EPISODE 310: Adobe Public Sector Sales Leader Bill Donellan Shares Three Ways He Coaches His Team to Bring Unique Value to Their Customers

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers LIVE Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales and hosted by Fred Diamond on January 7, 2021. It featured Adobe Public Sector Sales Leader Bill Donellan.]

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EPISODE 310: Adobe Public Sector Sales Leader Bill Donellan Shares Three Ways He Coaches His Team to Bring Unique Value to Their Customers

BILL’S TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Make your number. I don’t say that to just be an old-school sales manager, I say it because in that success you will achieve your goals and you will be fulfilled as an individual. Figure out how to make yourself meaningful to your customer. Make them want to call you, as you add value to their life. They’ll call you, commerce will take place, you’ll make your number, their problems will be solved and we can all keep this thing moving forward.”

Fred Diamond: Bill Donellan runs public sector for Adobe.

Bill Donellan: First of all, thanks for having me on the show. Like you said, we’ve been talking about this for a while and schedules were difficult so I’m excited to be here now. This is a great opportunity to talk about something I’m passionate about and the company I love working for. Yes, the whole world knows PDF, most of the world knows Photoshop but there’s a lot of other things that are happening at Adobe these days, particularly in this time of the pandemic. We can talk more in detail as we get on but Adobe’s really focused on the digital experience and that’s more than just creating the content, it’s delivering that content, measuring how people use that content, making sure it’s personalized so that it’s on point. There’s a lot to this whole Adobe story right now and we’re excited to talk about it.

Fred Diamond: This is the first show that we’re doing in 2021, we just wrapped up 2020. Of course, there’s more of the same going on, a lot of the large companies that are members of the IES, they’re not back to the office. I was talking to one of our members today with a company that’s about your size who said, “We don’t expect to send people back to the office until probably 2022” so there’s a lot of that. Of course, today’s a big day in politics, there’s a lot of things going on. Let’s get right to it, how are things going? You run the public sector organization. First of all, tell us what public sector means, not everybody knows, it’s not just the federal government. Then tell us how things have been going and what are you expecting in 2021?

Bill Donellan: You’re right, public sector has different definitions in different organizations in terms of the domain there. Here at Adobe, public sector means all of the federal government, all facets of the US federal government, all facets of the state and local governments all across the nation. Also, here at Adobe we bring our Canadian public sector business into the fold under the same umbrella. There’s tremendous similarities between the federal government and Canada and our federal government here in the US and the provincial governments in Canada are very similar to our state and local government. A lot of similarities there which really help us serve the customers better together, that’s what public sector means here at Adobe.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about 2021. First of all, how did things go in 2020 and what are your expectations for 2021?

Bill Donellan: 2020 was no different for us than it was for anybody else, it would be really easy to drone on and on about the challenges but our challenges really weren’t unique, they were the same challenges everyone else faces during a national pandemic. I think if we stay focused on the business part of the conversation, 2020 was a phenomenal business year. Our government was in need of digitization and that’s what Adobe does, so we were really busy. Frankly, I think that really helped deal with all of the other challenges of 2020, being so busy and being so engaged. Helping the government deliver solutions out to the customer. It was a very good year for the business and it was a good year professionally because we were able to do so many things that the government needed done.

Fred Diamond: When the pandemic kicked in, a lot of the companies that do work with the government kicked in to getting the government customer into the cloud, getting them home, then the federal fiscal year which ends in September kicked in so a lot of the companies that we do work with who focus on public sector said that 2020 was similar to a lot of years, a lot of rush for us. I’m just curious, this is a question I usually ask later on the interview but I’m just curious how you think you’ve changed as a sales leader. This is the first show we’re doing in 2021, I’m thrilled that you’re going to be the first guest. Looking back over the year, fresh year starting right now but we still have a lot of the challenges. How do you think you’ve changed as a sales leader?

Bill Donellan: That’s an interesting question, you should probably ask that to some of the people that have worked with me for a long time [laughs]. But if I’m being honest, I think I had to chill out a little bit. It doesn’t mean lower expectations, it doesn’t mean compromise quality but it does mean approach things different, it does mean that you have to be much more empathetic and it does mean that you have to understand that while our business goals can’t change, how we accomplish them can change. The fact that we weren’t all ever in an office together meant that we had to develop a new skill set of online collaboration and I don’t mean just collaboration in terms of creation of documents, I mean collaboration in terms of coming up with ideas around how we were going to do things different.

How do you engage people that are typically quiet but you know they’ve got great ideas? There are a lot of things that you had to do as a leader to adapt your style to get the full value of your team, because not everyone was as comfortable living life in a Zoom call as everyone else, it was hard. You couldn’t let the people that were very comfortable talking dominate the conversation and developing skill sets to moderate that was a new part of 2020. Really, at the end of the day it came down to the people. Fortunately at Adobe it’s a very people-centric environment and Adobe was very focused from day 1 on supporting the employee and all the challenges that they faced, the new challenges that they faced so it was in the forefront of every conversation. It was very natural to fit that in and adapt our style to make sure that we were as accommodating as we needed to get the job done but be very human as we went about doing that.

Fred Diamond: I want to ask you a question about that. We’ve all been inside working from our home offices, typically, I presume you’re working from a home office right now as well, we’ve all had to figure out how to use the Zooms of the world. One of the challenges that happened over the last year that we began to hear from a lot of our members about is that it was a challenge to mentor and coach a lot of the people who are relatively new as sales professionals. It’s always been said, the hardest job is first line sales manager when you’re promoted to that first job, imagine if you were promoted in January, you’re expecting to build this team, you’re all going to come to the office, you’re going to have your meetings every Friday morning, do some team building, none of that happened, everything was done looking at the screen. How have you adjusted to that from a sales leader perspective knowing also that it’s not going to change much at least for the next 3 to 4, maybe even 6-9 months? What are your recommendations for the first line sales managers?

Bill Donellan: I think that’s a great question because adaptation is critical, adaptation allows us to grow and get better at what we do and I’ll give you two examples that I think are really highly relevant to your question. One is all leaders are concerned with the ten-legged sales call, you don’t want to show up with 15 people and meet with one government official to talk about a topic. It’s intimidating to them, it’s inefficient, it’s not cost-effective. In this world that we’re in right now, whether you’ve got 3 people or 10 people on your end of the teleconference, it doesn’t really matter. We’ve fortunately recognized that very early in this process and made it a strategic advantage, bring subject matter experts onto the call so you get the maximum value out of each call to make your calls more efficient. The other really important part is we hire a lot from within at Adobe, we like to promote our inside people to the field and there are phenomenal learning opportunities to let them run shotgun with some of our more experienced people working bigger deals, going through complex negotiations. Let them see first-hand how an experienced executive handles the situations on the fly, great learning opportunity.

The other facet of that learning opportunity is how do we bring the headquarter staff that supports us into our government environment? Often times in software companies the headquarter staff is very accustomed to how you do business in the banking industry, the retail industry, the travel industry but they’re not all as well-versed on how to do business in the public sector. We really have a great opportunity, just let them dial in and listen. These are the subject matter experts within the company that do our marketing, that do our product development and now we have an opportunity to let them hear first-hand from customers countless opportunities to do that all week long. We’ve done well at taking advantage of that and I think it’s been an absolute strength that’s come out of this.

That’s part A of your answer but part B I think is also really important. When you’re up at 6 a.m. hustling off to the gym, grabbing a quick shower, running to the office, running around all day long back and forth downtown, hurrying home so you can have dinner with the family, etcetera, exhausted at the end of the day, it’s really hard to sharpen that saw but as sales executives we have to sharpen that saw all year long, all the time. There are so many benefits to that, I don’t have an hour-long drive to McLean every morning, I don’t have an hour-long drive home. I’ve been able to use that time very effectively to get a little bit more exercise and listen to audiobooks a little bit more often and sharpen the saw and it’s been refreshing. I actually really feel like 2020 was one of my best years professionally because I was able to spend so much time on personal development and it feels good in time when a lot of things don’t feel good to know that you’ve invested that time in yourself. I would strongly encourage everybody to do the same.

Fred Diamond: Obviously 2020 was a challenging year in a lot of ways that we don’t need to go into, but there’s so many people that I’ve spoken to in the sales profession who have had their best year ever. Everybody had to figure some things out but I love the answer you just gave that it gave your corporate staff who may not see the customer the opportunity to engage and one thing that we’ve heard from a lot of salespeople that we work with is a lot of customers were looking to have just conversations as compared to a formal, “Friday at 3:00 we’re going to bring 10 people into the office, subject matter experts, etc.”

A lot of people were just looking to engage and it gave them an opportunity to engage. I have a quick question about public sector, again I mentioned you’re the VP of Public Sector for Adobe. People are listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast today from around the globe, a lot of your career if not your entire career was in public sector side. Talk about why you’ve devoted your career, you’re a sales guy, you’re an empowered sales leader, you’ve been that way for your entire career, why public sector? What is it about the public sector market that has attracted you?

Bill Donellan: I appreciate the question because it’s one I like to talk about. I’ll talk about it by example because I roll back to late March, my leadership team on a call, we’re looking at each other in Adobe’s tool, Connect and trying to figure out how we were going to get through this. I asked everybody what’s the mission, fortunately some of my leaders had already gone to their teams and had this conversation and what I got back was wonderful. “This is really hard right now but small business administration just called us and said that their unemployment application is down, state of Ohio, their unemployment benefit administration tool is down and Adobe is a component in that.”

Our team was able to parachute in and fix this and get it back up so benefits could be administered to citizens. That feels good, it didn’t feel like you were selling software to the government, it felt like you were helping the government serve citizens through a national crisis. You don’t get that feeling in other market segments. Some you do in different ways but in this job you really do get that sense of service and it’s rewarding, that is what keeps me in this marketplace.

Fred Diamond: Let’s get back to recommendations here. It’s 2021, it’s the beginning of the year, it’s a new year for a lot of people. Like you mentioned, nobody’s had to lead through a pandemic before, I remember a couple of our guests who said, “When I went to business school there was no class on how to lead through a pandemic” but we’ve experienced it, we’re 10 months in, we know what it’s going to look like. What are some of the things that you recommend for sales professionals to do to be successful in 2021? We still have a lot of the economic fallout from the pandemic, we still have people working from home, we still have schools that are closed so a lot of people are still homeschooling, me, like a lot of people, haven’t seen their parents who are getting older since March or February. What are some of your specific recommendations for the sales professionals to be successful in 2021?

Bill Donellan: I’ll compare the beginning of the pandemic to jumping into an ice-cold lake, you lose your breath and you panic for a moment but then you come to the water and you catch that first breath. I’d say that first breath maybe came somewhere around May 1st when you could finally say, “Okay, this isn’t going away, it’s going to be like this for a while, what are we going to do?” Collectively, the team agreed the best thing we could do is focus. Everything had changed which means that every budget was different, every top priority at every government agency was different which means we had to do something different and we really honed in on making sure that every solution that we were working on with the government fell into one of two categories.

It was either going to help government employees work more efficiently work more efficiently from home or it was going to help government agencies deliver services to citizens. It wasn’t doing one of those two things we didn’t spend a minute on because there was no way that the government was going to put in the effort to solving something that didn’t fall into one of those two categories. The first thing we had to do was just really focus and make sure that we were taking all of the resources that were available to you and putting them in places that were going to have an impact, because if it wasn’t going to have an immediate impact no one was going to talk to you.

That’s an initial response. Focus is always good in a sales situation because we all deal with the largest constraining factor here, time. There’s only so much time in the day, we can’t change that and we have to be very judicious in how we use that time and very focused in where we put our effort. To do that, it really comes into planning so when we got through that government fiscal year that you were talking about a moment ago, we started saying, “Where do we go from here?” We looked at our entire public sector market different and went into revamping our process around how we do a territory plan at the rep level across our entire business.

Once we have a good territory plan in place, how are we going to do our account planning to make sure that everyone was doing proper research, to make sure that they knew what the priorities were in each of the organizations that they were trying to work with so that we could align our solutions to those top priorities? Then doing all the homework to make sure that we understood the value that that organization would derive if they were to get a solution to a problem, then moving into execution phase from there. Really just focus and then intense planning and research to make sure that you were aligned to your customer and truly understood the problems that they were trying to solve and the value of solving those problems.

Fred Diamond: Talk a little bit about how you as a sales leader and your team came together to create real solutions for the customer today that would help solve their problems for the foreseeable future.

Bill Donellan: One of the advantages of being in a place like Adobe is there’s a huge warehouse full of solutions that you can take to a customer so it was less about coming up with new solutions as much as it was prioritizing which solutions we were going to focus on. The concept shovel-ready is always one that gets thrown around so we really picked a couple of things like electronic signatures that can get implemented in hours and add tremendous values. It’s the kind of thing that the government wanted to know, if I’m talking to the CIO of a government agency on Tuesday, they want to know what can be operational by Thursday. It’s not, “What can we get done this fiscal year?” It’s, “What can I get done this week?” That’s a great example, putting a digital signature on a form so that you can get that through a business process. You didn’t have sneaker net, you didn’t have the ability to put wet signatures on things, it’s incredibly inefficient to put wet signatures on things, scan them, email them, reprint them, resign them, it’s a waste of time and there’s no reason to do it because it’s so easy to put a digital signature on something now.

It’s picking out those kinds of solutions but also, I think of some examples with CMS and social security administration. People would go apply for benefit at a social security office, those offices were closed, maybe you couldn’t go in and apply for the benefit anymore so you had to come up with a way to quickly take a form that was a paper-based process, turn that into something that could be filled in on a mobile phone and get that out. Those types of things you can do quickly and then we have high impact, those are the kind of things we’re focused on.

Fred Diamond: Talk a little bit about your conversations with the government customer or your team’s conversations and how do you recommend people engage in conversations right now?

Bill Donellan: Fred, I think first of all you’ve got to take that up a level and recognize that selling today is different than selling 10 years ago. The internet has provided information and use cases in information about how to solve problems that didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago so the buyer is much more educated. They don’t want you to show up and have a PowerPoint presentation that shows who your company is and all the things that you do, your NASCAR slide and all that kind of stuff. I think that’s the first premise because I just think about the commercial experiences that we enjoy as individuals. I don’t want someone to tell me a bunch of stuff about something, I want them to tell me how it applies to me and how it’s going to solve my problem.

What we’re really coaching and trying to get all of our account teams to do now is first and foremost, do the homework before you show up somewhere. There’s no excuse for not doing homework now because all the information you need to get that done is available to you. First of all, know your customer, know their problem and know why they’re trying to solve it. If you can’t do that, don’t waste their time because once you can do that, then the call starts off with, “As I understand it, here’s the things that you’re trying to address. Am I right? Do we have an agreement on that? Are we here to have the same conversation? Let me tell you three quick stories about three other Adobe customers that faced the exact same challenge and I’m going to explain to you how they solved the problem, and then we can talk about how you’re similar or different from each of those and see if there’s a path forward for us.”

In that context, I know that this organization is trying to do A, B and C though I say, “The FDA did it this way, CDC did it this way, the Census Bureau did it this way and this is how they described the problem they were trying to solve, this is how we solved it and this is the outcome that they had as a result of that. Does it sound like we’re talking about the same thing?” From there, you can have a real conversation about their real problems. “What do you have to do to set this project up so that it’s going to be successful? Who from your team needs to be involved? Who from my team is going to show up? How long is it going to take? What kind of interaction do we need to make sure it stays on track?” Those are all the kinds of conversations that we’re trying to have as early as possible to make sure that expectations are right and we deliver value and meet the customer expectation.

Fred Diamond: Speaking about that, expectations comes up frequently as well. I don’t know what the breadth is of your sales organization, but what are your expectations of your more seasoned sales professionals? We have a lot of sales managers who listen to the Sales Game Changers podcast as well and who are going to be watching this webinar in the future. What are your expectations for your sales managers and what are your expectations for your sales team right now as we move into 2021?

Bill Donellan: That’s a great question. First of all, with the sales managers like we talked about at the top of the call, I expect them to support the people that work for them. That’s going to be something different every time, in general at Adobe a sales manager manages about 7 people, there’s no reason why you have to have a one-size-fits-all solution for 7 people, you can customize your style and make sure it’s different because each of those 7 individuals is in a different place in their career, they all have different strengths and weaknesses, different skill sets and they all have different things at home that present challenges to them during the pandemic. A sales manager needs to understand that and adapt to make sure that we’re supporting them so that they’re getting what they need. That’s table stakes, that’s first.

Then I talk about the process of planning, not everyone is as good at that as others and some people are incredibly detail-oriented and very organized and they do things like that really well. Other people have different skill sets and that type of planning isn’t always natural to them, if my managers aren’t great at it, I expect them to at least know how to do it so that they can coach someone through that process to make sure that they’re set up for success. When your reps aren’t successful they leave and turnover is cancer in an organization so we’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen. The best way to prevent that is to make sure that they’re successful. You go down to the account executive level now and say, “What are the expectations there?” The expectations are that they work with the entire team around them and Adobe is a big organization so you really are selling as a team or an ecosystem, it’s not something that an individual does.

You’ve got a customer success manager for the account, you’ve got your technical pre-sales resources, there’s always a partner involved so you want to make sure you’re liaising with your partner to make sure you’re aligned there as well. There’s a lot of different pieces and parts that come into this and it’s really important that a manager helps a rep think through that and that the rep engages so that all of those different people know what the plan is. When they know what the plan is, they can help you and support you and all of the members of these ecosystems support multiple salespeople. The reps that are going to get the most support are the ones that do the best job communicating a good plan because all members of the ecosystem decide where they put their time. If they feel like account executive A has a great plan and account executive B doesn’t, they’re going to put their time with A because it won’t feel like they’re wasting their time. B might have a great plan but if they did a terrible job communicating it, they’re not going to get the help they need. I think communication as you’re going through the account planning process is critical.

Fred Diamond: Bill, before I ask you for your final action step for people listening to the webinar or the podcast today, what are your expectations for yourself? We talked about your team, we talked about your individual contributors. We get this question all the time, what is something you’re working on as a top-tier sales leader? Again, you’re leading public sector at Adobe, world-class company, one of the best companies to work for on the planet, it’s always been that way for many decades right now. What are you specifically going to work on in 2021 to take your career to the next level?

Bill Donellan: That’s a great question and first of all, I’m not trying to take my career to the next level, I like what I’m doing and I like where I am and this is the right job for me. Let’s put it in the customer context first, if we’re going to continue to serve customers in a way that’s fulfilling and makes this an enjoyable job, there are certain things we have to do from a business perspective. If our business declines or even if it just stays flat, we won’t have the same ability to serve our customer’s needs because we won’t have the resources required in doing so. I’m an aggressive guy so my goal is to double the business and I want to do it in a small number of years, this isn’t a 10 year plan, I want to double the business right away. I think in doing so, while that speaks to commercial success, what it really does is it adds resource to our business and puts us in a place where we can do more for our customers.

At the end of the day like we talked about, why do you sell to public sector? Why do you serve the public sector community? Because it feels good, it feels like you’re doing something other than just serving a commercial purpose and the more resources you have to do that, the better the job is. While it is a commercial term to double the business, it’s so that we can serve the customer better and make more of it. That’s really what we’re trying to do, there’s a lot of facets to that, I have to get better at what I do, I have to be a better manager of managers and I have to improve my communication skills and my leadership skills. There are so many things that I have to do personally to accomplish that investing in myself to make sure that I support my team the way they need to be supported so that they can then filter their goals and objectives down to their teams.

Fred Diamond: Bill, that’s something great. I want to thank you again for the great insights you provided. Again, Adobe, you were a Gold Sponsor of the IES Award Event that we did back in October when we recognized Craig Abod. Appreciate all the guidance you’ve given for the sales professionals today. Bill, you’ve given us so many great ideas, give us an action step that people must do today to take their sales career to the next level.

Bill Donellan: You and I talked a little bit about this in advance. Here’s my answer to all of the salespeople out there: make your number. I don’t say that to just be an old-school sales manager, I say it because in that success you will achieve your goals, you will be fulfilled as an individual and you, as I said a moment ago, will have the resources you need to serve your customer. All the things we’ve talked about here, Fred, it goes straight on down to have a territory plan, take the time to do it and do it well. This isn’t just something that you do at Adobe, this is something that you need to do everywhere. Know your customer, know their problems, understand them, use all of the resources available to you, everything out there, there are so many different things that you can go to. All of your partners, you mentioned Craig, if you are a Carahsoft customer – and I don’t know many people that aren’t – if you don’t have the resources in your organization, they have it there for you. Do the homework and figure out how to serve your customer, make yourself meaningful to them, make them want to call you, add value to their life. They’ll call you, commerce will take place, you’ll make your number, their problems will be solved and we can all keep this thing moving forward. I think that’s the closing comment, Fred, make your number.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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