EPISODE 594: Successfully Servicing Public Sector Customers with Salesforce Sales Leader Casey Coleman

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CASEY’S TIP:  “As a former senior executive in the government, every day, my day was jam-packed. If it wasn’t on my calendar, it didn’t happen. I would go where the next meeting told me to be. Understand how busy these executives and leaders are. If you’re trying to get a meeting and it’s not happening, it may not be because they’re not willing to take your meeting. It may be that they are just too busy to stop and respond. I would say don’t get discouraged.”


Fred Diamond: Casey is Senior Vice President for Digital Transformation, Salesforce Global Public Sector. One thing I’m excited about is, Casey, you’ve also been in industry. You’ve had a very distinguished career with the GSA, and we are going to be asking questions about that. Let’s get right to it. We’re doing today’s interview in December of 2022. How are things going for your business, the organization right now, and what are some of the biggest challenges that you’re dealing with?

Casey Coleman: Fred, thank you. It’s great to be here following the footsteps of my colleagues and coworkers. Glad to have the chance to visit with you today. The thing that is resonating most with our customers, and that we’re hearing in every conversation, is about speed, and specifically about time to value. We’ve been through a lot of change in the last few years, and things are continuing to evolve, and government customers are at the forefront of delivering vital services in changing times and in times of need to residents, to citizens, to whoever they serve in their mission. They need to be responsive in a rapid timeframe. They don’t have time for a two or three-year modernization project to go and build something new. They’ve got to be able to deliver new results in a matter of days or weeks, or even hours, not months or years.

Fred Diamond: You were on the government side, now you’re working for Salesforce. We’ve talked about the response and how the technology industry has gotten the government into the cloud at record time back in 2020. Talk about some of the things that are needed right now to give people a little bit of a perspective on what some of the things are that the government might be challenged with, that companies like Salesforce are helping with speed and time to value.

Casey Coleman: Technology is such a critical part of transformation, but it’s not the only part. This is something I see over and over again with our customers. There really is a trifecta for modernizing your mission. I’ll pause by saying that we all expect the same level of service from the government that we have from commercial organizations that have pivoted to digital first services and can give us anytime, anywhere service that’s personalized, easy to use, intuitive, secure, and that’s what we expect from government. Obviously, modern technology capabilities like Salesforce customer service platform are a key enabler for that.

But in addition, it also takes committed leadership and making this a priority from the top down. It takes change management and understanding the work people are doing and helping them make that transition to doing it in a better, more efficient, more modernized way with new tools. You need all three. You need the right technology platform and partner. You need leadership commitment and leadership buy-in and support. You need change management across the ranks of the workforce.

Fred Diamond: I mentioned that you had spent a good portion of your career in government. We have listeners, Casey Coleman, all over the globe. They may not know what government does. They probably know at some level. Give us a little bit of an insight into how critical the government is as a market for not just technology, but for services and everything else.

Casey Coleman: Government is both, in my own lens, my own view, they’re a customer. We support them as clients and customers, but they’re also a service provider. In so many ways, the work that our government customers do touches each one of us for good every day. Think about food safety. We take for granted that our food is safe and that it’s been produced under hygienic circumstances. That’s a big function of government and an inspections role. Things that are imported into the US have to come with the right paperwork, and that has to be verified so that Christmas gifts can arrive on time in retailer stores, and on, and on. Service to veterans, service to farmers, and ranchers, and small businesses, and families, and families in need, and the list continues. Each one of those organizations has an important mission. The IT is the enabler to deliver on that mission and to do it in a way that meets people where they are.

Fred Diamond: What are some of the best sales reps doing right now? We’re doing today’s interview at the end of 2022. We’ve been two and a half years into whatever the new world is, and things are constantly evolving. But Salesforce has been, I’m going to say lucky and having attracted some of the top sales professionals in the world. When we look at the people, again, we recognize Dave Rey, who’s your public sector leader at the Institute for Excellence in Sales this past year with our Lifetime Achievement Award, and there’s just the elite reps that you have. What are they doing right now? What makes someone elite right now?

Casey Coleman: I am so fortunate to work with so many talented sales leaders and sales representatives. The thing that I see across the board that distinguishes them is empathy. Really building deep, longstanding, empathetic relationships with customers and understanding the pressures and the constraints and the challenges that they’re facing, and helping them with solutions that really address those mission priorities. Not technology for its own sake, but capabilities that really make their ability to get their work done easier and more effective, more efficient, ultimately making them more successful for those they serve.

Fred Diamond: I mentioned you spent a lot of time in your career in government. You were at the GSA, the General Services Administration. Now you’re bringing solutions to government. A little bit of a different question here, but give some of the sales leaders listening to the podcast, give them some insight in what went through your mind on a typical day. You could tell us what level, you were pretty high at GSA. Tell us what GSA does, and then tell us what were the challenges that you had to deal with every single day to help the sales professionals be empathetic to what you’re going through?

Casey Coleman: GSA is the US General Services Administration. They provide business services at scale for the federal government. They manage office space, they manage the fleet of vehicles that agencies lease and use. They manage large framework in technology contracts, like the GSA schedules, which are a buying vehicle for IT and other goods and services. They’re a middleman in between industry and government to provide scale business services. It’s a great place to work. I spent 12 years there in various IT leadership roles, including the last seven as the CIO for the agency.

One of the things that I think is maybe not well understood is that as a senior executive in the government, you are very rarely the decision maker on a technology buy. Usually in those roles, you are in charge of a large organization with a lot of individual experts who are themselves doing the research, testing new technologies, evaluating new capabilities, and you want to listen to them and be informed by those recommendations. You’re setting strategy, so you’re setting priorities, and you’re aligning to the political administration in charge and what their leadership priorities are. But you’re not very often the decision maker for particular selection of technology.

Fred Diamond: How does that work? Let’s say you really believe that certain type of technology would be the ideal technology for whatever agency needs. What are some of the checks and balances? I’m just curious, because I liked your answer where you said that the CIO or the top leader is not the one. People use the analogy in commercial on the golf course, you could sign deals. That, of course, doesn’t happen with the government. What if there is something that you really are excited about, how does that whole process work?

Casey Coleman: Well, I’ll give you an example. We had a situation where we needed to re-platform some existing capabilities because the architecture wasn’t highly available. It didn’t have the right alerts and failover, and the underlying data center technology had reached its useful end of life. This was a point at which cloud services were becoming commercially viable. We had, at this time, the Obama administration had put out the Cloud First Policy. We decided we were going to align with that policy and support that priority by taking these technologies that needed to be re-platformed and not replacing them with new data center hardware, but moving to the cloud. That was a strategic decision that we made, really the first time an agency had gone wall-to-wall with a cloud platform. We made that decision, set that priority, and then the procurement was handled by contracting and legal and source selection committee. But the strategy about moving to the cloud was something that was a leadership priority.

Fred Diamond: I want to ask you, again, you mentioned you were the CIO for, was it seven years you said?

Casey Coleman: Yeah.

Fred Diamond: Seven years, your final seven years. Tell us, what does the senior government leader, the CIO, what do they expect from sales leaders? We’ve had every great technology player on the Sales Game Changers Podcast. What do leaders want from sales professionals and what do people, let’s say at the median level, someone who’s in charge of understanding the technologies that they may bring into the organization, into the agency?

Casey Coleman: At the senior level, you really want a partner. You want not just a vendor, not someone who’s just going to show up once a year to get you to renew your agreement with them. You want a partner. You want someone who is there to help you understand not only what’s going on with their technology, but what’s going on more broadly in the market and in your organization. When you’re a leader in a large organization, you don’t necessarily know every single detail about what’s happening every day across your own organization. Bringing those insights from the field and bringing perspectives that help you to be informed and make good decisions, that’s a partner and that’s what senior leaders want and need.

Then I would say at every level, certainly in the mid ranks and individual contributor level, there’s a lot of downside to anything happening on your watch that doesn’t go well. There’s a real risk-averse culture, and that’s understandable, because we’re talking about really vital services that people count on. People are understandably risk-averse to a lot of change. You need to create an understanding about how change can happen in a way that can be managed and those concerns and those risks addressed in a prudent and appropriate way.

Fred Diamond: A lot of my career was in technology marketing. The one thing that I realized with customers is they are risk- averse. They don’t want to be the team that brought in the ERP system, that spent $500 million and brought the company down that didn’t work. They want to be in those jobs. We’ve interviewed some people on the Sales Game Changers Podcast who have been with companies like IBM, and Oracle, and Microsoft for 30 years. They still have relationships with those people, because they’ve stayed at the government, they believe in the mission. I’m just curious, let’s talk about relationships with government. We talk a lot about relationships in sales, but again, there’s a lot of laws and rules that happen when you sell to public sector because obviously they’re spending our money, our tax money. Talk about should you build relationships? What do relationships look like with a senior leader in government? What can you do? What can’t you do? Just give us a little bit of perspective on that. Really more interesting is, what should you be doing?

Casey Coleman: Well, relationships do matter, and they matter because, as you said, Fred, procurement follows a process governed by the FAR, the Federal Acquisition Regulation, and other governing requirements. That has a life of its own that is well-defined and very regulated, but we’re doing business over the long-term. It’s not one transaction. It’s really about the long-term relationship, and what I said a minute ago about being a partner. You become a partner by being there over time and by being present in the forums and the situations where your customers are present. I really think that’s how you build relationship, is some of it happens through events, and through conferences, and through hearing where your customers are speaking, paying attention to what they’re saying, even when you’re not there. Where they’re publishing their strategic plan, or they’re speaking at a lunch or a dinner event, and hearing that, understanding it and incorporating that into your conversations with them. I really think that’s how you build relationships, is by listening, by doing your research, by being present, and by being there over the course of time. Then those relationships turn into trusted partnerships where, again, it’s about the long-term and their own mission success.

Fred Diamond: What would be some of your expectations for sales professionals today? What are you telling the sales professionals at Salesforce? What should they be doing right now? You mentioned in the very beginning, speed and time to value. I love time to value because we talk about value every other show, of course, where you got to show the value, whatever that looks like, whatever that means for the customer. But give a little bit of that. What would be your expectations, Casey Coleman, for sales professionals right now?

Casey Coleman: I think one thing goes back to risk aversion and being able to manage risk. One of the keys, as a former customer, that I always appreciated is understanding where something had happened successfully for a similar customer. I always wanted to know benchmarking, and success patterns, and what’s working. The ability to tell a story, to bring a narrative, to put your capabilities in the language of the customer, is essential. In fact, that’s a big part of what I try to do every day, is put our capabilities in terms that are relevant to our customers, tell them where we’ve done something that is meaningful to them. It might be in government, it might be somewhere else in the globe, it might be in industry, because the government is an industry of industries. But think of it as a narrative, as telling a story and bringing things to life in the language and the context of what your customer’s dealing with every day.

Fred Diamond: Every government agency, and every customer for that matter, has a mission that they’re trying to achieve, whatever it might be. The good thing with the government is a lot of that is published. We tell sales reps all the time, “You got to prepare,” but it’s pretty obvious when you’re selling to the government, it’s public information. We’re not trying to hide it. Obviously there’s secret sensitive things that we don’t want the public to know, obviously, but for the most part, the mission of Department of Interior, google, you’ll find that and you’ll know what you’re supposed to do. Casey, thank you so much. Give us one final action step for sales reps today to ensure their continued success.

Casey Coleman: Well, Fred, I think maybe just a really tactical recommendation. As a former senior executive in the government, every day, my day was jam-packed. If it wasn’t on my calendar, it didn’t happen. I would go where the next meeting told me to be. That’s what you’ve got to incorporate, is understand how busy these executives and leaders are. If you’re trying to get a meeting and it’s not happening, it may not be because they’re not willing to take your meeting. It may be that they are just too busy to stop and respond. I would say don’t get discouraged. Think about their ecosystem of who they’re talking to every day, their executive assistant, the chief of staff, the analysts who support that office, the individual contributors, as we talked about earlier, who are doing that frontline work. Work those relationships and be persistent and just understand that they need to think in the long-term because their day-to-day has already been planned out for them. Think about it in that way.

Fred Diamond: You were the CIO for seven years at GSA. Was most of your time spent managing up or managing down? Meaning did you spend most of your time people reported down to you, or was most of your time working at the levels above you for strategy and funding and whatever things you might be doing?

Casey Coleman: Well, in the course of those seven years, the early part of that trajectory was really spent working to get the right team together and make sure we had the leaders reporting to me who really had the management of their parts of the organization. Once that happened, we were in a really good place managing down into the organization because they were super capable and are super capable. I was able to spend my time trying to create an environment with support from my peers and up the chain of command where we could do our best work because we had clarity, and alignment, and support, and we were able to focus on the work that we needed to do.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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