with our partners but really more importantly with our customers, that’s a smaller company. When I first came there were only 90 people but now the infrastructure we do today as a company 4 times a size, doing the kind of revenues that we are doing, that always pales in comparison to what we were doing before.
We had to find the right kind of people, so really looking and making sure. Initially I made a lot of mistakes in the kind of people I did hire and then recognized what does it really take. What I really learned is how much culture is so critical in what and who you’re hiring, making sure that those great sales people they’re not just amazing sales people but they can really fit into your company because we have a really strong corporate culture at this company and it takes a unique person to thrive in that.
You’re working to really support, work hard to support our customer and we’re going to help each other internally. We’re going to work together as a company, that stuff means a lot. I feel I’m an expert building sales organization, really motivating and getting every ounce out of that sales team and something I also think uniquely I bring is my level of emotional intelligence to the business.
Knowing when to talk, knowing when not to talk, understanding and reading our customers. I said it before, I’m not worried about what’s being said next, I’m really enthralled in diving into the conversation and I don’t mind awkward pauses. I have an affinity just for our customer, I think that also separates me in some ways that as a sales leader I could sit back, sit in the desk, run reports, run spread sheets but that’s really not me. Yes, that’s absolutely a core piece of the job, being able to manage and run it but I spend every moment of my day with partners and customers. I am out there. I can’t shape the future of this company and the direction of the sales organization unless I’m hearing it first hand from my customer.
All the interconnected pieces we have at Red River, how am I going to direct and guide them and where they’re going to build their business because they’re only going to build their business around hours, around mind. Where the sales teams are going. If I can’t coach them on where my business is going, how are they going to build? I want them to be aligned and make sure my goals are cascaded to them in a way that they can build and support my organization.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about the other way around. Obviously you’ve given a lot of thought to your sales management and how you go about it and your methodology internally. Kush, why don’t you tell us about an impactful career sales mentor for you and how they impacted your career?
Kush Kumar: It’s a great question and one honestly I did not think about except for two minutes before this. It’s really clear to me, it kind of sounds cliché but my now CEO, Jeff Sessions. I’ve learned a hundred times from that individual than I could have ever anywhere else. Jeff really knows how to motivate me. He’s taught me that not everything has to be in a perfect box. He’s given me the ability to think out of the box, given me the ability to make mistakes, to learn from those mistakes and Jeff in this company really changed the life for me and my family forever. I’ll never forget that. It’s not giving you the answer but he’s the kind of person that, “Come up with the idea, show me, sell me.” He loves people to solve the idea, build so much effective planning. I’ve learned a lot watching him, his style and my style are pretty divergent at times.
We work really well together, we’ve had a lot of challenging moments in terms of how we get things done but at the end of the day I think he’s got the brightest mind in this business. The thing that I’ve learnt from him is how you build an organization. He’s put in the brightest people around him from every leader in the organization, he’s hand-picked and he has not brought in mediocrity. He’s not just filled a position to fill a position, we filled it with the best leader in that position in the industry. If we had to patient, we’d be patient and that’s hard to recruit, that talent. It’s hard to bring that talent into the company and giving them the ability to succeed and be successful is an amazing sign of leadership.
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Kush Kumar: It’s a great question. Obviously one has to do with that transformation word but the first and biggest thing I’ll always say is regarding retaining and recruiting the right talent. As we get bigger and stronger and deeper within our customer base, every competitor wants you. Every competitor wants what you’ve built and you have to be sure that you’re providing the right capability, the right motivation, the right plan to support your people. They need to see the vision, your team needs to see that you’re behind them, that you’re going to be willing to grow with them, that you’re going to continue to challenge them.
My best salespeople, sure they want to be a high earner but they also want to be challenged. That’s how you stimulate their mind and their pocket book, you’re going to create someone for a long time. I also feel like I hope and pray that my top talent or any talent in my organization, I hope they’re being recruited and I hope they get a ton of phone calls a day and I hope if they feel that there’s a better opportunity for them, please, I understand that and I’ll never hold them back. I have, Fred, since I’ve been at Red River only one individual – and I have three directors underneath my business who are incredible in how they run their business and I owe so much of success to them, but we’re a team and together, myself and my leadership team underneath me, we’ve only lost one individual in Red River in 7 years in the sale side.
I have to take a lot of pride in that statement because it’s hard enough to get people but I take more pride in people staying and feeling, because they’re not going to stay unless they’re feeling motivated, encouraged, that they feel like they have a place and they feel like they have a sense of strong leadership in the company. I take a lot of pride in building.
Fred Diamond: Is there another challenge, a second challenge?
Kush Kumar: Yeah, our market is just changing in the way that we go to market. As Red River gets larger and larger I feel like sometimes I manage risk more. Is this an opportunity to change the company? We’re now working with smaller companies, as Red River grows and gets larger we’re forced to work with other organizations to support our government – organizations that may not have the same balance sheet as Red River but we still have to work with them. So being really connected with our financial organization within Red River to make sure that we can provide the right assets or the right flooring to our partners to get things done.
Managing risk is becoming a little bit more of a challenge as we get bigger and bigger. Sometimes we have to make sure is this going to really change the shape of the company? Do we really want to invest in this business? Because when I first started, let’s just go out there and be cowboys, let’s get what we have to do, let’s get into markets, but now you be more careful. You’ve built something, you can’t destroy it overnight.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of.
Kush Kumar: That’s a real toughie, Fred. As I ponder what to say, we all as sales leaders progress through our career because we obviously have been successful in the jobs that we were starting at, we were promoted to other positions. We’ve all had our handful of great wins but those are tactical and yet strategic wins that of course I’m proud of and changing and shaping the company, but I lean towards saying my most successful sales victory is bringing the right talent. One individual in particular – as I started this company, as a small organization you have to write resources so we had to hire a more technical looking sales organization because we didn’t have all the ability to go hire the right resources so initially for the first two, three years we had to find folks slightly more technical acumen and there was one particular individual, I’ll never forget it.
We were really fortunate at the right time to be able to pull someone in and his unbelievable success at this company is something that – first of all, his name is Ani Nag and I was able to bring him from GTSI where he was a sales engineer, never held a bag in his life and he had the bug like I did but ten, fifteen years ago. I’ll never forget that call I made, it was just the right timing and for him to take a leap of faith and come. I also think for Red River and myself to take a leap of faith on him and sometimes that shows more character than anything else is taking a risk on someone that you know in your gut, in your heart that they can do the job but they just don’t have it on paper.
That takes a lot of coercion from my part to sell the company on why to make that investment but I’ll tell you, this individual now has been at this company 5 years and is consistently year over year the #1 or #2 in sales in this entire company and I take an unbelievable pride in what that individual has accomplished. Every day I’m really fortunate for him to be at this company. In my mind it’s one of my best sales successes.
Fred Diamond: Was there ever a moment, Kush, when you said to yourself, “Sales is just too hard, it really isn’t for me”?
Kush Kumar: Fred, I know this is a popular answer but not really. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been successful at most jobs, and why start to fail now? Hard work never scares me, I always tell anyone I interview in my organization, “I dare you to outwork me.” I’ve worked my butt off and I’m not afraid of a challenge, I actually look for new challenges and I embrace the opportunity within any role in a company to be different. Sales is absolutely a challenge every day, I think that’s why I enjoy it.
Every day is a new day, every day is a new challenge, you can turn the page and learn from your mistakes. I’m fortunate to have almost 30 salespeople in my organization where every day is a unique challenge. It’s a new job and a new customer so I’m really grateful for the opportunity of being in a sales organization.
Fred Diamond: Kush, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals listening to the podcast to help them take their sales career to the next level?
Kush Kumar: That’s a great question and something that I wrestle with all the time. It’s an ever-changing work environment today that we’re dealing with but I always say to folks, “Respect the game. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, you’ve got a long time to go.” Folks come out of college now, they see the sales guys, the sales leadership doing these crazy events, having a gregarious lifestyle, relax, slow down, be patient, don’t skip. Respect the process of selling. You have to understand as a salesperson, you have to understand first that inside game. You have to understand how it works, what does a sales order mean, the level of customer service that you can provide over the phone.
You have to get embedded in the process of selling, the sales motion, the sales process whether it’s prospecting, being on that phone, taking prospects and getting them into building opportunities, taking those to closure, from those closures making sure you’re providing the right support. That’s a 3 to 5 year process, don’t disrespect. People come in and think, “These top sales guys, they did it overnight.” If it was that easy, we have a ton of people doing it and this industry would have a plethora of amazing salespeople.
Frankly, it’s hard to be a great salesperson. It takes a lot of effort and respect the process because if you do it right you’ll never have to look back. If you try to skip a piece, you’re just not going to make it. Great salespeople understand the things that have to happen. You don’t just get in front of a customer and sell things, it’s a journey and I really want people to understand that. The more time you put into it, you’re going to get back ten times.
Fred Diamond: I got to tell you, man. That’s actually a tremendous answer. Not infrequently we’ll get some of the Sales Game Changers who will say things like, “Treat it as a profession. Be professional.” If you will, but I love the answer, “Respect the process of selling.” Off to the side, you and I are both 76er’s fans so we got to respect that process.
Kush Kumar: Trust the process.
Fred Diamond: Trust the process. It’s such a joy right now being a sixer’s fan. Kush, what are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Kush Kumar: That’s good. It’s hard, Fred, it’s tough. There’s so much always on our plate but the thing that I’m enthusiastic about, my customer base. How I sharpen my pencil, I always stay on top of the businesses, I just try to be ahead of everybody else. I have an incredible desire to understand where my customers want to go so I can bring back and coach and help our business within Red River affair where we want to go as a company. How can I provide the decisions and feed back to my organization without getting it directly from our customers? Let’s not build things that we think, let’s build things that we know our customers want.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Kush Kumar: My personal success?
Fred Diamond: Could be personal, could be company, just a major thing you’re working on today.
Kush Kumar: When you reached out, Fred, it’s like doing podcasts like this is an important thing for me. It’s something that I’ve not done a lot of but staying relevant and staying relevant to my partner base. Partners are a huge part of our business and making sure that we as an integrator can communicate where we want to take the business. I always try to educate my team in saying, “Define who you are in that business.”
As a provider of technology, we have unlimited choices but that also comes with unlimited challenges, you can’t be everything to everybody. So I want to stay relevant in the right technology and the only way to do that is to really sharpen up and stay focused. The wider we are, the more difficult it becomes for Red River to support that customer. If we want to figure out who we want to be and where we can support our customer, getting those two to be married together is the ultimate success in selling.
Fred Diamond: Kush, we talked about this throughout the podcast. Sales is hard, people don’t return your phone calls or your emails but we also talked about some of the great opportunities that comes being in sales. Why have you continued? Again, you started your career as an electrical engineer probably going up through high school you thought that was what you were going to be. Again, you left with a great degree and you started your career working for 7 years in Lusin technology as a double E but then you shifted to sales. You’ve enjoyed sales now, you worked at GTSI, Oracle and now of course you’re doing a great job at Red River, technology transformation company. What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Kush Kumar: I really haven’t thought about that, Fred, but I guess the first thing that pops in my mind is that I don’t view sales as a career. I don’t view it as a job, it’s just what I do. I feel that it’s like the potpourri of jobs, it takes a level of technical acumen, it takes a level of business acumen, financial acumen, your ability to interact, the interpersonal skills in term with your spending that time with your customers. You’re the jack of all trades and when I view it as a career I think it’ll be the day I stop and I have a massive thirst to supporting my team.
My team is my family, my rules are pretty simple, I am probably the most responsive human being you’ll ever meet especially regarding my customers, partners, my team. I challenge and I dare people to outwork me, it’s because I love it, it’s not because I want to. I just got back from a vacation and to me there’s no day, work is actually my relaxation. So the day I view it as a career, Fred, will probably be a bad day for me and a bad day for Red River and thankfully they’ve not made it a career, they’ve made it just an amazing opportunity.
Fred Diamond: Kush, why don’t you give us one final thought you’d like to share to inspire the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe today?
Kush Kumar: It’s a great question and one I probably couldn’t have answered 20 years ago. We all have a lot of opportunities. If you’re anyone in this business, you have a number of people calling on you every day for an opportunity. I really think long and hard about culture of a company. I think traditionally we’re all naturally smart and gifted, talented people but finding the right company is something that’ll change the span of your career. Understanding who the company is, how you fit into that company, who’s going to be your mentor, your coach, does a leadership team embody and emulate what you want are critical.
The quicker you find that, I think we’re going to see that transition of people job hopping a lot, that’s not part of my culture. I want to find people in my business who embody the same thing. I think if you build and find the right culture, you don’t need to worry about job hopping. It’s not even about money at that point, it’s about finding a place that’s going to inspire you. Culture at Red River is just one that makes it next to impossible in my mind to leave. It’s growing, it’s sticky, we love it and it’s been something that our CEO and the board have really spent so much time and effort building and I’m really proud of it.
So those young listeners, find that culture, stick with it and good luck to everybody!