EPISODE 396: Alion Chief Growth Officer Chris Bishop Gives Tips on Balancing Long Term and Near Term Sales Objectives

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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 on August 19, 2021. It featured Chris Bishop, Chief Growth Officer at Alion.]

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CHRIS’ TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Set goals, define a plan and write it down. Develop personal and professional goals and make sure they’re not in conflict, and be honest in your self-evaluation. Because if they’re in conflict, nothing else is going to work. Then, have someone you trust – a friend, a colleague, a mentor, a supervisor – review it and help you hold to it. Throughout my career, I’ve had some really good leaders that have helped me with this. Write it down, where are you in the plan? Validate it and make sure that you’re sufficiently outside of your comfort zone. It’s always easy to do what you’re really good at, but it’s much harder to do things that you’re not good at and be honest with that. If you write it down and hold yourself to it, then you’ll get there. Write down, again, the intermediate objectives and tactics to reach those goals. Step by step, put a timeline on it. Say, what do I want to achieve both for myself and for the company and the timeline that I want to deliver it?”


Fred Diamond: Today we’re talking to Chris Bishop with Alion. Chris, it’s great to be here, thank you so much. We’ve been talking about getting you on the webcast and the podcast for a while. You’re in your office, I’m actually not too far from Atlantic City, New Jersey, actually broadcasting today’s show from the great Egg Harbor Township. Let’s get started.

You have an interesting title, your title is Chief Growth Officer, you’re with Alion. Again, that’s a relatively new title, are you a sales guy? You and I’ve talked about sales many times, we’ve talked about BD. Are you a sales guy? Are you a BD guy? Are you a strategy guy? So that our audience knows where you’re coming from. First of all, it’s great to see you, but let us know where you fit in the organization.

Chris Bishop: Thanks, Fred, I appreciate you having me. You’re right, the title CGO really has seemed to gain a lot of traction in the last few years, particularly in the B2G public sector markets I’ve seen a lot more of that. I have been joked that if you ask 10 people what a CGO is, you’ll probably get 12 different responses. I report directly into the CEO, and simply put, I think about my role as focusing on long-term results rather than just near-term targets. That’s building the full BD infrastructure, people, process, tools, to really make sure to create long-term sustainable revenue and profit growth. Am I sales, BD, strategy? I have to say yes, a little bit of all of those.

Fred Diamond: A lot of people listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast are not necessarily familiar with the federal marketplace. You mentioned long-term, you also mentioned short-term. Again, you’re with Alion, give us a little bit of a perspective. What does long-term mean from the federal perspective and what does short-term mean?

Chris Bishop: From a market standpoint, if you’re familiar with the public sector and those in the B2B markets probably are horrified by this, but we deal with sales cycles that are 12, 18, 24 months long. Sometimes even longer, for very large complex procurements. In terms of the business, though, most of the experience I had has really been working in billion dollar plus publicly traded organizations where our focus is making sure that we’re meeting numbers quarter by quarter, year by year. My focus is in that year to three-year mark, even though of course I’m really concerned about making quarter to quarter numbers. That’s the time frames that I typically deal with.

Fred Diamond: We’re doing today’s show in August, and for a lot of people who don’t know, the US federal government fiscal year ends September 30th. For people who service the US federal government, this is a very, very busy time. A lot of money gets spent and even during COVID, we haven’t really seen that much of a shift. The federal government is continuing to buy, but why don’t you confirm that? How are things going for public sector sales organizations right now?

Chris Bishop: I think overall it’s going pretty well. Certainly, as you suggested, coming up on the end of the government fiscal year, it’s a busy time for all of us for sure. Interestingly, the public sector at large really didn’t have that slow-down the last year like many thought, and I certainly did. It slowed down a little bit and sales timelines have increased a bit, but overall, I think the deal flow has continued to be very strong, actually. Going forward, quick look at the president’s FY22 budget request suggest that high priority areas like modernization, R&D, technology and innovation, it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down anytime soon either.

Fred Diamond: Chris, it’s funny, we were doing tons of podcasts prior to the pandemic. Right now, we’ve been doing them every single day, like I mentioned. Every Wednesday we typically ask two questions. How are things going with your customer and how are things going as you lead sales professionals? Let’s talk about priorities. What are the top priorities of your organization?

Chris Bishop: It’s a good question. As we like to say, we don’t really have a market problem in our space. The deal flow is significant, the total federal budget has continued to be very strong, which is our core customer. I’d say right now the real priority for my organization is prioritizing target capabilities and markets. There’s plenty of play space out there, but staying focused, staying directed at what your core is, is very important right now.

As the defense market, particularly defense and intelligence, where we spend most of our time, it is large and those priorities are quickly evolving for our customers. Staying focused at the forefront of those areas is extraordinarily important so that we don’t get distracted. I’d rather have one really solidly qualified opportunity than two poorly qualified deals. We’re just not resourced to be able to support everything equally, and we want to really place our bets where the best opportunity is.

Fred Diamond: We have a question here from Neil, “What does Chris mean by markets?” I’ve said a couple times, you’re the Chief Growth Officer to the federal government. You just alluded to a couple, defense and intelligence. Could you give us a 30-second primer on what the government looks like from a market perspective, meaning submarkets within federal government?

Chris Bishop: Our primary markets are really around the defense and intelligence markets. This is all of the DOD for the state, the service components, army, navy, air force, marines, space force. Some in the federal civilian sector, DHS, Department of State, also the combatant commands are very large part of our portfolio today. Then all the typical three-letter national intelligence components and the service intel components. DOD is a $715 billion annual market, so it is a very large market.

Fred Diamond: We have a question here from John, “Chris, what are the differences in sales skills for selling to the government versus commercial markets?” That’s an interesting question. Give us a little bit of an overview, what are some things that you need? Again, we talked in the beginning of the interview today about BD, business development. Give us a little bit of perspective, why would someone succeed in sales or BD to the government?

Chris Bishop: It is actually a great question, as Fred and I were talking just before the webinar started, this is the real hot button for me. The typical government contractor for many years, decades, has really had a real bias towards hiring retired government service or military service personnel. It’s a really good model in that it gives you access and reach to highly complex and, in many cases, secretive components of the government. However, as Fred and I were talking, they don’t always have all of what I call the hardcore blocking and tackling sales skills.

One of the things I’m looking at leveraging, Fred’s organization and the Excellence in Sales Institute, is looking at the crossover of real sales skills into the classic business development function. I think there’s a lot of skills that should cross over and that we can.

Fred Diamond: For people who are wondering, if you came from the government, you have a Rolodex – if some of the younger people know what that even is – but you have people that you could get a meeting with. Since they knew you, you could easily get a meeting but now it’s more challenging. There’s so much more competition, the space you’re in has so much competition. People who are selling, physically doing the transactional type sales, there’s tons of competition. You gave a great answer before, to everybody who sells any type of technology or any related services, the government is sometimes affectionately known as Fortune 1. It is a humongous market, and like you said before, it wasn’t really affected.

If you were selling into the entertainment space, in some cases healthcare even, hospitality, resorts, your market shut down for six to nine months and it’s barely coming back now. But government really didn’t slow down, so it’s such an attractive marketplace. But you do need to have skills, and you mentioned on your earlier answers, three-letter acronyms, procurement, there’s so many things that you need to know because you just don’t call and say, “Hey, would you like to buy 50 of these?” There needs to be a contract, there needs to be ways for the funds to be released.

One thing that you and I have spoken about before is metrics. I’m curious, let’s talk a little bit about that. What do you think some of the key metrics are right now that sales leaders must pay attention to?

Chris Bishop: This is a great question, I’m really glad you brought this up because this is one of my very favorite topics. There’s probably hours and hours’ worth of webinars that you can do just on this topic alone. I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to metrics, that is, be careful what you measure because you might get exactly what you asked for. In the B2B world, we’ve heard things like if you want to measure on a scorecard the number of outbound phone calls you make, you might actually get a whole lot of outbound phone calls. It doesn’t mean you’re going to increase your sales at all.

What I’d like to try to focus on, I guess another example in the BD market, having a laser focus on driving up win rates might result in bidding far fewer deals in order to improve that ratio. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to drive the level of sales or bookings you want. I really shy away from, I actually pay very little attention to some of the arbitrary measures that you’ll hear frequently in our sector which is around total pipeline being 10X or 20X revenue, qualified pipeline being 5X. I think most BD sales professionals can make those numbers be anything that they want, but it doesn’t necessarily help me sleep better.

So, what do I focus on? I think what I want to focus on is measuring and managing what I really want, and then I want to focus on the leading indicators that are going to drive those results rather than typical lagging measures like win rate. It’s great to have a win rate, but at that point it’s done. By definition, there’s not much you can do about it. What I really look at is projected bookings by quarter and operational segment to look at pipeline sufficiency. That’s a very important distinction, I’ve seen very few companies look at it quite this way.

I look at the total pipeline, but also the timing of it. Will the pipeline actually generate the deal flow volume and the timing that we need to generate long-term sustainable growth when we need it? Again, my focus is out a year, two years, three years. With sales cycles that are 12, 18, 24 months long, there’s very little I can do immediately that wasn’t already set up from some time ago. But what I’m going to look at is not just the quantity and timing, but I also want to look at quality. What that is, is are we gathering sufficient customer intelligence and knowledge early enough in the lifecycle to be able to generate compelling differentiated solutions? Which is our objective.

I think what we can look at is are we deeply and meaningfully engaging with potential decision makers to inform our solution? Again, bit of a purist. I believe most decisions are made long before we respond to the request for proposal. While our industry’s process is generally mature company to company, we know what it takes to win, but do we actually pay enough attention to those measures? A little bit long answer, but I think this is very important from a sales standpoint to look at that.

Fred Diamond: I want to follow up on that, because you raise a great point. As you’re answering that question, one of the great things about selling to the federal government is it’s public domain. We know what the budget looks like and information is out there, it’s a very transparent marketplace in a lot of ways. At the same time, you still need to understand how they work, what they’re looking for, what they desire, where they’re going. There’s a whole bunch of things that you really need to understand. That being said, Chris, again, we’re doing a webinar every single day since the pandemic kicked in and I can’t believe it’s been almost 18 months, it’s insane, but that’s a whole different topic.

One of the words that comes up all the time is the word elite. As you’re describing a lot of this, it leads to the next question. What does it mean to be an elite business development professional to the government right now? You talked before about how it’s shifted where you came from government and you had your Rolodex, you knew the people, you had the background, you knew what programs they were doing. Now there’s so much competition. Talk about that for a little bit, what are the elite business development professionals in your marketplace? Then maybe also not just the professional, but the leader.

Chris Bishop: Two years ago, I might have answered this a little bit differently but perhaps not, because I think the fundamental core skills are transparent to every market. My advice is find a way to succeed. The best BD folks in any market but certainly right now with the unprecedented environment we’re in, using these circumstances as an excuse, they just aren’t. They’re using this as an opportunity to carry over that competitive nature and be creative. The very best, the elite – I think it’s a great word – are going to continue to be competitive and curious and engaged, and they’re going to find a way to do that. The most successful people in our industry and maybe any industry right now, they’re able to stay focused on their objectives and find a way to win. That’s from an individual standpoint.

Sales leaders, I think particularly in my role, we’ve got to recognize the unique challenge our folks are facing and processes may need to adapt. Infrastructure has certainly needed to adapt as people are working anytime, anywhere, which is a little unusual for the public sector market. I want to make sure that I’m focusing on having the right skills and talent supporting the right efforts, adapting our process to continue the speed of the business without any gaps. Certainly, putting the tools and infrastructure together to enable their success and not let that be a holdup.

Fred Diamond: I have another question that comes in from John. He’s basically talking about new business versus getting more business from existing customers. Talk about that for a little bit in the BD side. How much time and energy is focused on new markets or new programs as compared to continuing to grow and escalate the existing business?

Chris Bishop: Another great question. My team, the extended business development infrastructure, it’s really primarily interested and focused on the cross-sell. It’s taking the capabilities that we have and approaching new extended markets. That’s much more difficult to do organically from a project or program staff, but we have a balance between what my staff is doing and how we incentivize and challenge our program and project managers to upsell. Which is to take the capabilities that we have for a customer that we’ve got a very strong relationship with, that’s the easiest button for them to hit, is going back to the same companies that have supported them well. We have a dedicated program to introduce new capabilities to our program stack so they can in fact be seller-doers. It’s a balance, it’s not just one or the other. That’s one of the things I try to bring to the table to make sure we do both.

Fred Diamond: Chris, one question that we ask typically on the Wednesday Sales Game Changers Live is tell us about your conversations with your customers. You mentioned that you’ve been back, your leadership team has said, “Come back to the office” back in April so everybody did the things they needed to do to be able to be in an office back in April, so it’s been about four or five months.

A lot of government customers, are they still at home? Are they back in the office? Mostly intelligence have pretty much been in the office almost the entire pandemic. Give us some insights on talking to the government customer. How’s the tenor of the conversations being? Is it all business? Give us some of your insights so that people can understand what that looks like right now.

Chris Bishop: My favorite vignette right here is I actually had a meeting with a couple of folks from the government, the deputy CIO of this large agency was actually on his couch sitting back with a T-shirt that says, “Yeah, I’m a big deal.” If nothing screams more about how things have changed today than that… But I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised with the adaptability and resilience of our customers. At the beginning, 18 months ago I think we were all, industry and government, really struggling to figure out how to have meaningful conversations when we weren’t together. Back when video teleconferences were somewhat foreign to all of us, of course it isn’t now. But I think we really did quickly figure it out as an industry.

In fact, over the last year I’ve seen a really dramatic increase of the volume of great interactions we’ve had in virtual meetings with customers. They’ve been open to it, we’ve been open to it and I’ll tell you, I think it has been actually easier now to set up meetings with people that we don’t know because it is a little less personal. I don’t need to schedule a time in a government conference room for half an hour, an hour, and getting on their schedule. It’s much easier for them to directly accept a Teams meeting or WebEx meeting or what have you. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by it, and at least our customers sets have been willing to do this.

Fred Diamond: Chris, how have you changed in the last 18 months as a sales leader?

Chris Bishop: This is interesting because this has been hard for me, to be sure. I’d much prefer in-person, I’d much prefer that personal engagement and interaction. I think we’re in a creative industry and trying to maintain that creativity remotely has been hard for me. I think for me, I’ve really had to figure out how to continue to run the business like I’m used to running the business, but do it in a distributed remote kind of way.

Any gaps in performance today are going to materialize in the future quarters and years, and we just can’t have that. What I’ve really been focused on is ensuring that that overall infrastructure that we have adapts to this environment. Do our people have the tools that they need? Can we develop solutions in a distributed remote way? Are we reaching customers in a meaningful way? These are all questions that we’ve had to focus on much more so than in the past, because it’s just harder.

Fred Diamond: We have a question here that comes in from J.A., a real quick follow-up question. “Has Alion taken advantage of the rapid acceleration in digitization and automation?” I agree with you 1000%. The government’s transformation has been unbelievably remarkable and in the early days of the pandemic, we work with a lot of companies like Amazon and Red Hat and Intel, Carahsoft, they’re all sponsors or members of the Institute for Excellence in Sales. Everybody was working around the clock to get the government into the cloud and the success of that was just totally remarkable, unparalleled in its remarkableness.

How about you guys? You just mentioned automation before in your previous answer and tools for your people. Have you all rapidly transformed how you go about sales? I know you talked about using video, but are there others like the Zoom, Teams and stuff? Have you also implemented other digital and automation technologies to take advantage?

Chris Bishop: It is a great question. Over the last year, we’ve moved to commercial cloud. We’re all in Office 365, all of our solution development and proposal development has moved to SharePoint online. For co-authoring, has made it much easier. We’ve been able to do that and quite frankly, I was one of the primary reasons that we have been able to transcend this process without really having much of a gap. From our customer’s standpoint, the nature of our business is that probably 90% of all of our revenue comes through one of our customer’s RDT&E accounts.

Our people are naturally thinking engineering innovation, so it’s a little bit easier for me and Alion than maybe some other companies to be able to actually adopt those new technologies as people are naturally thinking about that. But our customers themselves, our near-peer threats are determining the future of engagement. We’re helping our customers stay ahead of that and change the nature and speed of our response. It forces us, whether we like it or not, to be at that leading edge because the speed of the solutions are just changing so rapidly.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about expectations for your salespeople, for your BD people. You mentioned things are happening so fast, they really are. They’ve been happening even before the pandemic but it’s definitely accelerated because of so many factors which we’re all familiar with. We mentioned this a little bit during the question where I asked you what does an elite BD or sales professional do, but let’s get a little bit deeper here. As a sales leader, what should be the expectations of your sales professionals right now?

Chris Bishop: I think as sales leaders, we need to approach the professionals that we have working for us with a bit of care and concern. Simply beating them over the head is not going to be a recipe for success, but what I’m encouraging them to do is stay focused, keep up the momentum. Our customers’ missions really aren’t slowing down so neither can we. Our competitors are certainly not slowing down, so neither can we. Try the best we can to not let these challenging times overwhelm us, stay focused, stay to the core. Recognize many of these challenges, recognize them for what they are which many times are just distractions. Ask for help when you need it, communicate, collaborate, cooperate more than ever before. I’m trying to create an environment that allows people to feel that way.

Fred Diamond: A couple people have asked, “Why has Chris focused on the federal marketplace in his career?” I want to ask that as a double question. I’ve asked that question before. Typically, we’re based in the DC area so obviously, the public sector is the big marketplace and professional services. Just FYI for the people listening, DC is also a huge marketplace for hospitality, Marriott and Hilton are both focused here, professional services, not-for-profits, associations. It’s such a huge business-to-business marketplace, enterprise sales, etc.

I want to ask this last question, two prongs. One is, why have you devoted the vast majority of your career to this marketplace? Secondly, what would be your recommendations for people who are wondering, should I pursue my career as a sales or BD professional targeting the public sector markets?

Chris Bishop: It’s an interesting question. Looking back in college and maybe even a couple years after college, I don’t think I ever would have guessed that I would have been in a public sector government-contracting sales focus. I enjoy sales, I really like the competitive nature of going head-to-head with some of the best companies in the world, and hopefully more often than not, coming out on top. Obviously, as a salesperson, a little selfishly, you always want to be in large important markets that aren’t going to evaporate.

As you said, we’re in the Fortune 1 customer set so it is a large, rich market of some advanced leading-edge technologies. There’s a great deal of satisfaction you get in this environment. For anything anybody does, you should have a passion for the mission. If you don’t love what you’re doing, this is a really hard job to do. But I’ve always liked taking care of those that take care of us, and that’s where the passion in me lies. We’ve got people in harm’s way doing very important work and I like working for a company that’s going to try to take care of them and further the national security mission around the world.

Fred Diamond: That is a great answer. We’ve interviewed so many great sales leaders in the public sector space from some of the top companies. It’s interesting, a couple things I’m recollecting here. We had a gentleman named Gary Newgaard on the show a couple years ago, he was the VP of Sales at Pure Storage at the time. He said selling to the federal government, it’s the NFL. He said all the big players are there, it’s highly competitive, lot of rewards, lot of challenges, it’s not an easy marketplace. You need to know a lot, you need to be smart.

One thing that people don’t realize is you’re dealing with a very intelligent customer, and I like the way you said it before. They’re dealing with critical stuff. Obviously, defense and intelligence, you’re talking life and death of thousands, if not tens of thousands of people, but you’re also talking the health markets where we’re talking about all the things that we’ve had to do to come about the pandemic. Safety, infrastructure, it really is a marketplace that is replete with critical things.

Chris, I want to thank you. You’ve given us some great answers. We’ve been talking about having you on the show for quite some time and you really delivered here, you’re doing a great job over at Alion as well so good for you, congratulations on all your success. We’re actually getting some nice comments here, we got a comment here from Jerry who said, “This was a great interview, Fred.” We have a comment from Barbara who says, “Nice job, thank you so much, Chris.” We have a comment here from Geraldine who says, “Thank you, Fred and Chris.”

We like to end every Sales Game Changers webcast and podcast with a final action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas along the way. Give us one final action step, something specific that the listeners should do right now to take their sales or BD career to the next level.

Chris Bishop: I’ve seen other podcasts, I’ve thought a little bit about this leading up to this. I’ll share what’s worked successfully for me and hopefully, others find it useful as well. Set goals, define a plan and write it down. Develop personal and professional goals and make sure they’re not in conflict, and be honest in your self-evaluation. Because if they’re in conflict, nothing else is going to work.

Then, have someone you trust – a friend, a colleague, a mentor, a supervisor – review it and help you hold to it. Throughout my career, I’ve had some really good leaders that have helped me with this. Write it down, where are you in the plan? Validate it and make sure that you’re sufficiently outside of your comfort zone. It’s always easy to do what you’re really good at, but it’s much harder to do things that you’re not good at and be honest with that. If you write it down and hold yourself to it, then you’ll get there.

Write down, again, the intermediate objectives and tactics to reach those goals. Step by step, put a timeline on it. Say, what do I want to achieve both for myself and for the company and the timeline that I want to deliver it? It’s amazing the success, I keep it right here on my board, keep my major goals in mind to deliver. That’s helped me think through it, stay focused and stay prioritized. Others probably have their own approach too.

Fred Diamond: To all our listeners, thank you all so much. To Chris Bishop with Alion, Chief Growth Officer, thank you so much for your time.

Chris Bishop: Absolutely.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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