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EPISODE 160: Verizon Federal’s Andrea Cohen Says Doing These Other Jobs First Led to Her Sales Leadership Success
ANDREA’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Engage. You have to play to win and you have to really be focused on what you do and how it impacts everyone else, your customer and their customer. If you can get that level of understanding, you’ll be very successful.”
Andrea Cohen is the VP of Civilian Sales for Verizon Federal.
Prior to coming over to Verizon, she worked for Winstar and AT&T.
We also interviewed Verizon Public Sector Chief Mike Maiorana on Episode 100.
Find Andrea on LinkedIn!
Andrea Cohen: While I’ve had a long sales career, I think the biggest thing that helped me through the years is I did a lot of other roles. I did offer management, product management, business development and I ran AT&T’s capture team for a number of years. That’s the group of people that goes after big bids and big business and creates the strategy to win them. I also ran a program and had over 150 people reporting to me, so all of those things have really helped me in my sales career.
Fred Diamond: When did you move into sales as a career?
Andrea Cohen: I actually started in sales and a lot of the other roles I did were later, then I came back into sales in 2008. I was asked to do it because there were some very specific requirements for a contact center for the social security administration and I have a lot of contact center expertise so I came back into sales then.
Fred Diamond: I look forward to hearing your story and look forward to hearing how your background has helped you evolve as a sales leader. Why don’t you tell us what you sell today? Tell us what excites you about that.
Andrea Cohen: I think the most important thing for me today is we sell everything from security services to contact center services to infrastructure to networks and the technology has changed so dramatically. To be able to take all of these different capabilities and truly build a customer specific solution is what I’m passionate about. We serve the government, it’s a higher calling and we really are very focused on delivering capabilities to the government so they can deliver capabilities to our citizens.
Fred Diamond: We have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, they may not know what it means to sell to the federal government, specifically the civilian side. Can you tell us what that means? What are some of the agencies that you might sell to?
Andrea Cohen: The way that we have organized the civilian side of the house, it is every cabinet level agency, all of the tribal agencies and a number of our key customers are people like HHS, Social Security Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration. When people talk mission, a lot of times they think DOD and that’s really not the case. Civilian agencies have critical missions that they have to deliver on to protect our health, to protect our safety, to ensure that we’re not ingesting bad food or drugs and you see it in the news all the time. Our civilian agencies have very unique requirements that they have to deliver on to protect the public.
Fred Diamond: Again, we mentioned that you’ve been in sales a couple times in your career so when you made that last shift, how did you get into sales? What were the circumstances that brought you into the sales side?
Andrea Cohen: Originally I started in sales and I started on a management development program and I really never thought of myself as being a salesperson. I actually was going to college for law school and I thought maybe I’d do a career in politics eventually. I found out I was really good at translating what people needed into a solution and so I ended up with a very small account years ago and then I kept parlaying it into bigger and bigger modules and capabilities. I had some of the largest accounts at both AT&T and Verizon hub and it was fun, and it kept being fun.
Fred Diamond: What were some of the key lessons that you learned from some of those first few sales jobs?
Andrea Cohen: I’ll talk a little bit about my mentor later but one of the key lessons I learned is you are the CEO of your module. You need to know that customer inside and out, you need to know what their pain points are, what their budget is, what their mission is. You can’t create a solution that’s effective if you don’t truly understand them. When I had the postal service, for example, I actually followed the mail for a 24 hour period to watch how mail was processed and it’s critical that you have that level of knowledge and that you remain very customer focused. That lets you make much better sales for both you and for the customer, more importantly.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about that for a little bit. That’s come up a couple times that you own your business and for you to truly excel in sales you truly do need to own your business. What are some of the things that the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast can be doing? Again, you said that you followed a postal carrier, I guess, for 24 hours?
Andrea Cohen: The whole 9 yards, from the time it was picked up to the time it was processed so I understood what the problems were in the sorting facilities and then through to final delivery.
Fred Diamond: What are things you would recommend for some of the people to really truly understand their customer?
Andrea Cohen: A lot of it. First of all, read. When you’re dealing with federal agencies, there’s so much transparency, there’s so many things online. Don’t go in and start asking questions till you’ve actually done some thorough research on those customers. Talk to other accounts and talk to people that have other federal modules and learn what the common problems are because there are a number of common problems. Aging infrastructure, ability to recruit new people, do the baby boomer situation, there are a number of things that are common, licencing issues. The other thing I would say is really sit down and have coffee and go meet with your customers not to try to sell them something but literally to really understand their business and what drives them. You don’t get that unless you’re talking to them and you’re not trying to push a product.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you’re an expert in. Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Andrea Cohen: You always don’t want to say what you’re an expert in because you want other people to say that but fundamentally for me, I have a photographic memory and I am extremely passionately customer focused. I’m really able to figure out what a solution is that hits a key business problem and I’m able to put together a package for that customer to make the pricing right, to make the technical solution right, I’m really an expert at that. I ran a lot of big bids and big capture so I know what the pain points are and what the drivers are, and I also really understand the federal budget.
Actually, one of my summer jobs was I was a budget officer for the veterans administration, so I learned exactly how the budgets got put together, what you had to do internally from an agency perspective. That’s really my true area of brilliance.
Fred Diamond: I have a question, I want to go back to the comment you made before, “Spend time with your customer talking to them, not selling to them per se, but talking to them.” It’s harder than it has ever been before to get to customers for a whole bunch of reason. Their time is less, they can get access to information on the internet of course, because of security some cases you can’t even get into buildings anymore. What might be some of your advice to some of the people listening to the podcast about how to get those types of meetings? “I just want to talk to you about your mission.” Of course, you’re with Verizon so you get tremendous access but how would someone who maybe doesn’t have the huge brand behind them with multi-billions of dollars being spent on the solutions?
Andrea Cohen: I think there are two ways. One is if you know what a problem is and you think you have a potential solution, you really want to give value. People aren’t going to meet with you unless you come across as giving value to them, that’s the first thing. I think the second thing too is the government is even more so than usual really interested in what corporations are doing to automate, to get rid of Asian technology, to recruit personnel, to collaborate.
A lot of times what we actually do is we have a variety of CIO’s and people that we bring in to say what are we doing internally and then agencies tend to really be fascinated by that and they want to take those lessons learned from our experience and apply them to their agency.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career?
Andrea Cohen: I did have a lot of great mentors and I would always tell young salespeople that’s the first thing you really need to do. My very first mentor was Bob Gradle at AT&T, Bob ran all of the federal organization and Bob said something that has stuck with me as I mentioned earlier which is you’re the CEO of your module. You need to know it better than anybody, you need to understand that customer better than anybody and you need to make sure you’re adding value every day. Bob was the kind of guy that didn’t care about your level or who you were, he would literally walk the floors. If he got a question or a call from somebody, he would come down and get it from the horse’s mouth, that was a really good lesson there.
The next great mentor I had was Catherine Dunn, and Catherine was all about building great solutions to real problems that were impacting everybody every day. As a matter of fact, with Catherine we built the first 311 service in Baltimore and that was to offload the 911 service and to get people help but not flood the emergency lines. If you truly have someone who understands what the needs are ahead of anybody else understanding what the need is, that’s a great mentor. Grab them and stick with them because you’ll learn a lot.
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Andrea Cohen: I would say recruiting. I think that there is a really big difference between how we grew up in sales and how the younger generation is coming in now because they have a lot of great collaboration skills and they bring some really great energy and support that I think we can start using more effectively. Getting the right people making sure that they mesh with the account and the people in the account and allowing them to grow and to be promoted instead of going out and searching for new roles.
Then the other big challenge is we are in the cusp of probably the largest technology change we’ve had in my entire career which is 35 years. I think being able to deal with that rate of change and helping customers who have very old legacy systems who have very prescribed budget processes being able to take advantage of that rate of change. The problem is a lot of the solutions they have now are risky and they don’t understand they’re risky. They’re risky because you don’t have people to support them, they’re risky because you can’t get parts to repair them. I think it’s being able to articulate that and then give them a path forward that they can do.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned recruiting and that comes up not infrequently during the Sales Game Changers podcast. We have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, what might the ideal characteristics look like for someone who would come on to one of the Verizon sales teams?
Andrea Cohen: A couple of things. You want somebody who is very collaborative, we have too many people who have to weigh in on everything that we do. You want somebody who can build those bridges and create a win-win environment. Communication, communication is critical and not just written, there’s oral communication, there’s written communication, it’s the ability to grab mind share. That’s a critical thing that I look for, and then the final thing – we used to joke on my team, I used to have this motto, “Dog with a bone.” A lot of times it doesn’t go right the first time, it doesn’t go right the fourteenth time but you have to have that persistence. You have to have that ability to understand that it may not happen now but it could happen a year from now and how are you going to make it happen?
Fred Diamond: In the beginning of our conversation you mentioned the federal marketplace and why you serve the federal marketplace. Is that a market that you would encourage people who want to move into sales to come into?
Andrea Cohen: Yes, I definitely would, I think that it teaches you great lessons. What’s so unique about the federal marketplace is that while commercial industries have many of the same processes, the outcomes that they’re looking for are life and death outcomes. It dramatically ups your game, you may not want to stay, you may want to move onto commercial accounts but this is a great training round. That’s why I really encourage people to come in and quite frankly it’s a higher calling, it’s a way to give back. For me, that’s incredibly important and I think it is for a lot of people.
Fred Diamond: You’ve had a great career here at Verizon, you were also at Winstar and AT&T, you must have had some great successes along the way. Why don’t you tell us about the #1 specific sales success or win from your career you’re most proud of?
Andrea Cohen: Healthcare.gov. Our team was heavily involved in both the compute and the contract center for healthcare.gov and it was something that had to be rolled out quickly, it didn’t have the smoothest roll out, it had to be fixed quickly and I think that it was incredibly impactful. I have a daughter who has a chronic condition, so for me the ability to give affordable care and let people sign up, let people have the information and the knowledge was very important.
Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break, we’re going to ask you one final question. You moved into sales, you’ve had various other roles, you were in business management, you worked in capture side, I believe you said as well. Did you ever question being in sales? You’ve been in sales a couple times in your career and of course now you’re VP of Civilian Sales for Verizon Federal. Did you ever think to yourself, “It’s just too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Andrea Cohen: Everything is sales, no matter what role you have. You either selling to internal customers or you’re selling externally so no, not really, I love sales. It energizes me, it gives me something to be passionate about every day.
Fred Diamond: We tell people if you have a spouse or a child, you’re in sales. I want to ask you one last question before we take a break. Again, you’re working for Verizon, it’s a huge brand, well-known brand, hugely established brand. We’re doing today’s podcast recording in the executive briefing center of Verizon’s headquarters here in Ashburn, Virginia and there’s pictures and there’s technology. It has a great feeling, I know there’s some other briefings going on. What is it like, for the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast around the globe, to work for such an established and huge brand?
Andrea Cohen: We bring tremendous technology to the market and that is really important. When I worked at Winstar, for example we had many layers of approval, it was a smaller business but I think the size and the scale of Verizon and what we’re doing now with 5D and with our other networking capabilities is going to have a significant impact. We are, in essence, the information highway for everybody and it’s critical that that highway be in place because nothing works without it.
Fred Diamond: Andrea, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Andrea Cohen: Three things. Get a really good mentor, that’s the first thing you really need to do. Model the behaviors you want and you’ll learn a lot more quickly, that’s the first thing.
The second thing is inspect what you expect, that’s a lesson you need all the way through. You need to understand that you are doing what you need to do from a funnel perspective, from any perspective, from a deal perspective and you need to make sure that what you’re seeing is actually what you wanted to have happen.
The third thing for me is know that customer really well, you have to balance the corporation with the customer but if you lean on any side, lean on the side of the customer. Your knowledge of them will make you more successful.
Fred Diamond: I want to talk to you about mentor for a second, you gave us some great examples of your mentors before. How should the Sales Game Changers use their mentors? For example, I’m sure you’ve mentored many people along the way in your career as well. What do you expect when someone asks you to be a mentor? How do you optimize that relationship from the mentee perspective?
Andrea Cohen: I think that is a great question. There are a number of ways that you can be a good mentor/mentee. I think it’s not about expecting favoritism or wasting people’s time, it fundamentally is about learning and modeling and watching those behaviors, and then listening to constructive criticism. That is one thing that’s critical for a mentor to give, and I also think that a lot of times it’s literally about what it is that you need to grow into the next position. A lot of people are really good at what they do, they may not be really good at the next level, they have to take certain techniques they have and change them, how you supervise people, how you interact with people. I think that that is a really great thing you can get from a mentor, you can understand not just your role but the next role and then the next role. How do you rise in the corporation and what do you need to do and focus on.
Fred Diamond: Again, one theme that we’ve had throughout today’s Sales Game Changers podcast, you are the CEO of your module and if you’re the CEO of your module you need to understand resources, you need to understand how to get things done, etcetera. What are some of the habits you’ve developed along the way to help you sustain yourself as a sales leader?
Andrea Cohen: Two things really critical to me – three things, actually. The first is always learning. Everything changes, love change, embrace change and continue to learn, that’s the first thing.
The second thing is really understand your business and your constraints, each corporation has a set of rules either written or unwritten that you have to follow and to be successful not only do you have to sell for the customer issue but you have to solve for the corporate issues. You have to know the billing system won’t do this or you have to understand that the network won’t deliver that. Being able to do that balance takes understanding on both sides and that to me is really critical.
The final thing is learning – I’m very passionate about everything, but learning when not to be passionate. I hate losing, I’m a horrible loser [Laughs] so learning that balance is critical, there are some things that you shouldn’t win, but you have to learn that, it’s not something you have right away.
Fred Diamond: We’ve gotten a lot of great insights into your business and why you’re a Sales Game Changer. Just curiously, what else are you passionate about? You said you were a passionate person, anything else that you’re passionate about that would be interesting for our listeners?
Andrea Cohen: I’m very interested in art and architecture and reading. I read 13 books a week, it’s the photographic memory thing. I’m doing good and doing more, I had an upbringing where we did a lot of work for the disadvantaged. My grandfather was a political appointee and we did a lot of organizations that we supported like lung cancer and I worked with battered women, so I’ve had a very wide range of experiences helping other people. One thing my grandfather, who was a wonderful man, always said is everybody puts their pants on the same way, one leg at a time. Going out there and helping in various situations, I’m all on board.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Andrea Cohen: We have a major set of recompetes right now for all of our business, we’re literally recompeting all of our business. I have some big bets on top of that for large procurements that are coming out that happen once every 15 years, so a lot of what I’m doing is making sure that we have full customer understanding, we have an architecture that well may forward into the next 15 years and that our pricing is correct.
Fred Diamond: Why have you continued in sales? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Andrea Cohen: Because I get to do something different every day. I am not someone who wants to do the same thing every day and sales lets me have a very broad perspective on a number of issues and solutions and situations.
Fred Diamond: You answered this question very nicely before with the nature of your customer, the civilian government agencies. They each have different missions, they each have different programs, of course there’s always things going on in the world that civilian agencies are responsible for so being able to serve them and help them achieve their mission has got to be pretty gratifying.
Andrea Cohen: It really is. Everybody needs to understand it’s things like making sure your grandparents get social security on time and have Medicare benefits and are able to live long, productive lives. It’s food safety, I actually worked at USDA on their food safety hotline when I was in grad school and baby formula. Fundamentally it touches every aspect of our lives and I don’t think people have enough of an understanding of that. All of those safety checks that are in place are critical, and making sure that people can deal, one of my major customers for years has been HHS and CDC is now reporting on the outbreak of measles. CDC uses CDC info to track that, where those outbreaks are coming and what people are calling in about. I think that it’s really important and it also is very predictive about what the issues are going to be in the next 5 to 10 years and that’s always good, too.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned before, this is a customer that’s very transparent and you know what their initiatives are, it’s published. You could easily find them and there’s no shortage of testimony out there and documents which describe the strategic plans for the agencies that you serve. Again, today’s Sales Game Changers podcast we talked to Andrea Cohen, she’s the VP of Civilian Sales at Verizon Federal. Andrea, you’ve given us a lot of great insights. Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe today?
Andrea Cohen: My final thought to you is engage. You have to play to win and you have to engage, and you have to really be focused on what you do and how it impacts everyone else, your customer and their customer. If you can get that level of understanding, I think you’ll be very successful.
Fred Diamond: Along those lines, have you found along the way that customers do want to talk to you if you’re bringing them solutions?
Andrea Cohen: Yes.
Fred Diamond: How often does someone who’s one of the customer of the kinds of things that you sell, do they go home and speak to their spouse about their challenges? Pretty much never, so the opportunity to speak about how they could solve these big problems has got to be pretty gratifying and there’s got to be a lot of openings for those types of conversations.
Andrea Cohen: There really are, I’ve never had that problem even when I was a salesperson. As long as you bring a valuable insight or something that will truly support them. Another big thing today is experience mapping, a lot of insight can be got from journey mapping and experience mapping particularly when you’re talking about public outreach. That is something that everybody can learn about and be able to do because they have experiences from everyone around them.