EPISODE 133: MAXIMUS Federal Sales Exec Allison Patrick Explains Why Having True Passion for Your Customer’s Mission Will Determine How Successful Your Career Will Be
ALLISON’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “To be great in sales – to have a sense of real reward in your career – it is about the people. I would say mentor, learn from all of those around you and then share your experience and knowledge.”
Allison Patrick is a Senior VP of Sales at MAXIMUS Federal.
Prior to coming to MAXIMUS Federal, she held leadership positions at Accenture Federal, SAIC and SRA.
Find Allison on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: MAXIMUS Federal, why don’t you tell us what you sell today and tell us a little bit about what excites you about that?
Allison Patrick: MAXIMUS’s model is helping government serve the people. We’re a very large global government solutions provider, 100% of our business is for government customers. We have about 30 thousand employees around the globe, half of whom provide services to the US federal government. I’m really pleased to be leading an amazing sales team here at MAXIMUS Federal.
MAXIMUS plays a critical role in helping governments achieve their goals by providing essential services to our most vulnerable citizens in the communities we serve. It’s a very unique company, we understand that our efforts make a difference in people’s lives and we’re passionate about what we do. With 30 thousand employees, it’s fun to learn what other governments, the Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, even Saudi Arabia and Singapore, what they’re doing with their citizenry.
Fred Diamond: That’s very exciting, helping government serve the people. How did you get into sales as a career? Tell us how you made that move from government affairs, was your master’s degree?
Allison Patrick: Public administration, yes, an MPA. In college and even in high school before that I worked on political campaigns which if you really think about it, you’re selling a candidate. Sales was very early in my blood. When I left graduate school – it was a very long time ago now – with my degree in public administration, I wanted more than anything to be a career civil servant here in Washington DC. My first job, though, was not with the government directly. It was as a contractor and I was using my concentration in public finance as a budget analyst for the federal aviation administration in the air traffic operations organization.
The FAA had a unique problem, I say that tongue in cheek, that at the end of the year they had a small budget surplus and they needed to spend down that surplus. I could see where there was excess budget and then I also knew from the work I was doing inside the organization where different customers had needs. Very simply I went to those customers and said, “I see you have a need. I know my company can fill that need. How can we engage?”
Without really knowing, I was selling, I was trying to solve a problem. I brought a couple contracts back to my corporate headquarters and asked where the sales organization was. It was a very small 8a firm at the time, they didn’t have a BD or sales organization and they said, “Why don’t you start one?” That was my first job in sales.
Fred Diamond: How did you feel when they said, “Why don’t you start one?” Again, you asked the questions, you were a problem solver for your customer, that’s a common theme throughout the Sales Game Changers podcast. When the management of the company said, “Allison, go start it” what was going through your mind? What were you thinking?
Allison Patrick: I couldn’t believe that it was that easy. I remember that day at corporate headquarters, it was a very small organization but they couldn’t believe it that it seemed that easy. You walked in with a couple new contracts and increase the customer base, and I thought, “It can’t possibly be that easy.” I wasn’t trying to do sales, I saw a problem that my customer had and I was solving the problem, so that was a lifelong lesson that it should be easy if you truly are providing value in the market.
Fred Diamond: What did they say? What did you say, did you say, “OK, I’ll take over sales, I’ll start doing it”?
Allison Patrick: I sure did, I thought, “OK, great.” I took inventory inside the company of where our customer base was and thought if we’re doing good work then those are the easiest customers to go talk to. I learned the essentials just because it felt right and those are the same essentials that I tell junior salespeople now joining my team. Do your homework and know your audience, know who you’re talking to. There’s so much information about us out there now on the internet or on LinkedIn or other places that you can find out who you’re talking to pretty quickly.
Why do you do that? It’s so that you can make the human connection. You can figure out something about that person to engage with and it’s not superficial, it’s really trying to connect with that person. I think in sales, the quicker you can get to your audience opening up about what are their needs, what’s keeping them up at night, where do they have heartburn, what is their vision, where are they going, where do they want to be and what are their challenges, that’s really about solving problems.
Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you. We have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening around the globe and they may not all understand selling and marketing and providing services to the government. You’ve worked for some of the top service providers for the government – again, Accenture Federal, SAIC, SRA and of course now you’re with MAXIMUS Federal. What is it about the federal marketplace? Again, your company’s mission: helping government serve the people. You’ve devoted your career to serving the government, what is it about the government as a customer that has led you to do that?
Allison Patrick: The US Federal Government is an amazing organization. I know often times it can be criticized for perhaps its bureaucracy or the pace at which it adopts change, but the scale at which our government provides services, there is not another government on the planet that does what our government does in terms of providing services we all need.
Passport services, air traffic control services, space mission, of course our military and these are incredible services that are provided to the US citizenry and others around the globe that are done at a scale at which can’t be compared anywhere else. We’re in tax return season right now and I would challenge you to go to any other country on the planet and try to get a tax return filed as quickly and efficiently as one as here in the US.
Fred Diamond: You gave us some ideas that happen making the human connection, doing your homework. Tell us as little more about you, what are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Allison Patrick: I don’t know about brilliance, but I do know that if you listen and listen with empathy, there’s some brilliance that will come from that. When I say listen with empathy, lots of people can ask questions and take notes but when you listen with empathy, you truly are thinking through what are the challenges, how would you solve this problem if you were that customer and then more creatively, how can you bring all of those challenges back to the headquarters, back to your solutions teams.
That’s really what I love, is I love to be the voice of the customer, bring the voice of the customer inside the company and get a great, brilliant group of people together around that single problem or challenge and begin solving.
Fred Diamond: I want to ask you about listening. You mentioned you give some advice to young sales professionals when they come on board, do your homework, prepare, etcetera. Listening comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast, what do you do? Again, listen with empathy. Can you be specific on how you listen with empathy? What do you physically do so that you’re not sitting there waiting to talk or dying to tell all the features of why your company is so great? Give us some advice for the people listening to the podcast.
Allison Patrick: It’s true, people really do love to talk about themselves, case and point. I love answering these questions, your customers also love talking about themselves and they love talking about particularly their challenges or concerns, even their vision and where they want to go. When I say I listen with empathy, I really believe that empathy means leading with the heart and trying to make the person sitting across from you successful. That’s the goal of that engagement if it’s a one hour meeting. If you tell me all of those things: where you want your program to be going, what you’re trying to achieve, what are your measures of success, then I have all the information I need in order to help you in that journey. That’s what I think true sales engagement in the services industry is about.
Fred Diamond: You just said that customers love talking about themselves, they love talking about their mission. A lot of times through the Sales Game Changers podcast the people that we’re talking to service vertical markets and the person’s spouse isn’t that interested when they come home talking about their challenges. They love to talk about people who are interested and people who conserve them and provide value to them. I really like that, listen with empathy. Again, you’ve worked for some great companies: Accenture Federal, SIAC, SRA, now you’re with MAXIMUS Federal. You must have had some great mentors along the way, why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor or two and how they impacted your career?
Allison Patrick: Michael Fox, I had the wonderful pleasure of working for him first at SRA when I was more junior in my career, and then just before I joined MAXIMUS Federal I was at Accenture Federal with Michael again. He really did have an impact on my career in that he taught me that in managing a team, there’s a very delicate balance that has to be applied. Your team needs the space and the room to succeed and fail, and that there is success in failure both organizationally and when you’re developing people. We all know this, all of us have had successes and failures in our careers and if we think about particularly how our boss handled those successes and failures we will certainly have a different lens on them.
Michael was there to pat me on the back when I succeeded. He wasn’t jumping up and down and going overboard, it was a pat on the back, “Nice job” and he did the same when I failed. Both times in both instances, it gives you pause for reflection and it’s in that space that the learning of either what you did right or what you did wrong or could have done differently comes. I know manage my team in that same way, they have the space and the room to succeed and fail and there will be learning that is done for them developmentally and for me and the organization from both of those instances.
Fred Diamond: Curiously, what might be some coaching you would give someone who just failed? Let’s say someone on the sales team did something so that you guys were cancelled out of a deal or a proposal didn’t get submitted on time, or something like that. Like a decent sized failure, so to speak, what might be the pat on the back or the coaching that you may give them?
Allison Patrick: I think if we had any of those, I would call those “catastrophic failures” with the examples you provided [laughs]. Certainly in that instance I would have someone on my team partner with me, because we’ve got something organizationally that is wrong or that is not being done well or right. Really just to have a great conversation and flush those things out and shore them up immediately would be that approach. We recently suffered a loss and in that instance, I had that sales VP partner with me and take on my next big initiative, put him in a bit of a deputy role and that did a couple things: it demonstrated to the organization that I still had confidence in that individual.
For whatever reason, we lost the deal but I think he did everything right. It was a very public signal to the rest of the organization that I still had confidence in that individual and then it also immediately gave him his confidence back. We didn’t waste time, we all go through those periods in our careers when we stare into our navel and wonder what happened there, and we just got through that period very quickly.
Fred Diamond: Do you enjoy the mentoring aspect of your business?
Allison Patrick: I have not always been very good at it, I’ll be the first one to admit that, but I have now found that that’s what it’s really all about. I think people who have worked with me and folks I’ve worked for, and then my team who works for me would say I’m very financially oriented. I’m very always focused on the targets and meeting the goals but I would say in the last decade I’ve learned that that’s just what a good salesperson is. A great salesperson not only does that, but then brings people along with them. If you’re building relationships and you’re mentoring and those relationships are with you for a lifetime, that’s an indication of a great career.
Fred Diamond: Allison, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Allison Patrick: Being in the government services market, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the external market as I would say my #1 challenge. I think we’re day 36 right now of the longest ever federal shutdown and I’m extremely sympathetic to my customers. Many are continuing to work and not being paid, and it’s a tragedy all around the Washington DC area and beyond. That certainly is a huge challenge and we had a bit of a slow down every time we have a presidential transition, an administration transition, you see that. That’s normal, we all expect it and plan for it but I don’t think any of the large federal systems integrators that support the federal government saw a shutdown of this magnitude coming our way. I would say that’s the first.
Internally, we also have a challenge at MAXIMUS and that’s that we’re growing and we’re growing very quickly. Those are growing pains as all great organizations who do grow experience. Scaling, shareholders want to see growth year over year and there’s no time to sit back. Scaling the organization to keep up with the pace of growth is always a challenge.
Fred Diamond: Again, talking to Allison Patrick. Allison, you’ve worked for some great companies, you’ve had a great career here servicing the United States federal government. 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.
Allison Patrick: I was leading my first team, it was a state and local team, and went out to visit a customer in health and human services administration in the state of Illinois and they wanted to be the first state to transition the paper food stamp program into the electronic benefit transfer or EBT program. Again, met with Ed, he was the customer and heard about the challenge that his administration had given him to be the first state to transfer, and three meetings later we were awarded a sole source contract for $132 million dollars to meet that challenge.
There was true joy in bringing a group of really brilliant engineers together in a room to think about how do you get around to all of the mom and pop stores in the state of Illinois, the 7-Elevens and enroll them in electronic benefit transfer and transition that citizenry that depended upon those resources day to day and do that smoothly and seamlessly. I’ll never forget when we went live at midnight in a data center in Texas and we were waiting for the very first transactions to flow through at midnight after cut-over and we saw success.
Fred Diamond: That is great because that is a critical program. That type of a program affects tons of people across the state. I used to work in state and local as well in various parts of my career and the EBT program was always an important one. It’s a high profile program as well, and you talked about your mission here at MAXIMUS Federal being helping government serve the people. Those programs definitely served so many people.
Allison Patrick: Absolutely, the most vulnerable of our citizens in our country depend on programs like those, and the fact that we could deliver the technology to the vulnerable citizens who needed them made all the difference in the world.
Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, I’m going to ask: Allison, did you ever question being in sales? Again, went to Syracuse University, of course you had a degree in public administration, you thought you were going to be in political campaigns, that’s what you enjoyed but you then found some opportunities to serve a customer and you’ve been leading sales teams and business development teams ever since at some of the blue chip companies in the government services space. Did you ever question that move? Did you ever think to yourself, “You know what, Allison? It’s too hard, it’s really just not for me”?
Allison Patrick: I think burnout is a factor in the sales career, in the sales profession. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to leave the sale side of the business several times and go in and lead large programs and that gives me a really important view of the business because often times, our operations partners will tease the sales organizations that, “Sure, you can sell it but can I truly execute or can I deliver?” I think going in and actually delivering the programs that you sell from time to time is good experience and it helps with the burnout as well.
Fred Diamond: Allison, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening to today’s podcast around the globe to help them improve their sales career?
Allison Patrick: Sales is a career based on a foundation of self-motivation. You are leading your employer into the market, so you have to be incredibly self-motivated. Everybody has to really ask themselves what motivates you to continue leading. For me, what I would advise is just asking junior folks, “Do you have passion for what you’re selling?” Whatever it is, whether it’s a product or a service, “Do you feel passionate about it?” and then, “Do you believe in the company and particularly the people, the leadership of that company? Do you feel passionate about making them successful?” Because ultimately, that’s what you’re doing. You are making your leadership and that company successful by continuing to book the business. If you don’t feel passionate about those things, it will certainly erode your self-motivation and then that will erode your own success.
Fred Diamond: I love that idea about self-motivation, it comes up frequently over the Sales Game Changers podcast that the company can do so much for the person but the ones who achieve, the ones who take their careers to the level of Sales Game Changer have that self-motivation. They have a passion for the mission, it’s not just enthusiasm, it’s not just charisma. That eventually winds down, you used the word burnout before but I really like it as one of the key themes that we’re talking about through this podcast is again, the motto of MAXIMUS Federal is “helping government serve the people”. Frequently throughout this, you’ve talked about how you have been able to provide service to your customer through your career and of course to work for a company like this, you have to be committed to the mission of the customer.
Allison Patrick: You really do have to be, I spent 15 years in the aerospace side of our government, so NASA, the FAA, NOAA and I was very passionate about our air traffic control system, the complexity of it and the pace and scale of which we move goods services people safely in our country, and securely and the fact that that’s an underpinning for our economy. Now, here at MAXIMUS Federal we aren’t focused on the aerospace industries, we truly are focused on delivering human services or services to vulnerable communities and there’s a lot of passion that goes into engaging with citizens and seeing the end benefit of what we’re delivering. Again, you have to feel passionate about what you’re doing.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Allison Patrick: The #1 I do is when I get into a proposal environment in the federal contracting world we respond to requests for proposals and those are generally 30 day slugs, if you will. A variety in very complex proposals, and I always make sure that I have very junior professionals sitting to the left and to the right of me. Folks who have just graduated with their BA’s or BS’s right out of their undergraduate experience, and the reason why I do that is because they teach me how to work. It’s almost like I have two teenagers now at home, but millennials, the generation that you are not part of, they do think differently, they do work differently, there’s a lot of research and study out there about it now. Even the way they process information, analyze information, organize their own thoughts and their own bodies of work, it’s fascinating. I try to keep current by learning from the millennials right now.
Fred Diamond: Give us an example, what is something that you’ve learned that you’ve instantiated in your leadership performance?
Allison Patrick: This is just something silly, but in terms of personal organization millennials take pictures of everything, absolutely everything. They take pictures of notes they’ve written, white boards, pictures on white boards, of someone else’s notes, even they’ll scribble and idea down and take a picture and then they organize those pictures into folders. It has taught me the value of communicating with pictures. Now, in our proposals or in our marketing material lots of icons, lots of imagery because it communicates so clearly and it was literally in a proposal environment where we were having a very difficult time flushing out a complex engineering drawing, and I kept going back to, “How can it be this hard?”
There was a young man sitting next to me – he’s actually pursuing his master’s degree now – and he had a very simple icon written on a piece of paper and he said, “It’s just that, isn’t it?” Right, it’s that simple. I think the room was full of 50 or somethings or older, and we had spent careers drawing these extremely complex engineering diagrams, that’s what we do. Yet this young man’s icon communicated exactly what we needed to communicate.
Fred Diamond: That’s brilliant and that’s a great, illuminating thought. I do have a question, though. Again, you serve the federal government and for the people listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast, we touched on this a little bit but there’s proposals you have to create and usually the government will send a request for proposal with questions and things along those lines. Has that shifted because of the millennial workforce? Are they still requiting the complexness and tons of answers or have you seen a shift in what the customer is also asking for to be able to make better decisions?
Allison Patrick: I think it’ll be a very long time before we get away from complex proposals, but we have seen a lot of really innovative buying techniques and strategies that the federal government has been using lately. Technical demonstrations where literally you bring your technical team in, they give you a challenge, you’re working on with the government’s tools and on their networks and six hours later, they evaluate how successful that tech team was at a particular challenge. That’s really interesting. Videotaped orals where you submit essentially a video of your proposal instead of a written version of it, that too is also very interesting. I applaud the government acquisition folks, I think they’re really getting very creative and we’re seeing some new things out there.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Allison Patrick: My personal continued success, something that I continue to do is get back to basics. Sometimes we all forget just the basics, and while I think I have always been a good listener with my customers, I’m not always such a good listener to my team. Having patience, slowing down, engaging, ensuring that you’re deliberate about carving off some portion of your weekly calendar to be engaging with the team, providing them support and asking them for feedback, “How’s it going? What do you think we’re doing right, what are we not doing well?” I know it sounds so fundamental and basic, but for me it’s a challenge. I can overbook my calendar at times, I can get managed by my email or the texts that are coming in and to really be deliberate about carving out time to engage with the team is so important.
Fred Diamond: That’s very powerful, that’s actually come up a couple times on some of the Sales Game Changers that we’ve recently interviewed. Brian Ludwig who’s the senior VP of sales at a company called Cvent, it’s an event automation software company, they have hundreds of people in sales. He said one thing he started doing in 2019 is spending more time with the SDR level, the first level, the kids just out of school, if you will, to devote that time. I’ve heard that a couple times on the podcast, so that’s great. Again, we spent today’s Sales Game Changers podcast talking to Allison Patrick, senior VP of sales at MAXIMUS Federal, she’s given us a lot of great insights.
Allison, again, you had your degree in public administration and then you moved into sales, you saw some opportunities with one of your first customers, the FAA and then you went back and you said, “How do we handle this?” and they said, “You handle it, you’re in sales now.” Sales is hard, people don’t return your phone calls or your emails. We talked before about some of the external challenges that are out of your control, pretty much but why have you continued? Again, you’ve reached senior VP level at a great government contractor. What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Allison Patrick: I really don’t think of myself as a salesperson, I think of myself as a problem solver, as an investigator, I really am seeking problems or areas where the government needs support and help and that’s what keeps me going. It’s the intellectual interest in thinking about how can we be doing this challenge better, more efficient, at less cost, with fewer people, delivering higher levels of service ultimately to my customers’ customers who are the US citizenry. I’m so fortunate to be here now at MAXIMUS Federal where we really focus on the most vulnerable of the US citizens. It feels so rewarding when we do get a win or a contract award in the door because all of that good effort and problem solving has been validated.
Fred Diamond: Allison, I want to thank you so much for being a guest on the Sales Game Changers podcast. We have sales professionals listening around the globe, I know there’s tons of things that they’re going to take away from today’s podcast but give us one final thought. Give us one final insight to inspire our listeners around the globe today.
Allison Patrick: If you’re in sales, then you are definitely naturally wired to meet targets, to be goal oriented, to be very measured about how am I doing with my achievement and that’s good, but to be great in sales – which I’m sure all your listeners are – to have a sense of real reward in your career, it is about the people. I would just say mentor, learn from all of those around you and then share your experience and knowledge.