EPISODE 542: Success in Starting Your Sales Career to the Government with Carahsoft’s Bethany Blackwell

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This podcast, sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales featured an interview with Bethany Blackwell, Vice President, Carahsoft. Carahsoft is a 2022 IES Premier Sales Employer. Read more about the distinguished Premier Sales Employer designation here.]

Find Bethany on LinkedIn.

BETHANY’S TIP FOR A GREAT START IN YOUR SALES CAREER: “We’re looking at hiring some of the best and brightest that are looking to start their careers. If they don’t know what to study in college, look at sales. Look at the entrepreneurship. Look at those leadership classes. Even if you don’t end up being a full-time salesperson, you’re going to learn imperative life skills that are going to serve you for the rest of your life. Sales is a part of our daily lives, whether it’s obvious or not. Everybody listening, tell your kids especially, “Prepare yourselves with a skill that you can use every single day.” Just look out for that and I think that that’s going to be awesome.”


Fred Diamond: Bethany, it’s great to see you. Congratulations to Carahsoft on becoming an IES Premier Sales Employer for 2022. What does it mean to be recognized as a Premier Sales Employer for sales professionals?

Bethany Blackwell: First of all, Fred, thank you so much for having me today. I’m excited to be here. I’m so excited that Carahsoft has this designation from IES. IES is such a remarkable program, widely recognized in the industry in this area. It’s that stamp of approval that we have for getting this designation and recognition from you guys.

I’ve been at Carahsoft for a little over 12 years now. 12 years ago, people didn’t know who Carahsoft was. I realized it’s a really great place to work over the years, but I think with this, now being a premier employer, we’re really excited because now everybody knows in the industry, “Hey, this is a great place to work.” I’m really excited and really proud of Carahsoft and really glad to have this designation. Thank you.

Fred Diamond: We have listeners all around the globe. Again, I’m broadcasting out of Northern Virginia, right outside of Washington, DC. Why don’t you tell us a little bit, give us the elevator pitch for Carahsoft. For a lot of the people who may not be familiar with the company, let us know what you do.

Bethany Blackwell: It’s funny you say that. In the Northern Virginia area, I feel like Carahsoft’s almost a family name now, especially in the tech industry. We are super tech focused. We are a sales and marketing company for some of the best technology vendors in the world, really. The AWSs, the Googles, the Salesforces, the Zooms, some wonderful cloud technologies that we’re supporting. We are a reseller for public sector customers. That could be federal, government, state, local, education. We’re partnering with the Amazons and the Salesforces and the Twilios of the world. We hold a number of contract vehicles for them. Then we’re also helping to bring their messaging and their products to market in the government space, whether it is federal, state, local, or education markets, helping them sell and really amplify their message to those customers. Because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing, more sales. We’re a company that is specific to helping those companies in the public sector.

Fred Diamond: The public sector markets, they’re unique. They’re huge. The federal government is Fortune one, and the federal government, there’s so many angles to it. Of course, there’s defense, there’s intelligence, there’s Centers for Disease Control, and Health and Human Services, infrastructure, Department of Energy, et cetera. Then all the states, and then local, and then education, you need to know certain things. You have to have a specific knowledge. I didn’t ask exactly what you do. You’re a VP over there. Tell us a little bit about what you do for the company.

Bethany Blackwell: Like I said, I’ve worked at Carahsoft for 12 years. It started as the inside sales role doing outbound call campaigns. At Carahsoft, we are verticalized based off of usually vendor business unit. A little bit different than maybe some other folks in the industry. We want our teams to be super knowledgeable and be almost as good as the inside sales reps at the actual vendors that we’re supporting. That’s why we over here have a Splunk team, for example, or an Azure team, or a Salesforce team, so we’re all verticalized based off of our business units. Then we also have a lot of people that are supporting almost cross team from a, “Hey, here’s our cloud computing vertical and here is our core cyber vertical.” Then that’s helping us bring all of those vendors together to make sure we’re able to market to our customers in the best and most efficient ways.

I personally support what we call the Salesforce team. That is a combination of a number of cloud computing business units that, in my opinion, all have a message of citizen-centric type work. The biggest vendor on my business unit right now is salesforce.com, which includes a couple of their acquisitions, MuleSoft, Tableau, and Slack. We’re supporting all of those guys from the public sector standpoint.

Then we also have a couple of sub-business units that work as part of my team, DocuSign, Zoom, Twilio, Box, Genesis. If you think of what all of those vendors are doing, they have citizen-facing services that a lot of them are selling, whether it’s case management from a Salesforce perspective, or video conferencing from the Zoom perspective. That’s what my team is doing for our customers. Our team right now is about 120 people and a little bit over a billion dollars in revenue for that team for public sector.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned that you’ve spent your entire career so far at Carahsoft. Here you are doing a podcast on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, one of the top sales podcasts in the world. Obviously, you’ve done a lot of great stuff over there. Tell us why Carahsoft would be an attractive destination for sales professionals.

Bethany Blackwell: First of all, I would say, when I started, I was put on the Salesforce team. 12 years ago, I’ll be honest, not a lot of people were interested in Salesforce. You made cold calls and customer’s like, “You know that this is the government, right? We don’t need a CRM database.” There was a lot of rejection, obviously, early on. But to the credit, both of Salesforce and their public sector team and growing it out and helping with the messaging, and then Carahsoft helping them to amplify some of that messaging. It was a really cool time to be there because we were really at the ground floor. What was exciting for me, and then my team as I started to build it was we were able to do a lot of trial and error.

This was a new emerging market in the government space, cloud was new. There wasn’t FedRAMP yet. People didn’t know how to buy it, why to buy it, and what to do with it. We had a lot of autonomy in the early days in figuring out not only what these solutions would look like for the customers, but how customers were going to buy it. Like I said, the federal government, the state local government, they buy things differently than you and I do as a consumer every day. They have to have certain contract vehicles. They have to have terms and conditions. They need different buying programs. What I thought was really great about Carahsoft and what really has kept me here for as long as I’ve been here is the flexibility and the ability for our teams to be able to do what we needed to do to build and grow such a successful business.

We have lots of other very large teams at Carahsoft, but they operate a little bit differently. VMware, they use license keys. They’re more of an on-prem type of model. We had to develop a whole different team to talk to customers differently. We were the first really to be figuring out how to do subscriptions and how we were managing that with our government customers who weren’t used to that. They were used to perpetual maintenance. We would call customers and have to explain, “Hey, your service turns off if you don’t renew your subscription.”

It was a really cool time because Carahsoft and our CEO, Craig gave us so much flexibility and leeway to build out the teams that we needed to build out. Whether it was our outbound calling team and figuring out a different way to message the Salesforce or the cloud message as opposed to, “Hey, this is just the CRM tool,” to, “Hey, we’ve got to grow out and handle our renewals a little bit differently.” That was a huge piece of the business, and still is today and subscription is the upsell piece. I said, “Hey, we’ve got to get really good people on our renewal upsell team, because that’s how the expansion is going to be for a lot of our customers on an annual basis. That’s how we’re going to grow sales.”

I will say that Carahsoft, there were so many opportunities for us to do things differently and team with Salesforce as one of my first vendors that I was working with. I would say that from a vendor perspective, that made Carahsoft really attractive, and that’s why I stayed. There wasn’t a lot of, “Oh no, you can’t do that because that’s not in our playbook at our company,” “Bethany, let’s figure out how to make something happen.” That’s always the answer at Carahsoft. It’s not a no, it’s like, “Let’s figure out how to make that happen. That makes sense and that’s going to help us drive business.” That was some of the cool stuff we did from the vendor side.

Then,, we’re in sales, so there’s a lot of quantitative things that make Carahsoft a great place to work. I remember when I was first being recruited, I would talk to the recruiter and I was so excited. They talked about this annual company trip that we would go on, then also this thing called Shoe Day. Since we sell to the federal government, we have a big team number for September, because it’s the end of the federal fiscal year. The government has to spend all their money. It’s like a race till the end of the fiscal year. We work a little bit longer hours, we work really hard, but it’s great because at the end, if we hit our company number, Craig, our CEO, started what was called Shoe Day and or Guys’ Night Out, one for each. The girls will usually get to go to Bloomingdale’s and pick out a new pair of shoes. The guys go to The Palm for a steak dinner. Especially when you’re younger, these are some of the really cool, fun things that really attract you to a business.

I’m talking to some of my other friends that are in consulting, their first jobs out of college. They’re just working long, long hours and they don’t have fun things like going to Bloomingdale’s and getting a pair of shoes. There’s lots of other perks throughout the year. Those are some of the highlights. But the best one probably could become a little infamous at Carahsoft, is our company trip. We have a team number. My team has a number and then we have a company number that we have to make. If we hit it, our CEO takes the entire company on a trip. I just thought this was such a differentiating factor from almost all of the other companies that I was talking to.

A lot of the vendor companies, whether it’s a staffing or recruiting firm, or a technology firm, a lot of them do have these awards trips, but they only take their top performers. Carahsoft was great. We really look to everything as a team goal. We wanted to achieve that common goal. We’ve had annual trips to Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica. Over the past 12 years, we’ve gone to a bunch of different places. If going to some of those places, sitting on the beach and sipping a drink, doesn’t make a place attractive place to work, then I don’t know what is. We’ve hit the team goal every single year that I’ve worked here. I will caveat and say obviously the last two years, because of COVID, we’ve had to have an alternate solution to everybody getting on a plane and going to Mexico, but hopefully we can get there soon again. It’s really exciting.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned the fact that Carahsoft focuses on the public sector markets. Not every premier sales employer focuses on public sector, but why would that be something that would be attractive to a sales professional? Someone who’s good at sales, in theory, especially in tech, they could probably wind up in most places, and if they’re good, figure it out. What is it about your customer set, the public sector market, devoting your career, Bethany Blackwell, and the other large number of salespeople who are sitting by you at Carahsoft, what does that mean and how does that contribute to the satisfaction of your career?

Bethany Blackwell: First, for our listeners that don’t know a lot about the public sector market and how they buy, it’s not like Marriot needs to buy something, they go, can place a purchase order and they’re good to go, CIO gets to make the decision potentially if it’s technology based. In public sector, as we know, they’re not always the fastest moving group in what they’re doing. But there is a lot of red tape around it. There are contract vehicles that customers have to utilize that have prenegotiated terms and conditions, or discounted rates that our customers need to be able to use.

Carahsoft is in a unique position where, as I explained, we’re the reseller and we hold the terms and conditions and are working with our vendor partners and our government customers to make sure that we are selling to them in a way that is appropriate, that they can be sold to, essentially. It’s a very unique market, very different than the commercial space.

Fred Diamond: What do you think salespeople are looking for? Again, we’re doing today’s interview in July of 2020, and you mentioned it’s a really interesting time because the government fiscal year is ending. It’s what’s known as the buying season here in the DC area for all the companies that service the federal government. But what are salespeople looking for in a premier employer, and especially the good ones that have the opportunity to go to almost wherever they want to go?

Bethany Blackwell: It could be answered in one word, flexibility. That’s what I’ve been seeing a lot. We are coming out of COVID, I will say, I’m not exactly sure. We’re coming out of a time where we were spending more time in our houses than we were on the road, selling, meeting with customers, whatever it was. It was a completely different shift in how we were interacting with our customer base. At Carahsoft, we had a pretty structured setup. We were in the office. You got to think that we are somewhat of an inside sales organization. In my opinion, I think inside salespeople benefit extremely well from sitting next to people. You’re in that bullpen mentality.

We would go into the office five days a week, we’re there all day. You could turn around and listen to somebody’s elevator pitch for some sort of campaign that they were doing and give them immediate feedback. When we all picked up and went remote two years ago, that just wasn’t happening anymore for us at Carahsoft. I looked at it as a huge challenge, something that we overcame. I think that we were super successful in shifting to this remote work. Now, after two plus years, people that work for me started totally remote. They never had that in-office every day, this is the Carahsoft way mantra. Getting people to come back in every day, I just think is not really something that is going to happen.

I think that we as employers have to have a certain level of flexibility, especially with trying to attract talent. People don’t want to go into the office every day anymore. You listen to every single poll that they have on WTOP or whatever, people want the flexibility to work sometimes from home, maybe work sometimes from the office, go get an Airbnb by a lake and work from a lake for a month. I think that that is something that salespeople are looking for right now, and Carahsoft is really trying to figure out, “Hey, what’s the balance? How do we make sure we’re still super successful?” Because the way we got where we are is, “Hey, we all are collaborating. We’re in the office every day. We’re walking down the hall and grabbing our marketing resource and pulling them into a room and talking about, ‘Hey, what’s this next campaign going to look like?'” We’re trying to figure out what that looks like through our Slack and our Zoom and our collaboration tools, so that we can make sure that we can continue to offer that flexible environment that I really truly think that the salespeople are looking for right now, especially the folks that Carahsoft is looking to hire.

Fred Diamond: What do you think some of the biggest challenges are to remain premier? Again, Carahsoft has had a tremendous run. It is known in the DC area, and probably other places, as a great place to work. If you’re from the Northern Virginia, DC, even Montgomery County area, you might have worked, your parents might be working in technology. There’s probably a bunch of people who work at Carahsoft whose parents work for vendors. I’m sure that that is possibly the case for so many people. But what are some of the challenges you face to remain premier? Things change, markets change.

Bethany Blackwell: We were hiring at such a clip, especially going into the pandemic, and then even post pandemic. The government benefited, I think, a lot from CARES funding. A lot of money and grants was sent both to different federal agencies and also state local agencies. What was really cool is a lot of this funding was used to buy a lot of the solutions that Carahsoft offers. We’re offering leading solutions for digital transformation, cloud technologies. We could see our government customers actually implementing some of these really cool things that we’ve talked about for years like, “Hey, shift to the cloud. You’re going to be able to do things quicker, better.”

They were doing these things, and what I think is great is we’re going to continue to see that path. Because of that, our customers and our vendors are going to be successful, and it’s going to give more opportunities for us as a premier employer to continue to hire some of that top talent. Because being a reseller, we’re involved in a lot of these cool, innovative solutions that are being sold to the public sector. Salespeople are competitive, right? I want to be part of whatever the coolest, latest, greatest thing is. I think that’s what Carahsoft has to offer.

We have the coolest, greatest, latest vendors that we support, not only in this Northern Virginia area, but the same with the folks out of whether it’s Silicon Valley or anywhere across the country, we’re supporting those people. I think we can continue to attract top talent because of our name brand and recognition with those guys, and us working so closely with them and delivering these awesome solutions to our public sector customers. People want to be a part of that. They want to be a part of winning and success. That’s what I see that Carahsoft has to offer.

Fred Diamond: A final question before we ask you for your final action step. Bethany, you said you’ve been 12 years in. What are people, either at the junior or more senior level, what are they expecting from employers right now? I’m curious if you can answer that on both sides. You mentioned you went to Carahsoft right after Virginia Tech, which does a great job training sales professionals. We’ve actually met a lot of people in the DC area who came out of Virginia Tech. It’s a great school. Actually, one of our board of advisor members, Darrell Gehrt from Cvent, was on the committee that brings a lot of people up into the DC area. But what are salespeople now, what are they expecting from their employers?

Bethany Blackwell: What I think is so interesting right now, especially we’re hiring a lot of folks that are new to their careers coming out of college, a couple years of experience. They’re just getting started and it’s a little bit of the unknowns and what to expect. 12 years ago, when I graduated Virginia Tech, as far as I know, there were no courses in sales. There were no courses that were specific to how to sell, which looking back, it just blows my mind because what I realized really quickly is there’s an aspect of sales in everything. No matter what your job is at the end of the day, it’s such an important piece. Whether you decide to take up sales as your full-time profession, or a lawyer, a painter, who knows? There’s an aspect of sales in all of it.

What I think has been really cool is the more folks I’ve been interviewing over the last couple of years, they’re telling me about these sales classes that they’ve been taking. Whether it’s at Virginia Tech, or JMU, or other colleges, and they’re majoring in entrepreneurship, or sales, or leadership. These are really strong candidates that are coming through. Those are the folks that I’m starting to look for. Did they take that sales class? A couple of them, at least. Did they have some sort of sales and marketing internship that they did? Can they tell me about the entrepreneurship classes that they were taking at their schools? Because now these are the offerings, because I think that our higher education institutions are seeing that this is an important piece of the industry. I’m really looking for a lot of our potential new hires to have dipped their toes a little bit into this field in advance, because it gives them a leg up and they already have some great experience coming into the role.

On the flip side of that, it makes us realize, “Well, these guys are a little bit maybe more advanced than some of the other folks that we were hiring 10 years ago when I didn’t see people coming through with sales experience right out of college. They’re going to want a little bit more from us too.” We’re really doubling down, I think, on our training programs. Because you may have a lot of sales experience coming into this, but specific to the government, for example, it’s a whole other ballgame. You’ve got to learn what those three letter acronyms are, and what a GSA schedule is, and what you can and can’t do when selling to the government, because it’s a little bit different.

Something that we want to be able to give back more to our potential employees right now is that investment in training. We want to invest in you. It takes a little bit longer to get spun up, because you’re just not learning how to sell in general, but it’s how to sell to the government. It’s a little bit different messaging. That’s my biggest thing that I want to work on over the next 18 months, is how do we continue to invest in training and give back to these potential new hires. Then also make sure that they understand that there is a growth path at Carahsoft.

I will say that’s something that we’ve been developing, and like I said in the beginning, there’s so much flexibility here at Carahsoft for you to take things and own it. I think as salespeople, that’s what we want to do. We want to be winners. We want to be leaders. Carahsoft really gives you the ability to take an idea and run with it. I want everybody that starts at Carahsoft to work here for as long as I have, because there is so much opportunity. We’re working with the best vendors in the world and we’re going to see a lot of success from that, from the training aspect, and just the ability that we’re going to say yes. We want you to succeed. We want you to come with fresh ideas. That’s what really we’re looking for. I want to give everybody the ultimate growth path, and sit down and plan for them. It starts with the training and looking for those right candidates.

Fred Diamond: Once again, thank you so much to Bethany Blackwell. You’re definitely a great advocate for Carahsoft. Just a note, two of the companies you mentioned today, Craig Abod, your president, was the IES Lifetime Achievement Award winner in 2020. You also mentioned Salesforce, Dave Rey, who runs global public sector for Salesforce, was the IES, the Institute for Excellence in Sales, Lifetime Achievement Award recipient in 2022. I would just say, one of the great things about working for a company like Carahsoft is there’s so many opportunities. You guys represent so many vendors, you focus on so many different verticals. There’s so many places you can go. You could go into marketing, partnerships, events, of course sales. Eventually you could have more responsibility on that whole side, the nature of the government customer. Then also you can move into the various verticals, public sector has education, higher education. Then of course there’s federal and all the different areas of federal. It’s a great way to get some expertise and to have a nice successful career in sales.

I want to thank Bethany for being our guest today. Bethany, congratulations again on the success at Carahsoft and for you, for having a nice start to your career. Hope for your continued success. You’ve given us so many great ideas for the sales professionals and for the employers, but give us an action step, one specific thing, Bethany Blackwell, that our listeners can do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Bethany Blackwell: I think I’ve touched on this quite a bit throughout today’s podcast. Like I said, we’re looking at hiring some of the best and brightest that are looking to start their careers. We’re looking for those folks and what I would advise all of them, I wish I could tell even the high schoolers, I know that sounds crazy, this. If they don’t know what to study in college, look at sales. Look at the entrepreneurship. Look at those leadership classes. Even if you don’t end up being a full-time salesperson, you’re going to learn imperative life skills that are going to serve you for the rest of your life. Like I said, sales is a part of our daily lives, whether it’s obvious or not. Everybody listening, tell your kids especially, “Prepare yourselves with a skill that you can use every single day.” Just look out for that and I think that that’s going to be awesome.

Fred Diamond: Just curiously, I don’t think I asked you, what was your major in college?

Bethany Blackwell: I was a psychology and history major, with a minor in political science. I was like, “Well, I guess I’m going to be a lawyer, a teacher, or I’m going to go in sales.” I graduated and I was like, “I’m not doing any more college. Sales it is for me.” I do wish that I had some of the courses that they offer now. That’s why I tell people, “Take a look at it. Take at least a couple of classes. I think it’ll help you out.”

Fred Diamond: That’s great. Actually, I was a history major as well, and I eventually got my MBA, so that gave me some nice rounded stuff. Once again, Bethany Blackwell, thank you. Thank you to Craig and the team at Carahsoft. My name is Fred Diamond and this was the Sales Game Changers Podcast.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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